Sunday, November 14, 2010

License Request (sort of) Day: Medaka Box

By NisiOisiN and Akira Akatsuki. Released in Japan by Shueisha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Weekly Shonen Jump.

Most manga in Japan run in magazines, be they weekly, monthly, or what have you. Likewise, it's a fact of publishing: the popular series keep going, the unpopular series last only a few volumes. This is especially true of shonen manga, and it is ESPECIALLY true of Weekly Shonen Jump, who have let its readership know that a large part of the magazine is based around its reader poll. Popular series at the front, less popular series in the back. The only exceptions are KochiKame, which is uncancellable, and the recently ended Jaguar, which requested the final spot every week.

So the competition is fierce, and many have noted the sheer number of 2-3 volume series in Jump lately that have fallen at the graveyard of popularity. And it has to be said, Jump has a certain mystique. You're seeing more and more fighting manga in its pages, and fewer and fewer romantic or school-based comedies. And the fighting manga are very muich of the Dragon Ball Z type. Defeat enemy, befriend them, then take on even STRONGER enemy. This was mocked as far back as Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga, which also noted the danger of quickly getting things to unrealistic if you keep doing that.

So, on to my main theme. In May 2009, a new manga debuted in Jump called Medaka Box. The basic premise was that a buxom young girl became Student Council President, and with the help of her reluctant and vaguely grumpy childhood friend, resolves to solve any problem that is given to them. It had a lot of things going against it. The Strawberry 100%-type ecchi fanservice mangas had fallen out of favor with readers lately (especially as Jump got more female readers), the basic premise of 'we'll help others around the school' seemed similar to Sket Dance, another Jump manga, and most importantly, Medaka was far too perfect. Reading the first few chapters, this was clear as a bell. She was a Mary Sue, perfect in every way - the characters in the manga even noted it themselves.

And so, after Jump's brief new series grace period, it sank like a stone to the dreaded 'Bottom Five', the final 5 series of every week - cancellation fodder. Many predicted it would wrap up in 2 volumes, maybe 3. However, those who pay attention to the actual credits of the manga were thinking one thing, and one thing only - when is NisiOisiN going to take things to the next level? Because with him writing this, this CAN'T be all there is.

NisiOisiN is a pen name for one of the more famous young Japanese novel writers at the moment, creator of several series such as Bakemonogatori (which spawned an anime) and Zaregoto (which Del Rey released two volumes of). He is very famous for, pardon the expression, screwing with his reader's heads, as well as his character and plot twists, where you feel the immediate urge to go back and re-read everything with your newly gained perspective. So, the reader asked, why is he writing pointless fanservice comedy?

We're then introduced to a 10-year-old boy who is the school disciplinary officer, who decided to take on the Student Council. This proceeds to become a big fight, which gets vaguely ludicrous towards the end. Then the kid reveals that he's merely one of thirteen other 'abnormals' who are being used as lab rats in the school to try to create the perfect human. And they want Medaka to join them, as she is, well, a Mary Sue. She refuses, and proceeds to invade the secret underground base under the school to stop them.

This is only the beginning of the powerups, and the even more powerful characters, and the fights, and the murderers, and the psychos - LOTS of psychos. Finally, after thirty or so chapters and lots of broken ribs later, our heroes have defeated and befriended everyone. And so... we get introduced to Medaka's old enemy, and his *new* collection of 13 *more* students, who are even more insane, and even more powerful, and by now we've gone outside the realms of reality.

If you think this sounds like a bunch of desperate attempts to bump up the popularity so that the series avoids cancellation, you're likely right. However, the fact that it's NisiOisiN writing this makes me suspect that this was partially planned from the start, perhaps even down to the first few chapters being so aggressively mediocre. Moreover, for a trainwreck, it's immensely entertaining. The heroine gets even more epic, even as she runs up against her natural born enemies. The hero keeps getting called 'normal' by everyone, which is laughable (he's insanely strong), but also accurate (he doesn't have bizarre powers or abilities).

There's also Shiranui, who may be my favorite character. We've all seen girls like her in manga these days. She's supposed to be 16, but looks about 6. She has pink hair and a big ahoge. She's perky, ALWAYS eating, and incredibly irritating. She cheerfully announces that she enjoys messing with the hero, her best friend, just to see how interesting it will be. In short, she's not only the 'comic relief' loli, but also really annoying. And then the manga becomes a fighting manga, and we expect her to quietly go away, the way most comic relief characters do when things get serious. Instead, she proceeds to quietly set our heroes up. Then set the villains up. Then send in a whole bunch of new people to help out. And then finally is currently siding with the REALLY evil villains. In short, it wouldn't surprise me if the annoying token loli is the final Big Bad. That's pretty awesome.

There's many ways this is a Jump manga besides the fighting and insane power levels. Power of Friendship is all over this, though it's parodies and mocked as much as it is used. It's shown over and over how training and hard work are ultimately a goal in themselves. And in the end, it's all about choices. My favorite scene in the manga has Zenkichi, the hero, confronting Shiranui, the aforementioned evil annoying fake loli. He asks her whether the series' current Big Bad is forcing her to join their group. She grins, and notes that she joined them entirely of her own volition. And then... he smiles, and says that's OK. He's still annoyed about it, but knows she's just like this, and as long as it's her decision, not only is he OK with it, but they're still friends, even if they're enemies. This gets her (once he's gone) to give perhaps the first genuine smile we've seen from her the entire manga.

Even if you're siding with horrible monsters, it's OK as long as it's your own goal, and you see it through. Wow, that's shonen. And Jump.

I can't really call this a license request, as I can easily see why it has several pitfalls. There's much gratuitous fanservice, especially at the start, which extends to the covers at times (Medaka is well-endowed, and shows it off constantly). It's still running in Jump (in fact, lately it's even headed for the front of the magazine) and lately, Viz has been wary of licensing long-running series unless they're REALLY popular (Toriko, Bakuman) in case they become things like 60+ volume One Piece. But mostly, the start isn't good, and the middle and current arc are half entertaining manga and half glorious trainwreck. As Kenshin fans know, it's very hard to get fans to commit when you say "It gets better after this starting bit." Medaka Box has the added problem of its start not being very much like its current state.

Despite that, I still want Viz to get this. If only as we recently saw two boys fighting over a pit of vipers. Not what I expected from a fanservicey school comedy.

1 comment:

  1. Meh. I *liked* the first half-dozen chapters of Medaka Box, before it became yet another sadistic off-kilter fighting-manga retread.

    "Can you top this" is a stupid question to build a narrative on. Once they get into the "Game of Death" ripoff, there's no breathing space, it's just chapter after chapter of shouting and quirky weirdos trying to violently out-weird each other.

    I've already got one Bleach in my order list, I don't need another. Heck, I barely need Bleach as it is.

    As for fanservice fighting manga, I'd trade a dozen Medaka Boxes for the digital continuation of Kurohime.

    ReplyDelete