Thursday, November 16, 2006

So, Skip Beat volume 3. I had been worried that the artist, Yoshiki Nakamura, was going to ease up and let her saint-gone-sour protagonist, Kyoko, revert to saintliness & sweetness. As of the third volume, that threat has not yet materialized. Our heroine, having been provisionally accepted into talent agency LME as a member of the cloyingly named "Love Me Section", is obliged to prove that she can both elicit, and accept, affection. The flamboyant head of the agency believes that the most bedrock requirement of "talents" who work in the entertainment industry is this ability to be lovable. Kyoko, whose whole life up to the point of the beginning of the story was a sort of rigorous ryokan-themed training in this exact sort of self-denial and hospitality, is thus emininently qualified to do what is required of her - be what the "customer" wants to be, by engaging the core emotional needs of the "customer" - but her radical alienation means that she harbors the worst possible motivations for said performance.

After the climax of the story which covers the last half of the second volume and the first half of the third, Kyoko comes to an interesting revelation: the horrible realization that she is hollow. Everything she ever did for others, especially for the cad Shotaro who betrayed her selflessness in the manga's inciting incident, has been entirely *for others*. She was a shell of performance - of doing things for others, with a reflexive smile and outward happiness, and an internal, manic sort of grasping desperation. Admittedly, it was a cheerful, happy-eyed sort of grasping desperation, but even in the initial scene of the first volume, the allegedly-happy Kyoko, slaving away at multiple jobs to support the selfish Sho, briefly breaks out of her working-happy shell to race madly and maniacally off on a poster-hunt. This sort of outburst is not the behavior of someone living her ideal life, although this is allegedly what she was doing at that moment. When an unintentional revelation shows her that her self-sacrifice has only earned contempt and betrayal, this shell of selflessness and outward cheer is shattered, exposing what was supperating below. This new Kyoko is a personification of the grudge, with a comedically-themed mania for curses, voodoo, and scorned fury, but what we're seeing is the energy of desperation directed outwards for the first time, the little that was left of the heroine which hadn't been dedicated to the shell of performance.

The second volume was kind of uncomfortable, as it cut a little close to the true, core theme of desperation, as Kyoko, rejected from her attempt to spite the now-hated Sho by outshining him at his own business, tries to crawl back into her shattered shell, to be other than what she is - to heal her "inability to love" by main force. The irony is that everything the agency president wants her to do, she could, and can, easily do, if she was willing to deceive herself & crawl back into the shell.

Once the stories shift to her direct interactions with other artists at the agency, this discomfort fades, because it's the other artists who are being discomfited, instead of the audience. Or, perhaps, just me. You see, I prefer to identify with Kyoko-the-terrifiying-truth-revealing-monster, scaring the crap out of her peers & fellow entertainment-workers, over suffering with the comedically abused Kyoko-the-desperate-victim, scrabbling after her false, lost sainthood. This is why the next arc, which covers the last few chapters of the third volume, and extending into the yet-to-be-published fourth volume, has my rapt and urgent attention.

The story rotates around the rehersal for a performance of a play at the agency's acting school, where the theme of the play - the effect of a mother's death on a child and her family - echoes the emotional trauma of the president's difficult young granddaughter. The granddaughter's problem is that she doesn't want the happy words and fake optimism of the play's script and her grandfather's artistic dogma - she wants to be told the things she fears. It's a true bit of characterisation - nothing is as infuriating to a depressive personality as to be fed aphorisms and happytalk. The granddaughter is looking for catharsis, and her grandfather's philosophy only allows for empathy. Nakamura brings us to that moment of catharsis, with a perfect look of appalled shock on the president's face as Kyoko inverts the schmaltz and pollyannaesqueries of the script into something ugly, and dark, and real - and then Nakamura drops us into the gutter between volumes. See you in two months! Argh!

On another subject, while I agree with Jarred Pine about preferring heroines who are self-motivated & empowered over the self-sacrificing types who exist to motivate or control a strong love interest, I have to think that Night of the Beasts is shaping up to be one of the worst possible examples of that particular post-modern impulse. The protagonist of Night of the Beasts, Aria, starts out as a kick-ass man-thumping brute who has literally never lost a fight with anyone, and gets into enough daily street-brawls to make that more than an empty boast. But the conflict and ongoing centre of Night of the Beasts isn't Aria vs. demons or thugs or whatever, but rather Aria's ability to redeem her morally-precarious, demon-haunted love interest Sakura, to keep him from going wild & killing innocents in the heat of a beserker demonic episode. So far, her toughness has only been of use in fueling her ability to get close to the out-of-control Sakura & bringing him under control - to tame him. This is classic romance-novel wish-fulfillment, acted out with a big-boned busty tomboyish thug of a heroine instead of the usual big-eyed demure wisp. I don't know, maybe Night of the Beasts will go in a different direction from the one I'm anticipating, but it doesn't feel like it'll be a Devilman Lady or cross-gendered Bleach, with growth-through-fists-of-fury character-development.

Instead, it scans like Red Sonja cast against type as Jane Eyre.

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