Red Blinds the Foolish by est em

I wasn’t sure at first what I was going to write about for the 801 Manga Moveable Feast, and then I remembered that I bought a few volumes of manga when Deux was going out of business and hadn’t gotten around to reading them. In particular I’ve been hoarding a couple Est Em books that I haven’t read yet, I think just because I just liked knowing that there was some English language Est Em manga that I could look forward to.

As I picked up this volume, one thing that caught my attention was a quote on the back by translator Matt Thorn comparing est em to Ursula LeGuin. At first I wasn’t sure what to make of that comparison, but as I thought about it more it seemed to make sense, as both authors explore concepts, ideas, and place in their work in an extremely thoughtful way. I tend to think of est em as a literary titan among yaoi authors. Red Blinds the Foolish doesn’t disappoint the reader looking for more thoughtful yaoi.

The main story in this volume focuses on Ratifa, a young successful matador, and Mauro who ends up butchering the bulls that are killed in the ring. Maruo is bull-like in some of his characteristics, as he is color blind just like a bull. This type of set-up might seem like a bit like metaphoric overload from a lessor creator, but est em’s slice of life approach documents the growing relationship between the couple in such a natural way that the reader ends up absorbing a lot of philosophy and bullfighting information without being hit over the head with a hammer of symbolism. There are fairly explicit sex scenes in this book, but I didn’t find them to be particularly lascivious because they take place in the context of a conversation between the characters. They could just be going out for coffee or eating tapas and and talking but since this is a yaoi manga they’re having sex.

The last third of the manga is a few short stories focusing on relationships in various stages – established, just beginning, and nostalgic. What makes est em’s work so interesting isn’t so much the specific details of the plots of her stories, but the general sense of wistfulness or longing she evokes by the time the reader reaches the conclusion. Seeing est em illustrations and then going back to more commercial manga always gives me a bit of mental whiplash, as her style with delicate, not overly polished lines and a very judicious use of screen tone always evokes a sense of clarity. I enjoyed reading Red Blinds the Foolish very much. It shows how versatile est em can be, that she can produce a work that explores relationships like Red Blinds the Foolish and then is also able to make an abrupt turn into the wacky but still poignant with a manga like Working Kentauros.

Loveless Vols. 1 and 2

I’ve had the first omnibus of Loveless for a fair amount of time. I tried reading it once when I was a bit distracted and put it aside after a few pages. The Yun Kouga manga moveable feast was the perfect opportunity to give this series a second try, and I’m glad I did. Some manga seems a bit too edited or mass produced. Unless you’re seeking out manga from some of the more alternative magazines, most mainstream manga isn’t all that weird. The pinnacle of enjoyable manga weirdness in my mind is Est Em’s Working Kentauros. That manga about the slice of life tribulations about Centaur salarymen provides the reader with a peak into a manga creator’s subconscious and ability to be creative without boundaries. Loveless isn’t as unconventionally weird as Working Kentauros, but its combination of cat people, light bondage, magical battles, mysterious organizations, abusive parents, master/servant relationships, and occasional licking definitely add up to a manga that’s a bit more distinctive and quirky than one might expect.

The world of Loveless features cat-people who seem to lose their extra cat-ears when they lose their virginity. So all the teens in the book have cat-ears and tails, while the adults look like normal humans. Ritsuka Ayoyagi shows up for the first day at a new school, attractive, mysterious, and bedecked with bandages. He’s still dealing with the emotional fallout from the murder of his beloved older brother Seimei. Ritsuka’s home life is difficult. He sees a counselor. His personality evidently shifted a few years back, and his mother treats him like a changeling and scapegoat. Ritsuka’s personality is understandably abrasive, and he promptly rejects the girls in his new class except for the persistent but simple Yuiko who appoints herself his new friend.

