If You Love Literature and Violence, Gimme a Hell Yeah—Hibiki: How to Become a Novelist

Hibiki: How to Become a Novelist is one of my favorite manga of the past few years. Sure, it doesn’t have the mind-blowing thrills or soul-reverberating energy of other works. The art is also decidedly mediocre. But what Hibiki does have is ridiculous humor, unpredictability, and a protagonist I would describe as “spiritually akin to Stone Cold Steve Austin.”

The series follows a teenage girl named Akui Hibiki, who one day submits a novel manuscript on a whim. As a result, she winds up on a journey that brings Hibiki in contact with titans of the field, struggling aspiring authors, an eccentric but enthusiastic school literary club, and a whole host of other unique personalities. But while Hibiki’s quiet and thoughtful personality evoke images of a bookworm archetype or perhaps a demure “literature girl,” she also refuses to take shit from anyone. Whether it’s high school bullies, dismissive fellow writers, nosy paparazzi, or even a kid getting in the way of customers at the bookstore, they’re all met immediately with unexpected violence from this skinny girl. Hibiki isn’t particularly strong or fast, and she isn’t trained to fight in any way, but she will not let anyone try to use the trappings of civility and etiquette to take advantage of her.

Hibiki is not a malicious person. She respects creative passion in all its forms, and will go out of her way to encourage everyone to try their hand at writing so that they might express what’s inside of them, be they friends or enemies. Her fellow members of the literature club run the gamut—from the granddaughter of a famous author, to a childhood friend she knows is stalker-level obsessed with her, to a girl who likes cheesy light novels—but Hibiki supports them all. She cares little about celebrity and glamor, or the aesthetics of fame, as it’s the love of craft that motivates her. What she hates possibly more than anything else is people who shower her with praise but who clearly haven’t actually read her work. Hibiki honestly engages with the creations and feelings of others, and she expects the same in return.

That unabashed authenticity is why I liken Hibiki to one of the most popular wrestlers ever. While pro wrestling is a staged performance and everyone pretty much knows this to be the case, Steve Austin is famous for feeling incredibly genuine every time he walks into the arena as the sound of shattering glass marks his arrival. Austin’s appeal was that he 1) felt convincingly real, and 2) he would constantly kick the ass of his nasty boss, Mr. McMahon, who kept trying to humiliate him. That’s Hibiki to a tee—minus the Stone Cold Stunners, but still keeping the kicks to the gut and the chair shots (really). Though, if I were to describe her exclusively with anime characters, she’s like a cross between the eerily capable mind of mahjong prodigy Akagi Shigeru and the also-aggressive Taniguchi Mio from 22/7.

As I think about the appeal of Hibiki, I’m reminded of a series of tweets I saw by translator Dan Kanemitsu. In them, he expresses the idea that the reason Japanese culture places so much value on stories about middle and high school years is because they’re assumed to be filled with potential and agency. After you grow up, things change, and it just doesn’t come across the same way when a story is about a defiant adult. I feel that the character of Hibiki speaks to this sentiment on a very visceral level, and much of the satisfaction she provides is that she won’t let anything get in the way of that agency. In fact, the last couple of volumes of Hibiki even bring up this idea that the passion of youth can’t be maintained relative to her career. Without going into spoilers, the resulting answer is worth seeing.

Kio Shimoku Twitter Highlights May 2022

Kio Shimoku provides a few more insights into the Hashikko Ensemble creative process this month.

Kio realizes that Menturm and Mentholatum are different products.

Kio posts a Hashikko Ensemble drawing used for a Monthly Afternoon cover. A fan mentions that they originally thought Himawari would become part of the core cast, to which Kio apologizes but in a way that makes him sound like an elderly man.

Kio clarifies that Hanyama would be Second Tenor, and was supposed to join as a tone-deaf member, but it never happened. (In the manga, it’s mentioned that Hanyama isn’t tone deaf, but rather is the son of a monk and therefore used to singing Buddhist chants, where the notes are slightly off from Western music.)

The drawing with Hanyama should be the last of the color illustrations, though Kio thinks there might be one more.

It took too many chapters to get Kousei into the Chorus Appreciation Society, which resulted in Shinji becoming the Second Tenor of the group. While that wasn’t the original plan, Shinji’s use as a tsukkomi character came in handy quite a bit.

