With the rising popularity of maid cafes, it should come as no surprise that artists have started drawing manga about them. I was surprised to discover that Maid Shokun does not simply fetishize them, but delves into the practical problems of the industry.
But first, the premise: a cute girl gets a job at a maid cafe. This is her first job and she’s nervous, both facts serving to shoot her moe factor through the roof. The customers love her.
And she loves the job. One of her coworkers explains that a maid cafe is about more than costumes and expensive parfaits; it creates a safe fantasy space for its customers. That space includes clear boundaries, of course, but within those boundaries the maid is a loving, reassuring presence for the customers. It shares similarities to the customer service at a traditional Japanese ryokan inn, for example.
Then the story begins to deal with the intersection of real life with this shared fantasy. Two of the maids used to work as call girls. Because it combines the razor-thin margins of the restaurant business with the expenses of frilly maid outfits, its pay remains very low. It’s also an industry for the young; nobody wants a 30-year-old maid. Our heroine gets a stalker, and has to learn how to deal with that. I don’t want to spoil the resolution to that particular subplot, but it surprised me by being a little too neat and tidy.
Near the end of the volume, the cafe’s owner reveals that they’re thinking of turning it into an adult establishment. This doesn’t meant the girls will become prostitutes, just that they’ll be allowed to serve alcohol, stay open later, and avoid the public legal scrutiny that comes from wearing fetish-y clothing at a public cafe. The general Japanese zeitgeist may not always remain kind to maid cafes. Unfortunately, our heroine is underage, so she’d have to find another job. Cue tear-filled eyes.
The art deserves attention. The artist demonstrates clear skill in drawing the characters from many different angles, and shifting from sugary, nearly chibi style to much more realistic panels with detailed backgrounds. I’m amazed at how the manga can sometimes look exactly like a screwball comedy and other times like a Kyoko Okazaki character drama.
The characters also have a wide range of subtle facial expression, far beyond standard moods like anger or surprise. This artistic range allows Maid Shokun to portray the employees of the cafe as real young women with hobbies, frustrations, emotions, and apartments of their own. They’re not simply curvy cardboard cut-outs meant to move the story along.
There’s a fair amount of fanservice. However, rather than nudity, the service focuses on the outfits, from the swirling skirt of the cover to the occasional panels showing the girls in their underwear as they change into their uniforms. While often gratuitous, it never gets in the way.
Overall, I’m impressed. This first volume covers a good amount of territory in a way that’s both artistically skilled and as realistic as possible given the subject matter.
(Translation note: “Shokun” means “Gentlemen” or ”Ladies,” so the title could be translated as ”Lady Maids!”)
Judging by the cover, I thought this would focus on a team of sanitation superheroes. It’s actually a shoujo manga about a tween boy with a serious OCD problem, and the relationships he develops despite (perhaps because of) it.
This first volume focuses on three characters: the sweet girl, the weird boy, and the other weird boy. It’s a very broad comedy, intercut with some extremely melodramatic shoujo moments.
Interestingly, the characters are all in 7th grade, so they’re starting to get serious about their opposite-sex relationships. Nobody’s lusting after each other, but they’ve certainly grown beyond the ”girls are icky and boys are gross” attitude common in elementary school.
The art style looks shoujo and spastic. The artist fills panels almost entirely on heads and basic bodies. Unfortunately, the character designs shift inconsistently from page to page, varying in proportions almost randomly. Normal conversational pages are crammed with oddly framed panels for no apparent reason, leaping from intense close-ups of a character’s mouth to a long shot of another character from 50 yards away. This technique would be interesting if these scenes impacted the story, but it’s used on simple connecting tissue. I found myself wearied by its constant use.
Because this is a shoujo story about relationships and emotion, the artist throws several heart-wrenching moments into this volume. Several can be seen coming from 50 pages away, while others snuck up like ninja and both surprised and delighted me. That’s not to complain about the obvious melodrama, either.
There’s a charming innocence to Clean Freak that reminds me of Peanuts and Calvin & Hobbes. The characters are not naive, but the plot revels in simple truths and in a desire to see friendships grow.
