Sunday, November 2, 2014

Love Contract

Title: Love Contract
Writer: Jiang Shu Hui

Director: Xu Zhao Ren
Country of Origin: Taiwan
Episodes: 20

The most unlikely relationships can sprout from two mismatched people. Xiao Feng (Ariel Lin) is the tomboyish captain of her college Kendo Club who keeps her friends in the club in line with her strong, demanding personality. When two of her friends defect to the Swim Team, they find that it also is lead by an equally demanding captain, Ah Ken (Mike He). But when the friends devise a prank to strong-arm Ken into courting the unsuspecting Feng, could they be getting themselves into hot water?

Viki | YouTube 

This review is nothing but spoilers so click to the bottom for final thoughts if you don't want to be spoiled.

The description of this drama seems innocuous enough, but don't be deceived. While the series is quite silly at times, there are quite a few dark themes explored throughout. One of the darker themes in the series is the destructive nature of love, this series features some horrifying examples of codependency and dysfunctional relationships.

We have Ken's mother, Mei Li, who refuses to acknowledge that her ex-husband has abandoned their son and her. Her refusal to let him go and accept that he's not coming back leads to her untimely death. Feng's parents, Zheng Jie & Li Feng Hua, are in an unhappy marriage where all they do is fight, fights so bad that they're directly responsible for the physical scars Feng carries on her body. One of the best parts of the series is when Feng's mother demands a divorce from her cheating husband. (Insert feminist roar cry!) The silver lining to the divorce is that they are not only both finally happy, they actually find a friend in the other. For the first time in years they're actually encouraging each other rather than tearing each other down as they each pursue their own dreams.

Back to the melodrama, Kai accidentally pushes his girlfriend, Li Xin Lei, down the stairs breaking her arm and twisting her leg when she refuses to accept their breakup. Feng's sister, Xiao Yun, is having an affair with a married man, Simon, and miscarries their unborn child. Even after Simon's mistreatment of her she has a hard time letting him go. It actually takes his wife sharing with Xiao Yuna a scrapbook she's kept of all of his affairs to convince Xiao Yuna to leave him. (And don't even get me started on Simon's wife keeping a freakin' scrapbook of his infidelities!) I almost forgot Xiao Xiao's unhealthy obsession over Xiao Bai who does not reciprocate her feelings.

With these examples before her, it's no wonder Feng has a hard time accepting and believing in love. I pitied Ken for a good part of the series. Early on you can tell he's fallen in love and Feng does not make it easy on him. And when she finds out about the love contract, which Ken really had very little to do with anyway, you'd think he'd killed her favorite puppy. This one thing makes her doubt that he loves her, even though he has shown her his love in countless ways. Even her friends try and convince her, but to no avail. This irked me as I truly liked them as a couple and wanted them to have a happily ever after.

Her stubbornness and Xiao Bai's bad driving is what ultimately leads to their deaths. If she could have just been a little less stubborn none of it would have happened and I wouldn't have been traumatized by the ending (we'll come back to this later in the post). The timing of the wreck is unnecessarily cruel. The audience is expecting them to make the rendezvous point and see the giant video billboard where Ken declares his love to the world and instead we're left with a dying Xiao Bai. Now granted, the revelation of the love contract came at a bad time. Feng had just let down her guard to Ken and showed her the scars on her body leading to a mini breakdown. So I guess in her fragile state I can kind of understand her refusal to believe his love is genuine, but I still wanted to shake her.

Speaking of characters I want to shake, Mu Tou! So he's in love with Feng, but instead of confessing his feelings to her he tries to expose the love contract to make Ken look bad. He even goes so far as to slash a painting Ken had been working on as a tribute to his mother. Unfortunately, the timing was bad as Ken's mom dies the same night. He redeems himself by footing the bill of the repair job and becomes a Ken/Feng advocate. I liked Mu Tou when he wasn't obsessing over Feng. One of my favorite relationships in the series is between Xiao Xiao and Mu Tou. She starts out as utterly forgettable...simply an extension of Xiao Bai's shadow, but by the end of the series she is one of the strongest female characters and a close friend to Mu Tou. (I kind of ship them.)

