Skip Beat! - Gotta Have 'Em All (Part One)

>> Sunday, June 5, 2011

Skip Beat! by Yoshiki Nakamura is easily the best manga I never thought I'd like. The premise held no interest for me even though was adamant I'd want to read it. Actually, they seemed pretty damned confident that I'd want to own every volume. Bastards. They were right.

Having read it several times now, I can tell you several aspects about it that usually irritate me no end in a manga. But I love Skip Beat! I have every volume and can't wait for the ones still to come. I've even watched the anime in Japanese (subbed in English) several times despite the premature ending. And I'll do it again.

Actually, it takes a while to read Skip Beat!, not just because it's one of the longer series or because it has lots to read on most pages (though those are both true). I savor it. The characters are so vivid and real for me that I stop and imagine scenes, listen and feel along with the characters. And, yes, even go back and reread scenes I particularly love.

Ironically, even when I first read it, (scanlation on line), I didn't think I really liked it and kind of skipped ahead because one character (Ren Tsuraga) kind of intrigued me, but he didn't really get involved until a couple of dozen chapters in. When I got hooked, however, it pushed me through the rest. I liked the characters so much I went back and read it from the beginning. Then realized those "dull" learning-the-craft-of-acting chapters are as much why I love the manga as anything else. So I read it end to end. This has so much going for it, that I likely won't fit it all into one post. I'll try to make sure it's less than 24 however.

Anime? Yes Volumes of manga: 28 (24 Eng) Status: Ongoing

My rating: Gotta have 'em all

Age range: I wouldn't have a problem letting any teenager read this, but we all know I'm progressive. .

Taboos and "warnings": I can't think of anything that would cause me the slightest palpitation here.

Premise: Kyoko's childhood friend/long time imagined prince/true love (Sho Fuwa) decides to throw away the shackles of his parents' resort and move to Tokyo to become a singing superstar right after middle school. He asks Kyoko to go with him and she doesn't even hesitate as she has basically centered her life around Sho since her mother discarded her. Working three jobs, she supports Sho so he can focus on his career which comes through for him with amazing speed, say a year or so after they get there. His most ardent fan (and prone to flights of fancy - more on this later), Kyoko ignores the signs as he spends less and less time at their apartment and treats her with more and more contempt when he does. When she shows up to deliver food for him, she finds him complaining to (and flirting with) his manager about the little no-name whiner and how she's outlived her usefulness now that he can support himself and hire a maid to take care of him. There's more to it. Believe me, it wasn't Sho's best moment. Her faithful undemanding heart breaks open to reveal a mass of resentment and anger (characterized by interesting "grudge Kyokos"/spirits) that she'd been treated so. She vows revenge which Sho dismisses easily with a scoffing recommendation to try to beat him in show business and a sneer about how unlikely that is for a plain untalented nobody like herself. So, she vows to do just that.

What works: I hate revenge stories. They're usually misguided and self-indulgent and petty. We see a little of that in this story, but not like I expected. At first glance, it would seem that that's what the story's all about. However, very early on, it's pretty clear that that's not the case. What it's about is an emotionally neglected girl being drastically disillusioned by the person she thought she knew and loved best. She's spent her whole life trying to live for other people (her mother, Sho and Sho's parents) rather than herself and has no idea who she is, what she wants, or what she's capable of. Although, ostensibly, her goal is to bring Sho Fuwa to shame, her revenge ends up being the means of finding what she really wants and needs rather than the end she thinks it is. The real story is her discovery of herself, her building of herself from the ground up and that's pretty interesting.
Her character is key to the story, so I'm going to discuss it a bit here though I intend to do a post just talking about some of the fantastic characterizations in this manga. It's important to understand that Kyoko is not the doormat she appears in the first chapter or so here. Nor is she the blatantly militant anti-male monster she sometimes looks like for very brief moments, mostly when Sho's involved. Her temper (particularly if Sho's involved) is hair-trigger since her internal revolution, but she is quite capable of accepting advice and criticism objectively. She understands parts of herself extremely well. If her self-image is not stellar, she is determination incarnate, has a great deal of pride in her work, and will not allow anyone (ever again) to treat her as worthless which is damn healthy if you ask me. However, the author does not make the mistake of making her all healthy all at once. She's still loaded up with baggage and challenges and scars, while still being incredibly capable, imaginative and intelligent. She apparently always was capable, imaginative and intelligent - she just needed an opportunity to use it.

