Monday, 27 September 2010

A to Z: O is for Othello

So it's been a while, and a significant gap in my new schedule. Let's blame it on computer issues and self-loathing and get back on the horse, shall we?

To say that misinformation and ignorance can breed accidental racism or insensitivity is to say something exceedingly obvious. And when it comes to manga there are no end of these groan-worthy moments of cultural distance. Usually these come in the form of how people from foreign countries are represented, most notably America and Africa (doubly so African-Americans, obviously).

If you can catch my gist here, Japan has a HUGE problem in how they usually illustrate black people in manga. More often than not they just look like a horrific caricature, and not out of racism, but purely because most authors just don't realise that the depiction might be a TAD racist. Let's look at one of the more popular examples of this, the Shaman King character Chocolove.This is a relatively early image in that series, so it DOES improve, mind you.

I mean the name alone hints at some small issue, as I'm sure you've noticed, but the huge afro, tribal clothing (he's from New York and at one point was wearing a huge African mask) and large white lips all kinda sit awkwardly as kinda-sorta a bit racist.

But that's the thing. It's not represented as such. In fact Chocolove in that series is one of the more able characters, strong and capable and with a tragic history that's inspired him to want to give good humour to the world at large. It's just that the visual is painfully off (and kinda close to minstrels with the huge white lips). It's just not knowing what you're doing.

Which brings me to today's entry in A to Z. See, this segue is largely unimportant to the manga at large, but I wanted to make a point of acknowledging how awkward it is that a rich girl has a completely subservient black assisstant who doesn't speak so good. It's utterly cringe-worthy and utterly unintentional. The poor speech is because he's not Japanese and doesn't fully speak the language, and the subservience is just how a worker should behave towards their boss in Japanese society. But it rings so awkwardly due to a simple lack of knowledge.

... So yeah. I just wanted to bring up how kinda awkward that is. Now let's talk about Othello.

[WARNING: This review has absolutely NO images of the series in question, because my own scanner and the big bad evil scanlation community have let me down. With that said let's continue, shall we?]

So Othello is a 7 volume series by Satomi Ikegawa that follows the life of Yaya Higuchi, a timid, withdrawn type (something that is basically comics code for "bullied the shit out of") who secretly spends her sundays hanging out with a gothic lolita group (SAFESEARCH ON, PEOPLE!) in secret, the only place where she feels she can truly be herself. But that's really neither here or there. Basically the bullying becomes too much and a childhood persona Yaya calls Nana comes to the rescue, being a brash, no-nonsense polar opposite of Yaya who can deal with the bullies that give her a hard time. And as with ANY story about split personalities Yaya doesn't remember any time she spends as Nana.

Basic set-up, right? Well.... it doesn't really get any more complicated than that for the most part. I mean there's a love conflict between Yaya and Nana of sorts, and more people out to bully poor little Yaya, and even some music related stuff as a central plot point, but really when it comes down to it the series is just an interesting if not simple take on a multiple personality trope spliced with a bit of magical girl tribute.

Oh, that? Yeah, it's kinda interesting. The tool that brings Nana to the fray at first is a magical-girl styled kid's mirror, and Nana herself has very Sailor Moon-esque poses when need be, as well her own catchphrases "HEAVENLY PUNISHMENT" and "JUSTICE IS DONE". Which is kinda awesome in its own awesome way. Not just that, but the idea of someone too weak to fight turning into a powerful version of themselves is kind of the whole crux of the magical girl genre, so there really isn't any denying the connection to the much-loved genre.

So this is where I get into why it's worth reading as part of this 27-part super range of comics. And I gotta say, it's NOT because of the art. Ikezawa's art is very much the typical Shojo art style, in that it's background light and details aren't in the least bit important. Oh and the tones kinda suck complete arse. But if you've been reading Shojo for more than... I don't know, a month? Yeah, a month. If you've been reading Shojo for more than a month you know to expect this and completely ignore it in favour of the story, which is more than satisfactory.

Othello manages to just about dodge becoming saccharine sweet simply by how destestable the antagonists are, or even with how frustrating each situation becomes. It's no Hot Gimmick or I"S when it comes to making you too frustrated with awkwardness and emotions, I mean you can still turn the pages without missing a heartbeat, but it certainly stands out as one of the better titles offered in English.

The most important facet here though is simply this: most quality Shojo series run for about 20-30 volumes, and even the shorter, most brilliant titles like Hot Gimmick run in at 12 volumes. So the fact this clocks in at 7 without feeling the least-bit rushed pays dividends, providing a complete and interesting story without breaking your wallet.

So I implore you to ignore my lack of images in the article, to go to a shop, book exchange, amazon, ebay or even a library, and find this book. Give it a try and you won't be disappointed. And heck even if you are at least you'll... um... hmmm... I'll get back to you on that.

You can find Othello on Amazon (UK) and probably in many a book store, especially as Del Rey's support for manga in the UK is good enough that most of their titles can be found in any decent-sized Waterstones.

And that's O. Next up is P, which is... Classified?! WHAAAAAAAAAAAAA?!


  1. I thought that shaman king character was cool when I first saw him. But when i saw the lips and read on the bio of the character I no longer saw it the same way. I believe asian people DO intend to be RACIST by doing that! I think they learned it from the U.S. and kept that $#!# alive! They see Black people as joke.

  2. Get over it people.
    So yeah the overall design of the character is boarderline racist, but the character is a badass so quit complaining