February 22, 2007

Cheese! (part 3)

"R-18" is the equivalent in Japan (and Great Britain) of the MPAA NC-17 rating. It's also the title of a silly and rather mindlessly entertaining manga series by (the sadly late) Emiko Sugi (not available in English, alas). It's Cheese! at its dumb and fun best, with an equal share of both laugh-out-loud and eye-rolling moments.

Riko, a high school student with aspirations of becoming a professional writer, gets corralled by her aunt (a magazine editor) into writing "Love Report," an explicit "first person" sex & relationships column for a popular girl's teen magazine. The column, pseudonymously signed with the initial "R," becomes a hit. The thing is, 1) Riko's never had a boyfriend; and 2) everything she knows about sex she got from a book (and the occasional illicit video).

Naturally, she then meets a boy (Minato) who figures out her secret and the hijinks begin. To make things worse, Minato turns out to be a celebrated writer in his own right, just having won a prestigious literary prize (this is not that big of a stretch—these types of writing awards, especially for first-time authors, are popular in Japan, much like rookie-of-the-year awards in sports).

Because R-18 starts out as pretty much a one-joke comedy, a lot of sitcom-type logic is hauled out to stave off consummation of the relationship. Though as I've pointed out previously, the big difference between a shoujo sex comedy and a shounen "fan service" comedy is that Riko and Minato are actually trying. And Riko's Walter Mitty-ish imagination amplifies all possible implications and outcomes of every encounter ten-fold. (That's what makes it a Cheese! title.)

The setup reminds me of a book I read a zillion years ago called The Kid who Batted 1.000. The joke is, the kid doesn't actually get a hit every time at bat. Rather, he has an uncanny ability to foul off any strike across the plate and always gets walked as a result. Finally, in the big game, he hits a long ball that just barely lands fair. Hence, a 1.000 batting average. It's a cute gimmick, though like all gimmicks it has a finite half-life.

To be sure, Japanese Y/A literature still taps into extant currents of tradition and conservatism in order to stave off consummation of teen relationships for dramatic purposes. My own informal survey of the material suggests that while American Y/A dramas (and much breathless prime-time news reportage) tend to depict teens as insatiable lustbunnies, their dramatic Japanese counterparts go strongly in the opposite direction.

One of my favorite prime-time Japanese sitcom/soaps is Brother Beat, about three brothers living with their spunky, widowed mom. The s-l-o-w-l-y developing romance between the eldest son—in his late twenties—and the cute new hire at the supermarket where his mom works is the kind of thing you'd expect from a pair of thirteen-year-olds. It requires enormous self-control to keep from yelling at the screen: KISS HER ALREADY!

Anyway, transferring the plot of R-18 to an American setting, it would get increasingly difficult to explain Riko's tortured "innocence," as Riko's behavior isn't motivated so much by morality as by personality and 2000 years of culture—as noted above, Japanese Y/A writers get incredible—frankly sometimes unendurable—mileage out of the near-clinical reticence of their protagonists. Explains Roland Kelts in JapanAmerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S.,

[T]he strict codes of etiquette and behavior that govern daily life in Japan also allow for an extraordinary degree of creative and social permissiveness, the freedom to explore other identities, to test the limits of possibility.

The pre-MPAA Hollywood screwball comedy failed to transition to the post-MPAA sex comedy for the same reason. With rare exceptions, once those codes of conduct disappeared, so did the essential tension out of which comedy springs. Or rather, the comedic material had to keep sinking until it found a baseline of human behavior to push back against, a baseline that too often proved lower than what mature audiences had any stomach for.

These codes are alive and well in large swathes of American culture, which is why a conservative Christian setting for R-18 would work even better. Say, if Riko were an overachieving English major at my alma mater, Brigham Young University. The distance between her pseudonymous personality and herself—and the moral and social stakes involved—and the constant rationalizations she indulges in—would be all the greater.

Kelts's insight, I believe, is that Japanese pop culture succeeds to the extent that it carves out niches within the its culture and pushes those to the limits, not by violating its tenants or offending its practitioners, as is so often the case in Western (post) modern art. Or rather, it only transgresses as advertised. Readers who buy Blaze or Cheese! publications know exactly what they are going to get, what boundaries are going to be pushed.

In fact, there could be a kind of aesthetic law of thermodynamics at work here: at the end of the day, license and licentiousness have to balance out, and by taking less of the former, the artist is allowed more of the latter.

(ISBNs reviewed: 4091300588, 4091300944, 4091301657, 4091302378.)

Related posts

Cheese! (part 1)
Cheese! (part 3)

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# posted by Anonymous Anonymous
3/06/2007 3:27 PM   
I can't believe Emiko Sugi died. That sucks. Her manga is funny, though I've only read a little. :) So, Brother Beat is a good show, huh? I'm glad I read this. I was looking for a new one to watch. Thanks for the recommendation.
# posted by Blogger Eugene
3/06/2007 5:24 PM   
Brother Beat is incredibly sentimental, but one thing that keeps it from becoming overly sappy is the two older brothers getting into these comically full-blown, knock-down fights. Off the top of my head, I can't think of anything like it in a comparable American "family drama." It must be part of the fantasy appeal of the series.

On a more subtle level, one thing that Brother Beat gets exactly right--and that Densha Otoko gets exactly wrong (the movie at least)--is social class. Practically the entire population of Japan self-identifies as "middle class," but there's middle class and then there's middle class. Brother Beat traps our hero between a girl way above his economic class and a girl (Ryoko Kuninaka) whose father, like his, lifted his family from the working class into the middle class. Of course, we know who he's going to end up with.

Ryoko Kuninaka also shows up as one of the geeks in Densha Otoko. I kept thinking, "Hey, you ought to date her instead!"
# posted by Anonymous Anonymous
3/07/2007 12:36 PM   
Sounds interesting. I could use a laugh. I'll give it a try. I totally skipped over Densha Otoko, though, since I remember people making a big deal out of it. What do you think of Densha Otoko (movie and series)?