Friday, January 7, 2011

Princess Princess (manga, vol. 1) by Mikiyo Tsuda

There are some spoilers below, but I'm not sure that's really a problem with this volume.

Synopsis:

For reasons that aren't explained yet, Tohru has transferred to an all boys' school not long after school began, but late enough to miss orientation. It's clear from the start that he expects to miss co-ed life.

He's baffled by the warm reception his fellow students give him but doesn't receive any answers as to what's going on until his living arrangements get worked out. As it turns out, this school has something called the Princess system. The prettiest freshman boys are chosen by the other students to dress up as girls and do things that generally improve the school's morale, like cheering at sport events and giving other students cute greetings in the morning. The students all gave Tohru such a warm welcome because his looks indicated that it was likely he would be chosen as a Princess.

There are already two other Princesses at the school. Shihoudani is a boy whose long hair and pretty looks lead Tohru to think, at first, that he really is a girl. Shihoudani is not only resigned to being a Princess, he seems to enjoy it. Mikoto, on the other hand, hates being a Princess and wishes that Tohru's arrival meant he didn't have to do the job. Unfortunately for him, it doesn't work that way. Mikoto is terrified that his girlfriend will find out that he's a Princess, so he's less than enthusiastic about his duties. What he doesn't realize until Tohru points it out to him is that his sulking and pouting only makes his fans more rabid.

Surprisingly, Tohru becomes a Princess much like Shihoudani in behavior and temperament. He doesn't necessarily enjoy dressing up and acting like a girl, but he doesn't fight it, mainly because being a Princess comes with impressive perks, like free meals, free school uniforms, the ability to miss class without penalty, and cash (royalties from Princess photographs). Money trumps pride, in Tohru's book.

The first big thing the Princesses have to do is cheer on all 14 of the school's clubs every single day until the regionals. Then, if any of the teams win, they have to go cheer them on at their next match...in front of outsiders who don't know about the Princess system. Not even Shihoudani and Tohru want to do that. Unfortunately for the Princesses, just about everyone wins.


Commentary:

My first exposure to this series was the anime. The review on Anime News Network slams it (the text of the review sounds far more negative than its overall C- grade implies), but I actually enjoyed the series. I was curious to see how I would like the manga.

The first thing I noticed was the character designs. Mikiyo Tsuda hardly ever draws backgrounds, either opting for very simple ones or just filling the backgrounds with white, black, or screentone. What her artwork lacks in backgrounds and inanimate objects it more than makes up for with gorgeous character designs. In fact, I think more complex backgrounds would only have been a distraction. Her characters are lovely and totally believable as both Princesses and boys (although this is coming from a long-time reader of shoujo manga, so newbies to the pretty boy style might want to take this with a grain of salt).

Tsuda also does an awesome job with facial expressions. I particularly love the way she draws characters when they are horrified or uncomfortable - it's so funny! That's part of the reason why I love it when she puts her characters in situations that prompt them to make those facial expressions.

At this point, I would like to direct a statement to everyone who had a part in the decision-making process that led to the look of the anime. Pastel hair??? What were you guys thinking?! I originally thought the hair color decision was meant to make the three Princesses easy to identify and tell apart, but the manga has made me change my mind. Shihoudani, Tohru, and Mikoto (you can include Sakamoto in the group, too) are all easy to tell apart in the black-and-white manga. At one point, Natashou, their costume designer, does make comments about different-colored wigs, but blue (Tohru) and pink (Mikoto) are not two of the colors he mentions. And why did Sakamoto's hair have to be green?

Visually, I prefer the manga, no question. As far as the story goes, it's been a while since I last watched the anime, but I seem to remember that it got to the point just a little bit more quickly. That's one area where I think the manga suffers a bit. I can't say for sure, until I've read all the volumes and have a better idea of where Tsuda plans to end up and how she paces the story in order to get to that ending, but I think the story could have been tightened up a bit. It took just a touch too many pages for Tohru to finally learn his new school's secret, and then he still had to be convinced to adopt the Princess role willingly.

