Josei

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Recently I’ve been reading a lot of josei. It is, of course, the demographic I’m ‘supposed’ to read, but they hardly make it easy to do so. As I understand it there’s much less recognition of josei even in Japan – there is no separate awards category as there is for shounen, shoujo and seinen. But that is compounded when it comes to English translations, whether commercial or amateur. I would love to be able to push some money Tsubana’s way by buying Mikake no Nijuusei; while the scanlators have given up half-way through Amakusa 1637, despite it being nearly a decade old, leaving me in the lurch. Is it because the manga audience is disproportionately male? I think not. As the shopkeeper in this article suggests, it seems girls are captivated by the visual world of manga, even when all they can get their hands on is the meagre selection of very commercialised shounen it’s possible to buy in most bookshops. Rather, the neglect of josei is more to do with the cultural attitudes of those who publish and scanlate stuff, which tends to be a fairly small, fairly male community.

Not that men can’t enjoy shoujo or josei, or that women can’t love shounen or seinen (which, incidentally, many of us seem to do anyway!), but I suspect they feel they shouldn’t, because these products have been gendered.

Anyway, this post is becoming too heavy. Away with the demons of seriousness!

I have already mentioned it once in this article, but I have loved every moment of Amakusa 1637. It has everything. Except good artwork (it’s a little old-fashioned and lacking detail). Plot-wise, it is simply astonishing – exploring ideas of fate, destiny, belief, messianic figures (and how those messianic figures feel), divine intervention, and so much more … The only thing that could ruin it is if there’s a great denouement at the end which dissipates all of the glorious ambiguity. We don’t know why Natsuki and the rest are in 1636, nor whether they are really changing history or simply realising it. Is Natsuki really simply a human any more? Her periods have stopped, she has become ever more charismatic and beautiful as either a man or woman, and her swordfighting abilities are beyond what they ever were. In earlier chapters she protested that she was no servant of God, sent there by divine providence; but clearly, no matter what the physical causes of the translocation, she has been sent there by some kind of fate, destiny or will of God – and as if this wasn’t clear enough, she keeps ‘accidentally’ forming miraculous signs. To a certain extent the power of belief figures heavily as a theme in Amakusa, so perhaps it is the power of belief and expectation which is transforming Natsuki: but in any case, she is transforming into the messianic figure they are waiting for. I am on the edge of my seat waiting to see whether the characters can actually improve history!

It has a great set of characters, too, with the right balance of likeable people, gitfaces who turn out to be good guys, and polite, respectful evil people. There’s a mechanically competent character, which gratifies me more than you can imagine, and of course there’s Eri, who serves the useful narrative purpose of knowing everything the others need to know – but she’s more than that, of course; I found her a character I could sympathise with very easily (as a fellow lesbian and history fan). I appreciate that there are plenty of ‘getting sent to the Sengoku’ manga around, but I don’t think many of them have the complexity and the intellectual credibility of Amakusa 1637 – a lot of them try hard to be sophisticated, but just end up a bit pretentious by saying far too much. The best place to read Amakusa is through Evil Flowers’ own e-reader.

Mikake no Nijuusei is a delightful lesson in economy, packing so much meaning and human drama into just six normal-sized chapters. It is thoughtful and elegant, a demonstration of true mastery of the form, as well as a highly original concept. You should read it. Even if you’re an 80-year-old man who’s never read a comic before. It is really edifying, if that’s the right word.

The comments I’ve often seen on Chronos Deep are simply unfair, disliking the protagonist for crying too much and being too ‘weak’. Well, I’m sorry, but we have to break this idea that showing strong emotion equals weakness. This boy has found his family dead, suddenly, and is conscious that it’s his fault; then he comes as near as dammit to killing all of his classmates too – frankly, it would be disturbing and ‘weak’ in the head to not feel strong emotion. The proof of the pudding is that he endures all of the trials of the story, and saves the world etc. etc., despite (or rather, because of) being more honest with his emotions than most male manga protagonists. So if you’re one of those people who thinks a strong hero never cries, watch Kokoro Connect, and you’ll soon see that people who try too hard to be ‘strong’ and ‘heroic’, like Taishi, have too much yang and snap under pressure.