Right when Kio starts to relax, a new manuscript is due. (It’s likely a new chapter of Spotted Flower.)

A drawing of Kozue feeling something in the stomach, with Kio saying that he thought stomach warmer season was over, but it looks like he still needs it.

A rough from the new chapter of Spotted Flower.

Kio suddenly needed to handle a bunch of administrative work, which exhausted his mental capacity to keep working on manga. 

Lately, Kio has been revising his roughs into line art for color images rather than using the pen tool to do so. For some reason, the latter approach isn’t quite hitting the mark for him, even though that’s how Kio does B&W art.

It looks like Kio got drunk while watching a DVD of the “Hajimete no Africa” specials from the variety show How do you like Wednesday?

The Tools to Express Yourself: Blue Period

When I was in art school, I often heard a recurring sentiment from my fellow students: “If people can understand even 10% of the message my piece conveys, I would be happy.” Though we differed in style, talent, skill, and experience, there was a mutual desire to have we put into our work to make it to those viewing it. So when I began reading the fine arts–themed manga Blue Period, and the main character starts to cry after his friends “get” his drawing of Shibuya at dawn, it brought me back to those younger days. It also told me that this manga really understands the struggle that artists have with themselves and their work.

Blue Period is the story of Yaguchi Yatora, a contradictory “academically successful delinquent” whose social and school careers are both solid. However, Yatora is prone to being the person others want him to be, and he lacks personal motivation. When a chance encounter with an older female classmate’s large-canvas artwork fills him with inspiration to try making something himself, it leads Yatora to start down the path of applying to art school despite his parents’ wishes. As a total beginner with certain expectations placed upon him by friends and family, the walls he must surmount are tremendous.

It’s rare for manga and anime about artists to actually be about art; most of the time, it’s really just a motif to convey drama and/or comedy. This is a fine approach, and some of my favorite series fall under this umbrella—Hidamari Sketch and Honey and Clover stand out. But like Blank Canvas, Blue Period takes a more serious approach, delving deep into the “art” of art, so to speak. From theory and experimentation to the emotional roller coaster that comes from thinking you’re hot stuff one day and hot garbage the next, I can speak from personal experience that what’s portrayed is all too real.

While Blue Period does approach the subject of art very seriously, this doesn’t mean it’s a dry and boring instruction manual. The characters and their stories are some of the best parts of the series, and I find myself drawn to most of them. Yatora himself is quite rare in terms of protagonist types because being a successful yet directionless individual is not the kind of conflict you see too often, and the rest of the cast feels like three-dimensional individuals living their lives, whether they appear a lot or a little. Whether it’s Yuka’s gender-nonconformity riling their parents up, Kuwana being pressured by the artistic pedigree of her family, or even Yotasuke’s reasons for being an artist clashing with Yatora’s, their world and their emotions feel real.

Blue Period is the kind of series I enjoy most: one where character interactions are robust and powerful. In that sense, it reminds me of Kio Shimoku’s work in certain ways. Notably, Blue Period is actually serialized in Monthly Afternoon (home to Genshiken and Hashikko Ensemble), which makes me think the similar vibes are less a coincidence and more a general editorial emphasis.

I’ve both watched the anime and read the manga, and while they largely tell the same story, they each have a particular feeling that makes them not quite 1:1. The anime has the advantage of portraying things in color instead of black and white, which makes the artwork feel more like how you’re “supposed” to see it. The pacing is also such that the human drama is emphasized. The manga has one obvious edge in that it goes past the anime, but even putting that aside, there’s more to it. The manga lingers more on the art and its characters’ internal worlds more, and the rougher artwork has an appeal all its own. In short, the anime feels like it emphasizes the interpersonal more, whereas the manga is more about the internal. 

One theme that comes up in Blue Period is the way that making art can be very revealing about oneself, and willingly exposing your deepest self to the world can be intimidating. Seeing Yatora and the others so hard at work reminds me about my own journey and process, namely that I wasn’t half as dedicated as these characters are. Blue Period may be making me confront my own inadequacies and regrets, and I can’t help but feel that itch to start making art again, if only to address those unresolved emotions.

