Monday, 25 August 2008

Manga Olympics

Well, it had to happen, as the Beijing Olympics draws to a close, I thought I would take a look at sporting events - albeit the manga way!

It happened by chance, earlier last week I was typing away at a journalism article when my little brother remarked that, "Volleyball is cool." Now, this isn't the normal kind of ranting I would expect from my Dragon Ball Z loving little bro' so I turned my head with much surprise to investigate what he was watching.

This is when I discovered that he had been stricken by a case of Olympic fever. Over the next couple of days, the same pattern followed and I decided to join my brother on the couch watching athletes strut their stuff and debating, rather cruelly, who would make it first to the finish line.

The most gripping final for me was the high jump, you could really see the tension on their faces, and in less than ten seconds, a dream is made or forever broken. That joy of clearing the bar and the utter despair when they realise they haven't.

I kept thinking, will he make it over the bar? The tension...! Sitting at the edge of my seat, this somehow reminded me of the manga Hana Kimi, about a guy called Sano who gives up the high jump after an accident and his subsequent journey back into the sport. I remember holding my breath at the high jump scene where the characters in the manga (and readers alike) both waited to see - did he make it? For anyone who wants to know, you can check out the Hana Kimi J-drama here.

So this got me thinking about that other genre in manga - the sports manga!

There's Crimson Hero, about a fledgling girls volleyball team who want to make it to the championship finals. It focuses on one girl, Nobara, as she tries to encourage the other girls on and as a team they face many challenges and defeats on the path to their goal. And unlike most fluffy shojo manga's, these titles often deal with the hopelessness of realising that perhaps you're not good enough to make it and finding the courage and strength to say, screw it, I'm going to try anyway!

And that's one of the key features of a sports manga: determination to succeed against the odds, that Tohru Honda style gusto to, "Never give up," which makes this genre so interesting.

Surprisingly, there's usually always one outsider in these stories who doesn't play ball with his team mates, such as Echizen in The Prince of Tennis, who is frankly a bit of a brat, but likable nonetheless as his cocky attitude gets his team mates to really face up to the challenge and show him what they can really do.

Now, I was never any good at sports, but suddenly the Olympics and manga alike, make sports just that more exciting. It was a road running manga, whose name escapes me, which got me back into running this summer. So the next time you are in the book store, take a look at the sections you often walk past, after all inspiration can come from the most unlikely of places.

Friday, 15 August 2008

Fruits Basket: Momiji & the nature of dreams

(BIG SPOILERS for the manga): Have you ever thought what you would do if your dreams never came true? I know this is a heartbreaking question, but one that volume 20 of Fruits Basket poses. Momiji, the often happy rabbit, has to face this reality.

With the end of Fruits Basket almost in sight, the storyline has started to draw to a close, and Momiji is freed from his curse. But it's a mixed blessing: freedom is accompanied with a sense of loneliness.

Anyone who has read Furuba will know that it is Momiji's dream to be re-united with his family. Children born with the zodiac curse are either rejected or over protected by their parents. Momiji's mother rejects him and forgets about her son.

After the curse is broken, Momiji changes his route into school one day so that he can walk past his mothers house. They talk about family vacations and Momiji realises they will find their happiness - without him. It's a sad realisation. Me, like many other Furuba fans have been cheering him on, but as hinted in an early volume, Momiji acknowledges that even though he is free from the curse there are still some dreams that don't come true.

In the face of such sadness, Momiji resolves that he will find his happiness somewhere in the future and one day find a family that can accept him. With that, he waves goodbye to his mother and walks on.

Reading this, made me think about the nature of dreams. Momiji was secretly in love with Tohru but he looses out to another. I thought - Is this how it works? If one person achieves their dreams, does that mean someone else has to fail? I don't know the answer...

But it has made me wonder...

All around me, I see people trying so hard. Everyone on my journalism course has the same dreams, but what would we do if we don't make it? For a lot of us, that is something, honestly, we don't want to think about. But no matter what the future will hold, we still continue to do our best.

Like Momiji, I believe that we can't throw away our painful memories, that one day there will come a time when they will hurt less and we will be grateful for keeping them. Happy times comfort us, but sad times can teach us something we never knew.

