Manga Snapshot: Monthly Comic Ikki

With the news that the manga magazine Monthly Ikki is shutting down after over a decade, I reprint my Manga Snapshot column on it from 2010. I’m afraid I don’t have the original images so I have had to scrape up what I can from the interwebs.

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ikki coverIt’s another brick-sized manga magazine, but you’ll have trouble finding Ikki in a Japanese 7-11.  It’s calculatedly, studiously different from the manga norm, which is just how Ikki magazine likes it.

The Japanese Magazine Publishers Association only provides one set of data for the relatively niche Ikki, and that’s the news that it prints a monthly distribution of just 13,750 copies. In Japanese terms, that’s miniscule – in fact, it’s the smallest statistic for men’s manga in the JMPA listings. That doesn’t mean it’s the least popular magazine we have ever covered in Manga Snapshot, as undoubtedly some of the boys-love and other niche titles we’ve examined have similarly low figures that aren’t audited, but even so, whatever Ikki does, it does it for a tiny proportion of the manga-reading crowd.

Big Comic Spirits, the parent magazine that spawned it as a one-off special in 2000, and then as a regular venture since 2003, is largely (54.1%) read by 300,000 people in their twenties, with an impressive remainder (30%) in their thirties. But Big Comic Spirits has such a broad readership, including readers as young as 17 and as old as 50, that’s it hard to see at a glance which sector of that market Ikki might be hoping to tap. BCS even boasts of 30% female readers, many of whom are the wives of the main target audience, which perhaps explains why this spin-off takes comics rather more seriously than some other “men’s” titles, refusing to run the “gravure” images of semi-naked ladies to be found in rival titles like Young Champion Retsu. Instead, the title positions itself as something of a find for early adopters, with a strapline that proclaims: “This is still the dawn of comics.” The implication is that the century-old medium is still only finding its feet, and that Ikki might be the Garo or Comic Afternoon of its age, where all the innovative experiments and hot new artists can be found. Them’s fighting words for what at first appears to be Just Another Brick-Sized Manga Mag, but notably it was the editor of Ikki who was at the forefront of a recent lobbying of the Japanese government, defending the right of artists to freedom of expression in increasingly censorious times.

Adverts in Ikki are thin on the ground. There’s one for a teen movie and another for a sportswear manufacturer, so right-on that it merely gives us the logo and a footballer wearing some gear, but doesn’t bother to push the gear itself. And branding is part of the deal – Ikki sets itself up as a lifestyle, with official “Ikki shops” dotted around Japan (and one in Seoul) that appear to be the only place you can actually be sure to buy Ikki. And from the looks of them, they are bookstores and video shops; you’ll have trouble stumbling across Ikki unless you are already a habitual reader or cineaste. But you are also likely to buy Ikki if you are a budding manga artist – every now and then the magazine runs its Ikkiman competition, with the prize being a paid commission and the chance to pitch an ongoing series.

shangahi charlieShanghai Charlie by “Bibuo” has an opening chapter that introduces us to Charlie, a young boy, and “Shanghai”, his significantly older brother, who appears to be his legal guardian. Drab, everyday events like a trip to the supermarket are juxtaposed with Charlie’s dream existence, in which he plays with knights and dragons, and complains about his brother’s stingy decisions not to buy him extra sweets at the checkout. Shanghai Charlie is in love with childhood, told very much from Charlie’s point of view, but for the entertainment and education of readers much closer in age to the elder brother, and likely to have Charlies of their own. Charlie has tantrums and makes unfair accusations about his elders, but this is all part of the child’s worldview, and Shanghai Charlie exhorts its reader to remember that the irritating parasite who won’t eat his greens is also a dreamer and an explorer of the mind, who lives a different dream adventure every night, and ultimately only wants to feel safe and loved.

