Robot reviews: Another manga round-up

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Ooku: The Inner Chambersby Fumi YoshinagaViz, $12.99.

As story hooks go, Ooku's got a great one: A strange plague during the Edo period of Japan kills off more than three-quarters of the country's male population. As a result, the culture and gender relations end up going all topsy-turvy, and succeeding generations find the women ruling the roost and men being protected and prized for their ability to produce offspring. This is especially in the Shogun's harem, or Inner Chambers, where the story takes place.

It helps that the story is by Fumi Yoshinaga, who, in books like Antique Bakery and Gerald and Jacques, has proven herself to be more interested in gender relations and identity issues than mere yaoi squickiness (although she certainly likes that too. Certainly the fact that Ooku won the Osamu Tezuka Cultural Prize in its home country has led to a certain amount of anticipation among some manga fans.

Unfortunately, while Yoshinaga remains an excellent and expressive artist, the series stumbles out of the gate. One of the main problems is the translator's decision (no doubt motivated by an attempt to approximate a certain Japanese dialect) to have everyone speak in a formal, Renaissance Faire-like manner, with lots of "thees" and "thous" and "didsts." It has the unintended effect of coming off as forced, and distancing the reader from the characters and the story.

Beyond that though, Yoshinaga doesn't really seem to do much with her idea, at least so far. She seems more interested in conveying the various back room politics and romances that take place in the inner chambers than giving thought as to what such a huge change in the population would do to a culture. Would the fashion still be identical to what it was in the real world, with men shaving their heads and women wearing long gowns? Wouldn't that change somewhat drastically? Would a female shogun really keep a male harem and if so, would it be so identical in structure to what the real Edo shoguns had? This may sound like nit-picking, but makes the story seem more than a bit facile, as though she just swapped everyone's sex and that alone would be interesting enough. It may well be that I'm not giving Yoshinaga enough credit and that she's actually considered these issues and will explore them in more depth in future volumes. But so far, I'm not encouraged.

Reviews of Red Snow, Pelu and more after the jump ...

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Little Fluffy Gigolo Pelu: Vol. 1by Junko MizunoLast Gasp, $17.95.

Mizuno's style can best be described as "Hello Kitty with fangs," or, perhaps more accurately, "Hello Kitty disemboweling Keroppi." Her attractive, super-cute art works at cross purposes with her more savage content, usually involving predatory, mentally disturbed women on the make for husbands, raw meat or babies, or perhaps all three.

Pelu is the start of what looks to be Mizuno's longest work yet, at least in English. It's the episodic story of a tiny puffball/ovum (that's right, I said ovum) who leaves his planet paradise in search of true love and perhaps the chance to procreate. From then on it's a series of sad/darkly funny adventures as Pelu encounters one dysfunctional woman after another, more interested in abusive boyfriends or unattainable dreams than poor Pelu. A lot of these tales generate a genuine pathos for their characters and there's a not-so-subtle critique of gender roles going on here, though Mizuno is too good an artist to keep her work from becoming strident or didactic.

Certainly it helps that she's got a decided appreciation for the grotesque and downright bizarre. How many other comics vomiting a veritable tsunami of stomach acid over a cliff, thereby destroying the much valued poodle ranch next door and bringing misery to all? I would hope the answer to that question is none. Though I haven't read Gotham Divas lately.

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The Color of Water and The Color of Heavenby Kim Dong HwaFirst Second, $16.95 each.

This is fast shaping up to be the the front-runner in the "most underrated series of 2009" category in the "Things I Give A Damn About" awards. I can't say I'm terribly surprised. As I noted in my review of the first volume, Hwa's tale of a young woman's sexual and romantic awakening is too risque to appeal to the teen manga-reading audience but too coy and elusive to attract serious adult readers.

But for those willing to walk that line between the two extremes, Hwa's story remains compelling right up to its happy but slightly bittersweet ending. There are moments of real, genuine eroticism here, such as when young Ehwa has a dream of chasing her loved one as his clothes slowly come off, or an even more daring sequence where she learns the joys of masturbation via a friend, But the books never feel smutty or pandering. And if its sexual metaphors seems (a man diving into a cool pond; a hammer striking a bell) seem more than a bit obvious at times, Hwa invests his characters with a good deal of heart and thought, so that the relationship between mother and daughter, as well as between the daughter and her suitor, feel true. For all of it's flower metaphors and sidelong glances Hwa's trilogy is as honest a depiction of sex, adolescence, parental relationships and downright longing as I've ever come across in comics.

Red Snowby Susumu KatsumataDrawn and Quarterly, 248 pages, $24.95

A woman falls in love with the spirit of a chestnut tree only to see it chopped down. A traveling monk becomes the unwanted play thing for a group of lonely house wives. Anothe rmonk dreams of sexual conquest. A battered wife puts up with her husband's alcoholism and abuse because that's the only time he can sexually gratify her.

As my poor attempts at encapsulation suggest,, this collection of short stories by the late gekiga artist Katsumata deal with the give and take between the sexes, set against the backdrop of a rural, feudal Japan. Katsumata makes no bones about the second-class status and hardships that women in this particular culture must endure, but has no interest in being one-sided. The women here can be just as abusive and manipulative as the men, they just aren't always as successful in getting their way, and their fall can be a lot greater.

None of this is overt. Katsumara delivers all his stories in sleight-of-hand style so that the book's themes only seep into your brain slowly, and with multiple readings. This is a book I'll be pulling off my shelf and musing over for some time to come.

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