There’s plenty of fun to be had in the world of josei, where the characters are deep and the stories dark and mysterious. If you feel up to something a bit more substantial than most manga, josei is a great place to look, no matter what your sex or gender. The more we read it, the more they’ll translate it, and the greater the likelihood they’ll get to the end of Amakusa 1637! So pleeeeeease, for my sake, READ IT! READ IT NOW!

Mwahahaha.

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Manga with Awesome Women

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I get just a little bit tired of the way some male-focused manga treats its female characters. All too often they are paraded around in silly revealing costumes, either being very moe and ditzy or very sexually aggressive in pursuing men. I’m not going to name names, but I’m sure we’ve all read plenty of manga that does that.

Am I really the only one rolling my eyes in these sequences?

Objectifying 2D women is a really stupid idea, because it lobotomises their personalities; and since personalities are the only things that give manga characters reality, drawing attention exclusively to their qualities as objects completely destroys any sense that they’re anything more than lines on paper. When I see a full-page picture of a woman in a silly costume, like you often get on the front covers of volumes, I think “Oh! A silly/pretty picture!” My suspended disbelief in the world of the manga is disrupted. The same is true whenever female characters are reduced to flat, wet-dream erotic stereotypes.

Therefore I think it’s definitely time to applaud the seinen and shounen manga that does a really good job of creating women whom I can not only believe in, but who are totally awesome and that I’d love to meet.

Obviously within those categories lie manga which has a gendered demographic merely because of the magazine it’s in, despite the fact it is basically genderless. This is the case with the beautiful Dainana Joshikai Houkou, a Douglas Adams-ish sci-fi comedy that is delightfully surreal, maintaining enough familiarity with concrete modernity to make the fantastical elements really come alive. I love Tsubana’s idiosyncratic drawing style, too, with its realistic human forms and the slight suggestion of a schematic diagram with those firm, clean lines.

Similarly I cannot see what makes Inari, Konkon, Koi Iroha a seinen: it could be just as successful a shoujo. The main character has flaws, I’ll give her that, but she’s a very rounded, human character, with lots of female school friends who can express real diversity of character and temperament between them. Of course, the awesome character in this manga is the goddess Uka. She loves playing computer games, scarfing fried tofu, and annoying all of the creepy stalkerish male gods, and she makes a pretty bloody good role model for young girls. She likes what she likes and she won’t let people tell her she should be otherwise. It’s pretty hard to get the blend of toughness and niceness right in characters like Uka, and Inari Konkon gets it just right.

It may not pass the Bechdel test, strictly speaking, but no manga has more awesome women characters than Otome Youkai Zakuro. It is set in a very sexist time and place, when women were expected to be absolutely submissive and conforming.

Zakuro couldn’t give a damn.

She has her own backstory and her own problems, but that doesn’t mean she’ll take any shit from the slightly patronising soldiers sent to work with her and her friends. The naturally meek Susukihotaru and the excitable twins are also acceptably rounded and human female characters, but Zakuro is just something else. She makes the men look feeble and useless (which by and large they really, really are), tells them off when they say stupid things, and generally just flaunts her independence. She may be in love with a man, but that’s basically as far as men can have power in this manga – which is fine, it’s just reversing the centuries of fiction in which the only power a woman can have is to ensnare a man’s heart. Otome Youkai Zakuro is at once perfectly targeted seinen, with plenty of action and cute fox ears, and a manga with loads of really good, believable, powerful female characters.

So let’s praise all the manga that has the courage to draw women as people, not mannequins for freaky outfits or cardboard cut-outs to hang male fantasies on. There’s no reason why manga can’t have proper female characters like Inari, Uka, or Zakuro.

Next post I think I’ll be diving into the colourful tropical ecosystem that is josei, since a couple of series have really stolen my heart this week.Untitled3897

Imogen’s Valley Part 1.1, 1.2

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I thought I’d try rendering in solid prose one of my stories. If I had those drawing hands I’d probably illustrate it, but writing without graphics (or reams of descriptive details of a scene, which amount to more or less the same thing, but are HARD WORK to read) has plenty of advantages too. It’s nice for people to let their imaginations run freely through the ideas created by the text.

