Three manga by Moyoco Anno.
(Pictured above: Kayoko Shigeta from Happy Mania; Sakura Ota from Flowers & Bees; Chocolat from Sugar Sugar Rune.)
I'm not particularly a manga reader--I think I'd read one or two things before this latest splash. But over on her journal, shaenon, the author of Narbonic, has been recommending and reviewing manga for a while, and she presumably knows of what she speaks, since she edits English translations of manga for a living. So despite my reservations about recommendations from webcomics authors, I read through her entire archive of reviews and pulled out a few that I liked.
The relevant one was her review of Sugar Sugar Rune by Moyoco Anno. I'm not going to actually review Sugar Sugar Rune because her review is probably sufficient, and also because I don't really like it that much, insofar as it's not really for me (I suspected that when I bought it but it was too tempting); in fact, I only have the first two volumes. Her summary: "It's a manga for little girls. Evil little girls."
But she mentioned two other Moyoco Anno manga in passing in that review: Happy Mania and Flowers & Bees, both of which I've bought the complete sets of and read completely (in fact I've actually read the first 9 of 11 volumes of Happy Mania twice), which I will review below.
One of the cool things about manga (as I understand it) is that they've avoided the superheroized ghettohood of American comics while staying mainstream, not indie. Instead of getting caught in a demographic rut, they simply make different comics for every demographic. There are comics for ladies (josei), girls (shojo), men (seinen), and boys (shonen). Sugar Sugar Rune is for girls; Happy Mania is ladies (I think), and Flowers & Bees is men. Perhaps when she's done with Sugar Sugar Rune she'll complete the set by creating a manga about a boy who pilots mechs.
General comments on the artAs you can probably tell by the image above, the art style of all three manga are pretty similar. Sugar Sugar Rune is a lot more polished, though, although some individual panels of the other two are competitive. At times Happy Mania gets downright lazy:
But that's probably just about the worst example, and it's not that common. It is generally a lot sketchier and less detailed than Sugar Sugar Rune, though.
But overall, the artwork isn't that important to me. As long as it's basically competent and consistent--it gets the job done--that's good enough for me. If you like polished stuff, I think Sugar Sugar Rune offers more than just competence; and I guess if you like shaky, sketchy stuff maybe there's something in the others for you, but that's beyond my expertise.
(Note: Both Happy Mania and Flowers & Bees feature nudity, so they're not for kids, at least by American standards. As you'll see, it makes sense for Happy Mania; in Flowers & Bees it rarely works into the stories so it's mostly in interstitial, extradiagetic pages instead. I guess Anno just likes drawing the naked ladies.)
Happy ManiaHappy Mania is an 11-volume romantic comedy (I guess) about a cute, flighty woman in her mid-20s (see top-left portrait above) who is looking for happiness in a romantic relationship but in practice sees a hot guy, develops a crush on him (claiming to "fall in love"), runs off to have sex with him, then quickly (or not) discovers that he's: not that into her; has a girlfriend or is married; is psycho; is a freeloader. (The last is a problem because she has a lot of trouble staying employed herself.) This repeats throughout the series in endless variations.
At the same time, on the second page we meet the "nerdy" (well, he has glasses) co-worker who in romantic comedy fashion she is probably destined to end up with; by the end of the second volume this becomes clearly the case, and to the extent that the other nine volumes address this part of the plot, they're devoted to finding ways to keep them apart (including, *sigh*, him getting amnesia). But mostly they're kept apart by her entirely consistent pursuit of other guys.
In parallel we get to see (mostly through her eyes) the relationship travails of her roommate, who is much more a one-steady-perfect-guy gal, and yet the roommate is never quite happy with her relationship and ends up being on-again off-again a lot. Here the character and the problem is totally different, yet the outcome is the same. Mostly this character (and her beau) are there to provide plot hooks for the lead; the parallels between their situations aren't (that I recall) explored in depth, but instead it just provides resonance as the lead character starts to figure out having a relationship with somebody is never going to be a magic ticket to happiness.
Some people might have trouble finding the lead character sympathetic, since she so consistently makes bad choices. As I said, over the course of the series, she becomes more introspective and aware of the fact she's making bad choices--but she can't help but keep doing it! Personally, I have no trouble empathizing with that. I mean, I'm ok just empathizing with somebody who does stupid things because they can't help it--it might get boring, but that's a separate problem. For me, having her realize it is just character-development gravy.
What is Shigeta like? Here's some sample dialogue.
Shigeta: I'm thinking about becoming a shepherdess.I had a tough time finding a good picture of her for the comparison at the top, because I started with the central image, and matching it was hard, because that's not an expression Shigeta generally makes. She is in all ways unabashed.
Coworker: Wh.. what are talking about, Ms. Shigeta?
(She shows a severe expression.)
Coworker: Gasp! That face... are you serious?
Shigeta: But I'll be broke if I quit now.
