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?