The winner of the most recent Ikkiman competition is the pseudonymous Ayumimi Yakahi whose manga Hamawou gets a chunky blue-tinted section in this issue. Yakahi herself sets her sights humbly low with her debut, noting: “I’ll be happy if you just read it to the end.” Her story is a sad elegy to modern city life, a perfectly normal tale in which all the parts are played by frogs and toads. Hamawou is in love with Renka, a bar-girl (well, barfrog) who stays out late drinking with fat company presidents, and tumbles home squiffy and giggling in the small hours, only to sleep it off during the day and head out again the next night. Hamawou, meanwhile, is reduced to driver, laundryman and occasional night-nurse, and slumps through the story with froggy eyes brimming with tears.

noramimiai5Such juxtapositions of the absurd and the mundane are a staple of avant-garde manga, and it should come as no surprise that more established creators have tried similar tactics. Noramimi by Kazuo Hara is, at one level, a kitchen sink drama about the people who run a merchandising goods franchise called Hello Kids. Think Hello Kitty, but with teddy bears and demons and God knows what else, and they all come to life and answer back, at least in the mind of the titular Noramimi. But this is all a lot more interesting than it sounds: infantilism, in Japanese studies, is often thrown around like a dirty word. Whenever I encounter it, it is usually with a resigned sigh as another a bunch of Japanese creatives act like children again. But here, in story after story in Ikki magazine, infantilism is instead a serious window into the minds of children.

clashA candidate for the best Japanese pun ever, Jingo Kobayashi’s Jumpin’ Gap Clash is the self-narrated misadventures of Taika Wakatsuki, an otaku and sometime sci-fi fan who is secretly excited by scenes of violence. That, at least, is what the “story so far” claims; in this chapter, Taika simply goes shopping. Notably, Taika has a little sister, Laika – once again, we see the adult world filtered through that of an infant dependent, as if the presence of a child were an entirely everyday occurrence in the lives of the readership.

Similar child-centred but adult-aimed stories can be found in Tales of the Unwanted by Tsunpei Sanyu, whose heavily pencil-shaded imagery concentrates on a different kind of lone wolf and cub – an outcast boy in the forest who befriends a wandering wild dog, and then runs into a peasant girl who has fled an unwelcome betrothal. The emphasis here is on making new networks even in rejecting the mainstream – strange attractors, if you will.

Meanwhile, in Buranko by the Thai artist Wissut Ponnimit, the story of a family stuck in the middle of first contact with alien invaders is told in a resolutely cartoony form like the most childish of Tezuka artwork. A very similar art style can be found in Wild Mountain by Hideyasu Moto, in which a meteorite crashes in Tokyo’s Nakano ward, creating an impromptu new district, packed with aliens and their own mayor, a beleaguered official called Sugahiko Suga.

Other tales in Ikki are relentlessly skewed older. Jiro Matsumoto’s Freezer posits a near-future society in which the government legalises revenge killings. As long as you have a legally sanctioned vendetta against a criminal, you can not only have them killed, but hire a licensed assassin (or “freezer”) to do it for you. What could possibly go wrong…? Well, everything, as it turns out, in a tale that marries Battle Royale to a police procedural, with a set of cold-hearted hunting rules that see convicts turned loose in public and made to run from assassins hired by aggrieved victims, whether or not the convict is truly guilty. As you might expect, this has already been turned into a movie, directed by Kazuyoshi Kumakiri in 2006.

i114017Sakaki Kuroda’s Sobbat posits a former all-girls school that gets a sudden influx of boys in the upper years. And the boys, typically for the manga world, are less interested in their giggling sailor-suited classmates than they are in each other. Sobbat offers a defamiliarised perspective on high school romance and teenage angst, affording a girl-friendly glance at male obsessions, on the understanding that the men in question could not possibly be a threat to the female reader.

Nanki Sato and Akira Kizuki’s manga “Sex nanka Kyomi nai”, loosely translatable as No Sex, Please, is a genuinely charming journey through the mind of an aging man, as he re-evaluates his life and his youthful erotic obsessions. Neither prurient nor puerile, it uses a chance hearing of a much-loved song by a forgotten band to contrast our protagonist’s first sexual encounter with Michi, the teenage girl who would eventually become his wife, with the woman that she has become. Boobs are the issue of the day, as he recalls his relatively flat-chested college lover, and the more well-endowed wife who sleeps now by his side. No angst, merely a bemused meditation that men always want what they can’t have, and that his current sleeping partner is a very different woman to the one he married. And the realisation that that’s kind of cool. As with the child-centred stories above, it’s perfectly aimed at a thirtysomething audience, with some intriguing bedroom philosophy, and, well, let’s face it, two sex scenes.