That's not to say that it's totally a bad thing that Tsuda takes her time a little. Tsuda has a completely cracked imagination and a good sense of humor, and that, combined with her pretty artwork, made this a fun read (although part of the fun may also have been due to the anticipation I felt, knowing what sorts of things are to come in the series).

Tsuda's vision of how this boys' school works is just...messed up. In a good way (as long as you view this as strictly fantasy). The Princess' classmates are like the usual background characters who sigh over the really cool or gorgeous main character in other series. In this case, however, all that sighing seems a bit pathetic. Everyone knows the Princesses aren't really girls. This couldn't be made more clear when the Sewing Club reacts in horror at the thought of seeing the Princesses without their clothes. They, more than anyone else at the school, know these are boys - they have to measure them and sew their outfits, after all - but even they have illusions they don't want to have ruined.

The series as a whole takes a bit of suspension of disbelief, something Casey Brienza, the reviewer of the anime wasn't able to do. You have to be willing to accept that the boys at this school apparently have no other outlet for their longing to see girls than the Princesses. For me, the suspension of disbelief wasn't really so hard, because, even if I couldn't accept that the majority of the school rarely sees girls, I could accept that it is highly unlikely they'll encounter girls that are anything like the Princesses. The Princesses are idealized girls. More than that, they are the school's local celebrities, so much so that former Princesses tend to end up in leadership roles in the student council. As long as the students don't adore the Princesses so much that they end up forgetting it's all fantasy, it's not really too big of a deal. By viewing this as a celebrity-making system taken to an absurd degree, I didn't really find the series' premise that unbelievable.

I wasn't usually thinking about it all in such serious terms, of course. I was too busy loving watching the Princesses argue and thoroughly enjoying Arisada, president of the student council. Arisada is a former princess, and it's a little hard to tell if he hated it or enjoyed it. For sure, he refuses to let anyone shirk duties that he himself took on without a single complaint (I do wonder if that's true, but then again Shihoudani is a similar character in a lot of ways, and he doesn't mind hardly any of what he has to do).

The biggest complaint I have about the manga is that, although it seems like Tsuda means for Tohru to be the main character, that gets lost a little. Mikoto is so loud in his objections to his Princess duties that he tends to overshadow anything else - Mikoto fans will hate me for this, but he's my least favorite character because of his constant grumbling and pouting. I'm more interested in Tohru and Shihoudani's angst (however silly their angsty backstories turn out to be). I haven't read Day of Revolution yet, but giving Mikoto a lot of "screen time" seems like a cheat to me, since you could get his story just by reading that manga. I suppose I should feel like Sakamoto is the same, since he's also from a previous manga of Tsuda's, but since he always feels more like a minor character I don't really mind.

Mikoto reminds me of another thing I wanted to mention. As you can probably tell, I really don't agree with the Anime News Network review of the anime (they have no review of any of the manga volumes, as far as I can see) - I don't think they have anyone on staff who likes the boy's love genre (not that Princess Princess is exactly BL), and it shows. "Boys on Boys on Film," I miss you.

Anyway, whatever complaints I have about the review, I will concede that Mikoto could be used as a perfect example of what's wrong with the show's premise. He doesn't want to be a Princess and tries, multiple times, to get out of doing the job. There is no way, short of transferring to a different school, that he could stop being a Princess. His complaints are meant to make readers laugh (and possibly to make his fans squeal, since Mikoto ends up unintentionally making himself look like the most girlie of the three characters whenever he pouts or gets upset), but I could also see some people being outraged by his situation.

This series is basically nothing but an excuse for fanservice for girls. It's also funny, pretty to look at, and the hints of angst are intriguing (although I already know what's coming up, and even I'm not going to try to argue that there is anything amazing or groundbreaking about any of it - I will say that Tsuda is as cracked in her angst as she is in her humor). It has aspects that are red flags for some people but not really an issue for me. In addition to owning all of the anime and this volume, I've got the next couple volumes and plan on buying the rest of the series when I have the chance. The story definitely isn't the best thing ever, but I'm buying it more for the humor and the artwork than the story.