One of the most genuine scenes in the series is when Xiao Bai confronts Xiao Xiao with his lack of feelings. Her reaction to the news by asking to hear the information again and again so that she could process it is quite beautiful in a dream crushing sort of way. I thought the actors did a good job portraying the emotions involved.

Now this isn't to say there weren't positive portrayals of love. Kai's willingness to support Ken in his pursuit of Feng, even as he is struggling with his own unrequited feelings for her, is a beautiful depiction of love. He saw how happy Ken made her and he put aside his own feelings to support them. Familial love was also portrayed in a positive light. The closeness between Ken and his mom Mei Li and Feng and her sister Xiao Yun are some of the best examples of love in the series.

The ending disturbed me for a multitude of reasons. There are three endings, ranging from heart crushing depressing to bizarre. The writers seem to be leaving it up to the viewers to decide what actually happened. The first ending, the one that will tear at your heart, has Ken carrying a comatose Feng into the ocean to commit double suicide. (You may be asking how this qualifies as double suicide and not murder suicide, which is a sensible question to ask. Feng's spirit lets the viewer know it's what she wants as well, hence the double suicide.) The second ending has Feng screaming "Wait" and then they both swim back to shore where they're playing on the beach and everything is happy and normal. Then "Wait...Again!" is screamed and the next ending sees them on the beach in their wedding clothes. All of their friends meet them on the beach, after they hear their voices in a plush whale toy, and it ends with a group shot being taken. The last ending is surreal with Xiao Bai joining in the wedding festivities. I mean he's supposed to be dead and if you go back to the first ending so are Ken and Feng.

The multiple endings left me so confused that I finally Googled "love contract ending explanation" to see other people's interpretations of the ending. The consensus seems to be that the endings represent reincarnation. There is one scene in the last episode where it appears that Ken and Feng are angels banished from heaven to learn the meaning of love. (I honestly thought Feng was just dreaming in her coma, so didn't pay much attention to this scene.) So the first ending would be them dying together so that they can be forever joined as wind and sand. (It's a metaphor Ken uses right before he kills himself.) Then they come back and you see that they have achieved happiness and are together. The last ending is them getting to come back down to earth and get married, something they weren't able to do while alive on earth, to achieve ultimate happiness. This might all be too deep for me.

Before we go, let's talk more about the last episode. The last episode might be the most depressing thing I've ever watched. It begins a year after the motorcycle accident with us finding out that Feng has been comatose since the accident and Xiao Bai is dead from the same accident. This episode literally has Ken taking Feng out for a last day together where they not only visit all the greatest hits, like the place where they first held hands and first kissed, but also has them making new memories together, like Ken cooking dinner for Feng and them dancing together. There are some flashbacks, which is expected, but then you have scenes where Ken is having conversation with an imaginary Feng, when he's not yelling at the comatose Feng to wake up. On top of this you actually have Feng's spirit looking on as all of this is happening whom Ken can't see or hear. It's so bizarre and so very depressing. I defy you not to cry while watching them have their first and last dance.

The day ends with Ken taking Feng to the beach. Where he reaffirms his affections for her stating that they can be together because they are both ugly and are the same. At this point we see that Ken has self-mutilated himself in the same spot where Feng's burn scars are. (The last episode really highlights Ken's downward spiral into madness.) He then picks her up and carries her bridegroom style into the ocean saying that they can finally be together as wind and sand. I'm not gonna lie I was crying...and yelling. I was so pissed. I did not sign up for something so heavy. Then came the confusion as we got hit with another ending and then another.

I will say the last episode stays with you. Several times since watching the ending I'll find my brain going back over the details and trying to make sense out of it all. I also can't think of the first ending without feeling a bit melancholy. It's the same feeling I get when I think of the ending to Beaches or Steel Magnolias. Oh! or Moulin Rouge.