Ritsuka’s life takes a sudden turn when the college student Soubi shows up at his school and announces that he’s a former friend of Seimei. Soubi pledges his love for Ritsuka and announces that he’ll protect him, and they’re suddenly thrown into a mystical battle with a pair of fighters. Soubi casts spells, while Ritsuka serves as a sacrifice absorbing the pain of the others’ attack. Kouga’s art is graceful and dynamic, making the fighting scenes look very stylish with plenty of dramatic yelling and flowing hair. She’s particularly good at making Ritsuka appealing and sympathetic, as his facial expressions shift from closed-off to beseeching and vulnerable.

I’m glad I read this omnibus, because I probably would have been a bit unsure about continuing the series after just the first volume, but in the space of two volumes Kouga builds an intriguing world and made me invested in seeing what would happen next for Soubi and Ritsuka. While Ritsuka is allegedly the the one in charge of giving Soubi directions, Soubi is snarky and sophisticated enough to make the reader question who is really in control. The mystery of Seimei’s death, Ritsuka’s shift in personality, and the presence of the organization Septimal Moon all add up to a lot of plot points to explore in future books. I enjoyed Loveless more than I thought I would after my first reading attempt, although I can see myself getting a bit frustrated if answers to some of the questions raised in the first two volumes aren’t explored thoroughly in the manga series as a whole.

This two-in one omnibus has plenty of extra author’s notes, side stories, and character illustrations, and I think it would appeal to fans who already bought the first part of the series when it was published by Tokyopop. At roughly $12 per volume now on amazon, the first three omnibus volumes are a solid value for readers.

Basara, Vols 13-16

Whenever I pick up and read a few volumes of Basara, I’m always struck by how much story and emotion Yumi Tamura is able to pack into a few pages. I’d started rereading Basara last year, but got distracted by having too many volumes of shiny new manga. The Manga Moveable Feast seemed like a great excuse to dig up these volumes again. These volumes cover Sarasa’s journey as she escapes from prison and wages war on the desert city of Suo, only to encounter the Red King. The battle doesn’t go the way either of them planned.

Sarasa is able to escape Abashiri prison with her comrades, but she doesn’t have time to settle back and appreciate freedom again. It is time to head south and take up the struggle to determine the fate of Japan. Ageha leaves Sarasa, saying that he can’t become a crutch to make things easier for her. She has to execute her plans on her own, based on her convictions. Shuri heads to his precious desert city of Suo, but things have changed there for the worse as the administrator there Momonoi attempts to remake it in the image of Kyoto by displacing the poor and blowing up buildings. Asagi prevents a reunion between Sarasa and Shuri in a southern market, because he thinks if they each find out the truth about each other now, it would be “too dull.” Sarasa and Shuri both head to Suo with drastically different purposes.

The struggle in Suo is portrayed in mental as well as physical terms. Sarasa meets up with Hozumi, Momonoi’s son who his a non-violent artist. His girlfriend Renko runs an underground newspaper in the city. Sarasa starts unsettling the city by plastering notices that “Tatara was here” on the walls, and even flying the message from a kite. Sarasa starts to reflect a bit about what it means to be both a strong and feminine woman after spending some time with Renko. Hozumi stages his own form of protest by painting elaborate pictures on the walls of buildings slated for destruction, so people hesitate to blow them apart.

When Shuri sees the wreckage of Suo, he’s angry at what it has become. Momonoi brutalizes both Hozumi and Renko. Sarasa and Shuri both go after Momonoi for different reasons. Sarasa is nervous about being in close proximity to the Red King, the man who destroyed her village. Shuri sees that he’s not welcomed as a savior in his treasured city, and begins to reflect that his previous philosophy about a good leader inspiring fear was mistaken. Sarasa’s reinforcements come, but her plan to use Momonoi’s own explosives to cut off the palace kills the water supply for the city. The Red King’s army executes a tricky sneak attack, and the star-crossed lovers seem like they are headed towards mutual destruction. Sarasa is devastated when she realizes that she’s bring more destruction to the people of Suo. A horrible sandstorm prevents the battle from progressing further, but rather than regroup with her comrades, Sarasa runs off and finds Shuri in the chaos.

