Totto-Chan: The Little Girl at the Window

5.0 out of 5 stars Children at play during WWII

Totto-Chan: The Little Girl at the Window

Full confession: I bought “Totto-chan, the Little Girl at the Window” almost four years ago and it sat on my shelf ever since. It is one of those classics of Japanese literature that I thought I ought to have read–pretty much every Japanese person I know has read it and recommends it–but I wasn’t looking forward to the actual reading. It looked like one of those sugary sweet books that might make an impression on an 8-year old girl but not on a 40-year old guy.

After reading it, I am reminded once again that classics are classics for a reason. And just like “Anne of Green Gables” there are some books that resonate past age and gender.

From the first page I was hooked on the stories of Totto-chan and the unusual Tomoe school that she attends. Even more so when I read that this book is entirely non-fiction. Author Kuroyanagi Tetsuko (Totto-chan herself) assures us that each event is as true as she remembers it, even if her memory is the fuzzy memory of an adult looking back on her childhood.

The books is written without an ongoing plot, but consists of little snacks of story like “Winnie the Pooh” and “Anne of Green Gables.” Kuroyanagi presents those events that stick out in her memory, that made an impression on her or that she learned something from. The stories can be as irrelevant as her first time in a swimming pool, or when her dog accidently bit her while they were playing a game, to more poignant episodes like the funeral of a friend. Her alter-ego, the child Totto-chan, does progress through the years of the book, but there is very little linking of the story.

And just as wonderful as the little stories is the existence of Tomoe school itself. During the hardships and horrors of WWII, a time when Japan was at its very worst both ideologically and economically, this idealist Kobayashi Sosaku created a progressive school that encouraged children to think and feel, to love life and music and nature. To really appreciate how amazing that is you have to juxtapose it with the fact that in the rest of Japan children were being trained to be tiny drones, obeying ritual and form and submitting their own personalities to the will of the state. Truly, for the fifty students of Tomoe school, Kobayashi created an island of calm in the midst of a sea of madness.

Some of Kobayashi’s ideas would be too radical even today, like having all of the children swim naked together so that they wouldn’t be ashamed of their bodies and so that the physically handicapped children would grow up without complexes. Some of his ideas are pure simplicity, like his rule that every lunch consist of “something from the hills, something from the ocean.” Some of them I can see in progressive children’s education today, like schools that allow children to pick their own course of study and progress at their own rate, rather than trying to enforce a single curriculum on a diverse student body. Kobayashi’s ideas only work in a small school like Tomoe, with fifty students spread across first to sixth grade. But for those fifty lucky students it was life-changing.

Another piece I loved about “Totto-chan, The Little Girl at the Window” was the epilogue. Kuroyanagi catches up with some of her old friends–each of whom was a character in “Totto-chan”–to see how they are doing as adults. Predictably, they have lead different lives. One became a world-class physicist. One an expert on orchids. But most were just housewives and office workers like the rest of us. But they all looked back fondly on their days at Tomoe school, as would I if I had been lucky enough to attend.

Book Girl and the Famished Spirit

4.0 out of 5 stars Better than expected

Book Girl and the Famished Spirit

I had never heard of Mizuki Nomura or the “Book Girl” series before picking this up, and to be honest my expectations were low. I don’t have a lot of experience with the Japanese light novel genre, but what I have read so far has been dreadful. But I like Japanese ghosts, and I like yokai, and I like books, so “Book Girl and the Famished Spirit” seemed like something I might enjoy.

This is the second in the Mizuki’s “Book Girl” series, and there are eight in total along with some random short stories and sundry. From what I have read, Mizuki picks a work of classic literature to structure the story of the “Book Girl” light novels around. For “Famished Spirit” that book is Emily Bronte’s moody classic Wuthering Heights. There is also quite a bit of George MacDonald’s The Day Boy and the Night Girl woven in as well. If you haven’t read those books, you are at a distinct disadvantage story-wise, but you can still muddle through.