The means: show business. Right up there with revenge on subjects I have no interest in. I don't watch celebrities, don't find the majority of them even vaguely interesting and have never been the kind to be interested in backstage this or that. I can't even tell you this is anything like real show business in Japan or anywhere else. But I found it riveting. Part of that is undoubtedly the characters. But part of that is because being actors (good actors) in this manga means finding out the character and becoming it, studying and learning and extrapolating what someone like that in this situation would do. And, boys and girls, that the same thing I do when making characters for novels. What started out as sections I'd intended to just flip past became mesmerizing, fascinating in ways I never expected.

Why? Because it was so clever. The key to Kyoko's acting is that she doesn't think like anyone else. Oh, she's logical alright, but her mind moves so quickly and in such unusual ways that no one ever knows what she'll do. Time after time, even those that expect the most from her are shocked at the direction she takes, yet she makes it work because it's clever. It's right. I can count on one hand the number of mangas who have impressed me with the cleverness of their plot devices. Possibly one finger.

But wait, there's more. On top of the cleverness and the character development of our main character, there's a whole cavalcade of fascinating, appealing, nuanced, charming and even unsavory characters, all with depths and layers and surprising aspects. No one's perfect, not even the ridiculously tall and imposing Ren. No one is without appealing aspects, including the self-absorbed Sho. And these characters grow and learn and change and adapt and develop and nurture as we go along. It's a character smorgasbord with one mouth-watering course after another.

Normally, slow-moving romances, like the one between Ren and Kyoko (177 chapters without so much as one liplock or acknowledgement between them what they feel) drive me insane. I'm a serious romantic and I hate being dragged along interminably. But the reason behind the foot-dragging is sound: Kyoko is scared to death to love anyone again, and Ren is moving very gingerly and very carefully because losing what he has is unthinkable, no matter how much more he wants. Frustrating now and then, but the pace allows for real growth between the two characters, both in how they deal with each other, how they rely on each other, how they respect and care for each other in ways that have little to do with romance and yet everything to do with it. (Frequently, mangas with an interminable romance have pretty stagnant relationships in general, with all that affection developed up front with the original feelings and nothing changing in the interim).

Oh, and I forgot to mention an important aspect of this sometimes heart-wrenching, soul-stirring, thought-provoking manga. It's freakin' hilarious. I'm laughing every fifteen minutes (except in heavy scenes) and sometimes more. And I've read this now half a dozen times.
The artwork is a subject all by itself and merits it's own post, which I will link here when I've written it. There were aspects I loved and aspects I really didn't love, but it was fascinating and definitely contributed on the plus side. I have now decided that, if Ms. Nakamura ever gives up the manga business (Heaven forbid!) she could be a damn fine fashion designer. More on that in the artwork post.

Favorite character: Ain't no way to pick just one. I loved 'em all, even most of the bad guys. Ren or Kyoko might edge out the rest, but there are several just as likeable. More when I write the character post.

Quotes: I wrote down several but they were all part of conversations that would have filled five or six posts in order to make sense. It isn't a manga of one-liners or clever lines that were as effective out of context. But I love the dialog any way.

What I didn't like: There are a few places where it drags. The culmination scene where Ren nails Katsuki in his "acting test" dragged a bit as did some of the interactions on the Box R set (whose characters didn't really speak to me). Still, for something 28+ volumes long to read as painlessly as this? Really, it's remarkable it doesn't drag more.

A couple aspects of the artwork, particularly Ren's too-small face, irked me a bit, but there are also times where he looks stunning so it just goes to show you. He faired less well in the anime, I think.

There are a handful of characters I didn't ever really warm up to like Moko-san and the former Akita Tendou, but given the cavalcade of players, that's pretty impressive as well. Really, what's not to like?

Actually, my biggest complaint is that there are odd volumes (2, 3, 6, 7, 9, 13, 14 and 18) which appear to be out of print. You can buy them for >$20/each (or less if you really scout around like I did - I do have them all) but it ain't easy. Since more in the series are still coming out, Viz Media--and you want people to get the whole series, right?--how 'bout making it so they can?

Update: Apparently, Viz Media is going to 3-in-1 volumes for Skip Beat! with them starting to come out next spring, which might be why some single volumes are falling in and out of print. On the one hand, that's a bummer between now and then, so some of the hard to find volumes can really be a pain to acquire if you don't want to wait (try Anime Wild - I've had good luck finding hard-to-find Skip Beat! volumes there). On the other, that's a pretty economical way to build a library of 30 volumes. Amazon is selling the 3 -in-1's for $10.14, only $0.15-1.15 less than the current single volumes. That means you can build your Skip Beat! library for ~$100 instead of ~$300 like I did. As long as you're willing to wait for them to come out over time. If you get caught up in the story, that might be challenging.

Note: There are 24 volumes "available" in English, 29 available on-line as scanalations. There's also a 25 episode anime that's worth it's own post as well. Which I'll link here when it's done.


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