Kio Shimoku Twitter Highlights April 2022

Kio’s tweets this month feature lots of his preliminary sketches for Hashikko Ensemble! It’s worth a look if you want to see how the characters began.

All the drawings used for the cover of Hashikko Ensemble, Volume 8!

Kio comments on the passing of Fujiko Fujio (A), remembering a Ninja Hattori-kun story he loved where Hattori moved next door and turned the house into a ninja mansion.

The pet tortoise at an active time.

Kio recommends that B the Jin fan go see Oedo Coraliers, a chorus/gee club Kio previously worked with.

The artist Shigisawa Kaya is feeling conflicted about waiting for things to calm down but that never being the case. Kio comments that he’s finally gotten around to checking things off his bucket list, but it’s after 28 years as a manga artist.

Kio has always felt that preparing salads is a pain even though it’s good to eat more vegetables, but then realizes that he basically makes salads for his tortoise every day.

Kio went to the library for the first time in a long while. The drawing of Kozue talks about the feeling of getting an author’s new work, only to realize that it’s already five volumes long and also finished. He then recalls borrowing tons of books from the library as a kid and reading through all of them before going back for more, but looking back wonders how in the world he managed to make the time to do that.

Kio comments that it’s the season for haramaki (stomach bands), and jokingly states that this year’s Fanta vintage is good.

A drawing for Afternoon that didn’t end up in any of the collected volumes of Hashikko Ensemble.

Kio began sharing some preliminary character design drawings for Hashikko Ensemble. Akira is described as having a contrast between his timid personality and his newly acquired bass voice. 

Jin’s initial background had him singing since he was five years old, and that he can even sing soprano. 

Kousei the baritone was always intended to have a heavy backstory. 

Shion was a more serious character, though had the quality of being made to learn piano by her mother, as well as having poor grades.

It’s interesting that some of the character designs changed significantly. Also, a few of these drawings were actually used in the teaser for Kio’s “new manga” back before the series began.

The student work uniforms.

Mimi-sensei, mostly unchanged. A capable person despite how she might appear, though lacking in experience.

Probably the biggest departure of all: A male character named Koizumi Yuusuke who would eventually morph into Akira’s neighbor and childhood friend, Himari. Described as an idiot who thinks he’s smart.

Kio mentions that people might ask “That’s it?!” when seeing how few planning drawings he does, but that’s just how he works. He mentions that he did have to design all the students in Class 1-5 afterwards, and that’s where Kanon, Kozue, and Shinji came from.

Kio elaborates on the point above that he tries to get a solid idea of how the characters will be in the roughs, and by the time he’s inking, he more or less knows how they’ll be. Someone asks if this was the same process he used for Genshiken characters, and he says yes. Kio also says that he feels the drawings feel the best in that rough stage and he wants to keep that feel, but that the designs inevitably change over the course of serialization.

An even earlier Shion sketch. Apparently “not owning a smartphone” was in there from the start.

A Chinese-speaking individual thanks Kio for all his work, to which Kio thanks them. Also, the person is clearly an Ogiue fan, and therefore a superior human being.

The rough versions of those early Hashikko Ensemble designs. Kio is asked how he came up with the names for Akira and Jin, to which he replies, “Intuition.”

To come up with various students and teachers, Kio gathered image references online and then started doing sketches based on them.

More sketches to better solidify the designs.

Kio Shimoku Twitter Highlights March 2022

This month was the release of the 8th and final volume o f Hashikko Ensemble!

Kio saw the anime film Goodbye, Don Glees! and enjoyed it. He’s particularly fond of the last scene, which he likens to a large mosaic.

The man can’t find his copic markers, but eventually does.

Kio made his first trip to Akihabara, but took a different route this time. The last visit, he went to Melon Books, ZIN, K Books, etc. This time, it was Yodobashi, Volks, Yellow Submarine.

When asked if his interests are going from books to 3-dimensional things, Kio says that his interest in ero is growing weaker, while his desire to build gunpla is growing stronger.

Another reply shows Kio that the old Genshiken capsule figures still exist, to which he expresses surprise. He’s also amazed at how the swimsuit figures of Saki and Ohno managed to happen. The original replier says he likes this Ohno figure, but likes the bouncing boobs Ohno bust that came with an issue of Monthly Afternoon.