It is a little unbelievable that Sarasa and Shuri have managed to keep their identities from each other for so long, especially considering the way they both tend to show up and meet each other right around the time that Tatara and the Red King have a skirmish. It is clear now that part of reason is that they honestly don’t care, and they are both blinded by love for each other so much that they aren’t going to stop and ask inconvenient questions when they could just enjoy each other’s company. This idyll is very short, and the Red King and Tatara’s army clash the next day and Shuri and Sarasa finally get a glimpse of each other from across the battlefield.

What follows is one of the most emotionally devastating scenes in the series, as Sarasa and Shuri react to this newfound knowledge in different ways. Sarasa slips into a fugue state, forcing out commands to kill the Red King, while Shuri mechanically tries to kill himself at the suggestion of his followers because his group is so clearly outnumbered by the rebel forces. Both armies flee the battle as King Ukon’s army approaches and Ageha takes Sarasa away in an attempt to bring back Tatara. Ageha thinks “Was he…that good? Why not just take me instead?” Ageha concludes that Sarasa isn’t his “woman worth dying for” and decides to leave. Sarasa ends up finding shelter with a local priest and his family, but her destiny isn’t going to let her sit back and do nothing.

Sarasa strikes up an odd friendship with Kikune, one of the White King’s spies. Sarasa and Kikune end up befriending Lady Purple, the Black King’s estranged wife. Lady Purple ends up being another type of mentor to Sarasa, but Sarasa’s emotional healing really begins when she’s reunited with her mother. In a very nurturing way, Sarasa’s mother asks her some pointed questions about the reasons why she was fighting and what she wants the future of Japan to be.

There’s some funny yet poignant exchanges happening as Asagi has rescued Shuri, who is undergoing his own emotional rehabilitation. Asagi is all but twirling his non-existent evil mustache in an attempt to get Shuri to have some sort of emotional reaction to him, but Shuri calmly accepts the prospect of being sold into slavery by his half-brother.

Overall, these volumes server as a great emotional climax to the first half of the series. The central mystery about what would happen if Sarasa and Shuri would find out about each other has been answered, and now they have to pick up the pieces of their lives yet again. While Ageha might have given up on Sarasa, it is clear that her destiny as Tatara will not allow her to just retire into the countryside and life out the rest of her life peacefully. Shuri has his own set of trials ahead, and it will be interesting to see how both of these powerful leaders manage to build a new Japan with such strong and well-connected enemies lining up against them. One of the strengths of Basara is the way Tamura will intersperse shorter, more personal adventures into the larger struggle with the extended cast. Having Sarasa and Shuri both on their own a little bit, without their customary support systems allows them to grow more as individuals, making the battles much more human. I’m glad I set aside the time to get back with my Basara rereading program, and I’ll likely finish up rereading the rest of the series outside of this week’s manga moveable feast.

Happy Mania Vols 1-5

This is a post for the Moyoco Anno Manga Moveable Feast.

Some series I take to right away, and other manga series end up being second chance reads. Happy Mania is one of those series that is better the second time around for me. I read the first couple volumes several years ago and didn’t really get into it because I found the main character incredibly annoying. Since then I’ve read several other manga by Moyoco Anno and have long suspected that I needed to give Happy Mania a second shot. I’ve pieced together the out of print series from and some good bargain manga outlets. I was hoping to read the entire series for the Manga Moveable Feast, but I wasn’t able to start reading it until much later than I planned. I was able to read a decent chunk of it though!

The heroine as a ditsy, hopeless woman who decides to “live for love” is quite the stereotype in shoujo and josei manga. Her life gets romanticized and she ends up getting saved by her ideal man. Anno’s approach is to show just how horrible a life someone like this would actually lead. Shigeta is a young woman who works in a bookstore. Her career’s nonexistent, but she’s fixated on the idea of meeting a man who will save her from the drudgery of her daily life. Unfortunately Shigeta’s main method of dealing with men is to fixate on someone totally unsuitable, sleep with him extremely quickly, and then wonder why he’s suddenly not interested in her. While she chases bad boys, her hapless co-worker Takahashi is pining for her. He is usually drawn with tears streaming down his face, sighing Shigeta’s name.

