Thursday, May 26, 2016

FREE SOUL by Ebine Yamaji

My third Shoujo-Ai (Girl-Love) manga of choice is written by Ebine Yamaji, a mangaka famous for her works with lesbian themes. One of them, Love My Life, was even made into a live-action film in 2006. So far, I've read Blue and Double House, and both were surprisingly insightful and mediative with little to almost nothing explicit in content. I suppose that I've picked shoujo-ai titles over yuri which isn't intentional at all. I still have at least six other titles and I know some of them do have lesbian fanservice. That being said, I'm pretty happy that the three lesbian-themed mangas I've read so far focused more on the serious issues of sexual identity and relationships for gay women. Yamaji's Free Soul is definitely the most heartfelt and invigorating manga about lesbian identity I've read as of yet. I no doubt plan on reading and reviewing her two other mentioned works. Going by the content of Free Soul alone, I'm more than happy to tackle on her other fiction then.

The manga is comprised of eleven chapters plus a bonus chapter and is collected into a single volume. The entire manga is two-hundred and ten pages short, so one can just spend an hour or two reading this. Trust me, it's more than worth the trouble. Free Soul tells the story of Keito, a Japanese woman in her mid-twenties who is a mangaka. She just moved out of her mother's house after her mother couldn't accept that she's gay in a fundamental level because she just couldn't picture two women being romantically together, therefore diminishing her daughter's individuality as a person. Meanwhile, her father--who has been out of the picture since her parents' divorce when she was a kid--blamed himself outwardly for his daughter being gay, thinking it was his abandonment of the family that caused her 'distrust in men'. 

Both were ridiculous notions yet understandable. Keito never resented them for thinking in such narrow terms because she knew that ultimately they could never understand her struggle because it is entirely her own. Still, the basic parental rejection from both of them does wound Keito's sense of self, but throughout the manga she will learn to overcome this and embrace that she is a lesbian, and it's neither someone's fault or a crime to be ashamed of.

Out of pure luck and opportunity, Keito moves in with a veteran elderly artist (who became quite taken with her), and her assistant who is also her part-time model, a man named Sumihiko. The three of them fell into an easy, domestic dynamic as Keito continues with her part-time job at a music store, all the while planning and drawing her hopefully next published work. This published work has a protagonist named Angie, an African-American jazz singer who was also a lesbian. Each chapter of Free Soul opens with Keito contemplating on how to develop Angie's characterization, to turn her into a nuanced portrait of lesbianism and courageous individualism. It's noteworthy that Angie's race (though not central in the flow of the story itself) still played a part in Keito's choice of heroine for her manga. Personally, I think it's Keito's subconscious associating strength to that of a black woman's, seeing that the African race has been been oppressed and persecuted for centuries. It was implicitly implied that Keito wanted Angie to carry the same baggage of her supposed racial suffering, with the added weight of being condemned by being a lesbian as well.

Angie seemed to be everything that Keito longs to be, and so she projects all the strength and insight that she never has in her real life to that of her fictional creation. While Angie was tough, brave and sensible, Keito herself was a timid woman who is slowly but surely coming to terms about her often unhealthy choices in partners, and her perception about her own gay sexuality. In writing Angie, Keito tries to rediscover pieces of her fractured soul so she can make herself whole again. But, of course, Keito only became aware of this once she met a woman who became not just her lover but fixation. Most of Keito's growth and self-worth were explored through how she dealt and coped with this intense love affair with a girl who hardly felt the same way about her. Angie anchored her through the stormy seas of that relationship, and I think Keito only made it through because Angie, in a way, is her alter ego just waiting to finally come forth and be her own person.

The jazz trumpet player named Niki played Keito's said love interest in this story. Over the course of the manga, I found her to be fickle, selfish and clearly damaged. She was also vibrant, exciting and--in the most shocking ways--tender and earnest. She represents that faction of people who may be a mess, but are also quite a fine mess who are beautiful and intriguing even as they spiral down to rock-bottom. Keito fell so hard for her in a way that's consuming and blind which only ties to Keito's low self-esteem and misdirected affections. Niki, on the other hand, never identified her sexuality as clear-cut, leading me to the conclusion that she must have been pansexual or simply hypersexual. She even had sexual relations with her estranged father months before she finally decided to come back to Keito and try to have a meaningful exclusive relationship together.

