Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Confession and a Review

All right, so people who know my occupation know that my time for reading the things that are fun has been curtailed, impoverished, reduced to almost nothing. I’m not complaining (much), my choice. But it has been dispiriting. My Hugo winners project is on hold, I have a stack of neglected Analog magazines going back more than a year… I’m telling you this because I have a horrible and shameful thing to confess… how do I say it? I guess… just admit it: My name is the Really Sarcastic Weasel, and I have started reading manga.

I’ve been OK supporting an anime habit, some Outlaw Star here, some Bebop and Champloo there, a crap-load of Kenshin and Studio Ghibli… I can still hold my head high. But the glittering racks of manga at the Borders were anathematic to me: too Otaku. The Taipei MRT really turned that around for me. Specifically, seeing firsthand the truth of the Otaku claim that perfectly respectable adults do read the stuff (in public, no less) as a way to unwind. So, without the time or energy for Old Man’s War, Paladin of Souls, or the Pevear and Volokhonsky Tratranslation of War and Peace, I resort to short, unchallenging, manga. Not just manga, but harem, shōnen manga. Well, enough groveling and excuses. The review:

Love Hina (Ken Akamatsu)
Love Hina is, on its surface, is the story of Keitaro Urashima, an undistinguished 2nd year rōnin attempting to get into the prestigious Tokyo University (think someone with borderline community college grades repeatedly applying to Harvard). Keitaro is not smart, not handsome nor charming, nor strong, has never had a girlfriend, never been popular, is terribly clumsy, careless, and is plagued by supernatural bad luck. The only time a girl was ever interested in him during his life was when he was 4 and he and another young girl promised each that they would someday go to Tokyo University together. After being thrown out his parents’ house, he goes to see his grandmother who owns a traditional hot springs inn. Completely oblivious to the fact that the inn has been converted to a women’s dormitory, he makes himself at home once he fails to find his grandmother there. This start leads the residents of the dorm to believe that he is a pervert, an idiot, and a liar. Too bad for them, his grandmother makes him the new manager while she’s off to travel the world.

Now I described the series as part of the harem sub-genre, in which some unlikely young male becomes the object of affection of many girls who surround him, and it is exactly that. Unlike many of the works in this genre, it starts with the protagonist being universally despised at first and is relatively believable as the characters grow and their relationships change. Throughout the series Keitaro suffers such physical abuse at the hands of the girls that, in a completely meta-moment, they begin to speculate on whether he is an immortal. The series also suffers from a nearly overwhelming amount of fan-service as Keitaro continually barges in on dressing, undressing, bathing, and otherwise semi-clothed girls precipitating the aforementioned violence (leading the series to be, by my estimation, rather burlesque but without ever crossing the line into hentai). The series also suffers from some fetishism indulgences: warrior women, oniisan (not blood relation), kitsuni-musume, nekomimi, cosplay, etc. Furthermore, the pure magnitude of dues ex machina used to keep certain plot line unresolved would make a soap opera “writer” blush.

All that said, the damn thing is entertaining and has real heart. Not only that, but it threw me a major curve. Sometime in Volume 12 or so I began to get annoyed because Keitaro’s story, from a personal growth point of view, was essentially complete and the story was growing ever more bizarre. But there was no resolution to the central conflict of the story despite the fact that the protagonist had clearly earned it. It wasn’t until nearly the end (I’m a little slow sometimes) that I realized that, while Keitaro may be the protagonist, the main character, whose growth is even more important for a successful resolution, is probably Naru Narusegawa, Keitaro's primary love interest. The final two chapters, if you’re an emotional old softie such as the Sarcastic Weasel, are very gratifying.

I bought the first two volumes thinking I’d read them slowly over time. I found myself addicted and read the bulk of the rest of the series on Manga Hut, as they have very high quality scans, but had to supplement from other sites as some pages are missing. I am now going back and showing my support for the author and artist (and U. S. distributors) by purchasing the remaining volumes and reading the official translation. There also exists an anime version, but my understanding is that there is quite a difference in tone and plot.

Anyway, if you can swallow you pride (and some juvenile silliness), I’d recommend it despite the fact that the covers look like they are designed to appeal to sexually confused teenage girls. I found myself much more emotionally involved than I ever expected to be and it was a nice lift in a winter that refuses to end.


Princess Blogonoke said...

Don't feel guilty about your manga habit! Stink Pants #5 likes Love Hina too (but I think he meant the anime when he told me). He's also addicted to the Naruto and Berserk manga. One of my favorites is Lone Wolf and Cub - an excellent historical fiction.

*I've actually commented... yay me.*

s.w. said...

Yay! A Princess B. Post!

Is the Naruto manga any good? I've tried watching the anime, but I don't really see what all the fuss is about.