Shigeta goes through jobs and men in quick succession, hooking up with a womanizing younger DJ, the son of a cult leader who rapidly turns psychotic, a stoic ceramics artist, and a married man. Whenever Shigeta’s in crisis, Takahashi is there for her, and even though he goes overseas to study their relationship gradually progresses into a semi-dysfunctional engagement. If Shigeta exhibited absolutely no personal growth through these volumes the series would be a bit tedious, but she does gradually realize that her goals and behavior are not making her happy. This isn’t really enough to prevent her from seeking her self worth in the knowledge that a man might be interested in her, but she isn’t entirely without self awareness. When she pauses to think about a couple of the men pursuing her, she thinks “What’s wrong with these guys? If they like me that much…there must be something wrong with them!”
Shigeta is always pursuing the next unattainable man. Being stuck in a behavioral pattern like Shigeta’s seems refreshingly realistic for a manga heroine, and Anno certainly doesn’t shy away from the more sordid aspects of her life. Happy Mania isn’t romanticized at all.

Anno’s art is distinct and fluid. She has a unique ability to draw characters that are simultaneously attractive and slightly grotesque. Shigeta looks like a limpid-eyed, slightly crazed goblin half of the time. Takahashi shifts from being slight and nerdy to being more attractive as Shigeta’s view of him changes. There always seems to be a metatextual element to Anno’s manga. Happy Mania might be a manga about a love-starved twentysomething woman, but it is also a cynical commentary about manga about love-starved twentysomething women at the same time.

I’m glad that I gave this series a second chance. Shigeta’s antics didn’t really sit very well with me the first time I tried this series, but in the intervening years I’ve read a bunch more manga, and right now I find a manga about a woman finding unhappiness through her pursuit of men much more interesting than a more typical manga that is going to head towards a happy ending after a series of wacky misunderstandings.

Jiu Jiu Volume 2

I’ve been meaning to write about the second volume of Jiu Jiu and decided to finally sit down and do a post this week because it is during the Vampire Manga Moveable Feast and there is a new vampire character in this manga! Here’s my review of the first volume. I found the art in the first volume a little bit hard to decode, but for whatever reason I thought the second volume was much clearer. Either I was more used to the drawing style, or the layouts got a bit easier to follow. In any case, I had a much easier time reading this volume. For those people who enjoyed the first volume of the series, the second is much the same as Takamichi and her Jiu Jiu Snow and Night spend a fair amount of time exploring their feelings for each other in between episodes of demon-hunting shenanigans.

Things get shaken up a bit with the sudden arrival of an imperious vampire pig bat, who initially looks like an elementary school student when he switches to humanoid form. Takamachi thinks that it is adorable but Snow and Night are sensibly suspicious of any new addition to the menagerie. Meru has fixated on Takamichi for a ritual involving his first time taking blood from a human. He reveals that he’s actually 17, but can only reach maturity with the addition of blood. The contrast between Meru’s various forms was quite amusing, with the ungainly pig-bat being quite the caricature. Jiu Jiu flashes back and forth from scenes exploring emotional abandonment to more typical shojo manga staples like trips to the beach. Themes of maturity and growing up are explored, as the contrast between Snow and Night’s actual ages and their appearance sometimes gets the quasi-family group into trouble. Meru serves as a contrast to this dynamic since he switches between younger and older forms.

Jiu Jiu is still very episodic in nature. While the two volumes released so far explore the same themes, it doesn’t have the narrative urgency that would come from a more involved storyline. Still, I found myself enjoying Tobina’s unique art style more in the second volume just because it was more comprehensible, and there are elements in Jiu Jiu that are really quite odd, with all the cages and the characters’ tendencies to sleep together like a pile of puppies. I’d likely recommend this series to any fan of supernatural shojo who was looking for something a little offbeat.

Review copy provided by the publisher.