Finally, a post about manga and naked teenagers.

*And just to lead things off - Death Note artist Takeshi Obata has apparently been arrested in Tokyo for carrying a prohibited knife in his car. If convicted, he faces a 30,000 yen fine and/or up to a year in prison. The link above is the only one I could find with the story, and though it cites Fuji Television Network News as its source (complete with screencaps), keep your eyes peeled for secondary reports. If this checks out, Obata would not be the first manga artist to run afoul of Japan’s famously strict weapons possession laws; Kazuichi Hanawa was incarcerated for three years due to possession of forbidden (antique) guns, an experience transformed into his book Doing Time, released in English by Fanfare/Ponent Mon.

Air Gear Vol. 1

This isn’t much of a comic. It’s derivative, pandering, tonally schizophrenic, and occasionally revolting. But its presence in the US market and the fan reaction surrounding it has already proven surprisingly valuable from a sociological standpoint, and for that it’s worth writing about.

It’s almost like controversy is determined to follow writer/artist Oh!great (whose name we’re now told is supposed to be one word, as opposed to the statement ‘Oh! great’ - the pseudonym is a pun on the man’s birth name, Ogure Ito, which when spoken aloud sounds like a Japanese person’s pronunciation of the English phrase, complete with misplaced exclamation) into the US market, even though his works probably aren’t all that challenging to US cultural mores in comparison to those of some of his contemporaries. Hell, in many ways Air Gear is remarkably similar to what’s been enduringly popular in the US Direct Market for decades. And yet, hardly a release appears on our English-language shores these days without kicking up some sort of furor.

Not all that many will recall Oh!great’s earliest English-language releases, the Eros-published Silky Whip and Silky Whip Extreme porno books, though it does help put his Japanese career in perspective - like artists as varied as Erica Sakurazawa (Between the Sheets, Angel) and Naoki Yamamoto (Dance Till Tomorrow, Believers), Oh!great has brought much of the sexual edge of his adults-only output into his ‘mainstream’ work. And surely everyone is aware of the uproar that followed the US release of one of those sexualized mainstream works, the seinen (young adult male) martial-arts epic Tenjho Tenge, which DC’s CMX label opted to edit into something (arguably) appropriate for 13-year olds. The fan reaction firestorm following the debut February 2005 volume has yet to entirely fade, unsurprising considering the US manga scene’s strong connection to anime fandom, a notoriously edit-sensitive class of folks.

Air Gear is different in that it’s a shounen book, which means that it actually is aimed at young teenage boys (which isn’t to say that only boys or teenagers read it, just that there’s a presumption that the material would be appropriate for such a target audience). And yet, in an irony that’s perhaps only possible with manga-in-English, US publisher Del Rey has encased the first volume in shrinkwrap and slapped a ‘16+’ on the back cover. Which still hasn’t insulated them from fan complaint - it’s been revealed that the dialogue on three pages of the tome has been toned down (very mildly toned down, judging from the examples provided), which managed to prompt a nearly 100 post thread on the popular AnimeOnDvd message board, and no less than a public apology by Del Rey’s Dallas Middaugh, all to be found at the above link. Surely Del Rey is wary of venturing where CMX did, though it doesn’t appear that fan outcry has slowed the release of the English Tenjho Tenge. The incident is instructive of how careful contemporary manga-in-English publishers are to keep their books as ‘pure’ as possible, even to the point of blasting through Japanese cultural/industry tropes that might leave the US reader feeling a little… odd.

There’s plenty of semi-explicit content left in Air Gear, including a sequence early on in which Itsuki, the lecherous-yet-heroic 13-year old hero of the piece, spills tare sauce all over the clothing of the four sisters (but not his sisters) he shares an apartment with. As logic would dictate, all four of them decide that they simply must wash the crap off at once, so the quartet piles into the shower en mass, leading to a double-page spread of the unclad gals hosing themselves down, hands and spritz and tufts of steam just barely covering their frontal naughty bits in true ‘all-ages’ fashion, while their cheeks hang free.

Also: a grand total of one of these girls is above the age of majority in the US. The four range in age from 22 to 10, but most of the slavering focus of Oh!great’s page composition is lavished on 14-year old Ringo and her ample bosom; the girl’s measurements, 84-57-81, are generously provided in the book’s bonus features. She’s the cute, sensitive, virtuous one. There’s also Rika, the serious, motherly one, Mikan, the sporty, tomboyish one, and Ume, the weird little one, who gets away with just a bare ass shot, perhaps by virtue of being a preteen. I’m certain Oh!great is not the only manga artist popular in English today dishing out fanservice of somewhat alarmingly young characters, but the whole spread is so (forgive me) nakedly prurient, and stands out so sharply against the backdrop of complaints regarding edits to the author’s work, that it couldn’t help but grind the book to a halt and cause this reader to blink and mutter “What am I looking at?!