(Ogiue Manaix note: I have this one too, but I never managed to get the Ogiue counterpart because it was Japanese mail-order only…)

Countdown to the release of Hashikko Ensemble, Volume 8—the finale!

Kio mentions that the Hashikko Ensemble characters feel like they could keep going. (I agree.)

Kio was exhausted, so he ended up just drinking beer and falling asleep.

Kio’s pet tortoise isn’t going to have the garden space it used to, so Kio is trying to set up a habitat for it on his balcony. 

The Kimura Jin super fan known as “b” talks about how pure and innocent Jin looks, and asks Kio if Jin is saying “ni” (two) in the countdown image above. Kio gives an affirmative.

A close-up of the back cover from Volume 8.

I had to ask if there’d be any limited store exclusives for Volume 8. Kio answered “no,” which helps me a lot because it determines how I order the book.

Kio thanks b for giving him courage.

Technically not Kio tweets, but manga artist Shigisawa Kaya drew some Hashikko Ensemble fanart! In the first image, they mention loving Kozue’s fat fingers.

More drinking.

Artist Ikuhana Niro mentions wanting to get a new back and shoulders sometimes, and Kio agrees with the sentiment.

The artificial rendition of “Kanade” by Sukima Switch, as performed by the main characters of Hashikko Ensemble, goes away April 25th, 2022! Make sure to listen.

Kio wonders who the heck “Nagayama Koharu-chan” is. (Note: It’s actually a weird troll account by the author of Chainsaw Man where he pretends to be a third grader into Chainsaw Man).

A Rival of Her Own: Odagiri Manabu vs. Amamiya Maya in Shoujo Fight

Shortly after I reviewed the first 16 volumes of the manga Shoujo Fight (or Shojo Fight), Volume 17 was released in English. I normally wouldn’t write about the same series after just one volume, but the introduction of an antagonistic character named Amamiya Maya has set off a compelling rivalry. However, rather than with the protagonist, Oishi Neri, the rivalry is between Amamiya and Neri’s best friend, Odagiri Manabu.

Many sports manga revel in the relationships between side characters, Shoujo Fight included, but up until recently, Manabu’s have been more about developing friendships—and one romance. This has all changed with the appearance of Amamiya, and what makes this particular rivalry stick out in my mind is the way it brings out a fiery side of Manabu that is also true to her otherwise gentle demeanor.

Amamiya is the captain of another volleyball team, but she also went to the same elementary school as Neri and Manabu. She’s essentially a narcissistic sociopath with a knack for social engineering, and she uses this skill to both manipulate her unwitting allies and extort her enemies. As young children, Manabu was on the receiving end of Amamiya’s exploitative actions while also being resistant to them—her caring and genuine heart the total opposite of Amamiya’s. In current times, Manabu is shown to instinctively recognize Amamiya’s tactics, and she bristles at the way the latter controls her teammates. Amamiya also has an obsession with mirroring Neri that contrasts Manabu’s own complementary bond with Neri, setting them up as “equals” of sorts. 

As of Volume 17, Amamiya’s facade is starting to slip, but it’s notable that this isn’t solely because of Manabu’s actions. Other characters, including older ones with more life experience, are starting to call out Amamiya’s actions and behavior, and the cumulative effect between them and Manabu might be the key to breaking the sociopath’s hold on her teammates. I’m eagerly anticipating Volume 18 to see how this all turns out.

You Have a Friend in Moi—Mujirushi: The Sign of Dreams

I’ve read my fair share of Urasawa Naoki. Between Monster, Pluto, and 20th Century Boys, I hold the manga author in high esteem, and generally assume I have a decent sense of his style. But I’m not sure anything could quite prepare me for Mujirushi: The Sign of Dreams.

The story centers around a father and daughter who have fallen on hard times after the dad makes a series of bad decisions. Desperate to get out of crushing debt, the two happen upon a mysterious fellow with extremely large front teeth and an overwhelming obsession with France known as the Director. This fellow convinces the father to participate in a plan that supposedly should give them both what they want, leading to a trip to France and the Louvre that only brings more unexpected turns.

