Monday, December 7, 2009

Manga Reviews: Esper Mami

As mentioned in the Hotel review, Fujio F Fujiko (FFF) (Doraemon), Akatsuka Fujio (Tensai Bakabon) and Shotarou Ishinomori (Cyborg 009, Kamen Rider) are arguably the three top artists to have come out of Tezuka's Tokiwa Sou (Tokiwa Manor). But, while Ishinomori had the greatest level of output, FFF probably wins on one single title - Doraemon. None of the others have a series that has run so long on TV, or has been so completely accepted by both children and adults.

I've mentioned before that originally two friends (Hiroshi Fujimoto and Abiko Motoo) had teamed up to work under the penname "Fujio Fujiko", and they'd also worked together as assistants to Tezuka in Tokiwa. However, they did eventually drift apart and ended the partnership in the 1980's. They kept the name, with Abiko identified as Fujio A Fujiko, and Hiroshi as Fujio F Fujiko. FAF was slightly involved at the beginning in the development of Doraemon, but there was no connection afterwards in FFF's later works. While FAF did write some stories for children, a lot of his solo works were pretty dark, such as Black Humor and Smiling Salesman. On the other hand, FFF stayed mostly in the "young children's manga" genre, yet did treat children as being fairly mature and intelligent.

So, why not review Doraemon? I'd rather tackle a slightly less well-known title to show a more complete view of FFF's techniques. It's too easy to find video clips and commentary on Doraemon and I have nothing to add to what's already out there.

Esper Mami, vol. 1, by Fujio F Fujiko
As given in the wiki entry, Esper Mami first appeared in Shonen Big comic in 1977. By this time, FFF had already created Paa-man, 21-emon, Moja-kou, Ume-boshi Denka, Doraemon and Kiteretsu Daihyakka. In fact, in the wiki list of major works, Mami is the second to last, followed by Chimpui. He already had a vast amount of experience to draw on when he decided to tackle his next work. Even so, there are some rough edges throughout the first volume. Mami's proportions vary from page to page, with her neck or arm getting a little too stretched out, or her height shrinking when standing next to someone. Her expressions are often static, looking flat and pasted down on top of the paper. Within the same scene, her face will be drawn as a 12-year old, then suddenly look a more mature 18 years old. Movement generally consists of a fixed pose and some speed lines.

Ignoring the artistic issues, the story is fairly sophisticated. 14-year-old Mami Sakura starts out as a normal young girl, kind of an airheaded slacker who is often late waking up and getting to school. Her grandmother was French, which is why she has red hair; the rest of her family comes from Japan. And she has a raccoon dog, named Konpoko, as a pet. One day, she sees a classmate, Kazuo Takahata, being threatened by three other kids trying to get people to join their boxing club so they can demand membership fees from them. The three start picking on Kazuo when the boy suddenly finds himself up in a tree. Initially, Kazuo convinces himself that he can teleport, and he ends up banging himself up trying 'port again. However, Mami realizes within a few days that not only was she the one that saved Kazuo, but that she can also read thoughts and do some telekinesis. The limit on teleporting though is that something has to be moving at her or her target, like a punch or Konpoko jumping at her, for it to work. Later, she develops a "person in distress signal", where she detects someone in a severe panic as emitting a ringing bell sound.

For the first few chapters, Mami dreams of being older and having adventures as the "beautiful girl Esper secret agent", only to wake up in the middle of the classroom with everyone else laughing at her. During the normal course of the day, she still has trouble studying and fitting in with others. When she considers misusing her powers for one reason or another, someone straightens her out unknowingly. The fact that her ancestors in France used to burn witches at the stake keeps her from telling anyone else about her powers. Stories include two customers that both want to buy the same painting from her father; the continuing problem of the boxing group picking on Kazuo; Kazuo's existing girlfriend getting jealous over Mami's spending time with the boy; rescuing a kidnapped child; and a group of hoodlums trying to force themselves on a female hiker out in the woods. Eventually, Kazuo does figure out that Mami's the one with the powers, and he takes on the task of building equipment to help support her, such as a brooch that shoots BBs so that Mami can teleport herself (or some other target) at will. Kazuo is smart, but knowing that he doesn't have ESP himself does eat at him at times.

Mami's mother, Naoko is a newspaper reporter, and her father, Juro is a painter that also works at Mami's school as an art teacher. And here's where we run into problems talking about manga in the U.S. Mami occasionally poses as a model for her father, and because of this she sometimes appears naked in the comic. Japan in general has a much more relaxed attitude towards the human body than the U.S. does, and it was very common up until recently for whole families to bathe together in the same tub (partly to save water, partly to enforce the group mentality). The main reason why it's less common now is that everyone is too busy to be all in one place at the same time. Regardless, Mami has a casual attitude towards nudity, which causes everyone else around her to panic if suddenly caught without clothes on. On the other hand, she has absolutely no interest in having boyfriends. It does mean, though, that "Esper Mami" can't run in the U.S. without some very serious re-editing. Esper Mami addresses a number of issues that all Japanese children encounter, and in this sense, FFF is attempting to teach his readers how to overcome various challenges.

FFF has a cartoony style, most obviously shown in Konpoko's design. But, he can do elaborate backgrounds when he wants to, and his stories don't settle for the easy solutions. Then again, the stories are lighthearted, and avoid the kind of darkness that FAF embraced in Black Humor. Esper Mami is a kid's "magical girl" series that embraces older-fashioned Japanese values while adding a twist to the sorts of esper stories that Tezuka, Ishinomori and FAF also played with. It's highly likely, though, that most western readers will be happier reading Doraemon.


Tyciol said...

Question: where does it say Mami is 14? Could you post the panels where she looks 12/18?

TSOTE said...

Thanks for dropping by.
I don't have the manga anymore, so I can't scan the pages for you. However, the Japanese wiki entry confirms that she is 14, and is in junior high year 2.