The heroine of Silly Kodama by Kario Suzukin is a 17-year-old klutz whose main loves are bike-riding and baseball, who has accidentally swallowed a ball-like spirit creature – the titular kodama (“bullet”) – which causes her to act strangely, and interact with mythological creatures. The series allegorises many teenage growing pains, playfully suggesting that they are the work of malevolent or uncaring creatures from Japanese folktales, and inevitably leaving the exasperated protagonist to clear up the mess and misunderstandings.

51WQYbgnOCL._AA160_Baseball, that baffling Japanese obsession, is soon back on the cards again, quite literally in the case of Bob (“with his funky company”) by Pancho Kondo. The story, crammed tightly into only a few pages, is about the eponymous Bob Hoffman and his fellow teammates on the Bullries Bulldogs baseball team, although this issue is taken up with Bob, Jo the second baseman and Kanegong the star player bickering over product placement and character merchandise. In a little bit of manga artist fun, creator Kondo decides to translate his character bios into English to decorate the margins in this issue. “I think,” he writes snickeringly “I can be irresponsible just like Jo, ’cause nobody reads this translated text anyway.” Well, except for the thousands of people who bought this issue of NEO. Your secret’s safe, Pancho!

Wombs by Yumiko Shirai is much more original, a subtle science fiction epic set on the colony world of Hekio, where a war has broken out between the first wave of human arrivals and later, less welcome interlopers. Citizens are co-opted into the military to fight in a war they really don’t want, with women drafted to bear children for the war effort. The result is an intriguing combination of Armitage III and TheHandmaid’s Tale, viewing anecdotes of pregnancy through the intriguing prism of a far-future tale of space colonisation.

Ikki certainly does its best to poke and prod, push and stretch the manga medium in new directions in the 21st century. Half a century after the avant garde first began turning comics on their head, Ikki is still at it, searching all the time (and occasionally a little too hard) for something completely different. Ultimately, Ikki isn’t quite as groundbreaking and innovative as it would like to be, but at least it’s trying – far better to set high standards for oneself than to languish in the stinky swamp of low expectations.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #76, 2010. The Manga Snapshot column has been reviewing a different manga magazine every month since 2005.

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WAai! Boys in Skirts

This blog only republishes a mere 10% of the wordcount I write for Neo magazine every month, but with the news just out that WAai! Boys in Skirts magazine has suspended publication, I’ll take the opportunity to upload my Manga Snapshot article about it from issue 92, back in 2012. As you can see, I was deeply suspicious of its motives, but also wary of the etiquette of even voicing that suspicion.

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waai 6Issue #6

Debut Year: 2010

Page Count: 270

Publisher: Ichijinsha

Price: 950 yen (£7.96)

I Want to See Your Smiling Face, by Kamiyoshi, seemingly lifts its opening gambit from the Train Man series. A boy finds himself falling in love with the girl who often sits opposite him on the train to school. One day, he finally plucks up the courage to talk to her and ask her out, only for the “girl” to reveal that she is really a he. A standard school romance then unfolds, with a shared gender being the only discernable difference between this story and any other tale of snogging behind the bikesheds.

Just when you thought that the manga world couldn’t surprise you any more, there’s always some new odd niche that springs into life. And this month’s topic is the oddest yet. WAai! Boys in Skirts is exactly what it says on the cover: a manga magazine for and about transvestites!

I’m sure you’ll agree, this is something of a subgenre of a subgenre. But ever since spinning off from the boys’ magazine Comic REX in April 2010, WAai has still had enough faith in the size of its readership to punt out 270 pages of glossy, high-quality printing four times a year – that’s once per season, in order to ensure varying uses of colours and imagery. The cover to this issue by Akira Kasakabe has two attractive ladies in a state of summery deshabillé, sorting out their lippy and watching the midsummer fireworks. Oh, except they are not ladies. They are both blokes, it says here.