It sounds like a pretty reasonable story, but one thing that makes Mujirushi different is that the Director is none other than Iyami, the most famous side character from the Osomatsu-kun franchise whose “SHEEH!” exclamation became a cultural phenomenon. As described by Urasawa himself (and even discussed in the early episodes of the modern-day revival sequel Osomatsu-san), Iyami was explosively popular in the 1960s—even more than the brothers themselves. An American equivalent would be something like having Steve Urkel show up as a central character in an otherwise unrelated movie (though Urkel did have his own France moment…)

I also want to mention that this manga features a weird female parody of Donald Trump named Beverly Duncan, whose face ends up playing a major role in the story, and it makes me wonder why Urasawa decided to throw this in. My best guess is that he simply wanted to draw Trump’s characteristic punchable grin because it makes quite the visual impact.

The manga is actually part of a collection of French, American, and Japanese comics made to celebrate the Louvre; readers might be familiar with the JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure take known as Rohan at the Louvre. When taken in this context, I can’t help but be amazed that Urasawa would weave one of Japan’s most pre-internet memetic characters into a story about French culture in the popular imagination, as if to say that the mere concepts of “France” and “the Louvre” exist in many individuals’ minds through the loud proclamations of a Francophile character. In many ways, it gives me similar vibes to 20th Century Boys and its obsession with Japanese pop culture of the mid-Showa period (Friend’s character in particular), as if Mujirushi is a story about France for the Japanese people who grew up in that period.
Mujirushi thus ends up being as much a look at how people learn of and experience France as it is the Louvre itself. In that sense, while it’s not a sweeping psychological mystery like so many of Urasawa’s titles, its intersection of nostalgia, culture, and memory fits right into his oeuvre.

Kio Shimoku Twitter Highlights February 2022

This month was pretty light when it came to Kio Shimoku tweeting.

Kio stumbles on a new technique while doing art for the final volume of Hashikko Ensemble.

B the Hashikko superfan asks if it’s due the cover, and Kio says it’s for the back cover because the front is going to be crowded.

B also mentions going to a choir concert thanks to Hashikko Ensemble, to which Kio expresses excitement that there was such an event.

Kio and Ikuhana Niro swap stories about buying alcohol on Ikuhana’s birthday.

Gathering the components for the release of Hashikko Ensemble Volume 8.

He slacked off on working out for three months, but got back into it recently. The post-workout aches from being away for so long are pretty bad.

Kio is about to private his Hashikko Ensemble YouTube video soon! Listen while you still can!

Another Five Star Stories model kit.

The pet tortoise returns! Kio apologizes for only having lettuce.

Next month is after the release of the latest chapter of Spotted Flower, and when the final volume of Hashikko Ensemble goes on sale. I expect a lot more tweets in March.

Just Keep Drawing: Blank Canvas

I love the works of Higashimura Akiko. Whether it’s Princess Jellyfish, Tokyo Tarareba Girls, or even the recent Webtoon A Fake Affair, her stories about women feel utterly authentic even as they can sometimes dip into the realm of the fanciful. But Blank Canvas: My So-Called Artist’s Journey is a little different from these other titles: an autobiographical series about how Higashimura herself became a renowned professional manga artist. Rather than some self-aggrandizing memoir, however, it declines to pull its punches by conveying the sacrifices she made, for better or for worse, to get to where she is. 

Titled Kakukaku Shikajika (“And So On and So Forth”) in Japanese, Blank Canvas traces Higashimuta’s path starting from her days as an overconfident high school student assured that she’ll be the next big manga artist. Her plan to get into an art college and use that as a platform to launch her career leads Higashimura to her first art teacher, Hidaka-sensei: an expectations-defying hothead of an old man who runs his own independent class and constantly pushes his students to just keep drawing no matter what. From art lessons to art school to her first published manga and more, Higashimura lays out the strange-but-profound relationship the two of them share.

I myself attended a fine arts school but ultimately did not end up in a career directly tied to that particular world, and there are definitely elements of Blank Canvas I can relate to—particularly in terms of remembering the greater talent and hard work that I would see in my peers. I may even still have trouble honestly assessing how much of the opportunity I squandered versus how much it benefited me, but when I read Higashimura, I can feel the harsh yet fair weight of her self-assessment, as she emphasizes just how much Hidaka’s teachings stuck with her. Through the ups and downs of Higashimura’s artistic life, including a mentally and emotionally draining struggle between her “fine arts” side and her “manga” side, her teacher’s lessons (both in life and in art) crop up as both sources of inspiration and dread.