Reading the above review you might think I hated it, but I honestly liked the series even with the bad relationship models. I liked the playfulness in many of the scenes and I even liked the darker tones that run throughout the series. Feng's struggle to come to terms with her scars and self loathing is moving and adds a layer of depth to the series. As did Ken's depression after losing his mother and his deteriorating sanity after Feng's accident.

Final Thoughts

Overall I liked this Taiwanese drama, even though I hated the ending...or endings as were. (The first ending is the best ending even if it is the most depressing thing you might ever watch.) I liked most of the characters and could relate to their struggles. I will be honest in saying that I would never have watched the series if I knew how it ended before hand. If you like happy endings, just stay clear of the series or stop watching at episode seventeen.

On a related note, this series has a fantastic soundtrack. The theme song especially stays with you. It's a sorrowful kind of beauty.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

I am Here!

Title: I Am Here! (Koko ni Iru Yo!)
Author: Ema Toyama
Volumes: 5 (completed)
Volumes (English): 5 (completed)

Invisible to her classmates, Hikage Sumino is an eighth grader with no self-esteem. Her only friends are the visitors to her Internet blog. One day, the most popular boy in the grade suddenly talks to her. Encouraged by this twist of fate, Hikage determines to transform her life and declare to the world, I Am Here!

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Skip to the end for a spoiler free review.

This is a cute manga series and a quick, easy read. It's essentially a less complex Kimi ni Todoke geared towards middleschoolers rather than highschoolers. It centers around a shy introvert named Hikage whose social anxiety makes it difficult for her to make friends. She's practically invisible to her classmates and teacher, who in one scene marks her as absent even though she is sitting in the front of the class. She's utterly forgettable.

Her only friends in the beginning of the series are the virtual ones she's made through her blog, MegaPIG and Black Rabbit. Safe behind a computer screen she is able to voice her concerns, hopes, fears, and dreams. These friends continually encourage her to put herself out there and to make friends in her class. They're her rock when things get difficult and, in a plot twist you'll see coming a mile a way, one of them turns out to be one of the new friends she eventually makes in the "real" world. (The only surprising thing is that the two main "love" interests don't both turn out to be her online friends.)

One day, one of the most popular guys in her class, Hinata, starts a conversation with her. This sets off a series of events where she starts to come out of her shell and make friends with her fellow classmates, including another incredibly popular boy, Teru. Throughout the series we watch Hikage learn to love herself and trust others. Even though this is a much overdone plot, it still manages to be fresh with sincere and relatable characters.

Hinata is a serious, studious boy who genuinely cares about people and exudes calm. Of course he's good looking, it is a shojo after all, but that's not what really draws people to him. He's kind and just an overall good person. He becomes Hikage's first friend outside of her blog and is constantly encouraging her.

Teru is Hinata's best friend and in some ways his complete opposite. He's brash, mischievous, and has a bit of a chip on his shoulder. He too becomes friends with Hikage and in some ways he's her biggest critic, but in his own candid way he also encourages her to make friends and speak out for herself. Like Hinata, he's there for her when she needs a friend.

Both of the guys formed romantic feelings towards Hikage long before she ever had a conversation with them in real life (again it's a shojo - suspend your disbelief). So there's a sort of tried and true love triangle. One of them, and I'll not tell you which one, turns out to be Black Rabbit which causes some conflicting emotions in Hikage.

Of course there is a villain in the form of a girl, Aya, who is jealous of the attention Hikage receives from Hinata. I liked how the author dealt with the rivalry between Aya and Hikage. Aya does some terrible things, hacks Hikage's blog and hurts her sunflower, but there is a sense of forgiveness and redemption. That Aya will change and become a better person -- the idea that who you are in middle school is not who you will ultimately remain. That you'll make mistakes, learn from them, and grow as a person. I liked that. Who wants to be defined by their actions in middle school for the rest of their lives?