But I don't think Free Soul was supposed to be an affirmative love story about two unlikely people bound by kinship like Keito and Niki defeating the odds and becoming better people together as a couple. After reading the end of this manga, that didn't even occur to me at all. I honestly don't believe that their relationship will ever last or become fruitful along the way. In fact, I want to believe that Keito and Niki will just let their relationship sail until its inevitable end. Eventually, they will go their separate ways. But, for now, they are willing to try and make it work. What I believe is the core message of Free Soul is how to be in love with yourself; it reinforces the idea that a woman's identity and self-worth should be tied only to her own, of what she has to make out of it. Keito's obsession for Niki might be present, but it should not be something that will define who she is. 

Keito had a conversation with her fictional counterpart Angie in one page of the manga nearing the end, and it established the message that this entire story imparted. For Keito, it was never about finding someone to love and accept her--it's always been about her journey towards loving and accepting herself regardless if there is someone else who could do it for her. Niki became a necessary blind spot; a test for Keito to see if she respected herself to acknowledge that not even another woman should define who she is as an individual. Sure, she and Niki did get together but that wasn't supposed to be her happily-ever-after. Keito's greatest love story must be to herself first, and writing fiction and portraying that level of individualism through her character Angie is for me the victorious end of this manga.

I think Angie said it best concerning about never losing your sense of self in relationships on this panel (as written by Keito herself):

I promote what Angie said in that last panel. I'm the kind of person who had always been more comfortable putting myself above everyone else. It's a brand of individualism that people have condemned as selfish and self-serving. For a time I myself also gave in to that narrow-minded perception that to Love One's Self purely is vain and conceited--even unhealthy. BUT IT'S NOT. People are just so afraid of what happens when there is no one else around; what the solitude and lack of company could reveal to them. They would rather throw themselves recklessly into relationships, offering their hearts to other people who may or may not even understand what they're going through, or who they truly are inside. 

And then they would look at me and think I'm pitiful for always insisting I'm better off alone, equating that aloneness with loneliness and alienation. But just think about it for a moment: why can't everyone just be happy by themselves? Why believe someone else should be responsible or be the reason for your own happiness? Because humans are social creatures? Is that all we have to be in order to be happy? Relationships with other people validate us, but not to the point that we could lose our own sense of selves in them that we forget who we are and how valuable we are just by being our own person.

"It's when I'm lonely that my heart isn't bound by anything." 

I sincerely believe that. Don't underestimate the power and transcendence that solitude and self-love could do. When one is free from other people's emotional demands and stressful expectations, one can also take the time to be anything--create anything--explore anything--defy anything. Reading a work like Free Soul has reaffirmed that for me.


Wednesday, May 25, 2016

"How we move toward the margins of our own lives, inch by inch"

Let me start this review by saying that I've read and reviewed Gregory Maguire's most famous and critically-acclaimed work entitled Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, which was turned into a Broadway musical hit--and I didn't end up being as impressed about it as I hoped I would be. With that said, I already have extremely low expectations going into this book. It's also noteworthy to point out tha I've read some reviews about it in Goodreads, and they seemed to generally criticize the convoluted plot and subplots, as well as the lack of any clear pay-off in the end. Author Maguire himself has been known to write novels about well-known fictional characters created by other, much like with Wicked whose central figure if the supposed villain of the original Wizard of Oz books. Lost is the very first time, I believe, that he wrote about an original character. There is a lot about this novel that was entertaining. I honestly enjoyed it.

The question, however, is if it remained as engaging as it was in its first 200 pages or so, and the short answer is that IT DIDN'T. I think I'm going to have to agree on the majority of the review in GR then by saying so, but I would also still like to commend its merits for anyone who is interested in picking this up. Lost is a confounding piece of fiction, to start off. The narrative itself is a fractured examination of the lead character's psyche who is a novelist working on her own tale. Winifred Rudge is a storyteller, even when she's not sitting down with a pen and paper, or typing in a computer. She creates conversations in her head where fictional people would exchange dialogue as they pursue a plot that they want to unravel. The novel is filled with passages of Winifred writing this story of hers in her head, all the while having a crisis and struggle of her own outside of her imagination.