The story is part Scooby-Doo mystery, part literary exploration, and part teenage love drama. The titular Book Girl is Tohko Amano, a type of yokai (translated in this book as “goblin.” Points off right there for lazy and inaccurate translations) who doesn’t eat food but subsists exclusively on eating books. Real books, paper and all. Tohko is friends with the student Konoha Inoue, and they make up the only two members of the schools Book Club. Mystery falls in their lap one day when strange, coded messages start showing up in their book club mailbox, and a mysterious ghostly figure roams the school halls. In the best tradition of YA adventures, Tohko and Konoha are drug into the mystery, long-buried secrets are uncovered, and only an encyclopedia-like knowledge of Wuthering Heights will win the day.

Without the background of the first book I was a little lost in the beginning of “Book Girl and the Famished Spirit”; there are several plot threads that I don’t know if they are continued over from the first book Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime or not. For example Konoha Inoue is secretly the author of a best-selling book that he wrote under a pen name. So is Konoha rich? Famous? And what about Tohko. Is this a world where the existence of yokai is known and accepted? Or does she hide her true nature?Or are these questions we just aren’t supposed to look into too deeply?

But even without that background, I was impressed with “Book Girl and the Famished Spirit.” It was interesting that in the back, in the Afterward, Mizuki talked about changing the story halfway through, and it shows. The first half is just light fluff, exactly the kind of thing I have found in Japanese light novels. Then out of nowhere the story plunges into depth and darkness, becoming far more serious than I had imagined. Severe child abuse. The isolation of adoption into an unloving family. Exploration of identity. There is some intense psychological horror going on in the story.

Unfortunately, Mizuki didn’t go back and re-write the first half to fit better with the second, so you end up with a disjointed reading experience. Mizuki is clearly a more powerful writer than is let on, and I am interested to see how the “Book Girl” series progresses. Does it become lighter, like the first half, or heavier and darker like the second? I suppose there is only one way to find out!

Cardcaptor Sakura Volume 3

4.0 out of 5 stars Master of the Clow Cards

“Card Captor Sakura Omnibus Volume 3” is almost exactly where I stopped reading the TokyoPop editions of “Card Captor Sakura.” Although I loved the first volumes, I thought the series was losing some of its magic as the storyline went along. There were too many characters, and some of the elements I didn’t enjoy–like Yukito’s revelation of his true form as Yue the Judge. I liked Yukito better as just Yukito. Budgets were tight. Decisions had to be made. I had read the series up until Sakura completed her task of capturing all the Clow Cards, and I didn’t see much point in continuing. What is a Card Captor with no cards to capture? And so I stopped picking up the Tokyopop collections.

But I always wondered how the series ended. And I figured I would get around to reading it someday.

Enter the extremely cool Dark Horse Omnibus series. Along with a larger format, nicer paper, a new and improved translation, and full-color pages, I could get the entire Cardcaptor Sakura series in four affordable volumes. The Omnibus volumes were too good to pass up, and I could finally read the end of series.

“Omnibus Volume 3” starts off with Sakura Kinamoto as a 5th grade elementary school and Master of the Clow Cards of the magician Clow Reed. She has finally captured the last of the errant cards, and assumed her destined role. However, capturing the last of the cards has left here without a purpose. A magical warrior with no one to battle isn’t of much use. Fortunately, some danger and intrigue arrives at Sakura’s school with a new exchange student arrives from England, Eriol Hiiragizawa. Sakura and the Clow Cards are called upon once again, but Sakura quickly finds herself outmatched. It is not enough to be Master of the Clow Cards. Sakura must transform the cards, making her own magic instead of just borrowing someone else’s.

