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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.
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:
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.