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This is one of the manga that Viz put out back in the day, where by back in the day I mean the late nineties, which in manga fandom times is not quite the Jurassic but is certainly somewhere around the Cretaceous. When everyone still flipped manga to read left to right and not only the word shoujo but the concept of comics by and for women had to be spelled out repeatedly on the covers of the books-- that era. Viz was doing sterling and unappreciated work in those years putting out Moto Hagio and the contents of Pulp magazine, and Matt Thorn, who was doing a lot of things for Viz, must desperately love Keiko Nishi. He put two of her short works in Four Shoujo Stories, the seminal and now-impossible-to-find anthology which has become the Really Famous Viz Rarity. And he had four more of hers released as Love Song.

I was skeptical going into this, because the two Nishi stories are... decidedly not my favorite things about Four Shoujo Stories. In point of fact I have never reread them, whereas I go back to the other half of the book about once a year. But I'm cowriting a book on shoujo manga and this is one of the first volumes of shoujo in English, which earns it some importance. Therefore.

Unfortunately, most of what I got from this is that Matt Thorn and I do not have similar tastes. I mildly enjoyed two of the four stories. 'Jewels of the Seaside' is a perfectly respectable black comedy about three sisters consumed by rivalry for the same man; Nishi's elegantly restrained artwork keeps it from tipping over into a one-note Gothic joke, although everything about it is predictable from very early on. And the title story, while it lacks even a pretense of plot, is not terrible. Its portrait of a young woman who becomes abusive towards her boyfriend because of past trauma is compelling although shapeless.

However, 'The Skin of Her Heart' is an attempt at an SF story which falls miserably flat because it does not manage to include enough worldbuilding to make sense. It's trying to be SF about working-class people, a small story about the way that aspirations don't change in a futuristic environment, with Earth as a pipe dream for its heroine to yearn after; but it doesn't have enough of its environment showing to lend it the necessary touch of strangeness. It comes off as a standard portrayal of poverty and anomie. I think the problem here is mostly visual, that Nishi didn't find the correct mixture of the familiar and the confusing. This script could, possibly, have worked, but here it doesn't.

And the longest story in the book, the two-part 'The Signal Goes Blink, Blink' is a terribly cliched story about a bullied adolescent boy who manifests superpowers, evidently to help him like himself better, or something. The amount I was unable to bring myself to care was staggering.

These are not stories American comics were telling at the time, it's true, and the fact of their existence in English is interesting, that this is what Thorn thought there was an audience for and worked very hard to bring to the public, these particular things out of the whole giant selection of things that could have been chosen. But there is so much better shoujo available nowadays that unless you, like me, are curious about the history of manga in America or are trying to read everything Viz put out before the year 2000 (I have faith I will manage this eventually), it's eminently skippable.


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March 2017

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