Shoujo Cheese and Metal, Please

 Or, the romances of Tomoko Taniguchi, with tangents about the North American manga market and shoujo romances in general.

You have no freaking idea how stupidly excited the title for this post made me; its sometimes kind of hard to come up with decent post titles, so its a bit thrilling when one manages to think up a title which seems catchy and descriptive at the same time. Kind of like how insanely awesome it was to me when I hit upon the perfect name for this particular blog.

Anyway, Tomoko Taniguchi – she’s a manga-ka who used to have a lot more visibility in the North American manga market, and is one of those rare birds of whose entire body of work is available in English. The dearly departed Central Park Media originally acquired the rights to Call Me Princess and Aquarium once upon a time, and upon selling a lot more copies of both than they’d expected, they decided to just give it all a go and pick up the licenses for the remainder of her manga, to rather varying success, although it seems only Princess Prince came close to performing as well as CMP and Aquarium did (both of which did well enough to warrant several re-printings, I believe three for each).

Now, CPM did lack the rights to one of her properties, an incomplete work entitled Spellbound. Spellbound’s a bit of an interesting case, as it was actually created by Taniguchi specifically for the North American market. It was published by another long-dead company called Fanboy Entertainment, although Spellbound disappeared a bit before the company did. For some reason, Fanboy ceased publication of Spellbound following September 11th; I haven’t been able to figure out why, and even Taniguchi herself doesn’t seem to know the answer to that. So while the rest of her canon is fairly easy (and cheap) to track down in English, Spellbound is stubbornly rare. It may be worth noting, though, that Spellbound’s entirety only comprises two comic books worth of material, and, yes, by ‘comic books’ I mean the really cheap thirty-page or so large-format issues one associates much more with American comics than with Japanese ones.

(Actually, speaking of format matters, I think this is an area where I show my age a bit, as I remember when it was fairly common for Viz and Mixx [later to be known as Tokyopop] to publish manga in this fashion, prior to publishing the collected chapters as a ‘graphic novel’. While graphic novels were certainly more portable, at the time for the Mixx titles one was much better off opting for the individual issues, since the graphic novels shrank the pages by so much and the art quality did suffer a bit, albeit for some series it was much worse than others. I do still have some ancient issues of Miracle Twins, Sailor Moon, and 3×3 Eyes farting around in my room somewhere. I like to smack people with them occasionally to remind them chillens of how good they’ve got it now… although I do think the height of quality in manga releases for the North American market as a whole was around 2005-2008. There are obviously some exceptions [Vertical is the first that comes to mind], but by and large its become a fairly intense race to the bottom.)

Ahem. Sorry for that tangent.

So, Tomoko Taniguchi. When she actually was fairly well-known within the N. American marketplace, she was known specifically for writing fluffy, fluffy romances, primarily concerning high school students. And, yes, most of her works are fluffy, fluffy romances starring high school kids, but I would like to point out that one of her bestsellers was Aquarium, the primary story of which was about a fairly depressed high school student who attempts to kill herself . And I think this story proves that while Taniguchi did prefer to opt for lightweight fare much of the time, she was also capable of creating more serious stories, and, perhaps more importantly, of treating teenagers with respect. And this is actually a pretty important matter, because I would argue that its something we see less of in contemporary shoujo, that is, of treating the female teenaged characters in particular with respect, regardless of how seemingly ridiculous their dramas are. Aquarium’s lead might seem to on the face of it have a silly reason for attempting suicide, but I think it gets at how intense everything feels to teenagers. So while I roll my eyes at a lot of anime and manga about angst-tastic teenagers these days, Aquarium remains as a staple in my collection, and I still think the main story is a solid one.

Even in her lighter than air tales, Taniguchi retains this level of respect for her characters, as cheesey as the surrounding stories may be. I suppose the best way to put it would be to say that Taniguchi likes her characters, which perhaps sounds a bit ridiculous – after all, shouldn’t an author like their characters?* – but I find it difficult to believe the same is true of the authors of many other examples of the shoujo romance genre, of which I find most to be tiresome and grating, in large part because the so-called heroines are treated like shit. Apparently it is teh romanticalz to have one of the guys (or both! or all fifty-eight of them!) treat the leading lady like shit. And this is why I have a very difficult time recalling what/when the last time I read a shoujo manga was (that I hadn’t read previously). And, if we narrow it further to shoujo romance (since, quite frankly, finding a shoujo manga in English that isn’t a romance is like trying to find the Holy Grail), I have even more difficult of a time.

Now, I have tried to find other shoujo romances in the vein of Taniguchi’s – cheese-tastic, cheerful, and fun, but the primary problem is that a lot of it is just flat-out boring. And this is another key reason Taniguchi’s stories are enjoyable – refer back to my usage of ‘fun’. It sounds trite, but reading her manga is fun. You end up grinning by the end in most cases, as absurd as the premise and plot was. The sentiments are positively infectious.

But I’d be remiss to not make any allusions to the post’s title at all. Because I have to say, I consider the fact that Taniguchi mingles heavy metal and cheesey romance in a number of her manga pretty… curious? Intriguing? Odd? Admit it: you’ve never been sitting around and said to yourself, “You know what I would love? I would love to read a shoujo romance about metalheads.” Its a pretty niche appeal, and I would go so far as to argue that it would seem to indicate that Taniguchi herself had an interest in metal at the time… particularly given how lovingly she depicts these characters and their fandom. While it certainly isn’t at the level of Sakamichi no Apollon or Cowboy Bebop and jazz, it isn’t down at the level of window-dressing, either.

Personally, I think that its a shame that Taniguchi moved away from the heavy metal realm as her career progressed (her later works don’t have it at all). While it isn’t difficult to figure out that these metalhead romances are earlier works, their flaws don’t detract from the overall whole. I’m tempted to call them pitch-perfect cheese. And I just can’t stop loving how off-beat the premises are insofar as their being, well, romances about metalheads. I dare you to challenge me on how awsome that is.

So I suppose all of this is to encourage folks to check out her work, although I think that fans of cheesey romances will be much more pleased with this advice than those who are not. Because, make no mistakes, Taniguchi is all about the cheese, her serious turn in Aquarium notwithstanding.

Sadly, Taniguchi hasn’t published any manga in over ten years; an interview in 2008 had her stating that she was working on a ghost story manga with a romance twist, but it hasn’t surfaced anywhere, and her latest creative efforts have been for Star Wars trading cards in Japan. Too bad! I definitely would’ve read her ghost story had she written it.

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