Pop Culture Gadabout
Monday, March 30, 2009
      ( 3/30/2009 04:20:00 PM ) Bill S.  


"MY EXISTENCE TURNED EVERYTHING AROUND ME INTO DARKNESS." Recently the New York Times, as a part of its "Arts Beat" section, initiated a column of best seller lists for graphic novels and collections. Divided into three sections -- hard and soft cover graphic books, with a third list devoted to manga -- the manga list in particular caught my attention since it was so patently lopsided. In one recent week, all ten of the titles came from the same publisher, Viz Media, who couldn't resist celebrating this moment with a p.r. release trumpeting their chart domination.

To be fair, Viz's dominance of the NYTimes Top Ten was skewed by one basic fact: their mega-popular series Naruto is presently in the midst of its second publishing blitz, shoving four volumes a month onto the book racks to get closer to the homeland title's publishing schedule. Seven of the manga titles in the Top Ten list were devoted to the ninja trainee's adventures, the remaining three books being the most recent releases of Black Cat, Bleach and Arina Tanemura's The Gentlemen's Alliance †. Of these, the most intriguing entry is the last, which is released under Viz's Shojo Beat imprint. An "Older Teen" manga aimed at a girl readership, Alliance † is quite different from the boyish fight fantasies of all the other series on the list.

To get my own sense of what all the hot fuss was about, I recently read the volume that is currently perched on the NYTimes list. Picking up a manga title in its ninth volume is not the optimal way to introduce oneself to a series, but for a lot of young manga readers, I suspect, it's the way it typically occurs. Where I live, for instance, the number of store-sold manga books is pretty damn spare. One of the other secrets behind Naruto's chart success resides in the fact that it's one of the only titles you can find on the shelves of a rural area Wal-Mart -- and even then the distribution of individual volumes is spotty. During Naruto's current blitz, only two of a given month's four releases have arrived at my local Mart, which definitely wreaks havoc with the books' serialized storyline. I had to wonder: just how easy is it for a newbie to pick up a manga title mid-story?

And so it was that I heedlessly plunged into Tanemura's romantic maelstrom. First time through, I read the book rapidly, only occasionally flipping back to the front-of-the-book "character introductions" and story synopsis. Two-thirds into it, I found myself getting decidedly confused as to who was what. Tanemura's tale is packed with characters who have more than one identity: one of the secondary characters is a "very cute boy" who regularly dresses up as a girl; the series' big male love interest is one of two twins who have, apparently, swapped identities in previous volumes; a girl gang member also turns out to be the member of a privileged family. More than once, I had to tell myself, "I'll sort this out on the reread."

I was a little more successful getting all the players straight on the rebound, though I'm sure I still missed plenty of character nuances along the way.

Alliance † (no, I don't know the significance of the cross in the title) centers on Haine Otomiya, a former "yanki" (term for a juvenile delinquent) who's been passed from her parents to be adopted by a wealthy family in exchange for a 50 million yen business loan. Now living in luxury, she attends the prestigious Imperial Academy where she falls for Shizumasa Togu, a dreamy lad with a mysterious illness. Shizuma's twin brother (the only thing that visually differentiates 'em is their hair color) Takanari is the school's class president. Both he and his brother, we're told, have helped our former punkette heroine grow acclimated to the upper crust school setting.

When the book opens, however, Haine is turning her back on the school and the new friends she's made, after learning some surprising facts about her lineage. Turns out she's the offspring of her adoptive father and birth mother; the man she'd thought was her biological father had instead forced her pregnant mother to marry him. When he'd learned that Haine wasn't his, he made the business deal with her real father. This revelation understandably makes our girl more than a little pissed at her step-dad.

She rejoins her former yanki gang and recruits them in an ill-defined plan to break into the mansion of her first parents to kidnap her amnesiac mother and take her back to her first love. Haine, we're told, is not the smartest student in the academy -- she's more heart than head -- so it's not surprising that her plan turns into a disaster. A small fire planned as a diversion burns out of control, putting both her mother and stepfather in peril. It's up to our heroine to dash into the burning building to rescue the remarkably young looking grownups.

Things happen pretty quickly in the book. In addition to the kidnapping plot, there's a moment where Haine runs into the members of a rival yanki gang -- and dispatches them all in a largely unseen rumble. The focus in Tanemura's series is more on characters' reactions to events, rather than events themselves. Thus, we get multiple pages of the twins processing how Haine is facing up to the news about her parentage plus a suitably adolescently melancholy scene where our heroine stares into the vast universe and tells us all how lonely she feels. "I wonder . . ." she slowly states, "if I died . . . would anybody feel . . . lonely afterward?" You can definitely see the appeal for a young teen girl readership, though older readers might find the adolescent angst just a little too overwrought.

But, hey, isn't that what adolescent angst is all about?

The manga paperback is formatted in a style that appears to be more common to shojo collections than it does the boys' club books. In addition to the story, the writer/artist regularly divides a page into half art/half text where she chattily talks to the reader about her life and characters. Where a shonen manga creator like Naruto's Kishimoto may occasionally insert little personal text pieces in between chapters, it isn't done as obsessively or intrusively within the story. In Tanemura's manga, the personal is much more intertwined with the storytelling.

Appended to the volume is a bonus story, "Strawberry Milk and Chocolate Coffee," centered on one of the teachers in the Imperial Academy, a tall blond named Choko. Because the character doesn't appear at all in the ninth volume's main story, its primary interest comes from what it tells us about the culture of the Academy setting. A no-nonsense teacher, Choko is nonetheless attracted to "girly things." "Everyone sees me as the kind of person who would drink black coffee," she states. "If only someone would tell me, just once, that I look like a strawberry milk drinker." Choko has so internalized what she sees as the world's view of her that she's unwilling to openly appreciate the "frills and lace" she secretly loves. This conflict between public and private personas is, one suspects, common to teens whatever the culture.

Tanemura's evocative art suits her emotive material: she's especially good at presenting her characters posed on the verge of action even if she often skimps on the follow-through. There are a lot of headshots in the book, but the artist is able to keep them varied enough through her characters' expressive mouths and super-large eyes. The artist's schoolgirl characters (as well as that "eccentric" boy who dresses as a schoolgirl) can be fairly indistinguishable on some pages, however -- especially during a sequence in the first chapter where Haine's chums argue over whether they're going to help her or not. But since none of these secondaries actually do very much in this volume, I ultimately decided that it didn't mean much to me.

Bet it does matter to those devoted Alliance † readers who put this book on the NYTimes Top Ten list, though.

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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).



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