Moreover, the protagonist constantly builds walls between himself and other, partly through his extreme OCD and also because he generally dismisses the rest of humanity as unnecessary. I keep wondering if all of the people who’ve committed to stay with him will do so. This is shoujo, so I’m sure that he won’t be friendless on the final page, I suspect at least one connection will have grown apart by then. And I wonder which one that will be?
As with so many works, Clean Freak swept me along with its story more than its art. I want to read more, and find out which of the characters manage to stay together.
Today, I awoke comfortable. I felt used to Japan now. It wasn’t home, by any stretch, but it felt familiar.
My plan for today was simple: visit the Imperial Palace, then head over to the fashion disticts of Shibuya and Harajuku. And they were all on the same Yamanote Line.
First, the Imperial Palace. I had already visited a week prior, to discover the Palace was closed on that day. Today, I knew it would be open, and I already knew the way. So I stepped out of Tokyo Station, walked through the financial district, and walked through one of the gates.
I discovered that the Imperial Palace isn’t really there any more. Almost all of the buildings have burned down over the centuries. Only a few guard houses remain, plus the massive stone walls; the rest is acres of gardens and lawn. It’s beautiful, and historical, and well worth an hour or two of walking, but definitely not as striking as I expected.
So I headed back to Tokyo Station and took the train over to Shibuya. This is one of the two biggest fashion districts in Tokyo, and it turns out this is more the formal shopping area. Right outside the station is Shibuya Crossing, a massive intersection where all the pedestrian traffic gets a green light at once. (serial experiments lain fans will recognize it as the place where Mika, Lain’s sister, freaks out).
Shibuya is an experience. Imagine hundreds of people crowding the streets, all showing off their fashion sense. Imagine if about 10% of them have no fashion sense. It’s a carnival of trendy style.
It is also, however, exhausting. If you want to shop for fashion–and there are dozens of large and small stores nearby–it’s heaven. Otherwise, it gets old quickly.
So I walked back to Shibuya Station–passing the statue of Hachiko, a dog who waited patiently for his master at this station every day, even after his master passed away–and took the next stop. I wondered how it would be different.
Harajuku is absurd and insane and wonderful. This is the home of Japanese street fashion, of wild outfits and poofy hair and layers of makeup. Just outside the station, one long street provides two blocks that are absolutely chock full of outlandish fashion, from hot pink sweaters to six-inch platform shoes.
It’s also full of young men who proposition girls for ”a little modelling work.” About a dozen of these guys prowled just this two-block stretch of streets.
Further down, the streets turn into quiet shopping districts, still offering the latest fashion but without quite the high pressure.
Tsutomu Nihei took a break from brooding seinen action series (BLAME, Biomega) to write and draw Knights of Sidonia, which combines his striking visual style with a Gundam-like story of giant robots and teen angst.
Knights of Sidonia is definitely a shonen work. The fish-out-of-water main character struggles with identity and his place in the world, while also sometimes managing to out-pilot every other character. Every volume involves random female nudity, explained with convenient BS: humans have been genetically engineered to photosynthesize, which clothing blocks. Sure.
While I’m on the topic of the manga’s setting, Nihei creates a stark, dangerous scenario. The characters live on a generational starship, and they use mecha to fight off alien threats. Nihei uses his trademark H.R. Giger-style humanoid style for the aliens, from blobs with human faces to human shapes with grotesque features. These aliens don’t mess around, and they behave in an utterly alien way. They can’t be exactly predicted, which can frustrate the reader (especially when an alien conveniently stops in the middle of a deadly attack). This aspect of their personality makes sense, though. They are alien.
And they are deadly. Side characters die often, at about the rate of the more deadly Gundam series like Zeta and Victory. Nihei kills characters at unexpected intervals, too.
Unfortunately, the characters can be difficult to tell apart at times. They’re all spindly-legged, most of them adolescents, most of them female and clothed in identical pilot suits. I had a tough time keeping track of who’s who, especially as the story explored love triangles.
Also unfortunately, the protagonist is an emotional blank slate. While he does react like a normal human, he remains bland and inoffensive for nearly the entire series so far.
I felt odd, reading a very Gundam-like story from Nihei. Much of the story is spent on mecha missions, flying angular robots very much like Gundams, piloted by holier-than-thou teenagers. Moreover, the story alternates between gritty combat missions and daily life in a quasi-military institution.