I really liked MegaPIG, or Aoi as he's known in real life. His advice on the blog was perfect and pretty much the advice I would give. There's a bonus story about him as he tries wooing a girl in his class that is utterly adorable. Also, one of my favorite drawings is one where MegaPIG, Teru, Hinata, and Hikage are all in the same area walking together (see above). I like it because while Teru, Hinata and Hikage know each other (and Black Rabbit at this point), MegaPIG doesn't know any of them outside of the blog and is oblivious that this group is even in his vicinity. It implies a sort of fate between the characters and that they are friends whether they've met in real life or not. That each friendship is just as valuable in it's own way.

Probably my least favorite character in the series is Arisa. She's the first girl friend that Hikage makes. There's nothing bad about her, it's just that the character development falls a bit flat. She's utterly forgettable, which is kind of funny considering that's what Hikage is trying to avoid for herself.

I liked the way in which the author explored first love. It's sweet and gentle and there's forgiveness and caring. However, the ending is a bit ambiguous. While Hinata and Hikage are dating, you get the idea that Teru isn't giving up. That he's biding his time as middle school romance won't last overly long and he still has a chance later down the road. I liked that it wasn't a happily-ever-after-one-true-soulmate kind of thing. I mean they're in middle school. It's unlikely the relationship will last more than a month, but I still felt satisfaction that Hinata and Hikage were dating. Regardless of who she ultimately ends up with twenty years from now, it's pretty clear that all three of them are friends for life. That's pretty powerful. I believe in friendship probably more than any other "ship" out there, so this message resonated with me.

Final Thoughts

This series makes me happy! There is an innocence throughout the series that is refreshing, but doesn't make it any less compelling. If anything, it'll make you think back in fondness of your first love or crush. While the plot lacks originality and complexity the genuineness of the characters and situations more than make up for this. I think fans of Kimi ni Todoke, Ouran Highschool Host Club, Skip Beat!, and Dengeki Daisy will appreciate this series.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Cherry Juice by Haruka Fukushima

Title: Cherry Juice 
Author: Haruka Fukushima
Volumes: 4 (completed)
Volumes (English): 4 (completed)

After five awkward years, stepsiblings Minami and Otome are finally getting along, even giving each other romantic advice. However, when Minamis best friend confesses his love for Otome, suddenly the siblings peaceful relationship takes an unpredictable turn, making them wonder with whom they are in love.

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Skip to the bottom for final thoughts.

I liked the concept of this series, which explores the familial bond between step-siblings. The premise of the series is that Otome and Minami are step-siblings who basically love each other in a romantic way. While Minami has always felt this way about Otome, she's never really questioned her own feelings towards him. The four volumes focuses primarily on Otome as she fully becomes self-aware of her feelings for Minami. There is also some focus on Minami as he tries to deal with his apparently one-sided feelings for Otome.

The series had an opportunity to delve into an area that I think society ignores. Just because your mother or father remarries doesn't necessarily mean that the feelings you'll have for a step-sibling are platonic. In many cultures it's taboo to date a step-anything. Coming from a family where my father married multiple times each time acquiring new stepchildren (only to cut out from his life the stepchildren of marriages that didn't work out), I could relate to the awkwardness of multiple families coming together and the oddity of acquiring new stepsisters and stepbrothers.

Instead of exploring this issue in a manor even approaching mature, this series is a haphazard collection of loosely related events that alternates between melodrama and comedy (or what passes as comedy). There's barely a plot and the character development is nonexistent. Supporting characters are either telling the siblings to hook up or shaming them for their feelings. The weird thing is, it's the same characters doing this seesaw commentary. There is very little consistency.

It's hard to feel for Otome or Minami, and the supporting characters really aren't developed enough to feel one way or the other about them. I hated Otome's boyfriend, Amane, who acts possessive and childish in his dealings with Otome. Of course Minami pretty much acts the same way, so it was hard to care about which guy she ends up with. I suppose I rooted more for Minami, but I think that's just because he actually has some character development.