This is the first two movements of the first chapter. Given I have a musical background I found selecting a musical programme really helped structure the writing. *warning*: The writing style is fairly traditional and won’t be to everyone’s taste.

Please give me some feedback, if you’ve got any! It’s no fun writing in a vacuum.

Chapter I

Recommended listening: Grieg Holberg Suite

I: Praeludium

As she paused, drinking in the sweet upland air at the top of the hill, Imogen looked down with a thrill of excitement at the broad green river valley spread beneath her. Could it really be true, she wondered, that all this was really hers? She reached down into her pocket and felt the letter from the solicitor that had caused such a storm in her mind. Overcome, she closed her eyes while her pulse slowed back to normal.

Sentaa and Razon had just caught up with her (on their unsteady hooves and two little legs Horselets are always poor walkers). Seeing her closed eyes and heavy breathing, Sentaa said “Oh dear! Are you tired? Do you need a rest? Poor dear Imogen! Oh my!”

But Imogen was used to Sentaa and merely laughed deeply at the misunderstanding. “Oh Sentaa, you silly great Horselet, I was just in a brown study for a moment.”

Sentaa and Razon piped up with their own fluting laughs, doubling Imogen’s at the octave.

*

It was a strange party indeed the villagers saw descending from the mountain that day. At the head was Imogen de la Heap, reportedly the new Lady of the Manor, a slim, elegant black girl in her 20s, bounding joyfully along in her tennis dress like Diana the Huntress on the Arcadian hillsides. On her back was a large rucksack containing most of her worldly goods. Some way behind lagged Sentaa and his twin sister Razon. No-one in the village had ever seen anything like the two Horselets before. They looked not unlike horses; their heads were the same, and down their necks and backs ran a luxuriant mane which concluded in a plume of tail; and like their genetic cousins they were covered head to hoof in light downy hair. Yet they walked quite erect, their front legs like arms, with dextrous furry fingers at their extremity. As the villagers watched them descend from the cool shade of the beergarden, Sentaa lost his balance and went rolling down the hill, tripping Razon, and the two of them rolled together, a confusion of uncoordinated limbs, down to the plateau where Imogen had stopped to wait for them. Laughing kindly, she helped them untangle themselves and gave them both a hug. The two of them neighed woundedly, and the procession continued as before. The solicitor had come to the foot of the path to greet them.

“Welcome to Heap Valley, Miss de la Heap! What a fine day on which to see our humble community for the first time. Once you have settled into your new home, and all of the necessary papers have been signed, I shall be most pleased to give you and your friends a tour of the valley. What are your names, by the way?”

“Sentaa,”

“Razon,” they said. Although perhaps ‘said’ isn’t quite the right word, for rather the solicitor had a distinct impression that that is what they wanted to say – but no actual sound had passed their lips. It was all rather mysterious, he thought, telepathic horses of all things!

*

“So,” concluded Mr. Plushart the solicitor, “The estate your great uncle Avarice de la Heap bequeathed to you, after tax, amounts to several million Ducats, 3 million of which are in gold-edged bonds, 100,000 of which constitutes a 70% share in the clock factory, and the rest of which is property in the Valley. You are a wealthy woman, Miss de la Heap.”

“Goodness,” whispered Imogen, the desk lamp softly illuminating her smooth dark face as it slowly, ever so slowly, began to register the shock and excitement she felt. “Is the old manor to be mine, too?”

“Yes indeed, Miss, with its thirty staff.”

“How many people work in the factory? And how many tenants am I responsible for?”

“Well, the factory itself has 258 permanent staff, but more than twice that including temporary workers from agencies – no-one knows quite how many. As for tenants, well, you have upwards of 2000 properties, which are built on your traditional ancestral land, that has been in your family for centuries. I have no idea precisely how many tenants live on it – the letting agents might have a better idea. But it’s not just houses – the whole valley, more or less, is yours, apart from the old churchyard, The Vicarage, and Glebe House. That means a lot of agriculture too, and several businesses and factories. In effect, you are our mistress. This building we are living in is yours; so too is my house.”

“That is a lot of responsibility for one so young!”