If at first you can’t believe your eyes, the strapline at the top makes it as clear as possible: “Inside this publication are cute kids, but they are not girls. This is a new magazine for otoko no ko of the new generation.” The Japanese otoko no ko literally means Man-Girl or Mannish Girl, but is it intended here to mean “ladyboy”? We are back in the fascinating world of the implied reader – is this a magazine for boys who like dressing up as girls, or is it a magazine for girls who like to look at boys dressed up as girls?

waai 2The advice page doesn’t help. Mitsuba, the pseudonymous author of Wanna Be a Pretty Girl, offers tips on make-up and hair stylings. Even if Mitsuba is actually a man, as her biography implies, there is nothing unusual in Japan about men hectoring women on their looks. Indeed, in the kabuki days, the onnagata female impersonators were widely regarded as the arbiters of taste for how women should behave. The title of Mitsuba’s column uses the verb naritai (“want to become”), but the nature of the “becoming” is nicely vague. Is this a column for plain janes who want some top tips, or is it actually a crash course in femininity for boys who want to look like girls?

In Reversible School Life, by Suemi Tsujikka, an all-boys’ school makes the odd decision to force half of its attendees to dress up as girls on any given day. Transfer student Shu is thrown in at the deep end, since he has no clue how to coordinate his clothes. He is aided and abetted by the more experienced Tsubaki, in a school story that dispenses with the usual “hidden boy” trope in favour of an environment in which cross-dressing is openly encouraged, in fact mandated, as part of school life. As with I Want to See Your Smiling Face, there is a sense that the protagonist is entirely clueless and lacking in experience. The usual mystery of unattainable girls is replaced here with boy-on-boy crushes, but also with initiation into the rules and regulations of living life as a woman. For the generation raised on the arcane taxonomy of Pokémon and the shifting fads of cosplay, perhaps cross-dressing really is the final frontier. It’ll probably keep some people busy for years. Just remember, boys, stripes aren’t slimming.

WAai’s niche is still small – it is half the size and double the price of mainstream magazines, and is not included in the online sales figures of the Japanese Magazine Publishers Association. But this is how all new niches start; the publisher Ichijinsha would be mad to print a million copies and hope that the readership to match it magically arrived out of nowhere.

The Japanese mainstream has treated the otoko no ko “phenomenon” with a degree of suspicion – perhaps wisely, considering the penchant of the media for making up new fads on the spot and hoping the herd will follow. In 2010, the Engan bus company offered spoof free tickets to transvestites as an April Fool’s joke. Later in the year, the same company offered a free ticket promotion for real, but only to female passengers who would dress up as sexy “moe” girls. The transvestites should sue!

The use of the term otoko no ko has been gaining ground in Japanese for the last ten years. But it’s only in the last two years that it has suddenly blossomed into a definable subculture, with its own publications, slang, traditions and inevitable media attention. WAai isn’t even the only magazine for otoko no ko. Already in the last year, the Japanese market has seen the arrival of Change H, Oto(star)ko and Otoko no Ko Club magazines. Meanwhile, Enterbrain has test-marketed the manga anthology Super Otoko no Ko Time, and Square Enix has tried Joso Shonen Anthology (Boys in Girls’ Clothing). Newtype, the trend-setting anime magazine, has already tested an experimental title for the otoko no ko market, with the release in August 2011 of a live-action photography special featuring boys dressed as girls. It sold out on the day of release – but was that a sign of an untapped market, or simply of deliberate under-printing to manufacture headlines?

Its aficionados are keen to point out that these characters are not transsexuals – they are transvestites, dolled up in women’s clothes as an attempt to show a sensitive side. They are, we are assured, boys who like the idea of softness and silkiness, experiments with lipstick and girlish pursuits – an assertion which places them firmly on a timeline that reaches back for several generations, to the manga revolutions of the 1960s that valorised flower-sniffing sensitive types in reaction to the ludicrously macho heroes of the day. Japanese Wikipedia even has its own page on the phenomenon, which goes to great pains to point out that otoko no ko have absolutely nothing to do with sexuality. Just because a boy wears women’s clothes, he is not homosexual, nor does he “want” to be a woman. The artwork in WAai makes that abundantly clear, with images of characters in bikinis and lingerie, pouting for the camera but displaying telltale flat chests and posing pouches that leave nothing to the imagination.

waai 4Meanwhile, many of the stories simply refashion old manga saws with all-male casts, such as Secret Devil-chan by Rumu. This is yet another magical-“girlfriend” tale, in which a hapless Japanese boy called So lands himself with a mini-skirted bedmate who turns out to be a cross-dressing devil-boy called Demon Kogure. School high jinks, knicker flashing and snogs soon ensue, while So’s girl-next-door (an actual girl) fumes at the arrival of her supernatural competition. To coin a phrase, it’s Urusei Yatsura with nobs on. Also, there are nuns in it.