I find Winnie's 'drafts' of her novel inserted between the passages of the actual real-time story to be amusing. She was essentially writing a story about a woman named Wendy who is fixated on finding out who the real Jack the Ripper is. It's an investigative mystery novel then, which is more or less inspired by the weird series of events Winifred herself got caught up in. The premise of Lost is simple enough: an aspiring novelist writes a historical crime fiction while also undergoing a stressful amount of unusual incidents in her life outside her writing. Winifred struck me as the kind of woman so detached with her own person that she's been using her ability to tell stories to cope from daily grievances. Until she was confronted by seemingly supernatural forces that more or less haunt the apartment complex she shared with a distant cousin, Winnie was possibly more content with dwelling on her her inner life than forming any other kind of meaningful relationships outside her cousin John.

" ...because what really is the job of the dead? It's not to hang around, but to disappear--to clear the air for the living. Once the living had discharged their duties to their dead relatives and companions, they could go back to living a full life. The goal of a ghost is to dismiss it and leave the living to have a full life without guilt or undue grief. "

It's truly the Maguire's execution of the novel that set it apart from most linearly structured narratives. There is so much meta material in this novel that could baffle and excite readers from the get-go. I was really enthralled with Winnie's voice both as a character, and as a writer writing another fictional character's thoughts. Maguire applies enough humorous tones in a lot of the earlier scenes of this book that kept me chuckling. I was engrossed with the escalation of events which started off funny then creepy and then disarmingly disturbing. To describe Lost as a horror story with supernatural elements would not be sufficient since I don't think the novel's purpose was to incite fear and suspense. If it was, then Maguire certainly should have done better because any sense of danger and urgency was not sustained throughout the rest of the book. 

In fact, the plot started meandering. The things that amused me and got me curious about it suddenly became the very things that annoyed me by it. It almost felt as if the more I learned about the mysteries surrounding the place of haunting, the less I became determined to solve the riddles which cluttered the exposition. Winifred also started getting under my nerves. I found her clever and funny in a lot of ways at first, but after a while--when she still insisted on being so closed off and reticent even to readers--her actions and private thoughts stopped being an immediate concern of mine. I started to feel just as detached as she was about her own life. She just started making less sense as the book went on.

The concept that one of Winifred's ancestors was actually Charles Dickens' inspiration for the character of Scrooge from A Christmas Carol was intriguing. The idea that Winifred created an obvious self-insert in her character Wendy who is searching for Jack the Ripper is just as compelling. However, Maguire was simply unable to weave these two concepts together in a way that's cohesive and interesting. After two hundred pages or so, my attention for the story started to dwindle until I could barely keep up with whatever stunning revelations were unfolding--and I don't even think there were.

Lost was just one of those books that seem to be a worthwhile reading at first until it proved to be a disappointment. It's always sad when you find a book you could hardly put down when you began reading it a hundred pages in, and then as you progress your first impression about it changes for the worst, until you'd find yourself wanting to put it down instead. That's how I would summarize my experience for this book. I could still recommend it, but it's probably the least Gregory Maguire book that one could immerse oneself in.


Friday, May 13, 2016

"Blue Sky Complex" by Kei Ichikawa

Reading shounen-ai/yaoi manga is an acquired taste for a good reason. Its demographic is primarily female, and so you can't expect to read a realistic queer story from these titles because a lot of 'boy-love' manga don't exactly tackle real issues and struggles concerning romantic relationships between men. Most of them tend to be about cutesy, overblown and ridiculously steamy moments between 'pretty boys' where one boy gets to become unavoidably feminine, especially when he is the 'bottom' or 'uke' in the sexual dynamics of the coupling. It's entertaining and adorable as all fuck though, so I tend to ignore whatever real-life implications are being distorted here all for the sake of fanservice. I'd like to think that most female readers are self-aware enough to acknowledge that this isn't how gay relationships work. Authors write these formulaic scenarios because they are female-centered fantasies that cater to what women think happens when two men get it on; much like what men think happens when women get it on when they watch lesbian scenes in porn.