And of course, much of the fun of “Cardcaptor Sakura” has nothing to do with battle. I have loved reading all of the bizarre–yet perfectly sweet and innocent–little love stories intertwined in the series. In one story, the gang learns of a superstition involving handing out hand-made teddy bears to the one you love, so soon teddies bears are getting made and exchanged everywhere. Sakura’s classmate Rika gives one to their teacher. Li Syaoran makes one but can’t decide if he wants to give it to the girl Sakura or the boy Yukito, both of whom make him swoon. And then Valentine’s Day comes around, and it is the same problem all over again. Good times.

Getting back into “Cardcaptor Sakura” after more than a decade was easy. The ladies at CLAMP seemed to have assumed that there would be new or returning readers, and recaped the story and re-introduced the characters in the first few pages. After everyone is comfortable in their settings, they then drop the gang into new adventures against new opponents and get the ball rolling for the second half of Sakura’s series.

While I am enjoying the series, I personally don’t think that Volume Three is as good as volumes one and two. Some of the new characters seem a bit forced. They have gone the “dark mirror” route making sure that everyone in Sakura’s battle group has an opposite to fight. If Sakura has a cute little winged lion that turns into a fierce guardian, then they will have a cute little black kitty that turns into a massive winged black panther. And so on. Once the reveal is made of the identity of Sakura’s new opponent, the story makes a little more sense, but there is less immediacy to the storyline. She isn’t a girl on a mission anymore, and is being battered around by mystic forces.

Even so, I will definitely be getting the final Volume 4 to see how it all plays out. And since Dark Horse has put out these excellent Omnibus versions, I am glad I waited.

Shadow of the Wraith

3.0 out of 5 stars Two “Ghost at School” Stories

Shadow of the Wraith

“Shadow of the Wraith” (Japanese title “Ikisudama,” or “Living Ghost”) is an entry in the popular gakko no kaidan (ghosts at school)genre, aimed squarely at high school aged kids and younger. These kinds of low-budget spook fests are pretty typical in Japan, and get cranked out during the summer when kids are eager for a scary story. The director, Ikeda Toshiharu, is most famous for his film Evil Dead Trap although he has been cranking out this kind of low-budget work in recent years.

“Shadow of the Wraith” has the extra hook of staring two pop-star brothers, Koji and Yuichi Matsuo from the band “Doggy Bag,” and two “Teen Scream Queen” sisters, Hitomi and Asumi Miwa (Uzumaki, Ju-On: The Curse, Eko Eko Azarak) who are familiar faces to any fan of modern Japanese horror. Think of “Shadow of the Wraith” as the Jonas Brothers appearing on an episode of Goosebumps.

“Shadow of the Wraith” is split into two stories, each staring one Matsuo brother and one Miwa sister. The stories are very loosely linked by the brothers, who play brothers in a band.

The first story,” Shadow of the Wraith,” is a typical story of jealousy. Popular boy loves popular girl. Strange girl in the corner is jealous and projects psychic doppelganger to clear a bloody path to popular boy’s affections. You know the story. Or maybe you don’t. “Shadow of the Wraith” is about a creature from Japanese folklore, called an Ikiryo, or “living ghost.” The mythology is very old,dating back to the The Tale of Genji, and I have never seen an ikiryo story on film before. So that was kind of cool. Unfortunately, novelty is all the story really had going for it, and “Shadow of the Wraith” is otherwise by-the-numbers.”

The next story, “The Hollow Stone” starts off pretty good as a classic haunted apartment scenario. A new girl moves into down, and finds out that she is living in a cursed apartment. A charming neighbor, still reeling from the death of his brother, falls for the new girl and tries to help her survive where others have died. I am a sucker for a good haunted apartment story, and I would have enjoyed “The Hollow Stone” quite a bit if it weren’t for some unfortunately bad special effects. The director forgot that less is more where ghosts are concerned, and shook some fake props at us that look like they could have been bought at the
local Halloween store. The ending to “The Hollow Stone” was also terrible. It made no sense, and completely broke the rules of Japanese ghosts for no particular reason.

