Monday, May 23, 2011

Ted reviews Marimo Ragawa's Baby & Me

I'm going back to a classic, here, in more ways than one. Marimo Ragawa's series Baby & Me was published from 1991 to 1997, which qualifies it as a classic in my book. But it's also a series that I finished reading last year, and which I haven't re-read since, so I may be a little fuzzy on some of the details. However, I'm not fuzzy on my general opinion of the series: it's very, very good, and definitely worthy of your time.

B&M has a very simple, very straightforward premise: ten-year-old Takuya Enoki's mother, Yukako, died recently in a car crash, leaving behind Takuya, his father Harumi, and his baby brother Minoru, who's only two years old. Harumi works long days and nights, leaving Takuya to care for Minoru most of the time. Now Takuya has to juggle school, caring for his brother and father, dealing with his wacky friends and neighbors, and the various crazy situations he occasionally gets dragged into.

Like I said: simple premise. It's practically a sitcom premise, really, the kind of setup that could generate three schmaltzy seasons on ABC. But it's handled with a sensitivity and depth that makes it well worth the read.

A lot of that strength comes from Takuya. Minoru is a cute kid, with a wide variety of adorable expressions in his arsenal, but he's too young to actually carry much of a story. Takuya, though, is a strong character, a good kid stuck in a tough situation. He clearly loves Minoru, but also resents him for taking over his life; he enjoys the responsibility of being a big brother, but at the same time, he's still a kid himself. Ragawa walks a fine line with Takuya: he's more mature than most of his classmates, capable of taking care of himself and his family, but he's still prone to emotional outbursts, childish tantrums, and the occasional bout of immaturity. He is, in short, still growing up.

The other strong point of the series is its supporting cast. Takuya and Minoru are clearly the main characters of the series, but the cast expands rapidly. The Enokis' neighbors, Takuya's classmates, Harumi's colleagues: they flesh out the world of B&M and make it feel that much more organic.

Many of these characters only appear in a chapter or two, but the best ones stick around. Takuya's father, Harumi, is given his own supporting cast of office workers, bosses, and secretaries. Their neighbors (I think—again, it's been a while) Seiichi and Tomoko have a new baby and money problems. Takuya's mother's aunt Fujiko still resents her niece's choice of husband and tries to manipulate Takuya against him.

At its best, this series reminds me of the criminally short-lived drama My So-Called Life: although the show's main characters were the teenagers, their parents weren't given short shrift. In a lot of similar shows, even when the adult characters get screen time, the focus would still be on the kids—we may be watching the main character's mother, but only to see how she feels about her daughter. In MS-CL, though, the parents were characters in their own rights, not just backdrops for the teen characters; they had their own hopes, desires, backstories, problems, and so forth. B&M doesn't always quite reach that level of quality—some of its supporting characters are still pretty one-dimensional, or at least only good for one story—but when it's good, it's very good.

Even those stories which focus on a character who's never been seen before and will never be seen again are still often pretty good. For example, in a chapter where Takuya's class has to interview their parents and learn what they were like as children, we get brief but fascinating glimpses of their lives.

In one of my favorite chapters, towards the end of the series, the Enokis' neighbor Tomoko meets another new mother, Shiho, who's having trouble raising her child. Her husband is cold and distant, and she feels stressed and incapable of caring for her son. It's a closely observed picture of a troubled family, and the story doesn't end with easy answers; although Shiho and her husband are making an effort to improve, both still have a way to go. Stories like these, tender and honest, are B&M at its best.

Artistically, the series is a pretty straight-ahead classic example of mid-nineties shojo manga: finely drawn hair and faces, sparse backgrounds, large, expressive eyes. Ragawa does do some interesting layouts from time to time, but for the most part the panels are arranged for maximum clarity. There are a few brilliant moments: when Takuya remembers going to the park as a family, before his mother died, the characters are drawn normally but the background is a scribbled child's drawing of a merry-go-round and ferris wheel. Or when he tells a fairy tale to Minoru, the characters are drawn with exaggeratedly thick linework and offset screentone.

Low points of the series? Well, there's a few. B&M largely but not entirely avoids melodrama; some of the stories are so corny and choked with tragedy that they're almost laughable. While most of the side-stories are brought in organically—a classmate of Takuya's, a friend of Harumi's—a few are pretty outrageous (Takuya and Minoru are in a pachinko parlor when a bunch of loan shark thugs start tearing up the place, how dramatic!).

The series' biggest problem may be that perennial sitcom bugaboo, the non-passage of time. Although Takuya is clearly on the cusp of puberty—there's actually a very delicately handled storyline about a classmate of his who's been having wet dreams and doesn't know what they are or what to do—and Minoru is at an age where he should be developing quickly, the characters are all stuck in the perpetual ageless limbo that is the episodic series time hole. It's a little bit frustrating; for all that characters talk about growing up and the differences between adults and children, we never get to actually see any of that.

Ultimately, though, Baby & Me is an excellent series about childhood, adulthood, and parenthood, and those uneasy zones of transition. It's a simple series with a simple premise, but wrings a surprising amount of depth and heart out of it. Too bad it's so far out of print you couldn't see it with a telescope.

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