I once read an interview with the Fruits Basket creator, Natsuki Takaya, around the time the series ended in Japan. They asked her who did she think was the most successful character. Takaya-sensei replied that out of the boys she thinks it was Momiji. It took me a while to realise what she meant. It takes a person of great courage to walk away from a dream and still have faith in this world. When dreams fall apart, I have seen it break people. But Momiji is strong and chooses to believe in the world even though the world has not given him what he always wanted, and that, I think, can offer people hope.

Momiji will try his best to find his own place in this world, after all, isn't that something we all have to do?

Saturday, 9 August 2008

Nabari no Ou: thoughts on oblivion

Well, its not often that an anime sweeps me off my feet but Nabari no Ou, Ruler of Nabari, has done exactly that. It's a modern day ninja story, between our real world and the 'hidden' ninja world, called Nabari. A young boy, Miharu, discovers that he has the power of the hijutsu Shinrabansho inside him, which has made him the target of ninjas from the hidden world, each seeking him out for their own agenda, because whoever has the hijitsu will control Nabari. He learns that his classmate and teacher who were always pestering him to join the ninja club are in fact real ninja's and swear an oath to protect him.

But Nabari is a world of secrets and no one is as they seem. When a rival ninja appears, he warns Miharu that even the people he calls his friends want to use him. The power of Shirabansho is so great, that it will grant it's owner their most desired wish, all they need is to desire it. But Miharu desires nothing, living a life of indifference, wanting to return to his once normal life. But all this changes when he meets Yoite, a powerful enemy ninja, who uses the forbidden Kira technique to kill. Yoite sacrifices a small part of his life every time he uses the technique and he is now running out of time. Miharu asks Yoite what it is that he wishes for and Yoite replies that he wishes he had never existed, never revealing why.

Initially, Miharu is blackmailed by Yoite but Miharu realises they have the same eye's: a painful loneliness of sorts. Miharu is spurred on to help him as Yoite chases oblivion. The duo and rival ninjas fight it out to find the forbidden scrolls that could help Yoite and control the hijitsu within Miharu. But in the world of ninjas there are secrets, lies and betrayal.

As the series progresses we learn more about the others: An immortal seeking death, a ninja who cannot kill because of past sins and a brother who becomes a traitor to protect his sister from an awful truth. Every characters has a place or purpose, even when they think they don't. Despite his wish to be erased, Yoite confesses he does not wish to die. His nature is contrary. I find myself wanting to understand him, but I can't.

Watching episode 18, I keep thinking the bond between Yoite and Miharu is a shared understanding. Yoite's desire to disappear and Miharu's own observations a few episode's back that if he himself was to disappear, then none of the suffering he has witnessed would happen. I find those thoughts so scary, but perhaps that's why Miharu is the only one who can understand him, only someone else who can walk to the edge of oblivion can truly understand.

And that is what Yoite represents, the very dark part of the human soul. With the ninja villages wanting the power for themselves or claiming it for the better good of the world, Miharu wants to use this power to save just one person instead. But we know, this like everything else worth saving, must come with some price. Miharu has said for so long he wants to save Yoite, but when the moment comes, Miharu hesitates, fearing the consequences for himself and his attempt fails.

There is so much about this series that is wonderful, the art, the storyline, the duplicity of human nature. I kept thinking, what is it about this series that is drawing me in? And I realised it's the darkness in the characters hearts. None of them are perfect, everyone is flawed, no one more so than Yoite, throwing his own life away for some unknown reason. It's both wanting, and not wanting, to be saved. There isn't a real good or evil character in this series, Nabari explores both sides of humanity. But it's not always deep and philosophical. In one comedy moment Miharu finds Yoite hidden in a small gap in the wall. He asks him what he's doing there and Yoite says he's hiding. So Miharu squeezes himself into the small space and decides to join him. This is exactly what makes this unlikely duo so entertaining to watch. It's that simple understanding, or perhaps acceptance.

At a heartbreaking scene at the end of episode 18, Miharu holds a weak Yoite in his arms on a snow covered bridge. Yoite is begging for his existence to be erased, and whilst Miharu says he will fulfill Yoite's wish, his heart says that he doesn't want him to disappear. Even I don't know what Miharu will do, but it will be a painful choice to make.