“Shadow of the Wraith” is not a bad DVD. The stories neither rise above nor sink below the level of the genre. They are exactly the kind of show you would see in Japan flicking the tv channels in the summer. It’s too bad that director Ikeda didn’t try a little harder to bring some life into these stories, as they had some potential, but everyone involved seemed to be pretty content to produce something mediocre.

Happy Cafe – Volume 7

3.0 out of 5 stars The School Festival.

Happy Cafe, Vol. 7

Any manga involving high school kids will eventually do a couple of things. They will go to the beach. They will go to a local celebration. And eventually they will have a school festival.

It makes sense. School festivals are a huge part of the lives of Japanese kids from first grade in Elementary school till High school graduation. So with volume seven of “Happy Café” it is finally time for Uru and the gang to do what they do best and compete in the Café Competition for Uru’s school festival. Hijinks ensue.

But there is more than just baking going on. The love-triangles are starting to solidify, and Sou finally throws down the gantlet against Shindo to battle for Uru’s heart. Only it is a pretty one-sided battle, as Shindo isn’t exactly stepping up to the plate and declaring his love. Urur just sits in the middle, fairly oblivious that she is the prize in any battle, and muses over her own feelings.

“Happy Café” has gotten more serious in tone with recent volumes, and moved away from the light-hearted fun of the initial releases. Shindo is having issues with his missing mother, lots of new characters are moving in each with their own agenda. To be honest, I didn’t enjoy Volume 7 as much as I did previous ones. Much of the fun for “Happy Café” was lack of angst or any real downer issues, and as they sneak into the storyline I enjoy it less.

Kou Matsuzuki has brought in some other characters from her previous manga, and this volume she focuses on Hajime Aizawa and Ichi Arimoto from her one-shot “Number One Deluxe.” She has done this before, but this time I felt the characters were a derailment from the story. They don’t really fit in with the “Happy Café” group, and it seemed like an akward way for Matsuzuki to shoe-horn in previous creations.

There are some good parts to Volume 7, some of that old light-hearted magic. Uru is still as goofy and lovable as ever. But there wasn’t enough fun to overcome the dark bits that I felt didn’t really belong.

Solanin

5.0 out of 5 stars Standing at the crossroads

Solanin

“Solanin” is good. Really good. Really, really good. Inio Asano has crafted a perfect little story that summons up raw emotions and captures that stage in life when you stand with one foot in adulthood and one foot in childhood, and you wonder if your body has enough strength in it to drag both feet solidly on one side. And what it will mean if you do.

Meiko is in her mid-twenties. She works at a job she hates (that pays well), and lives in Tokyo with her boyfriend of six years,Taneda (which her parents don’t know about). Taneda is in a band that only practices but never plays live, and pretty much relies on Meiko to take care of them. Meiko sees a path stretching out in front of her, but she is pretty sure it isn’t one she wants to take. Is this what life means as an adult? To work for pay in a soul-crushing career? Or to be completely irresponsible and still act like a teenager like Taneda? In the end, decisions must be made, and some of those decisions we get to make of our own free will, and some of those decisions are thrust upon us by circumstances.

I don’t know if everyone has this same dilemma. Some people seem to leap feet-first into adulthood—career, wife, house, kids—without batting an eye or ever looking back. I didn’t. I graduated college, fooled around in bands that never went anywhere, went back to college just so I could put off the real world again for awhile, dabbled in this and that, all the while shying away from that Big Bad Wolf known as adult responsibility that lurks around the corner.

Maybe because of my own experience, “Solanin” was a story I could relate to. And I don’t want to give away any spoilers, because discovering the story is part of the wonders of this comics, but I was happy it didn’t end on a fairy tale. The band doesn’t suddenly strike gold proving that the slacker’s route was the best after all. The whole story was just really … real.

