Saturday, July 30, 2011

Family Complex (manga) by Mikiyo Tsuda

Synopsis:

This one-shot focuses on each of the members of the almost entirely beautiful Sakamoto family.
  • Akira (the youngest son - 14 years old) - He's the only member of the family who's not incredibly beautiful, so (and here's where the title comes from) he's got a bit of a complex about his family. He hates it when he's out in public with his family and everyone fawns all over his family members. It makes him feel like he doesn't belong.
  • Harumi (the oldest son - 17 years old) - He doesn't have friends - he has servants. And he hates it. He wants nothing more than to go out and have fun with friends like a normal high school student, but he can't do that when all his classmates put him on a pedestal and call him Sakamoto-sama. The only person he's really close to is his little brother, Akira.
  • Natsuru (oldest daughter - 16 years old) - Natsuru is a tomboy who even looks like a very pretty boy. She doesn't fit in with other girls, because they all fawn over her and fight over her like she's a boy, and she doesn't really fit in with the boys, either. When she was younger, Harumi used to tell her that she should be more girlie, but she wasn't sure if she could do it or if it would even make a difference in how others treated her.
  • Fuyuki (the youngest child in the family, and youngest daughter - 10 years old) - She looks like a beautiful doll. Although she gets along well with her family members, she never knows what to say to those outside her family. Because she agonizes so much over the meaning of what others have said to her and what she should say to them in return, she ends up not speaking at all. Most of her classmates think she's weird and too quiet - pretty, but not much besides that.
  • Hidetoshi (father), Nanami (mother) - During the chapters about the kids, both of these characters are 41 years old. Hidetoshi looks like he could be another older brother in the family, and baby-faced Nanami looks potentially younger than Natsuru. A short story later in the volume shows the two of them as they were 20 years ago. Nanami hated looking young and cute and wanted to be more womanly, while Hidetoshi hated looking beautiful and wanted to look more manly. They meet during a women's apparel contest Nanami organized, which Hidetoshi's friend entered him in without telling him.
There are also a few pages that show the various Sakamoto kids after the events in the chapters that focused on them.

Review:

Mikiyo Tsuda (and her BL pseudonym, Taishi Zaou) is my guilty pleasure. Her stories aren't exactly deep and moving. Her characters and situations may only have the most tenuous of connections to reality. However, I love her sense of humor and the way she draws her characters so much that it doesn't matter.

Family Complex isn't Tsuda's strongest work, but it takes excellent advantage of her greatest strength: her ability to draw incredibly beautiful characters. She's so good at it that she actually fails a bit where Akira is concerned: the only thing that makes him not good-looking is that other characters say he's not as good-looking as the rest of his family. As pure “pretty characters” eye candy, Family Complex gets an A+.

Story-wise, it's not nearly so good. Actually, there isn't much of a story, period. Family Complex is very character-focused, but that doesn't mean the characters are all that deep and complex. Each family member (except Akira) has personal or internal problems caused by how incredibly beautiful they look. Harumi yearns to have real friends and maybe even a girlfriend (or possibly boyfriend – I don't think it matters to him which), rather than just servants who put him on a pedestal. Natsuru is uncomfortable with the fact that she doesn't belong with either the girls or boys her age. Fuyuki suspects she doesn't fit in with her classmates but isn't sure how to fix this. Young Hidetoshi and young Nanami just wanted to look differently than they did. Akira wants to look more like a part of his family. None of them really overcome their problems completely, although most of them do manage to find someone to be closer to – and even that statement makes Family Complex sound like it has more depth than it does. So, let me be absolutely clear: this manga has all the depth of an inflatable kiddie pool.

The humor is another area where Family Complex isn't quite up to par, compared to some of Tsuda's other works. That's not to say I didn't find this volume funny. I love how over-the-top the family is in their looks, their lives, and how much they adore Akira. Much of the humor is based on the assumption that all the world is pretty much normal, except most of the members of the Sakamoto family. I particularly enjoyed the bit during Fuyuki's chapter, when a pervert exposes himself to her (creepy and horrific in real life, but handled lightly and humorously here) and Fuyuki silently agonizes over how to respond to him before finally, casually chasing him off with a single word.