It's not to say all BL mangas are construed this way because there are a few and far between that can still appeal to its demographic while at the same time able to develop the queer relationship within the story in terms more attuned with what happens in real life.

Kei's Ichikawa Blue Sky Complex is definitely one of them.

There were no big moments of fireworks explosion in this boy-love manga. In fact, the plot and setting themselves are pretty ordinary; the kind of coming-of-age and coming-out story that had been a familiar concept in fiction. Hell, even the characters themselves can be easily dismissed as stereotypes of high school romance. We have the studious and bespectacled Narasaki who is trying to find some peace and quiet so he can just read books and do his assignments while at school. After a series of misunderstandings and awkward conversations with a teacher, he was tasked to stay after classes as a volunteer in the library. There he was accompanied by the school's delinquent and social recluse Terashima. It's as straightforward as they come, and one can pretty much predict what would happen next for these two opposites who seem to be a mismatch on the surface. They'll fall for one another and--since this is a BL manga--they'll unceremoniously fuck anally.

'Them gonna fuck, aight? I mean, 'the hell am I reading this for?' -the average fujoshi

So what makes Blue Sky Complex special and worth browsing through? It's the fact that it's more earnest than gimmicky when it came to how these two teenage boys developed an attraction towards each other. There is believable chemistry between the two as each chapter moves forward, making readers care enough about these characters despite the lack of immediate boy-on-boy sexy-times action. That's why we're reading this, ain't it so, ladies? We want to see these boys to get down to business. But this is not the central point of Blue Sky Complex. The relationship that occurs later on between Narasaki and Terashima happen not just because the author wants them to hook up, but rather because it felt organic and convincing. 

Truth be told, the first volume of this manga was supposed to end without any kind of sexual pay-off, focusing more on the two boys admitting to themselves and one another that they simply cannot be platonic. However, due to its slow burn and the palpable tension between the two that wasn't resolved physically at all, readers were really desperate for more so the author had to write a sequel to it which had a different tonality than the first but still just as riveting. But before we get to that, let me show you some sweet, sweet, sweet kisses shared by these dorks. It's the only physical interaction that readers get to witness, and they're so unbelievably charming that it's almost like the author is punishing readers because of how chaste everything continues to be for Narasaki and Terashima especially when neither of them would acknowledge the incidents. These moments are gratingly hot too!

There is also a real discussion regarding their sexual identification during the chapters. The delinquent Terashima admitted in a chapter which reveals his past that he does not find girls attractive at all, and was afraid to be judged for it so he hides in his closet, forcing himself to uphold his masculinity even through destructive ways. Narasaki, on the other hand, didn't think gender ever mattered when it came to sexual and romantic attraction, so he dealt with his feelings for Terashima without any kind of insecurity or prejudice He believed it's the person you fall for that is important, regardless whether he is of the same sex or of the opposite sex. You can really tell that the author has taken time to craft characters who didn't just exist in her story just so they can have lots of gay sex with each other. She didn't rush to get them to confess their feelings for one another just so readers can get to the steamy parts. Readers actually were happier that it remained chaste.

Still, the steamy parts do happen eventually, but not for the first volume. This is what the second volume tackles; the physical aspect of Narasaki and Terashima's relationship after they have been dating for three months. No spoilers, of course, because y'all gonna have to read it yourselves. What I will say about the sex scenes was how realistically they are because it wasn't just a simple matter of putting it in (like most BL mangas would portray anal sex between men); there is a lot of work and preparation that entails in this kind of lovemaking, and Ichikawa made the most of these scenes in the second volume by making the awkward foreplay itself incredulously titillating as well. Conflicts about inadequacy and jealousy were also tackled in that volume. With only eleven chapters so far, it has quite a strong readership so it's possible that Ichikawa might give us more and that is certainly something to look forward to! YOU CAN READ THE MANGA HERE!