And Asano’s art is beautiful. There is a fantastic balance between the stylized, simplistic faces of the characters and the richly detailed world they live in. The art is for the most part realistic, but Asano slips in the occasional manga trope just as a reminder that these are cartoon people in a cartoon world. The shading is also impeccable. The blacks and grays are rich, and the artwork has a great sense of depth-of-field and perspective.

Most of all, I loved the characters. Meiko is not gorgeous. She isn’t sexy. She just looks like an average girl, the kind that you might pass on the street every day. When she crys, she gets ugly. When she smiles, she glows. And her friends are the same. Some are overweight, some are funny looking, some are pretty. One the whole they are just—average.

As Asano says, “There is nothing cool about these characters. They’re just your average 20-somethings who blend into the backdrop of the city. But the most important messages in our lives don’t come from the musicians on the stage or stars on television. They come from the average people all around you, the ones who are just feet away from where you stand. That’s what I believe.”

That’s cool. I believe that too.

Manga Man

3.0 out of 5 stars Manga Man meets Comic Girl

Mangaman

“Manga Man” is about 1/3 of a great comic. The first half of the book is a frustrating gimmick comic with a single idea goes on too long. Then, out of nowhere, page #68 transforms “Manga Man” into an innovative and enjoyable comic. It makes me wonder where the writer was hiding his talent.

First off is the gimmick. The hook. The set-up. A scientist named Dr. Louis Capeletti created a machine that allowed him to penetrate multiple dimension space. When he turns the machine on, out pops Ryoko Kiyama, a high-school boy from a world of Japanese manga comics. You seriously suspend disbelief at this point; Instead of keeping Ryoko hidden in a military installation for experiments and study, the government and Dr. Capeletti do the obvious thing and send him unmonitored to high school. Hijinks ensue.

Ryoko is not just “from the world of manga,” he actually operates under a different set of physics. He is completely unable to hide his emotions, as all of these manga tropes; speed lines, sweat drops, heart-shaped eyes; manifest physically. He also has this problem with knowing the future, because as he says, he lives his life right-to-left, not left-to-right. The kids at high school aren’t too happy about their new freak, especially when he starts up a romance with Marissa, a once-popular girl who ditched her football-playing boyfriend to recreate herself in fancy costumes and wild interests.

The whole “manga man in normal world” gets old fast. It was clever for about five pages, but then the slapstick about Ryoko glowing, or changing size, or selling his left-over speed lines on ebay, just aren’t funny anymore. And the story is clichéd. Marissa’s ex is a typical dumb jock who thinks he can punch his way back into Marissa’s affections. There is a homecoming party. Meh.

Then we hit page #68, and boom!, “Manga Man” switches gears. Marissa discovers that she is also a character in a comic, just a different kind of comic than Ryoko. “Manga Man” becomes a brilliant exploration of the nature of living in a comic book, and on the differences between impressionistic Japanese comics vs. realistic American comics. (Author Barry Lyga even throws in a hilarious meta-joke on Article 175 and “mosaic,” that I don’t want to ruin for you. But it’s really funny). Marissa and Ryoko go on a sort of dance between the panels that is beautiful to watch, and there is some harsh reality as Ryoko discovers humans are quite so resilient in Marissa’s comic book land.

One thing that stays consistently good through “Manga Man” is Colleen Doran’s art. It’s perfect. Her realistic style is a perfect juxtaposition with the flat manga-style of Ryoko. I can’t think of any artist who could have done the series better. It is too bad Lyga didn’t give her more to work with story-wise. When page #68 hits, and Doran is able to strut her stuff – wow. Gorgeous.

I said at the start that “Manga Man” was only 1/3 of a good comic. As much as I enjoyed the middle, the ending was a disappointment as well. Maybe it is because I am in a mixed-race, cross-culture marriage myself, but the way the story ended didn’t sit well with me — Imagine a love story between a white guy and a black girl, dealing with prejudice and differences, then the story ending with the black girl magically turning white at the end to solve all their problems. Lame.

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