As in some (all?) of Tsuda's other works, a lot of the humor is gender- and sexuality-related. Harumi's chapter is the best example of this, as he tries to get back at his servant-friends by pretending he and Akira are dating (Harumi's friends don't know Akira is his brother). Later, Natsuru messes with Harumi's friends' heads by pretending she and Harumi are about to kiss – as far as Harumi's friends know, Natsuru is actually a good-looking guy. Neither Natsuru nor Harumi's sexuality is very clear. Natsuru is perfectly fine with having a girl harem, and Harumi doesn't seem to care who he ends up with, so long as it's someone he can be emotionally close to. Girls squeal over Natsuru, and guys worship Harumi. Then there's Hidetoshi, who met Nanami while unwillingly cross-dressing. Strangely, although I got tired of the gender/sexuality jokes in the show Baka and Test, I didn't mind them so much in Family Complex, perhaps because it was only a one-shot and wasn't long enough for the jokes to be done to death.

Family Complex's main saving grace is that it doesn't take itself all that seriously and is overall light in tone. It's brain candy of the lightest, fluffiest sort. Those who go into it not expecting much and who enjoy Tsuda's art and generally weird sense of humor may like it. Personally, I'm happy that Digital Manga Publishing released this in a nice, large size, complete with a pretty, removable dust jacket – all the better to admire Tsuda's characters.

Extras:

I debated over whether to mention this in my synopsis, but since it's not about any of Family Complex's characters I decided to call it an extra: Mikiyo Tsuda's "Detached Retina Diary." It's 15 pages long, if you count Tsuda's one-page introduction to it, and Tsuda sticks it into the volume just before the pages showing young Hidetoshi and young Nanami. It's basically Tsuda's experience with being diagnosed with and treated for a detached retina. I'm not an ophthalmologist, so I don't know how good all the information is in this section is, but it still serves as a terrifying warning to those who experience a sudden vision change: go see your doctor, and get the problem taken care of! Shojo manga creators are notorious for the strangeness of their side notes, but I think this is the longest and most detailed note I've ever seen dealing with health problems.

This volume also includes a considerably less horrific and less interesting afterword, in which Tsuda, in manga form, talks about messing up and sometimes using her pseudonym, Taishi Zaou, when she should be using her real name, Mikiyo Tsuda. She also writes about wanting to be able to draw more BL manga (the stuff she does under the name Taishi Zaou) and her fans' feelings about her works created under her two names.

UPDATE: I can't believe I forgot to mention this. There are also a couple manga pages underneath the dust jacket (one page is a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of some of the characters, while the other is a peek at Akira and the rest of the Sakamoto kids maybe 10 years into the future). There are also 4 pages of 4-panel comics featuring Tsuda. 

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Ouran High School Host Club (manga) by Bisco Hatori; Ouran High School Host Club (anime TV series) - Another series that takes it humor from some of the same sources as Family Complex (incredibly beautiful people who look good together). The series is set in a high school for the children of the very wealthy. The Ouran High School Host Club is composed of a bunch of bored, rich, gorgeous boys who cater to the (essentially light and innocent) fantasies of the school's equally bored, rich girls. Haruhi is forced to join the club in order to repay the club members for breaking a vase. It's not until later that all the club members learn that Haruhi is actually a girl. I've written about the first half of the anime and the first volume of the manga.
  • Maria Watches Over Us (anime TV series) - This series is filled with melodrama and girls with incredibly close relationships and problems of a mostly internal/emotional nature, and it may be a good fit for those who liked Natsuru's part of Family Complex. It takes place in an all girls' Catholic school in Japan. Older girls at the school 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 first have a few kinks to work out in their relationship, like the fact that they barely even know each other. I've written about the first and second seasons of this anime.
  • What Happens in London (book) by Julia Quinn - If you'd like a less fluffy (but still fairly light) take on the theme of "problems beautiful people are plagued by," you may want to try this historical romance novel. Olivia is beautiful, and most people assume there isn't much more to her than that. She has many suitors, but she wants someone who's willing to get to know the real her. That person turns out to be the man living next door to her family.
  • Fruits Basket (manga) by Natsuki Takaya; Fruits Basket (anime TV series) - A darker take on family problems. Seriously, Akira's concerns are nothing compared to what the members of the Sohma family have to deal with. Certain members of the Sohma family suffer from a curse that makes them turn into an animal from the Chinese zodiac whenever they become weak or are hugged by a member of the opposite sex. The series starts off light, cute, and quirky, but, as the depths of the Sohma family members' emotional problems are revealed, it becomes much darker. If you'd like more of a focus on the lighter, cuter stuff, watch the anime. If you'd like more of the darker tragic stuff, read the manga. 
  • Otomen (manga) by Aya Kanno - If you'd like more humor about characters who don't conform to traditional gender behaviors, you might want to try this. Asuka appears to be the proper manly ideal. What others don't know about him is that he secretly likes girlie things, like handicrafts, cooking, and cute animals. He falls in love with a clueless girl who likes macho stuff and meets a guy who starts off as his romantic rival and becomes something like a friend.

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