License Request (sort of) Day: Soap Girl Moko, Vols. 1 & 2

By Naruo Kusugawa. Released originally in Japan by Akita Shoten, serialized in the magazine Young Champion. Rights now owned by (and reprint put out by) Enterbrain. Not available in North America.

Content warning: this review will be discussing explicit sex, which appears throughout these two volumes. If you aren’t of age to read about it, don’t.

It has to be said, there are certain things that are very popular in Japan that, with the odd exception, just haven’t sold here, for all sorts of reasons. Sports manga is one of the most obvious, as is the huge amount of series involving ‘delinquents’ or youth gangs. And then there’s sex comedies. No, not the sort you get in typical shonen magazines (though those also don’t seem to sell well lately, unless there’s a supernatural element. Strange as Ranma, Love Hina, and Oh My Goddess were the big thing in the mid-late 1990s.). No, I’m talking actual comedies, written for adult guys, with lots of actual sex. We’ve only really seen this attempted here with Tokyopop’s aborted attempt to release Futari Ecchi (aka Manga Sutra), which bombed partly due to the economy but more due to the dullness of its leads.

It may come as a surprise to hear that there are a lot of these. They aren’t quite as common as they were back in the late 80s-early 90s (the era of the title I will eventually be talking about), But they’re still definitely there, in the pages of Big Comic Spirits, or Manga Action, or virtually anything with the word ‘Young’ in its name. A lot of them are essentially the same shonen harem comedies only written for grownups, with the heroines all now being a lot more successful in their efforts to get into the heroes’ pants. I have a certain fondness for seeking out these titles… not for the sex itself, necessarily, but simply as they tend to be very, very STRANGE. Titles like Kobayashi Makoto’s Chichonmanchi, with its virgin’s hell of flying penises and various grotesqueries. And even current fare like Ecce S, a Spirits title by Taku Kitazaki about a man who has a hypnotic magical tattoo on his ass that makes any woman who sees it want to have sex with him. Titles that make you stare for a bit and then say “Oh, Japan. (sigh)”

Luckily, Soap Girl Moko is far more of a normal, typical sex comedy. For those unaware, a ‘soap girl’ is a prostitute. Officially, the places where the girls work offer public baths to men who may want to relax after a long day. In reality, the girls offer varieties of sexual acts, though do also give baths, mostly as prostitution is technically illegal in Japan. There’s tons of Soapland places, though. Our heroine, Moko, starts the first volume as a neophyte soap girl, still learning on the job. We learn she started after rescuing a man from committing suicide (several times), and leading him to a Soapland, where his morale (among other things) is raised by the head girl there. Moko is inspired by this, and decides to become a soap girl so that she can help people.

No, really, she does. There is no question at all, throughout any of this series, that it is written solely for adult guys as a typical guy fantasy. This isn’t reality, nor do you want it to be. The girls are all varying degrees of nice, though most of them have more of a realistic bent than Moko, who’s your standard fluffhead with a heart of gold. The owner of the Soapland is your typical frustrated young manager who get aggravated by Moko’s clumsiness and slipups. Her regular clients we see more than once tend to all be nice guys. It is, for a manga that usually features an explicit sex scene every 3-4 pages, very clean. But you have to wrap your head around the basic plot of the manga, which is that sex can help solve most of life’s problems.

There’s a tiny bit of character development as the series goes on. Moko starts off as a complete ditz, and towards the start of the series I actually Tweeted “Worst. Hooker. Ever.” She’s clumsy, she’s awkward, she accidentally bites her clients right where you never want to be bitten… it’s sad. Luckily the author knows that this sort of characterization would not be feasible for a long running series, and has Moko learn from experience fairly quickly. Her girl next door looks and sweet personality make her one of the place’s more popular girls (in fact, there’s a story discussing how her rocket in popularity is completely exhausting her), along with her seemingly genuine desire to get to know most of her clients. She also really comes to like sex, which lends itself very well to using her body to help her clients, her neighbors, her friends, guys who accidentally hit her with her car…

The plots for these sound like they were taken from “Bob’s Big Book of 70s Porn”, they’re so cliched. There’s guys dealing with impotence, cheating guys who Moko reunites with their estranged spouse, bitter old vice-presidents who quickly soften (well… really the opposite) after getting to know Moko, kids trying to lose their virginity who fake being 18 so they can get in, clients who get so enamored of the girl they like that they try to propose… you name it, it’s in here. That said, it’s rather refreshing what isn’t in here. Because the plot is about a certain whitewashed form of prostitution, all the sex here is completely consensual. Rape is mostly absent (one attempt leads to Moko successfully fighting the guy off), and the one bit of disturbing sadism (Moko’s overenthusiastic client gives her welts on her back from whipping her) has the other soap girls uniting to teach him a bit of his own medicine. No women here are meek little wallflowers – not even Moko.

I’ve been describing this as explicit, which it is – we see lots of sex, and Moko is nude a great deal of the time. That said, this still ran in a mainstream Japanese magazine from 1990-1994, so there is some self-censorship. There are no bodily fluids on display. Moko has visible nipples, but her nether regions are just suggested. The men’s privates are either whited out or shown in sillhouette – even the intersex women, who comes to Moko to help with her self-identity crisis. This, by the way, leads to Moko dressing up in a Western suit and hat with a little mustache, possibly the funniest panel in the entire book (and she still looks really sexy, too.) The art style of the characters themselves is very mid-late 80s, and seems influenced by both Hojo’s City Hunter and Takahashi’s Ranma. We see giant heads when characters are mad, for example, and sweatdrops are abundant.

