Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ted Reviews Miwa Ueda's Peach Girl

For my first manga review, I’m going to do Miwa Ueda’s series Peach Girl. I chose this series for a number of reasons:
1) I finished it recently, so it’s fresh in my mind.
2) It’s a fairly standard example of a major genre—a lot of the characters, situations, ideas, and so forth are hallmarks of shojo (young girl) romance, and it’s thus a good introduction.
3) It was a decent series—not great, but certainly not the worst I’ve read—so it’s a good introduction in that sense as well.
4) It illustrates some of the difficulties of translation—not just in the sense of complicated words, but also concepts and cultural ideas that Americans won’t know about.

You'll see what I mean by that last one in just a moment. Momo Adachi is a happy, normal high-school student who's misunderstood. She's got few friends, most of the boys tend to assume she's easy, and she can't confess to the guy she loves. The reason for her troubles? She's tan.

(Remember: manga pages read right-to-left. Start in the upper right corner, work your way left, then down.)

In the late '90s and early '00s, there was a fashion subculture among young girls in Japan, primarily Tokyo, known as ganguro, which involved a combination of deep (usually fake) tans, bleached-blonde hair, and bright, over-the-top clothes. These girls were often characterized by the media as loose schoolgirls, sometimes even prostituting themselves out to older men. I wouldn't be surprised if the numbers were greatly exaggerated and this was just another moral panic, but still: the stigma is there.

So Momo, who was on the swim team, her hair bleached by the chlorine and her skin easily tanned, is wrongly thought to be one of these girls. The translators use terms like 'playgirl' and 'beach bunny' to describe how people perceive Momo, but these don't really have the same cultural connotation and don't convey the same level of insult. They're acceptable substitutes, I suppose, but knowing the original term puts the situation more in context.

In any case, Momo's life isn't great. She's in love with Toji, the hunky blonde boy that she's known since junior high, but who doesn't like tanned girls.
Plus there's Kiley, the lovable but horny guy that comforts her and gives her advice on how to make Toji hers—but does he have an ulterior motive? Momo's first few meetings with Kiley don't...
but she eventually warms up to him.

The other major player in this story is Sae. Back when Momo first entered high school, Sae was the only girl who'd talk to her, and now is her only real friend. Problem is, she's evil.
Complete and utter evil. Sae copies Momo in her fashion choices—only Sae makes the fashion look good—she compliments Momo to her face while talking her down behind her back; she schemes and manipulates and always has her own agenda.

I really like Sae—not in the sense that I'd like to be friends with her in real life, but in the sense that she's a character who adds an interesting spice to Peach Girl's story. To Momo, she acts like her best friends, but behind Momo's back Sae is constantly working to steal everything and everyone she loves—even though, as is made clear, she only wants it because Momo has it. Sae only wants what Momo wants, whether it's a cute bag or a boyfriend.

The first few volumes focus mainly on the conflict between Momo and Sae for the affections of Toji, the school superhunk: Momo tries to confess her love, Sae tricks Toji into kissing her in front of Momo, back and forth it goes.
Eventually, after several volumes of manipulations, misunderstood kisses, lies and more lies, Kiley and Toji finally trick Sae into revealing her treacherous nature in front of the entire class. Momo and Toji get together, they dance off skipping into the sunset, and everyone is happy forever.

Well, actually, considering that this takes place in volume four of an 18-volume series, there's quite a bit more.

The story meanders somewhat after this. Sae mends her ways for a while—in fact, there's a recurring joke after this point that she becomes two-dimensional, literally paper-thin, from the sheer crushing defeat she suffers at the hands of Momo and the gang.
For a while she butters up to Momo, in hopes of staying on her good side...
...and, surprisingly, Momo takes pity on the now-hated Sae...
...but eventually Sae goes back to her old tricks. Momo starts having doubts over whether she loves Toji or Kiley more, Toji gets ensnared by Sae's tricks again, Kiley expresses feelings for Momo but also has a secret crush on his former tutor, who is now the school nurse, Kiley's suave, manipulative, rapist older brother shows up...