As always, Nihei’s environments feel large, impersonal, and strikingly, weirdly beautiful. As always, most of his characters are impersonal and diffcult to read. Except the talking bear; the talking bear is always the most emotional.
It’s hard to love Knights of Sidonia, but that’s not the point. It smashes disparate influences together to build a unique experience, placing Gundam mecha and visual novel protagonists against Evangelion-like aliens. I’ll certainly remember it for a long time.
I awoke early today, before my alarm went off. my mind full of the events of the week. I had only a few days left in Japan.
I’d spent about 45 minutes the night before looking over my plans for Tokyo. Now that I was spending a full day there (tomorrow), plus half the day after before catching my 5:30pm flight, I had options. I would visit the temple and museum complex at Ueno, the Imperial Palace (now that it would be open), and the fashion districts at Shibuya today and tomorrow. I’d spend my final half-day in Akihabara, buying a few final gifts for myself and friends.
Thanks to my early awakening, I arrived at Kyoto Station at 8:15am, over an hour before my train was scheduled to depart. Huge crowds of school students lined the platforms waiting forlornly for their buses, despite the pouring rain.
Unfortunately, most of the shops hadn’t opened yet, so I contented myself with perusing a book shop. I recognized only a few of the manga and light novel titles.
I then wandered into a nearby miniature grocery store and bought a few snacks and a Pocari Sweat for the train ride. Japan truly is a convenient country.
Then up to the platform to wait for my train. A group of the mentally disabled stood nearby, waiting for a train. I looked around to see how they were treated. Most people ignored them, a few stared, and one guy actually took video of them.
However, when their train came, the local train station attendants leapt into action. One checked the cabin to ensure nobody was getting off. Another laid down a small ramp so the wheelchairs could enter the train easily. It was lovely.
My train came about 10 minutes later, and within minutes it was speeding me towards Tokyo. The train ride was uneventful, though I learned a wonderful fact: while the north side of the train faces Mount Fuji, the south side faces the ocean.
I arrived in Tokyo, hopped on the train to Ueno (which was surprisingly full, despite the early hour; only about 12:30pm), and exited the station to find my hotel.
And I was almost immediately lost. I had written down the hotel’s name and address, and had found its approximate location on one of my printed maps. But I didn’t have step-by-step directions. Thankfully, a large map stood outside Ueno Station, which I approached and oriented myself.
About twenty feet away, a man stood on a car, talking into a microphone attached to loudspeakers on the car. I caught the words “America” and ”Nihon” and realized it was a political speech. Apparently, they still do them that way. He had a crowd of about three.
I found out where the hotel was supposed to be, a few blocks away, turned, and started walking. It took me a few minutes, but eventually I turned a corner and there it was. Half a block away from the adult video store. Hmmm.
I entered, hoping the guy at the counter could speak passable English. Turns out he was a black guy from Namibia. Not a problem. I was a bit early for checkin, so I left my bag and headed back outside.
Ueno Station sits next to a large park complex that includes several museums and temples. I spent all afternoon there taking pictures of the temples and exploring the museums, which included artifacts from all over East Asia. One pot, for example, is dated to about 10,000 B.C. Wow. Welcome to Asia.
I also threw up in a museum bathroom! Yay for foreign food!
In fact, there’s a story. My stomach was so upset that, when I had my fill of museums and walked around the nearby neighborhoods looking for dinner, I walked right in to a TGI Fridays. I craved normalcy. I ordered a Jack Daniels Burger from a server–who was the only person I talked to during my entire trip who couldn’t speak a word of English–and when it arrived, my stomach practically got on its knees and thanked me. I wolfed it down along with the fries and an iced tea, and my stomach was calm as could be the rest of the night.
I then returned to the hotel to check in. The neighborhood was a bit worrisome, but the hotel lobby was well-furnished. My key came with an eight-inch block of lucite. I got onto the elevator with a hotel staff member who lurched to one side and wheezed the whole way up. We both got off on the same floor, and he turned to me, stared with his good eye, and gargled something in my general direction. I blinked, then he asked where I was going. I showed him my pink block of lucite, and he pointed with his good arm down the hallway. I murmured, “Arigatou,” turned, and saw that he had indeed pointed me to my room.