Hidaka-sensei is definitely a character, and reading it made me think about how differently people can be built both inside and out. Hidaka-sensei is portrayed as someone who would berate and even physically hit his students, but was nevertheless confident that anyone who put in the time with him would improve. The mix of faith and Spartan training is an odd combination, and I could see it being actively harmful to certain types of artists. Yet, Higashimura makes it clear that this helped her greatly, even if she didn’t always want to admit it.

The series also provides insight into the kinds of manga that influenced Higashimura, and it makes me interested in looking deeper at the shoujo magazine that inspired her the most: Bouquet. If the series found in Bouquet are part of the reason we got the artist of Princess Jellyfish and all these other great titles, they’re even more worth reading in their own right.

Blank Canvas is complete at five volumes, and its combination of levity and brutal honesty are hard to forget. I feel like it’s just as likely to convince someone to become a comic artist as it is to get them to rethink that career choice, but more importantly, it’s a gradual and thorough processing of all a life has to offer—the beautiful, the ugly, and the realization that it’s easy to mistakenly assume which is which.

Rise of the Dojo Dojikko: Mabataki Yori Hayaku!!

“Schoolgirls engaging in team tournaments” is a fairly specific yet common premise in manga that I really enjoy. Whether it’s a beloved series like Bamboo Blade or underdogs canceled early like Haru Polish and Hana Kaku, I’m always up for stories in this vein. On top of that, I’ve also found a casual interest in reading up on and researching martial arts in recent years. So when I saw Mabataki Yori Hayaku!! (Faster than a Blink!!), a manga about a girls’ sport karate club with cute art and solid action, it immediately felt like something right up my alley.

Kohanai Himari, a perpetually clumsy girl with a caring heart, is inspired to join her school’s karate club after a girl retrieves Hima’s umbrella from a guy who swiped it on a rainy day. Everyone—including Himari herself— thinks she’s a hopeless case, but the club’s veterans notice that there might be more to Himari than meets the eye. While she’s lacking in athleticism, knowledge, and experience, Himari has unusually sharp and perceptive vision—an X-factor that might turn her untapped potential into something more.  

I’ve read four volumes so far, and one thing I really like about Mabataki Yori Hayaku is how slowly and gradually Himari improves, and how she isn’t just an overnight sensation. Not only are there girls physically more capable than she is, most are also more practiced and dedicated. She still feels very much like the underdog in all situations, and not the shounen hero kind who will pull out their secret technique and turn it all around. But the manga shows how her initial hesitant steps into the world of karate get larger and larger—as her enthusiasm grows, the confidence shows in her body.

The other characters also range from endearing to entertaining to compelling, whether it’s clubmates or rivals. The club president is a surprisingly rough-and-tumble sort who loves karate but has family issues with her sister. Another girl in the club, the razor-toothed and twin-tailed Izawa Sora, has both experience and a disdain for those who don’t take karate seriously, a feeling that we eventually learn hits all too close to home. A couple of characters from other schools see Himari’s latent potential, and they want to bring it out. No one seems boring so far, though one girl is the requisite “explain for the newbies” character, and there are times (especially when their hair is down) that it can become difficult to distinguish between characters. However, the characters are still generally expressive and memorable.

The artwork itself also goes a long way in conveying that character charm, especially when it comes to the portrayal of karate itself. There’s a dramatic sense of action that exaggerates just enough without feeling like it’s parodying sport karate, which is about landing light hits in a points-based system, unlike full-contact karate. The author, Funatsu Kazuki, actually has more experience drawing horny titles, though that largely doesn’t factor into the art in Mabataki Yori Hayaku!!—kind of tough when literally every girl is in a baggy gi. That said, the thirst does occasionally shine through, especially in the high kicks.

As for the decision to use sport karate instead of full-contact, it reminds me of the criticism sport karate can get for not being like a “real fight.” But this is actually depicted as an appealing quality, and it’s one of the reasons gentle Himari decides to take up karate in the first place. This is a series about competition, but no one wants to prove they’d win on the streets. 

Whether Himari grows into a champion or not, following her journey is entertaining and uplifting. Now, if only this series doesn’t end too early.