It’s really kind of impressive that the US market has adapted to manga to the point where material as potentially questionable as this is easily found in bookstores across the nation. Or maybe I’m just not used to underage t&a. One can even see the logic behind it - 14-year old boys are allegedly targeted by this thing, and unless there’s been some change in procedure since I was that age, I presume a fair number of said boys would be interested in 14-year old girls. I mean, it makes some sense. But US culture is not Japanese culture, and we’ve got to play these things down in our entertainment, to some extent (teenage sexualization is obvious, just not so overt). No double-page shower spreads of 8th grade lasses in the superhero comics.

But manga is different. The quest for authenticity and the demands of fans and the power of success has lead to a new status quo, where plastic-wrapped books can indulge in such eyebrow-raising antics for better or worse, and still somehow prompt a minor controversy over tiny alterations. Wild days.

That’s pretty much all that’s interesting about Air Gear, though, save for the added fact that in most of its fantasy/action accoutrements it’s virtually indistinguishable from an American superhero comic. Yeah, it’s clearly immersed in the shounen traditions of a young hero striving against the odds and triumphing in his fights through burning guts and friendship, and Oh!great cannily stirs some ‘harem’ tropes into the mix (dorky guy lives with a bevy of cute girls, hi-jinx and innuendo ensue), and I expect there’s a strong pro wrestling influence in there, given the author’s comments in the back, and I bet there’s even a word for this sort of thing that I’m forgetting. Yet for all intents and purposes, it’s still a fantasy action story about a relatively normal though also highly talented guy whose school and town is in trouble with flamboyantly costumed baddies, who themselves are battled under the cover of night by a mysterious, equally colorfully-dressed klatch of avengers with secret identities. The guy gets powers through new technology (a set of rollerblades that allow the wearer to literally fly), and tries to join up with the heroes, though he must first learn how to use his new abilities. Need I even say he has a personal connection to those costumed champions? Granted, Air Gear is often high-spirited and peppy, and unencumbered by a shared universe, which sets it apart from many of the most popular superhero books - but not all of them.

I say ‘often’ back there since Oh!great also seems determined to throw in every purile idea he can think of to keep the bloody thing moving, which includes multiple bits of implied rape, ultra-low slapstick comedy, cheesy 'heroic' pages depicting Itsuki doing things like saving a nest of baby birds, additional instances of whoops-I-tripped-and-tore-the-skirt-from-your-hips titillation, and an extended sequence of the hero being beaten by villains, made to urinate himself, and sodomized with a lit firecracker (the author has a cloud of smoke obscure the boy’s exposed scrotum, just to keep things classy). This creates a sometimes jarring tonal mix - in one bit, Our Hero’s friends are cruelly forced to sell - *gasp* - promotional stickers advertising the villains, though merely six pages later silly season ends with a baddie licking a weeping schoolgirl’s cheek as his band of brigands prepares to have their way with her friends. Not boring, no, but queasy in its blithe, gratuitous exploitation, its senseless anything-for-thills attitude; Oh!great makes it easy to conclude that he's scrambling to cover for his story’s total vacancy of innovation or insight with pandering shocks to accompany the clichés.

On the plus side, Oh!great does manage a few nice visuals in the flying sequences. His sound effect lettering is sometimes quite striking, and his character designs are above-average. The action is ok, but nothing stellar. Del Rey’s production values are pretty high, with the color front pages actually reproduced in color and plenty of extras in the back, though the translation itself is sometimes awkward (surely a better localization of Japanese slang can be managed than “That was awesome! Itsuki-san, that extreme killer backdrop of yours in unreal!! Amazing, man! You always rock out!”), and sports a few sloppy errors (nobody can decide if a piece of slang is spelled ‘noob’ or ‘newb,’ a flashback has slightly different dialogue than the panel it references, and I don't know if the author intended internet terms like "WTF" to slip into the dialogue). Oh!great even credits his assistants - all five of them, Air Gear being a weekly ongoing series in its Japanese serialization.

Really, the interest I have in Air Gear might be individual. Maybe everyone else reading similar manga have gotten used to everything I've observed. That would be too bad for Air Gear, since it has so little to offer beyond sociology and industry insight. But I'm still willing to meet Oh!great halfway: I bet if I was still in high school, this thing would have beat the pants off Shadowhawk. But I can't picture it working for older readers on any level beyond that of a very, very guilty pleasure.