Final Thoughts

I found it hard to relate to any of the characters. There is very little character development and only the two main characters, Otome and Minami, have even a modicum of depth. The story itself has little substance and it doesn't even try to handle a complex subject in a serious way. Overall, I think this series is a missed opportunity. It had potential to explore an area that is ignored in mainstream media. Instead it treated the subject as one big joke.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Strobe Edge by Io Sakisaka

Title: Strobe Edge
Author: Io Sakisaka
Volumes: 10 (completed)
Volumes (English): 10 (completed)

What is love, anyway? Ninako Kinoshita’s friends tell her it’s one thing, but Ninako wonders what this mysterious feeling really is. When she meets Ren Ichinose, the handsome, enigmatic guy that all the girls worship, her life takes an unexpected turn. With just a few words and a smile, he changes her world...

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This actually manages to be a somewhat spoiler free review, but only somewhat, so skip to the bottom to avoid spoilers.

Strobe Edge quickly became one of my favorite shojo manga series. While it wasn't love at first sight, my love for the series grew with each new release. One reason this wasn't a case of instant love is that the plot isn't overly original -- girl likes guy, guy has girlfriend thus forming a love triangle, guy's best friend falls for girl, after a breakup guy falls for girl, dissolving one love triangle only to form a new love triangle, at which point guy's best friend's ex girlfriend enters the picture forming a sort of love square.

What makes this a stand out series isn't the plot, but the character development which is phenomenal. The characters have depth and real emotion that isn't an exaggerated version of the emotion the author is trying to express. The characters feel real, like ordinary people you might meet one day. I think what I like best about the characters is that they're all decent people just trying to make it through life the best they can. I didn't hate any of them. This is a rare phenomenon in shojo, where love rivals are often drawn in a dark light.

I wanted all of them to have a happy ending, something that I doubted could be achieved based on the characters' conflicting desires. (Weirdly, at one point I wanted Ren, Ninako, Andou, and Mayuka to form one large group and just all date each other as a group. It was the only way I thought there could be any chance at a happy ending for characters that I genuinely cared about.) Luckily, Io Sakisaka actually manages to deliver both a believable and happy-ish ending for all characters involved and she didn't have to resort to my brilliantly stupid idea of group dating.

The other issue I had with the series is the artwork. Although it does steadily improve throughout the series, there were times, early on in the series, when I would confuse the female characters because of how closely they resemble each other. Particularly, with regards to Mayuka, Sayuri (Sayu), and Ninako. This caused some confusion in volume two when Sayu confesses her feelings to Daiki. I had to re-read the panels because for a moment it looked like Mayuka, Daiki's sister, was confessing her love for him. (There are brother complexes and then there are brother complexes, and I did not sign up for a Flowers in the Attic relationship when I picked up this series.) The good thing is that the artwork does improve and the female characters become more defined and individualized by the end of the series.

Another aspect that saves this series from being just another shojo, is the secondary characters and complex subplots. While the main story focuses on Ninako and Ren there are other stories being weaved throughout the narrative that add depth to the series. One such subplot focuses on Daiki and Sayu's relationship. Their relationship has major hurdles to overcome and the way they handle each issue is honest. In some ways Daiki and Sayu are dealing with the more serious side of being in a relationship while Ninako and Ren's relationship is still in its infancy.

Ninako is a heroine that's impossible to hate. She's genuinely kind and her optimism in the face of unrequited love is refreshing. She's happy to be in love and holds tight to the feeling even when she knows Ren is unavailable. She doesn't sulk and try to manipulate any given situation. She accepts here feelings and embraces them without trying to force them on Ren. (If I had to put a song to her feelings I'd assign Frou Frou's "It's Good to be in Love.")

I think that's one of the reasons Ren is able to eventually fall for her when he does become emotionally available. Speaking of Ren, I genuinely liked him as a hero. While he is somewhat reserved, he's also honest and doesn't send mixed signals to Ninako while he's dating Mayuka. In the series he attracts every girl, because that's how it is in shojo, but he doesn't take people's feelings lightly and he doesn't toy with people's emotions.