Extras:

There's an author afterword in comic form, featuring Tsuda as a teddy bear. In the afterword, Tsuda explains a bit about coming up with the story (it was indeed originally intended to be a BL manga, which explains Tohru and Shihoudani's fantastic chemistry) and deciding to merge the worlds from a couple of her previous manga so that she could cheat a little and recycle some characters.

There are also a few 4-panel comic strips featuring Tsuda (in bear form) and her friend Eiki Eiki (Tsuda's manga soulmate, in rabbit form).

Be sure to strip the book jacket off of the volume - underneath the jacket is a couple bonus comic pages from a flipped Princess Princess world called Prince Prince. As you might be able to guess, in Prince Prince, Tohru (Tohko) is a girl attending an all girls' school with a strange Prince system. Prince Prince looks like it could have worked just as well as Princess Princess, but the end result would have resembled Ouran High School Host Club and Maria Watches Over Us quite a bit.

Unfortunately, there is neither a Translator's Note nor a section explaining honorifics. I almost always appreciate translator's notes, and I came across at least a couple things that would have benefited from a little explanation. I don't personally need the honorifics explanations, but I thought it was odd that they weren't included when the back of the volume explains how to read right to left format manga (a page that, in my opinion, assumes the reader is a manga newbie, who would also probably be new to honorifics). Speaking of honorifics, I thought it was strange that Digital Manga Publishing opted to keep the honorifics but then chose to have the names in Western order ("Tohru Kouno" instead of "Kouno Tohru").

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Ouran High School Host Club (manga) by Bisco Hatori; Ouran High School Host Club (anime TV series) - Shihoudani and Tohru constantly talking about "giving service" and "laying the service on thick," referring to the angelic smiles they aim at their fellow students as part of playing their idealized feminine roles. They don't mind their jobs and, in fact, sometimes even feel a bit of pride in what they do. Those who liked that aspect of the volume might want to try this series, about a host club at an elite high school. The members of the host club focus their efforts on making their clients, female students at the school, feel beautiful and cherished. Like the Princess system, everyone is aware it's all make-believe, but people like their illusions. This is another light, fun, and pretty series and (for the most part) doesn't take itself too seriously.
  • Maria Watches Over Us (anime TV series) - This series focuses on an all girls' Catholic school in Japan with a special system of its own. Older girls choose younger girls to be their petite soeurs, younger sisters. They guide and support them, the same way those petite soeurs will one day guide and support petite soeurs of their own. The main character of this show is, completely out of the blue, chosen to be the petite soeur of one of the school's most popular girls, but the two have a few kinks to work out in their relationship first, like the fact that they barely even know each other. Hinted-at romance abounds in this series, due to the incredibly close relationships that the soeur system inspires. This series takes itself more seriously than Princess Princess and is a little melodramatic because of this, but it's still quite good.
  • Black Butler (manga) by Yana Toboso; Black Butler (anime TV series) - If you'd really just like another series that's one giant tease, you might want to try this. Again, there's a red flag: the "tease" relationship is between the butler and his 12-year-old master (whose behavior, despite flashes of immaturity, is more befitting of someone older). Part of the reason this series has so many fans is that it teases and teases fantastically well, but never actually turns into romance. Anyway, this series is about a young aristocrat whose parents were murdered. With the help of his demon butler, he plans on bringing their killer(s) to justice.
  • Kyou Kara Maoh! (anime TV series) - If you'd like another humorous series that has aspects that are almost, but not quite, boy's love, you might want to try this. The main character is an ordinary student who gets flushed down a toilet to a fantasy world where he learns he is the new demon king. Not long after arriving there, he accidentally gets himself engaged to another guy.

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