In Past Future by Tsukasa Takatsuki, a girl called Mirai becomes increasingly irritated with her brother Kago’s habit of “borrowing” her clothes. She drags in her friend Ran in an attempt to wean Kago off, but instead inadvertently encourages him. Instead of chasing after Ran and trying to get into her knickers in an altogether different way, Kago instead starts asking her for fashion tips. Meanwhile, people keep shouting Mirai’s name all the time – it literally means “future”, and hence imparts a sci-fi resonance to everything that’s going on, even though it is resolutely set in the present-day era of iPhones and Nintendo DS. That’s as close as the mag gets to SF, although there is more scope for fantasy in the ghost-busting, tentacle-heavy tale Yorishiro, written and drawn by Muranako. Presumably, some of the “girls” in it are boys.

However, there is a flipside. Is this really a magazine for transvestites? The editorial content delivers one message, but the advertising tells a different story. If we want to be cynical for a moment, let’s not immediately assume that otoko no ko materials reflect a grass-roots demand that Japanese conglomerates are sweetly serving. Let’s instead assume that a bunch of large cosmetics companies have realised that heterosexual men represent a bogglingly large untapped market for sales of make-up. Has some bright spark at Shiseido or Nivea suggested that the marketing team take a step beyond “metrosexual” and try to flog lip-gloss and crimpers directly to absolutely everybody? WAai’s concept of femininity does appear oddly and over-enthusiastically consumerist. In other words, its attitude is that women are “made” by buying stuff. Shopping maketh the woman, in WAai’s eyes – it’s a beautician’s idea of beauty, and seems largely materialist and product-orientated.

This is a no-win situation for critics. If we question the motives of the publishers, we are attacking transvestites’ right to be different. But if we report on a “phenomenon” that isn’t really a phenomenon at all, but a cynical appropriation of a subculture as an excuse to bootstrap a new fashion fad, then we are mere stooges of the marketing machine. Meanwhile, it is arguably the height of cynicism to latch onto someone’s heartfelt beliefs and lifestyle, merely because you want to shift a job-lot of depilatory cream. If it’s “in” to be a transvestite this season, that’s all very well, but that’s like saying its fashionable to be Asian, or short-sighted, or tall. What happens next year?

waai 3Mitsuba’s make-up tips aside, why haven’t the WAai ad sales team placed oodles of adverts for face creams and blushers, make-up brushes and powdery things? WAai is a magazine with definite, blunt views on femininity, even though the advertisers aren’t playing along. Where are the adverts for clothes? Surely, the interests and concerns of the average transvestite (whatever that might mean) present myriads of possible attractions to several subcultures, but there is no evidence at all that anyone has taken the bait. Instead, the adverts in WAai are exactly the same sort of material you might expect to find in a teenage boys’ magazine – online gaming, and the Tora no Ana dojinshi shop.

Meanwhile, there is a heavy and frankly boyish concentration on new anime series, with larger-than-normal features dedicated to modern serials such as Astarotte and Baka & Test: Summon the Beasts. Games reviews also take up a substantial proportion of the front matter, including self-explanatory titles such as The Boy Loves Dressing Up as a Maid and Bokukano: Ladyboy Sex Chat.

Regular readers of this magazine may have noted on several occasions that the Japanese comics market is embroiled in a massive argument about the depiction of minors. Its most recent incarnation was in September 2011, when two members of the Japanese parliament presented a petition calling for anime, manga and games to adhere to the same sort of censorship rules as other publications. In other words, there is still a massive fight about the depiction of little girls in print, and it is your correspondent’s suspicion that a large part, if not all of the otoko no ko phenomenon is not about reader demand at all, but merely a new way of circumventing the censor. Just as white panties and blank crotches, tentacles and robots formed new and odd tropes in anime and manga, could it be that bluntly stating that these “girls” are really boys is a sneaky way for certain publishers to hang onto images of flat-chested dollymops, without incurring the wrath of future censors? If so, it’s a very sneaky trick, but let’s not assume it’s a sign of sea-change in attitudes towards cross-dressing… Unless it is.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade and Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO 92, 2012. The Manga Snapshot column has been reviewing a different manga magazine every month since 2005.