Shigeta: I wonder how you become a sheperdess?
Coworker: It's probably passed down.
Shigeta (thinking): It doesn't matter anymore... I'll probably never have a boyfriend. I have to give up... I'll just be lonely forever.
Shigeta (thinking): And as I get older, I'm going to grow a beard and a penis and live the rest of my life as a bitter old man...
Coworker: Ms. Shigeta, what's wrong!? Are you crying?
Shigeta: I can't take it anymore! I'm running away to a country where having a boyfriend is illegal and punishable by death!
I really, really like this series.
Flowers & BeesFlowers & Bees is a 7-volume romantic comedy (I guess) about Komatsu, an ugly boy in high school. He thinks he will find true happiness if only he could hook up with hot ladies, but as an ugly, highly unconfident boy, that's not going to happen.
He sets his sights on a teen model introduced on page 1, but he knows it's hopeless to pursue a girl like that. But then a chance encounter leads him to a men's salon run by several flamingly gay guys who promise to remake him. Over the course of volume 1 his appearance gradually changes to, well, not hot, but at least normal. (About halfway through the volume, the gay guys are replaced by two hot sisters who enslave Komatsu and nominally continue improving him for the rest of the series.) After volume 1 further visual transformations are limited. But it turns out that appearances aren't everything in getting a date and succeeding at relationships; Komatsu has to learn self-confidence and learn how to interact with women so they'll like him, and they pretend to make efforts to teach him such things.
At the same time, on page 4 we meet Sakura (pictured above), a classmate who is undoubtedly equally hot as the teen model Komatsu is interested in (and, of course, it turns out the two know each other). The high school is as clique-y as a western school, divided by attractiveness as much as anything, so Komatsu and his buddy are on the bottom rung, while Sakura lives in a group on top. But she seems strangely detached, and she inexplicably takes a minor interest in Komatsu's self-improvement efforts, constructively criticizing them them in class--initially to the enjoyment of her friends, who think she's making fun of him. They become nicer to each other, and by the middle of the second volume, when she finds herself talking about Komatsu to her boyfriend on a date (and the boyfriend complains about it), it becomes clearly the case that the two are destined to end up together in fine romantic comedy tradition.
Again, some people may not find Komatsu sympathetic. His pursuit of personal attractiveness borders on masochism given the way he's treated at the salon, he's not very bright, and he's fundamentally selfish (see below), without the self-awareness of it that Shigeta eventually develops.
This series is pretty good, but I don't like it as much as Happy Mania, possibly in part because it feels artifical--more constructed and less plausible.
Cynicism and EndingsI like to imagine that most ladies' manga is the equivalent of romance novels (at least, the stuff that isn't the equivalent of slashfic); that they're woefully cliched true love stories and Happy Mania is brutally subverting the form. I have no idea if it's true, but imagining it makes me happy. Because it's a really cynical engine that drives both Happy Mania and Flowers & Bees; the characters are looking to relationships for their happiness, but (a) they're extremely selfish about it (to the extent they think about how to make their (potential) partner happy, it's just for the sake of developing or maintaining the relationship), and (b) in Anno's world, relationships don't make people happy (although maybe happy people make good relationships; on that she is mute).
Whether this cynicism reflects her personal view of the world or is just what she finds makes for good storytelling, I can't say. She got married in the middle of the run of Flowers & Bees at age 31 (to the creative force behind Neon Genesis Evangelion, Hideaki Anno). But as Shaenon's review describes, this worldview, and the idea of romance as a game played for self-benefit, continues even in Sugar Sugar Rune, written long after that.
Let me talk vaguely about how the stories end; you might want to skip this paragraph if you think you might read either of them, although I've formed a clever construction to avoid spoiling them unless you read both. But I want to make it clear that despite my comments about the characters above meeting their obviously destined love, this is not really how it shakes out in the end. So: neither Happy Mania nor Flowers & Bees ends on an easy "the lead character finds happiness ever after with their destined true love". One of them just has an open ending, where the character has grown a little and maybe learned this lesson about counting on romance for happiness; the other ends with the two getting together "for real" but it being clear that this is not a formula for happiness, nor will the relationship be easy. Which, hooray for consistency and non-patness, but it's pretty clear that with everything that had gone before in each story, there was no way the easy ending would be satisfying or appropriate. Just good to see there wasn't commercial pressure or anything to go there.
Finally, one of the things I find interesting about reading manga (or watching anime) is finding ways in which our two cultures are identical. (It dawned on me while reading Sugar Sugar Rune that, hey, apparently the symbolic heart shape is universal. Why is that?) Like, take high school. Could the experience of Japanese high school, with a very different focus towards college preparation, all that rigid Japanese "politeness", and all those other little japanese cultural quirks, be anything like the American high school experience? "That was on a planet called high school. But now we're in a place called the real world, where everything that used to be important gets turned upside down... and all your unfounded confidence gets crushed." You tell 'em,