Gals! vol. 1
Chad Clayton rates it:
Author/Artist: Mihona Fujii
I think I’ve finally got it nailed down now. Gals!, despite being of decent quality, simply doesn’t have a lot of general appeal. It was written about a specific subculture of people, during a specific time, for a specific audience, with a specific purpose in mind. If you’re not a member of its intended audience – that is, young girls or people who are fascinated with kogal culture – then there really isn’t a whole lot this title has to offer you. On the surface, it’s an appealing set of simple mysteries and morality stories, but as things progress the comic seems less interested in developing plots or building characters than promoting the kogal lifestyle and its poster child, our protagonist Ran Kotobuki.
Gals! is a series of mostly self-contained stories about a group of three kogals – that is, trendy, fashion-obsessed teens from Japan – and their friends. These gals include leader Ran, her best-friend-with-a-past Miyu, and new recruit to the kogal lifestyle Aya. The stories thus far all follow more or less the same formula: someone has a problem, Ran and company get involved somehow, Ran kicks butt and hands out the moral of the story, everything goes back to normal. There’s some small variations on this formula, but the stories never stray far from that template.
There truly are a lot of positives about Gals!. The artwork is drop-dead gorgeous, the storytelling is quite competent, the manga has gobs of personality, and it’s all reasonably fun to read if you don’t think too hard about any of it. But in spite of all that, Gals! doesn’t fare very well under scrutiny, and I found myself being as bothered by the manga as I was amused. Gals! is a very superficial, shallow manga. The potential for depth later on is certainly there, but thus far the story is so simple and predigested that there isn’t much left to chew on. The Gals’ adventures are light and humorous, but they aren’t terribly involving. The characters are likeable enough, but the depth of their character is barely even being scratched. The story doesn’t deliver when the reader begins to desire more involved material.
And then there’s the matter of Gals!‘s chief heroine. Ran Kotobuki is one of the most larger-than-life characters in any shoujo manga I’ve ever read. Her presence is absolutely dominating, and it filters through to every aspect of the comic. If her brash, forceful personality isn’t enough to establish her presence, she monopolizes most of the necessary character roles: main character, detective, martial artist, advice guru, spiritual figurehead, comic relief, and almost every other important role. Gals! focuses on Ran so much, the other characters tend to come off as mere props for her to use. Miyu plays a pretty big part in a couple of the stories, but everyone else is relegated to two jobs: helping Ran out, or simply reacting to what she says and does. So if you’re going to enjoy Gals!, you had better like Ran Kotobuki, because it’s her comic, and you won’t be permitted to forget that.
Therein lies a problem for me. I think Ran’s an appealing character in some regards, but I don’t find her particularly likeable or interesting. Her character brings to mind bits and pieces of several other great anime heroines, but she simply isn’t as endearing as most of her predecessors. She’s especially reminiscent of Sana (Kodocha) in her active, strong character and overwhelming sense of presence, but she lacks the vulnerability and emotional honesty that made Sana such a great character. Ran’s more like a superhero than a human teenage girl, and that makes her a little one-dimensional. For my money, Miyu with her past and Aya with her suffocating home life are far more potentially interesting characters.
But the single thing that alienates me from Ran the most is the manga’s relentless attempts to make her into a role model. If Ran is the moral compass of this manga, then her actions are liable to send mixed messages to the audience. Ran teaches us that it’s okay to be duplicitous and take advantage of other people for personal gain, so long as you don’t sleep around. It’s perfectly fine to be irresponsible and disrespectful, as long as you don’t steal. One moment, she only cares about moral justice insofar as it affects her or her friends (which, surprise, it often does), but a few moments later, it’s suddenly her responsibility to solve someone else’s problems. And it’s always someone else’s problems that need to be fixed. If Gals! had allowed Ran to be herself instead of trying to thrust her into this role, I’d be a lot more receptive to her character. As it is, she struck me as one of those people who knows exactly what’s wrong with everyone else, but never acknowledges her own faults. Not exactly what I’d call an admirable trait.
But the problems with the moral messages aren’t limited to the messenger. Gals! delivers its messages through speeches by Ran, which tend to carry a preachy tone most often found in TV sitcoms. It’s not that Ran’s advice is inherently bad in principle, but it’s very simplistic, generalized advice that basically boils down to “don’t do that” or “you’re too good for him.” It’s a pep talk masquerading as genuinely useful advice. It’s Dr. Phil, the manga. This method of handing down advice may work for some early-teen girls (who are the target audience for this manga), but it’s a bit off-putting for those not impressionable enough to be affected by it.
CMX has done a passable job with the manga as a whole, but I can’t say I’m a fan of some of the decisions surrounding the English adaptation. Most of the time, it’s a natural-sounding, well-written adaptation, but it can’t resist tossing in a healthy handful of some of the most irritating English slang terms from a few years ago. Most of them are corruptions of curse words like “Dizam” and “Beeyotch,” as though those were somehow more acceptable than the words they’re supposed to replace. There’s also some untranslated kogal slang in the dialogue, and most of these terms are nothing more than English transliterated into Japanese and then romanized: “dekoru” for “decorate,” and “apiru” for “appeal.” I can see the reasoning behind all these decisions, but the end result comes off as a mishmash of good professional adaptation and bad fan translation.
The ultimate theme of Gals! seems to be carpe diem – the idea that people should live in the moment, rather than be caught up in regret for the past or dread of the future. It’s a sound piece of advice in principle, and one we all might do well to follow. But while reading Gals!, I couldn’t get past the feeling that the manga’s definition of “to live for today” means “to do whatever you feel like doing at all times.” Since when did living for today and neglecting your future become more or less synonymous? I’d submit that living life to your fullest is less about treating life like an eternal trip to the shopping mall than about putting your heart into all that you do, be it work or play, and living an honest and clean life. Gals! may be right that preparing for tomorrow isn’t everything, but it’s wrong that it doesn’t matter. I can appreciate the fact that Gals! really does appear to want to impart good advice its readers, but it ends up sending such mixed messages that it raises the question on whether the morals were just tacked on to appease the readers’ parents.
Added: Saturday, May 14, 2005
Related Link: CMX