Assassin’s Creed: The Manga

assassins creedMy article about the Assassin’s Creed manga, seemingly disowned by the original author, but smuggling in a distinctly Japanese bit of Mary Sue fan fiction, is up on the Manga UK blog.

I don’t write about Japanese comics very much online, as much of my monthly efforts go into the ongoing Manga Snapshot column in Neo magazine. This would have appeared there, too, were it not for some logistic issues that prioritised other titles ahead of it.

Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys…

fujoshi-stereotypeThere is a great deal of cogent sense and thoughtful sensibilities to be found over at Kathryn Hemmann’s long piece about “Boys’ Love” manga, singling out something I wrote last August for NEO 107 for “articulating a common sentiment extraordinarily well,” although she doesn’t necessarily mean that in a good way. WARNING: the words “Not Safe For Work” do not come close to describing some of the pictures accompanying the article, so do not click unless you are ready for an eyeful. Or possibly a fistful.

The Manga Snapshot column is just about to reach its 100th chapter, marking more than seven years rifling through the magazine shelves of the Japanese comics business, picking out a different magazine anthology every month. Over the years, I have covered manga for boys, manga for girls, manga for girls who like boys who like boys, manga for old men, manga for old men who wish they were boys again, manga for boys who like boys dressed as girls, manga for boys who like girls, manga for boys who think they probably would like girls but haven’t actually talked to one and hence regard them with all the realism of glow-in-the-dark unicorns, manga for women who are ridiculously obsessed with their cats, manga for housewives who love their husbands, manga for housewives who love other people’s husbands, and coming up in NEO 113 (which I just finished writing last week), manga for women who are quite miserable, but love hearing about women who are even more miserable.

I always try to follow a formalist perspective, teasing out suggestions of the implied readerships, not only from the manga themselves, but also from the peripheral content — the editorial asides, the letters pages, the horoscopes, and the adverts. Where available, I also use reader statistics from the Japanese Magazine Publishers Association, which often supplies illuminating data about who actually reads a title — as noted in my essay, “Living Happily Never After in Women’s Manga” (find it here), such details can often be intriguingly counter-intuitive. Sadly, in the relatively small niche of “Boys’ Love” publishing, such statistics are less freely available — I would suggest, at least in part, this is in order to allow the magazines to hide financially counter-productive data regarding the size or composition of their readerships. This, in turn, allows certain sectors of the readership to perpetuate “the stories they tell themselves about themselves,” for good or ill.

Every time the Amazon Japan order thunks onto the doormat, I think that’s it, there can’t possibly be any more titles left to cover. But there’s always another few lurking in the shadows. I have yet to get to the in-law appeasement sub-genre, and I’m still poking around in search of a legendary title for military housewives. Only a tiny handful of early Manga Snapshots were reprinted in Schoolgirl Milky Crisis, so the other 150,000 words or so can only be accessed by buying Neo magazine. There’s very rarely any evidence, at least in the postbag, that anybody reads the Manga Snapshot at all, which is why it was so pleasing to read such a considered and assiduous appraisal.

Manga Snapshots

For several years, I have been writing a column in Neo magazine called Manga Snapshot. Every month I take a different Japanese comics anthology magazine and literally take it apart, examining everything from the paper quality to the adverts. There are so many comics magazines in Japan that despite running now for four years, Manga Snapshot has yet to repeat a title. I’ve covered all the usual magazines for boys and girls and housewives, and the usual niches like romance and war comics, but also weirder areas. Detective stories for lonely Goths, educational golfing magazine containing nothing but manga about golf, a magazine entirely devoted to mahjong… several of these were reprinted in the Schoolgirl Milky Crisis book, and in the event that there is a Schoolgirl Milky Crisis 2, there will be many more of them.
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