“Oh, you needn’t worry, you employ a number of agents who are very efficient at collecting your dues and managing the land. All you need to do, frankly, is relax and give the villagers a regal presence. Sir Avarice was sure to attend parish functions and give out the Maundy Thursday prizes. His wife, of course, organised great parties and was a most able hostess. Once you are safely married I am sure that the villagers will feel reassured by the continuation of these roles. Sir Avarice’s widow lives in the Dower House in the grounds of the Manor. I am sure she will help you settle in.”

“You make it sound like I am to be a monarch, who must be gracious and predictable. I’m not sure I’m going to do that. Besides, it’s too early to think of marriage!”

“Very well, Miss; but I warn you, the village is very conservative and does not much like change or modernity.”

“Well, I shall see what I shall see. Thank you for your kindly intentions and efficient work! I shall see to it you are well rewarded.”

“Why, thank you, Miss! You have inherited your uncle’s voice of command, truly. You have been most authoritative.”

“The job does force it on one rather.”

*

Sentaa and Razon were drinking half-pints of pale ale in the saloon bar of the Happy Pig. The public bar rebounded with the carefree sound of office and shop workers on their lunch break. Spooked by their telepathic mode of expression, the landlord ushered them into the small rear-facing saloon bar. The only other customer was a hooded figure hunched in a corner, smoking an evil-smelling Gauloise. He didn’t seem remotely perturbed by the Horselets, nor even to notice them. The landlord nodded to him.

“That’s the resident ghost. I’ve never once seen him move, in all the 50 years I’ve worked here. We just keep him supplied with stout and those revolting French smokes, and he just sits and mutters about how much better things were when he was alive.”

“Makes sense,” said Razon brightly, “Many people wish they could spend their earthly life like that.”

“But, Razon,” interjected Sentaa, “how awful must his life have been, how mired in dullness and poverty, that his very spirit has become so sedentary!”

“Shut it, fartface,” moaned the ghost, “No-one asked for your opinion.”

“My goodness!” cried the landlord, “that’s the most reaction we’ve ever got from the old boy! Well, telepathic horses do count for something, after all.”

“Sir,” asked Razon timorously, “What was your name?”

“Sir Avarice,” the ghost replied gruffly.

II: Sarabande

Imogen leant on the short wall preventing people from falling into the ha-ha by the south face of Heap Manor (‘The Old Heap’ to locals). This had been a favourite spot in her childhood holidays, racing gliders and paper aeroplanes over the fields below. Her abiding memories of the house, though, were lonely ones. There were no other children of the correct rank to enter, nor did any of the Heaps’ occasional genteel visitors take any children. She was left to root around in the grounds and make her own amusements, which she did very well – for a week or two. After that she would become homesick and be taken home by her mother. That loneliness of wealth had settled upon her again sharply now, after the visit to the solicitor, and she longed for the brutal candour and unworldly foolishness of Sentaa and Razon.

They did not come. But someone did.

She walked out of the slight mist that was gathering on the distant fields reddened by sunset, and Imogen inhaled sharply as a deeply-hidden part of her mind informed her that this was a truly portentous event.

She was dressed in a black trench-coat and black assault boots, yet her black trousers and polo shirt were well-cut for the female form. Crowning a large oval face, bestowed with a rather hard nose and large, soft eyes, was dark blue hair, just a shade or two lighter than navy, which billowed around her broad shoulders and whose fringe blew into her eyes as a gentle breeze dispelled the mist. It seemed to Imogen that she watched this beautiful figure, seemingly parting the mist like an ocean as she strode through the fields below, for an eternity, before she hailed Imogen loudly.

“You must be Imogen!” She laughed cheerfully. “I have much to tell you. How can I get up to you?”

“Don’t bother,” replied Imogen, “I reckon I can come down to you – I used to jump from here all the time on my hols.”

So saying, she jumped nimbly down from the ha-ha to join the mysterious newcomer.

“My name is Zeuxo,” she informed Imogen.

“How is that spelt?”

“Z-e-u-x-o – and yes, I know it’s rather peculiar, but no other name suits me quite so well.”

“Have you been living here a while?”

“Indeed not. I have come to assist you! I am an angel sent by the Lord God Almighty, via a rather complicated chain of command.”