I entered. It was larger than my room in Kyoto, at least. Though this one had unidentifiable stains on the duvet. And two ads for porn next to the TV. And the window looked out on a giant AC unit that grumbled the whole time I was there.
But you know what? This is part of the adventure. I have only one more full day in Japan. I’m going to make the most of it. Tomorrow: the Imperial Palace and the fashion district.
Today was, in some ways, a bust.
I explored Kyoto, but found little of interest. I ended up wandering Kyoto Station, which is itself a marvel of engineering. To give you an idea of its scale: the extreme west end of the station consists of a department store that’s 13 floors high. Not just 13 floors up; it goes from floor 1 to floor 13. And that doesn’t even reach the top of the station.
No, at the very top of the station is a sky walk. I ascended, huffing and puffing, and crossed a walk that’s 230 feet above the ground, walking 1,500 feet from one side of the station to the next.
I then wandered the two adjoining shopping malls for gifts. Found some fun things I won’t spoil here.
Honestly, I felt down. I was ready to get home. It’s not that I disliked Japan; I actually felt like I had a handle on it. I only had a few more days before leaving the country. I frankly wanted it to be over with.
So I watched some Japanese television. Hotel TVs only get standard broadcast channels, so I was limited to 7 or 8 channels. Mornings are filled with programs for young children: equivalents of Sesame Street or Blue’s Clues. Even these are, of course, distinctly Japanese. The stories focus on characters making mistakes, then apologizing and re-integrating with their peers.
Afternoons see shows that have no exact American or European equivalent. A few hosts will produce short segments, usually travel-related. They’ll visit a restaurant or a temple or a workplace and see what it’s like. The other hosts are filmed while they watch these segments, and we get to see their reactions (laughing, surprise, etc.).
It shows off Japanese culture very effectively.
Evenings are filled with news shows and talk shows. These talk shows are also different. Each episode usually includes either a large number of guests, 10 or 15, or many hosts and a few guests (the one I saw had 7 hosts and 2 guests). Like in the afternoon shows, the guests will watch pre-taped segments and we see their reactions, then the group will discuss it for a few minutes.
These shows usually also include a game show segment, though it’s all for fun. One asked each guest a trivia question with a numerical answer (“How much did the Atlas V rocket cost?”), which the guest had to answer to the correct order of magnitude using buttons that controlled a big display of numbers.
The guests are all celebrities of various degrees. But here’s the interesting effect: because celebrities are already on television so much, they aren’t much in the news. News shows focus on actual news.
There’s a lot of news, too. I’d estimate every channel broadcasts news every 2 hours, plus a full nightly news program lasting an hour or two.
Of course, there are also occasional dramas, comedies, and (occasionally in the afternoon and late at night) anime episodes. But most of the airwaves are full of talk shows.
After reading the first volume of Yu Aikawa’s Butterfly, I still don’t know quite what I read.
The plot is unusual enough that it’s worth explaining the series’ premise. Ginji is a disaffected teenaged boy who keeps seeing the ghostly image of his brother. Ginji’s brother hung himself several years ago, so this is what Ginji sees: his brother’s swinging body. This is strange enough. Thankfully, there are no “As you know, Bob” conversations about this; Ginji’s friends tread lightly around the subject, and Ginji certainly doesn’t want to talk about it.
Then the paranormal investigation plot kicks in. A strange young girl walks up to Ginji and asks him to help her with a seance. She eventually overcomes his reticence, but the seances are not what they seem.
This primary plot follows standard seinen guidelines. The hero doesn’t know what’s going on, but those around him do. Those characters drag the hero into an episodic framework, in which simple problems can be solved in about 3 issues.
Meanwhile, there’s an odd, almost shoujo sub-plot involving one of Ginji’s female classmates. She likes him, while he pushes her (and everyone else) away. As she learns more about him from his schoolmates, she learns about his past and the fate of his brother, which disturbs her. Indeed, this volume ends on a tease about the brother’s suicide, implying that the next volume will reveal much about why he killed himself.
I’m of two minds about this romantic sub-plot. It adds complexity to the story, as well as a different perspective on the hero. However, its subdued, elegiac tone jars with the seinen, paranormal investigation tone of the primary plot. They don’t simply contrast; they jar.