The Western World is likely more familiar with this than they think. In 1994, after the manga was winding down, an anime was made of the series, also called Soap Girl Moko. This was then bought by Kitty Media in North America, who put it out on VHS (and later DVD) as My Fair Masseuse. It was a popular adult title for people who avoided adult titles, likely for the same reasons I liked this manga – it was refreshing to see a hentai anime that didn’t feature rape and showed sex actually being enjoyable to men and women. That said, don’t get this expecting anything other than what it is – sanitized porn for young college guys. It’s just well-told, fun sanitized porn for young college guys.

I said this was a license request, more due to habit when discussing a Japanese title not out in English than anything else. (It’s not even scanlated! Gasp!) But honestly, in this market? I can’t see this selling. As has been mentioned before, women buy while men download, and this is very much a title for men. It’s likely too explicit for the mainstream publishers, but at the same time it’s not hardcore enough for Icarus, I suspect. So if you’re interested, you might want to track down the original Japanese. Enterbrain bought the rights to the series about 2 years ago, and re-released it in 4 ‘bunkoban’ volumes of about 325 pages each, which sell for about 830 yen. Do it for Moko, won’t you?

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.

License Request Day: Another look at the Japanese charts

Back in June I went over the Japanese manga charts, noting the bestsellers and whether the unknown titles could be licensed over here or not. It’s five months later, so let’s do it again.

This is an excellent week to look at Taiyosha’s list, as I believe the entire top 10 is not out over here. To break it down:

1) Volume 11 of Arakawa Under the Bridge. This is a Square Enix title that runs in the seinen magazine Young Gangan, home of Bamboo Blade. It also has an anime in Japan (also unlicensed), with a second season coming soon. Sounds like a perfect pickup for Yen, except: it’s over 10 volumes, and it’s a bizarre comedy about weirdos. Which only sells if they fight each other in shonen comics. :)

2) Volume 46 of Glass Mask. This runs in Hakusensha’s Bessatsu Hana to Yume, and I’ve talked before about its unlicensability, which is mainly due to its length and old-fashioned art style. This does not mean I would not LOVE IT here. It’s one of the few series which if Viz licensed it online might tempt me into an iPad.

3) Volume 2 of Amagami – Precious Diary. Okay, if this *were* licensed, it’d have to be Tokyopop. It’s a Hakusensha title, but this one from Young Animal, their seinen magazine for young horny guys. It’s based on a datesim. And it’s from the authoir of the Kimikiss manga, which TP has also licensed. It would do very well with the Kimikiss/Samurai Harem/”Look, boobs!” crowd.

4) Volume 10 of Kyou, Koi wo Hajimemasu. This is a Shogakukan title, and runs in the Shoujo Comic magazine. As with most titles in that magazine, it amps up the sex appeal. It’s about a girl who’s good at cutting hair, but otherwise is about as far from Beauty Pop as you can get. If Butterflies, Flowers does well for Viz, this may be a title they could pick up.

5) Volume 10 of Sora no Otoshimono. See my entry for Amagami, only it’s 5 times as long and runs in Kadokawa’s Shonen Ace. Again, if Tokyopop wants boobs manga, this could work for them.

6) Volume 4 of Kinou Nani Tabeta? Other bloggers have begged for this already, so I’ll just note it runs in Kodansha’s Weekly Morning magazine, and therefore Kodansha USA or Vertical seem the most likely. As for sellability, it’s a Yoshinaga title starring gay men and food. It sells itself.

7) Volume 17 of Giant Killing. Speaking of Kodansha, this also runs in Weekly Morning. It also has an anime. However, it’s over 10 volumes, and is a sports manga. Kodansha USA seems the only likely place for it.

8) Volume 24 of Iryuu – Team Medical Dragon. If I was a millionaire, and could toss money at Viz and tell them to license one lost cause, this might be it. It runs in Shogakukan’s Big Comic Superior, which I believe is one of the few major manga magazines to have no North American licenses at all. (Spirits, Original, and BC itself all have something.) It’s about ferreting out the corruption of the medical profession, and is pure awesome. It’s also over 20 volumes of gripping seinen medical drama. Unless Viz gets a good offer, don’t expect it soon.

9) The first volume of Kanpachi. This runs in Ichijinsha’s Comic REX, a boy’s magazine that also hosts its predecessor, Kannagi. The Kannagi author is on hiatus, so this is a superdeformed version to tide us over. Kannagi’s been licensed by Bandai, and if it does well, I can’t see why this wouldn’t come over here as well.

10) Volume 9 of Suki desu Suzuki-kun!!. Another Shoujo Comic series from Shogakukan, this one seems a bit less titillating than Kyou, Koi wo Hajimemasu, and might do well for Viz along the lines of their Sand Chronicles and We Were There licenses.

So what do people think? Any other thoughts on these manga? (No posting links to scan sites, I want them licensed, not scanlated.)