With Kodansha and others having huge sales recently, it’s hard not to spend a bunch of money on new series. Thankfully, I showed some restraint and only picked up five new volumes. Considering how big my existing “to read” pile is, five new series seemed like a good number. For now. This might change by the end of the pandemic.
While I could have reviewed all five, two of the volumes I picked were recommendations from someone else’s amazing curated list of josei manga and didn’t want to re-hash an existing list. So instead I reviewed the three with the most contrast. The only bridge between them being that I picked them. One was a reread, one a recommendation, and the last was a random manga with a good cover and plot.
The reread for me was volume 1 of Battle Angel Alita. While that is not the name of the character or the series in Japanese, as noted at the end of the volume, this created-for-translation-title is how Western audiences consumed this character. This is the same name I picked up this manga under as a kid and what the movie was named after.
For those unfamiliar with the manga, or the movie under the variant title Alita: Battle Angel, the series is about a rediscovered robot who has amazing fighting capabilities when equipped with the right body. Although what Ido, a human-appearing man, initially finds is a preserved head with some torso attachments, he eventually gives Alita the body of a Berserker robot built for combat commensurate with Alita’s skill.
As an introduction, the volume provides many excellent action sequences that demonstrate Alita’s power. Additionally, the rich illustration is quintessential late 20th century cyberpunk, reminiscent of Blade Runner. What I love about it is that the art and the narrative give the reader enough of the dystopian world to feel established but Kishiro does not spell out all the details. Encouraging readers to get the next volumes.
While I know I read farther into the series than the first volume, re-reading it as an adult felt like a new experience, as there was so that I had forgotten. It’s a cyberpunk Pygmalion infused with Born-Sexy-Yesterday, but Alita has agency early enough for it to still be her story. While it utilizes some techniques that I dislike in fight choreography for women, this series was one I enjoyed as a kid and enjoyed reading again as an adult.
The recommended volume that I picked up was Kakafukaka. I got the recommendation from the amazing Carrie McClain’s Love Letters to Josei Manga. It is a recent release, with the first English translation from 2018 and an original release in 2014, in comparison to Battle Angel Alita. With the first volume on sale, it seemed like a great chance to pick up a recommended series. And if I wanted more there are nine volumes currently available in English.
Kakafukaka is the story of Aki, a down-on-her-luck early 20-something. After walking in on her boyfriend cheating on her, she needs to find a new place to live, fast. A fortuitous meal with friends leads to her taking over her friend’s room in a share-house. This seems to be the perfect solution, until one of the other housemates shows up and he’s Aki’s first (ex)boyfriend. And if this wasn’t awkward enough, said first boyfriend has not been able to get an erection for two years, until Aki shows up. He asks for her help in “fixing” this problem and she agrees, although she obviously feels uncomfortable about the situation.
I’m on the fence about Kakafukaka. There are aspects of Aki’s life that are extremely relatable, especially right now, in April 2020. The endless search for any job, after not finding one you actually enjoy. The desperation of having nowhere to turn when a partner leaves you flat. But I’m also not sure how to feel about the other plot. Namely, her relationship with Hongyo, her first boyfriend. This is probably because in the first volume she doesn’t know how to feel about it either.
We get outrageous expressions and inner monologue from her about her discomfort. Yet she agrees to hlep and takes solace in the situation. We find out that this choice to help him comes from her need to feel special because in the rest of her life she feels boring, typical, and unwanted. The first volume sets up a lot of intriguing possibilities that I’m interested in knowing more about but I’m not in a hurry to grab the second volume.
It being a sale, I also bought one random manga. I was scrolling through Kodansha’s series and happened upon Descending Stories. The first volume had a cool cover and the synopsis grabbed me. An ex-con seeks out a performing artist to become his apprentice. For whatever reason my brain read this as a historical piece, like 100+ years ago historical, but based on the clothes and some pieces of dialogue I think it is set in the 1960s or 1970s.
While Battle Angel Alita and Kakafukaka both have women protagonists, Descending Stories focuses on Kyogi, usually referred to as Yotaro, the male ex-con obsessed with rakugo. While portrayed as a dying art form in this manga, rakugo has a vibrant tradition today as a comedic storytelling performance where one person, generally a man, portrays all the characters in a folktale, with few props, and all while sitting in seiza. When Yotaro gets out of jail, the only thing he wants to do is perform rakugo under a very specific sensei. He finds this man, Yakumo Yurakutei VIII, and Yakumo miraculously agrees to take him on as his apprentice. However, this isn’t just a seinen or shounen man-fest.
One of the most interesting characters in the first volume is Konatsu, the adoptive daughter of Yakumo. Yakumo took her in after her biological parents died in a tragic accident because her father was Yakumo’s rakugo partner. While there’s a revenge subplot I could take or leave, I love that she and Yotaro bond over their love of the art form. One issue I do have, which I hope is part of its historical setting, is that we are told repeatedly that women cannot performing rakugo. There are phrases like “if only you’d been born a man” that are uncomfortable and I hope that the series gets passed this issue.
What I loved about this first volume is the reaffirmation of the importance of storytelling, and comedy, as art forms and as parts of life. As someone who recently got into storytelling, personal not traditional, I enjoyed all of the characters’ dedication to preserving the art form and I’m grateful to now know what rakugo is.
While I don’t generally read non-webcomics digitally, this was a great chance to read titles I wouldn’t typically pick up. While I’m not sure if I’ll finish all of these series, I loved that reading these reminded me of the infinite stories sequential art can tell. Whether it’s lost memories, lost love, or lost hope there’s a comic out there for you. And it doesn’t hurt when those stories are available for 99 cents.