The art features clean, relatively sparse character designs, with a lot of shading and tones. The style bounces between serious and comedic from panel to panel. It never quite goes all the way to super-deformation, but it can be quite over-the-top. This occasionally felt overdone, but never enough to completely pull me out of the story.
Interestingly, two girls in the series is drawn to look almost exactly like Sakura and Tomoyo from Card Captor Sakura. I wonder if this is meaningful. Neither character fills a similar role in this story.
Overall, this first volume introduced just enough odd mysteries with just enough odd plot twists to intrigue me (much like the Naoki Urasawa’s first volumes). I look forward to seeing where it goes.
As I mentioned yesterday, I took a quick walk up to a nearby temple to verify its location. Today, I woke up early and decided to head right up.
For breakfast, I didn’t want to waste time, so I crossed the street to Kyoto Station and popped into the 7–11. I polished off an energy bar and a bottle of milk, then headed north.
I soon arrived at Nishi-Honganji. It’s hard to get across just how huge it is. According to the placard outside, it’s one of the largest wooden structures in the world. It’s simply tough to build anything this big out of wood. But there it stands, housing a beautiful inner shrine full of gold.
I left to find this temple’s brother. I found the appropriate location, but something was wrong. All I could find was two big warehouses surrounded by a large traditional stone wall.
I explored the wall’s perimeter, turned the ocrner, and found the temple entrance. Those weren’t warehouses. I had found the temple Higashi-Honganji, which is the biggest wooden structure in the world. It was under restoration, so the workers had built a larger building around it.
Fortunately, the adjoining temple was still open to the public, though one had to take off one’s shoes before climbing the giant wooden stairs. This included a new trick: plastic bags were provided, into which you put your shoes, then you carried them around with you, so you couldn’t accidentally put on somebody else’s shoes when you left.
And now I faced the most difficult challenge of the day. My stomach was growing increasingly upset, and I headed to the nearest bathroom. A dozen pairs of public slippers sat at the entrance to the bathroom, which was nice, so I went in and found a (blessedly Western-style) toilet. I sat, and nothing happened. But my stomach grew increasingly upset.
A few minutes later, I stood, turned around, and began throwing up.
I’ve no idea what caused it. I have a sensitive stomach anyway, and as usual, I threw up just a little saliva and bile. Thankfully, nobody else was in the bathroom to hear. I was mortified, but at least it ended quickly.
I headed back outside and sat down on the temple steps for about half an hour. The weather had turned warm but breezy, so I simply luxuriated in the breeze as my stomach settled.
I was determined to enjoy the rest of the day anyway. Maps are posted strategically around the streets of Kyoto, and I saw a few more places to try.
First, Kyoto Aquarium. On the one hand, it was…an aquarium. Fish in tanks. On the other hand, it had lots of weird sea creatures, and the staff happened to be feeding all the animals when I visited. I watched sea lions and dolphins swim and jump for nearly half an hour.
As I mentioned during my Mexican cruise report: a dog looks at you and asks, “What’s next, boss?” A dolphin looks at you and asks, “What’ve you got, human?” They’re friendly, but they treat you as an equal to be indulged.
I then headed east. Just wandered the city. I saw another traditional wall, went in, and discovered my favorite find in Kyoto: Shousei-en Garden. It’s a samurai mansion and garden, the mansion still maintained but closed to the public, with the garden open for anyone to walk through (with a suggested donation).
Shouse-ein is the classic Japanese garden experience: koi pond, stone bridges, tea house; you name it. Perfectly maintained and easy to explore (though the covered bridge is designed for the Japanese of a hundred years ago, so you’ll have to duck).
Satisfied, I returned to 7–11 for a packaged dinner and bed, figuring I’d wind down.
I switched on the TV and flicked over to the weather. I’d be leaving Japan in a few days, so I wanted to see what to expect. That’s when I saw news of the typhoon scheduled to wrap around Japan for the next few days.
Some rather frantic web surfing later, I discovered an odd fact. Japan’s affect by many typhoons, but few of them do much other than batter a few cities on the extreme coasts. Indeed, the forecast called for only 20%-50% chance of rain in Tokyo for the next few days. The typhoon would brush the west edge of Japan’s main island of Honshu, then head north-east as it calmed into a tropical storm.