One of the things I liked about the series is the way in which Mayuka and Ren ended their relationship. There wasn't ridiculous amounts of drama and hatred for each other. Instead, there's a natural gradual decline in their relationship where they eventually realize they're at different places in their lives and what they once got from being together wasn't there anymore. It doesn't mean it wasn't painful for them, but it didn't have melodrama. It's honest and quite beautiful in its own way. You could tell that they still cared about each other and wanted the other to be happy even though they knew they wouldn't be the ones doing that for each other anymore.

I also liked how friendship is portrayed in this series, especially between Ren and Andou. They have a history that's a bit painful and watching them rebuild these tenuous bonds of friendship is quite lovely. There's a sense that history is repeating itself when they both fall for the same girl and I was honestly worried that their friendship may not be able to suffer another blow. One of the reasons I think it was able to hold fast is because of Ninako. She's not the type of person to allow herself to become a bone of contention. Even as Andou is essentially asking her to use him to get over Ren, she doesn't take him up on his offer. She actually cares about their friendship.

I adored Andou. His character is a bit jaded and his heart's been bruised, but he's fearless in love. He falls for Ninako, and even though he knows she's crushing on his friend he pursues her and is just so damn sincere in his feelings for her. He fights for her affections until the very end, even when it's obvious Ren and Ninako are both into each other. I think what I find so moving about him is that when he sees Ninako is being hurt by the obligations of his affections, he lets her go. And while he needs space after Ren and Ninako get together, it's obvious they're all going to remain friends. There is also a hint that his ex-girlfriend, Mao, and Andou may eventually get together again.

I really liked Mao by the end of the series. I love when she challenges Andou in the last volume and declares a sort of storming of his heart. After watching him fight so hard for Ninako she's going to give it her all and fight for him. His reaction was perfect. Her story is almost one of redemption and I can't help but hope that it works out for them and that second chances are possible.

The ending to Strobe Edge is perfect! It tied so well to the rest of the series, even alluding back to important moments from Ren and Ninako's interactions in earlier volumes. I also love the scene in the last few pages of the volume, when Ninako and Ren have just gotten over a misunderstanding and you see their different thought bubbles. It had me laughing because they're thinking such different things in that moment.

The extra story at the end of the volume featuring Manabu was precious. Manabu is a wonderful character who doesn't get as much face time as the other characters, so it's refreshing to read something from his perspective. Throughout the series he's playing cupid to Ren and Ninako and has no clue that as he tries to bring two of his friends together, he's kind of interfering with his other friend Andou's bid for Ninako's affections. Scenes that featured him generally had me smiling. What made the bonus story about him so great is that it adds another layer to his character. Generally, he's the happy-go-lucky sort of character, but with the bonus story you see that not everything is that simple.

Final Thoughts

I love this series! While the artwork has some issues in the early volumes and the plot isn't unique,  the character development is amazing. They are three dimensional and fully developed characters rather than stock caricatures. There is strong emotion throughout the series without it becoming melodramatic. Foremost, the characters are believable and it's easy to relate to Ninako's unrequited love, Andou's cynicism, Sayu's insecurity, Mayuka's drive, Ren's reservedness, and Mao's quest for redemption. (There isn't really a character in this series that I didn't relate to on some level.)

The author also does a good job of exploring relationships, from it's inception to it's eventual end. And not just romantic relationships, but friendship and even familial as well.  I recommend this to those who like Kimi ni Todoke, We Were There, Say I Love You, and Ao Haru Ride.

Side note:

In general Strobe Edge has some of the best bonus stories that I've read in a shojo. One stand alone story called "Colorless Dreamer" is especially good. The main character Rena could be a grown up version of Ninako, they look so similar, but the story is moving. It's in volume six if you're interested in reading it. Also, Ao Haru Ride, Io Sakisaka's current project, is shaping up to be an even better series than Strobe Edge, so check it out if you haven't already.