“Hmmmmm! Well, that feels implausible, but there’s no reason why it should not be so. Even if it is a delusion of yours, it is not a troublesome one; pray continue.”

“Well, I am a senior member of the Nymph Association – immortals sent by God to nurture humankind. I report to Lady Diana the Huntress, as a spirit of the land.”

“A spirit of which land? This land?”

“Not as such – we don’t often have fixed geographical allocations any more; it led to too much idolatry. No, I just meant land as opposed to oceanic spirits, since they go through a different office. I used to be an Oceanid, but I requested a transfer a few centuries back because I hadn’t been given any work for a thousand years.

“I have been assigned to you personally, because of the grave danger to your soul your inheritance represents. I suppose you don’t know the history of your uncle?”

“In which sense? I know he came into the money rather early, and it didn’t have the most felicitous effect on his personality.”

“Did you really have no idea of the condition of his soul? That it separated from him almost fifty years before he actually died?”

“Is that possible? I remember Dante mentioning souls which had descended to hell long before death, but I didn’t know souls could rub off a person like that.”

“I shouldn’t have said it was possible either, but it is most certainly true. Sentaa and Razon will be able to verify that, I suspect.”

“How do you know they will?”

“My senses are somewhat more acute than yours – I am an angel, after all.”

“Fair enough. So why did my uncle’s soul separate from him in such an exceptional way?”

“Well, you have already experienced a little of his anguish – the profound loneliness of obscene wealth. Combined with a naturally mean-spirited demeanour and a belief that the rich were the most deserving people in society, everything human in his soul was suffocated, until finally it drifted from him, an empty shell of the person he could have been.”

“That sounds awful! Why did the Lord not send an angel to help him?”

“I am not wise enough to know; but a number of ideas are at play here. I actually very much doubt that he would have accepted God’s help – he would rather have wallowed in his filthy money than take the steps needed to become truly human. In any case, God let him dig his own grave with each day he spent in oblivious self-service.” Zeuxo did not sound angry, but bitterly, bitterly sad.

“He always seemed like a nice enough chap to me! He always took his obligations and what he perceived as his duties very seriously indeed, and tried to care for me when I stayed with him.”

“Not all the duties and obligations in the world can save one who extinguished every drop of compassion and sympathy in his heart. As for being charming to those around him, well, that is little more than a game, a skill. Being ‘nice’, any more than being ‘dutiful’, cannot truly benefit your soul. Even a tax farmer loves his friends.”

“So what then must I do to avoid his fate?”

“You must follow your Saviour, Jesus Christ, and accept his salvation.”

“I have already accepted that salvation, for no treasure on earth can match the delights of being a child of God, forever in his presence. Yet I do not know where Jesus is leading me at the moment! You ought to know, you’re an angel.”

“Ha ha ha, you do me far too much credit! Do you really think I know an appreciable fraction of the mind of God? I cannot readily say where you are being led, any more than you know yourself; but I’m here to give you some handy tips. For example, washing feet is a good idea.”

“‘Love one another as I have loved you’?”

“Precisely. Now let’s go in and have a cup of tea. Turning your new fortune into a tool for love will be a long process, and I don’t want to stress you out too much. At least I can keep you company!”

“Thank you for being here, Zeuxo!” cried Imogen, giving her a big hug.

Suzy’s On Holiday

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Ooooooh yes.

Picture me today, speeding through France in my elderly Toyota Camry, in my new stripy blue crop top, with a rather mixed Northern Soul collection wafting through the cab.

That is a kind of joy.

One of the things I always notice about France is that they have so many different types of electricity pylons, with so many weird designs. Some of them have cute fox ears like Zakuro. Going to write a dedicated post on the awesomeness of Zakuro soon.

Holiday reading, other than things I need to read for university, is the first volume of Oh My Goddess (to reread) and Apollonius of Rhodes’ telling of the story of Jason and the Argonauts. It’s not as strange a combination as it  seems.

What I love about ancient literature is that it was written at a time when paper was scarce, and audiences were impatient. Authors weren’t allowed to waffle on with pointlessly detailed physical descriptions, or too much cod-psychological fantasy. They had to just tell the story, hopefully adding a few interesting details here and there to help the audience to imagine characters and settings, and highlight particularly important things. In the Odyssey, for example, people are given sweet little labels, which change according to what the author wants to show you. When Odysseus is planning something, he’s ‘cunning Odysseus’. When Nausicaa, possibly the first moe character ever, is attracted to Odysseus, she’s ‘white-armed’ (signalling beauty) or ‘maidenly’.

