License Request Day: Another Look At Medaka Box

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

Back in 2010, I did a License Request post regarding a Shonen Jump manga called Medaka Box, and explained why I thought it was a great series, and also why I thought it was unlikely to get picked up. Well, it’s now almost two and a half years later, and the series is still running in Weekly Jump, and gotten two anime seasons (which, sadly, animated the least interesting part of the manga) and has more reasons I’d love to see it licensed… as well as even more reasons it won’t. So let’s discuss.


Since my original post, the manga has kept going, and gotten even more ludicrous. It now projects to be over 20 volumes, and just began a new arc after faking readers into thinking it was ending – the 2nd time the authors have done that! It’s introduced even more overpowered characters, including Najimi Ajimu, who can seemingly control the narrative and utilizes her 12,858,051,967,633,865 skills to waltz around the story being smug. And it still has a small core of hardcore fans who enjoy discussing what it’s really trying to say – even if they all disagree with each other, and half of them are fans of the series but despise the lead.

So, why do I want to see this series over here? Let’s see…

1) Tons of strong female characters, including many leads, several of which have no romances whatsoever. Medaka Box sails through the Bechdel test, honestly. Medaka herself is currently one of two Jump series with a female lead (and the other, Novice Policewoman Kiruko-san, may not last long). We also meet characters such as the aforementioned Najimi Ajimu, Youka Naze (a genius mad scientist with a knife sticking out of her bandaged head), Hansode Shiranui (who is primarily comic relief in the anime-adapted shows, but proves to be far more dangerous – and far more broken – than everyone expected), and Mukae Emukae (who makes anything she touch rot and die, including animals and, presumably, people. )

Each arc has at least one or two major female antagonists or protagonists, and some are entirely female, such as the Jet Black Bride arc. Now yes, there is some romance, with some characters falling in love or obsessing over a person. But it’s not a requirement. More to the point, almost every single female in this series beyond about chapter 26 can kick anyone’s ass right ways from Sunday. I have never seen such a larger group of BAMFs. It’s pretty amazing.

2) Examination, parody, and deconstruction of shonen themes. Many series do this subtextually, but Medaka Box goes right ahead and makes this text. Misogi Kumagawa, who is easily the most popular character among Western fans of the series (and probably Japanese fans as well – the anime did a final episode just devoted to him as if to make up for its likely cancellation), often refers to events by saying “If this were in Weekly Shonen Jump”. Ajimu takes it one step further, and seems entirely aware that this is a serial – it’s made into a plot point, and once led to one of the greatest lines in the entire series, “Manga that go longer than 10 volumes just coast on their success, and this has already gone three volumes over that. So just watch… I’ll end this manga before the anime begins.” (Spoiler: she didn’t.)

But it’s not just pointing out the series is fictional. Medaka Box goes to great pains to mock and undercut many of Shonen Jump’s most treasured values, with several monologues noting that while Jump is supposedly about “Friendship, Training, Victory”, the reality is that the stronger characters defeat the weak ones, so more power always wins. And indeed that is the case throughout Medaka Box. Medaka is insanely powerful, so she wins despite everything. The only exceptions are characters who are (temporarily) stronger than she is. Kumagawa is set up to rebel against this – his entire purpose in life is to be the one representing the weak, loser characters whose only purpose is to fail.

But with all that said, the beauty of a series like Medaka Box – and something that a few of its fans don’t quite get – is that for all that it’s deconstructing Jump series, it also IS a Jump series, and thus in the end it serves what Jump strives for after all. This is not a series that will end with our heroes broken and Medaka humiliated and tarnished – that’s not its goal. Its goal is to show the wonders of humanity in all its forms, even when humans are equipped with various types of superhuman abilities. (Medaka Box sometimes seems like X-Men there’s so many people with insane superpowers.) It may say Jump is all about who is most powerful, but Medaka succeeds because of the bonds she has with Zenkichi – and his bonds with all the others.

3) It’s simply fun. Everyone acts gloriously over the top, almost in a Higurashi sort of way. The series is peopled with larger than life superheroes, so it’s only natural that they are larger than life. Kumagawa can be terrifying or hysterically funny, often in the same chapter, and his juvenile pursuit of seeing girls’ panties, girls in naked aprons, and girls in “hand-bra jeans” (don’t ask) is a nice reminder that all these superhuman geniuses really are teenagers after all. There’s fun wordplay, and later volumes introduce Nienami, who seems determined to be the ultimate boke just to have everyone scream at her. You’re never quite sure if the manga is a parody or not – which is the point, of course.

Now, I mentioned I don’t think this will be licensed. Why? I already discussed in my prior post that it starts off very slowly. In fact, it’s quite mediocre for the first few volumes. (You know, the ones they chose to animate). But let’s update things.

1) It’s now over 20 volumes and counting, and is not a huge hit the way Toriko or Bakuman were. This is reason #1 with a bullet.

2) It would make the translators cry. There is an entire ARC given over to battles using kanji and wordplay, culminating in a final confrontation involving the Japanese game where the next person starts a word with a syllable that the previous person ended with. Oh yes, and there’s a chapter where Ajimu tries to inspire Zenkichi by recalling about 25 old Shonen Jump heroes, many of whom never appeared over here and would require extensive translation notes – something which Viz has never used in its shonen series.

3) One character, Shori Wanizuka, walks around at times with a revolver sticking out of her mouth, sucking on the barrel. Oh, Viz would just LOVE that.

4) Medaka herself. Not since Ichigo Kurosaki has there been a more polarizing lead character in Shonen Jump. Medaka is meant to be a deconstruction of the “Mary Sue” sort of character – she is perfect at anything she tries, has a killer body, is genius level IQ, a physical powerhouse, etc. Despite this, Medaka throughout the series is shown to have difficulty with basic humanity. This is a thread that exists in a lot of NisiOisiN’s works, where he shows the basic disconnects anyone that far ahead of/in front of us would have with average people.

As such, a lot of the time, Medaka is unlikeable, particularly when dealing with Zenkichi, her childhood friend. Now, one of the main plots in the series is showing that she is gradually improving at human interaction, and is not a superhuman freak but merely a teenage girl like everyone else. Of course, character development is frequently not welcome by some fans, who form their opinions and then refuse to change them ever. I’d argue that a majority of the fans support Zenkichi or (especially) Kumagawa as a “main character”, seeing Medaka as an antagonist. In addition, a small minority of fans seem to suffer from “nice guy syndrome”, demanding that Medaka treat Zenkichi nicer because, well, he’s the male love interest and why won’t she learn her place?

5) For those who like Jump for its BL elements, you’ll find some of that here as well. (There’s a couple of yuri teases too.) That said, Medaka’s figure and habit of exhibitionism can also put off female readers who might see the title as pure fanservice.

With all that said, I remain fascinated by this series, one of the most addictive I’ve seen in Jump in years. Even with all the pitfalls, I’d still love to see someone take a chance on it. Hey, it’s licensed in France! Can North America be that far away?

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.