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Love a Short Story?

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The anthology comic is, to many American readers, nothing more than the old annuals that DC and marvel used to publish, along with various “unlimited” and “special” titles put out for popular superheroes over the years. As such, when we hear the term “anthology comic” we tend to either wrinkle our noses or move along after paying it little attention, unless we happen to be particularly fond of that franchise, or of one of the contributors.

The Japanese comic anthology, however, is a whole other matter altogether. In Japan, the majority of comics are printed in a variety of weekly anthology magazines, with installments coming out weekly, biweekly, monthly, or at whatever schedule works best for both the publisher and the creator. In addition to continuing series, this format also allows for the publication of short, self contain comics, both by creators who work regularly with ongoing series and those whose work is primarily showcased in short stories.

With the exception of Dark Horse’s “Super Manga Blast,” the only high profile exposure this format currently seems to be receiving is from Viz, who recently merged with ShoPro. In addition to their current Shonen Jump magazine and the upcoming Shojo Beat, both of which are similar to the original Japanese, Viz are beginning the publication of graphic novels collecting the short stories of certain creators. These graphic novels include Yumi Tamura’s “Wild Com.,” Rumiko Takahashi’s “Rumic World” and “Rumic Theater,” Mitsuru Adachi’s “Short Program” and soon, Hinako Ashihara’s “SOS.”

Up until this point, the American audience’s only exposure to Ashihara’s work has been “Forbidden Dance,” a four volume work, padded with several short stories. As enjoyable as the main story was, it was clear that Ashihara’s greatest strength lay in the constrictions of the short stories, as is showcased in “SOS.” Unlike many other shojo artists, Ashihara uses a minimum of thick, heavy lines in her artwork with surprising effectiveness. Within the pages of “SOS,” there are no giant robots, no super-genius kids, no fifteen year old girls falling through time and space, nor teenaged boys better with weapons than trained adults twice their age and no magic talismans, just young people getting up to the things young people get up to.

The titular story, “SOS,” is a story in two installments that comprises the first half of the book. In it, Yu, a girl with a bad habit of always falling for boys who like someone else (and then helping them with the other girl that they like!) gets roped into joining two classmates, the very cute Raku and his exceptionally pretty friend, Nono, into joining their (not school approved) matchmaking agency. While two stories, the first having the establishment of the agency and the second having the group help a teacher, were both quite enjoyable, I have to wonder a bit at the message behind the stories.

Why, with the disastrous consequences that emerge as a result of their actions, the group continues with their agency is beyond me. In the first story, Yu’s makeover for her ugly duckling classmate, Nakahara, has consequences that result in both Nakahara and Nono being attacked. In the end, Nakahara is still hoping that they can help her find a date and it doesn’t seem to be because she was able to move past her bad experience but because, well…she doesn’t seem to have learned her lesson about going to private places with boys she’s just met. In the second SOS story, Mr. Toda, a teacher at the group’s school, learns of their existence and blackmails them into trying to find a woman a boyfriend.  What he doesn’t tell them is that the woman is stalking him. I admittedly had difficulties with the idea of a teacher putting his students into a potentially dangerous situation like that.

However, despite a few moralistic problems, such as the near complete lack of consequences for their actions, the two stories are quite charming. Yu is a sweet heroine who finally finds a guy who doesn’t like someone else, even if it does take her a little while to realize it. Raku is a nice boy with just enough bad boy vestments to be roguish but not enough to send fathers running for their shotguns. Nono, as their extra pretty and slightly spoiled sidekick, makes a good straight man for the group and while he shows an appalling lack of concern for his student’s safety, Mr. Toda shows some interesting potential as a mentor. While SOS has enough closure to not need any sort of a sequel, it leaves enough room open for further installments.

The second story is a rather touching love story set in Tokyo in the 1920s titled “That Sweet Organ Song.” A sweet shop-girl, Setsu, who dreams of becoming a school teacher meets Shotaro, a boy from a rich merchant family who, despite his family’s wishes, wants to be an organist and composer. The two begin a very sweet, sometimes funny, love story. While the main barrier to their happiness is that of class and Setsu’s final fate is determined by the class systems she lives under, the story instead focuses on their friendship and growing love and I freely confess to being rather close to shedding tears in the final scene as Setsu, many decades later, hears the melody her lost love composed that she had thought had been lost forever.

The final story in the collection, “The Good Life,” is more of a slice of life story than the first two. Mami, a sweet, pretty girl, is more than a bit of a doormat for her chauvinistic boyfriend, Yohei. While not a mean guy and actually fairly kindhearted and well intentioned (and if you asked him, he would tell you that he was completely devoted to Mami), is more than a bit of a jerk and tends to regularly blow off his girlfriend in favor of spending time with his friends and regularly forgets when they’re supposed to meet. But, like all of us, Mami has her breaking point and she reaches it when Yohei not only forgets their date for her birthday but actually has the nerve to send her a text message telling her to pick up a pizza for him and his friends who are playing video games at his house.

Mami, naturally, doesn’t take too well to being treated like the hired help on her birthday and tells Yohei off in a manner that is, to say the very least, quite impressive, and well, dumps his sorry self. She tells Yohei that he has to figure out the problem himself and finally, eventually, he does. Of course, no one’s character can completely change but at the end of the day, Mami isn’t going to be as much of a doormat and Yohei is going to at least try to be aware of when he’s being a jerk, which is a lot more than most girls in Mami’s situation would get.

Were I to grade these stories, they would, respectively, be graded B for “SOS”(brought down from an A- by the lack of consequences and learning from mistakes), A for “That Sweet Organ Song,” and B+ for “The Good Life” (raised from a flat B for the ability to make a jerk like Yohei a charming and likable character.).

“SOS” is due to be released in March from Viz and has a cover price of $9.99 and is ©2003 Hinako Ashihara/Shogakukan, Inc.

- Megan B. Moore

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