Of course, you can see why this couldn’t continue. All of Dostayevsky or Kafka’s characters would have the appellation ‘depressed’, and it would get confusing.

But nonetheless ancient literature has a lot in common with the rapid action and compactness of manga, and the same kind of themes as a lot of fantasy manga (such as the interactions between the normal sensible world and crazy supernatural stuff). The Iliad, if you illustrated it, would basically be a shounen.

Anyway, even if it is a crazy combination of holiday reading, I will bloody well enjoy it. Off towards mountains! They go with Mendelssohn better than soul music.

Skuld

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Is there really a fantasy character better than Skuld from Oh My Goddess?

Growing up as a girl fascinated by machines, fiction could often be quite annoying, especially fantasy books, which are often written by technophobic medievalists who would be quite happy to live without basic sanitation or medicine if only they didn’t have to use any of these pesky machines. Quite frankly, the Fellowship of the Ring could have hopped over the Misty Mountains quite easily in a simple biplane like the Vickers Vimy. Saruman set up an entire industrial economy in about 5 minutes flat, so it would have been well within Gandalf’s powers to construct a basic 4-cylinder in-line engine, and Gimli could have knocked up a wooden-framed wing while Frodo was still sleeping off the effects of his psychadelic wound. That was what I always wanted to tell the characters. “You can build a simple machine to solve this problem. Why are you messing about with bloody trolls and Balrogs in an abandoned mine?” Similarly, of course, my first reaction to Harry Potter VI was that Voldemort would really struggle against a long-range SPG. All through my later childhood and teenage years I neglected fantasy, partly because the characters were so annoyingly mechanically illiterate. Most of the protagonists couldn’t even have built a dynamo.

Then I started reading manga, and my first 2D love affair was Oh My Goddess. It had me right from the start, with goddesses who had a call centre and business cards instead of magical lamps and tarot. Of course that’s how goddesses would do things. Phones are just better than the stupid convoluted ways of contacting spirits most fantasy books use – and of course goddess services would be geared towards efficient customer service, because they want to make people happy. Making it difficult to contact them with a ritualistic magical procedure would be utterly against their interests. And why wouldn’t heaven use a computer to administrate the earth? Makes complete sense. The theology may be rather sketchy, but this is a rational universe, an internally coherent one, with the kind of concrete systems and details most fantasy lacks. And then, in chapter 30, along came Skuld.

Skuld is awesome.

She BUILDS things. When she’s presented with a problem, she creates a machine to solve it, just like I have always wanted to. She doesn’t moan or fuss or invent complications for herself, she just gets on and tries to solve things. The joke is that she often fails despite the mechanical perfection of her machines, but come on, at least she tries, and answers that nagging question that’s in my head whenever I read fantasy: “What if someone in this book had played with Meccano as a child? Surely a machine can solve this problem?”

She is also a breath of fresh air from damned complex characters. She has no melancholy back story. She is just a kid. She loves her siblings and her friends, she gets excited about her machines, she lives properly in the moment … It’s refreshing to be around a character who doesn’t flail about in an emotional storm in a teacup, and just gets on with the problem in hand. She is literally who I wanted to be as a child.

We even agree on pointless toys and machines. When I built a Lego car I wanted something that actually worked like a car, that moved under its own power, had steering, etc. … I think by the time my Lego period had finished I had built a car with front and rear suspension, steering, a two-speed gearbox, and a motor. It looked like nothing on earth, but it actually worked. I feel sure Skuld would approve.

None of the pompous, pole-ten-feet-up-arse fantasies where people have magic but seemingly no common sense would survive the bracing fresh breeze of a Skuld. The fact that the supreme silliness of Oh My Goddess remains somehow weirdly plausible and sensible in her presence demonstrates how well-constructed and rational the fictional universe is.

The most important thing I want all you at home to take away, though, is that Skuld is awesome.

SKULD IS AWESOME.

Thank you.