Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The first volumes of two books from Viz's Shojo Beat line

Kamisama Kiss Vol. 1 by Julietta Suzuki: I was initially tempted to view this as something akin to a shojo version of Rumiko Takashi’s super-successful shonen series Inu-Yasha, as both star young, dark-haired high school girls who meet and then embark on love/hate relationship with hunky supernatural boys with canine ears, constantly crossing paths with folkloric spirits during their adventures.

That’s a pretty gross oversimplification of both series, however, and they diverge pretty quickly and pretty drastically, despite some pretty obvious superficial similarities. Kamisama Kiss stars set-upon Nanami, nicknamed “Broke-Nami” by her classmates because she lives on the edge of poverty, thanks to her gambling-addicted father. When he ups and leaves her the day before they were set to be evicted from her apartment, she finds her self suddenly homeless in a park.

There she chances upon a mysterious young man who offers her a place to stay. When she arrives at the appointed place, however, she finds a run-down temple, occupied by only two near-identical little spirits in masks and a handsome if cold fox-spirit (That's him on the cover with the ears). She can live at the temple, but she has to work to earn her room and board, and that work involves becoming the local god of the temple, with all that entails, particularly healing and answering prayers.

As this is a relationship shrine, where people go to pray for help in their relationships, manga-ka Suzuki gets the opportunity to get pretty girly in the contents, with Nanami acting as a supernaturally-sponsored matchmaker, and even giving a local catsfish spirit a makeover in order to help her go on a date with a human boy.

It’s quite steeped in Japanese folklore, with the majority of the characters encountered being yokai of some sorts, and it’s got a couple of grabby hooks, including he contentious relationship between Nanami and fox spirit Tomoe, and Nanami'sstruggles to become a successful god, even if she is only a human girl.

It took me a while to warm to it, but by the conclusion, as Nanami embarked on her first attempt at matchmaking, I was excited to see what happens next.

Library Wars: Love and War Vol. 1 by Kiiro Yumi: This is actually a manga adaptation of a series of prose “light novels” from Japan by Hiro Arikawa (with light novel being the equivalent of a Young Adult novel stateside). I was attracted to this by the title, given the fact that I’ve worked in libraries off and on in order to buy enough food to stay alive while trying to be a freelance writer and incredibly infrequent comics creator, but the premise is pretty neat: At some point in near-future Japan, the federal governent has set up some sort of Media Betterment Committee, which purges books they find objectionable from society, confiscating them and keeping them out of the hands of readers. The local governments support armed forces to oppose the MBC, a sort of military force dedicated to defending books, bookstores and libraries...with force, if necessary.

Our heroine Iku Kasahara is training with the Library Defense Force, and is eventually selected as part of a special task force that combines the skills and duties of being a librarian with those being a member of the combat forces. I didn’t quite understand the exact parameters of the political conflict, as it seems like an extremely specific sort of almost-civil war in which the populace in general sits it out...or they don’t really have any stakes or passions and thus don’t take any sides. (I don’t know that this is necessarily a weakness of the manga, though; this is could have simply have been a symptom of the manga being specifically geared to those who have already read the books, as a sort of supplement).

Like Kamisama Kiss, Library Wars has two major conflicts of the same nature: Kasahara has an aspirational conflict of being an excellent member of the library task force, as well as a romantic one, with her immediate superior and mentor Dojo, with whom she seesaws between constantly bickering and seeing something special within.

In her case, the two conflicts may be related, as she became interested in joining the library forces after a chance, childhood encounter with a heroic man who saved her and a book from sinister government confiscators, and became her “prince" in her eyes. Naturally she can’t remember his name, or even face, so there’s a good chance it’s actually Dojo, who, now that she's an adult and now that she knows him for something other than a single heroic act, doesn’t live up to the ideal she formed around that mystery man long ago (That's my guess anyway, based on years of reading manga. Maybe Dojo and "the prince" are two entirely different people).

My own personal background makes the fantasy aspect of the book—librarians who go through army movie-style basic training—and I think there's something here that should (or at least could) appeal to most bibliophiles, but I didn't see a whole lot in the work to make me too curious about seeing what happens in volume 2. It's decent work to be sure, but there's nothing to it that really differentiates it from the deluge of available translated manga, so I'd be more likely to pick up something with a sharper hook, more unique characters and situations or more stylized and individualistic art the next time I reach for something from the manga shelf at my local library. Where no one wears a uniform or carries a gun. But that would be kinda cool if they did.

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