My point is, it gets complicated. As with most shojo romances, there are a ridiculous number of twists and turns, obstacles on the road to true love. Our heroine agonizes over which of these two boys she truly loves, how to tell them, what love even is...

It seems a little anti-feminist that the protagonist's entire conflict is over which of two boys she likes, that she's choosing to define herself entirely by her attachment to somebody else and not by her own virtues.
But it should be pointed out that Momo is not unique in this: virtually every character in Peach Girl is defining themselves by someone else. Kiley is just as obsessed with romance as Momo is.
Toji chooses to give up his own happiness at one point to ensure Momo's. Sae is insecure and dependent upon the affections of others to validate her own existence.

(Sae's development actually ends up being more interesting, at least to me, than Momo's romantic worries. She temporarily reforms early in the series, goes back to being evil, bounces back and forth quite a bit, and is ultimately forced to confront the fact that she's so insecure that she's allowing herself to be put into horrible situations.
By the end of the series—spoiler alert!—she's more or less a good person, but not entirely reformed: she's tentative friends with Momo and the gang, but isn't averse to a little mischief every now and then.)

In any case, despite the various twists and turns that the story takes over the course of eighteen (!) volumes, true love is always the object of desire, and Momo does eventually find her One True Love. But as with most stories, the destination isn't half as important as the journey. Peach Girl ostensibly has at its core a fairly unremarkable message—Don't Judge a Book by its Cover—but for my money, the less obvious message—Don't Define Yourself By Another Person Because You are a Unique Human Being—is more interesting and well-established.

I should also mention the art in Peach Girl. Most manga are created at a fairly rapid pace—sometimes as many as thirty pages in a week. Manga creators often have assistants helping them do backgrounds and details and so forth, but even so, the demanding schedule means that the art often suffers. You see a lot of repeated poses, simplistic backgrounds, or other tricks to finish pages off as fast as possible. Compounding this is the fact that quite a few manga artists really aren't very good. Often artists will only be able to draw characters in a few very specific angles, or in a limited range of costumes or poses, and if they're forced to go out of their comfort zone the art quality drops dramatically.

This is not the case with Peach Girl, though. Miwa Ueda has a wonderfully tight grasp of anatomy and figure drawing—look, for example, at this:
That's a quite complicated pose, with an interplay of muscles and bone structure, and it's further complicated by the odd angle it's shown from. But it's all clear as a bell, with excellent details on the folds of Momo's clothes, to boot. Similarly, take a look at this montage of Momo working her summer job:
Note the hairstyles: they're all different, yet they're all fitting for a moderately hip teenage girl. Most manga artists—heck, a lot of comics artists, period—don't change their characters' hairstyles that often, because it's difficult to re-learn how a character will look from different angles. Miwa Ueda does it all the time—even, as we see here, multiple times on a single page.

In summary, Peach Girl didn't knock my socks off, but it did enough new things, and enough things well, that I give it a general thumbs-up. The story is a fairly standard shojo romance plot, with a few minor twists, but it's executed well, with some quite well-done art along the way. I'd recommend it to, obviously, teenage girls, particularly those who are just starting to get into manga.


  1. Randomly "bumped" into your blog via GSLIS Community Forum. Never finished Peach Girl (too much of an investment), but I always meant to!

  2. Off the subject, but is "peach girl" concept related in any way to the "peach boy" fairy tale that figures in a new Japanese jazz opera? There was an interesting story about it on MPR/PRI last night. Here's a link:

  3. Kalynochka: yeah, it's a pretty long series, and like I say it kind of wanders back and forth for a while. But it's worth sticking with, I'd say.

    Donna Ahrens (a.k.a. my mother): could be. The folktale in question is the story of Momotaro, who was found by a childless couple in the center of a giant peach. ('Momo' means peach, and 'Taro' is a common Japanese boy's name.) There's no overt references in Peach Girl to the folktale that I could find, but that doesn't mean it wasn't an inspiration.

  4. how can I found manga peach girl to read? I've try everything but I couldn't found it. Pleas HELP!!!