My Heavenly Hockey Club v1-3
Story and art by Ai Morinaga
Translation by Athena and Alethea Nibley
Lettering and retouch by North Market Street Graphics
Ai Morinaga's My Heavenly Hockey Club starts off with one of the most cliched opening sequences you'll ever see - our heroine is dashing off to school, piece of toast in her mouth, when she bumps into her eventual love interest. Except the heroine, Hana Suzuki, is so lazy that she's consistently late to a school that's only 500 feet from her front door. She isn't exactly "dashing" off to class either - she's sleepwalking. And when I say her love interest "bumps into" her, I really mean "he almost runs her over with his car."
The love interest, Izumi Oda, is immediately struck by Hana's artful, semi-conscious evasion, and with a bit of cajoling he manages to convince her to become the goalie for the boy's field hockey team. Except the boy's field hockey team only has six players, so they have to forfeit every game. And none of the players are particularly good, or even have much interest in the sport. In fact, the whole thing seems like an excuse to get a club room from the school and travel to exotic locales, forfeit games, and spend the rest of the time living it up in local inns.
In short, for a lazy glutton like Hana, the hockey club is just about the next best thing to heaven. She's surrounded but cute rich boys who pamper her and indulge her every whim. Now if only she could convince them to get rid of that annoying practice...
True story - I picked up volume one in the bookstore while waiting for a friend to come meet me, and read it cover to cover. It was entertaining, but didn't seem to quite click. But my friend was still running late, so I grabbed the second volume off the shelf and started scanning it. By the time my friend arrived, I had all three volumes on the small stack of books I was purchasing.
I think the appeal of My Heavenly Hockey Club comes from watching several extremely childish personalities battle it out for dominance. These characters are supposed to be in high school, but their level of emotional maturity is a lot closer to elementary school students. Hana thinks of nothing but sleeping and eating. Izumi wants his every whim catered to immediately. The bookish Itoigawa has a possessive man-crush on Izumi. With personalities like that, it's child's play to throw them into seemingly random situations and see how they screw up. Some of the resulting stories highly entertaining (Hana seems to fall in love with the captain of the tennis club, the club tries to merge with the judo club during the rainy season), others merely amusing (Hana gets lost with Itoigawa in the jungle, Izumi claims that Hana is his fiancee to get rid of an unwanted admirer). Oh, and every once in a while they do try to play a hockey game. Though they never quite manage to pull it off.
So far, the best story is in volume 2, where the team travels to Yamagata to play a game against a team that's their polar opposite - poor in resources, but rich in spirit. Where our heroes are foolishly wasteful, their opponents are foolishly frugal. There's even a nice bit of class consciousness, where the pampered Izumi is completely unable to empathize with the poor, while the solidly lower-middle-class Hana understands what drives them (even as their actions frighten her). And that undercurrent runs through the entire story, even when the team finally cuts out on the game to go pick cherries.
It also helps that Morinaga is an accomplished artist, with a pleasantly developed style that seems a bit more robust than a lot of the other shojo comics I've seen lately.
There's some nice, basic, storytelling going on here. Starting with a tight close-up of Hana's bento sets the stage for the rest of the actions on the page. Cutting back out to a medium shot re-establishes that we're on a train, where the two characters are in relation to each other. and that both of the principals have been eating (and eating quite a lot, for that matter). Drawing the scene in such detail in the first three panels allows Morinaga to skimp on the backgrounds in the last two panels, which has the pleasant effect of emphasizing the actions rather than the surroundings.
The bottom tier would seem to repeatedly violate the 180 rule, but in fact all three panels are carefully chosen to show the action with the greatest impact. By having Izumi in the foreground, the first panel emphasizes his distracted teasing. But that same camera angle wouldn't work for the second panel - Izumi's arm would obscure Hana's actions, and the tilt of his head would make it impossible to see his expression. And neither solution would work well for the last panel, where we clearly need to see both principals and their actions, necessitating a head-on shot. So damn the 180 rule - if it works, it works.
Here's a technique of Morignaga's that I like - having a character's blush lines bleed off the side of the head and into the surrounding scenery, which adds some sophistication by turning the lines from a representational (if highly stylized) element into a purely graphical element. The bleed also helps give the panel a soft-focus look, which can be highly useful for the more romantic scenes in a shojo manga. It also helps emphasize to the characters' expressions. For instance, in these two panels they extended lines help make Hana seem extra-drunk and Izumi seem extra-embarassed.
It's also worth noting in these two panels that Morinaga is trying to display the characters three-dimensionally. In a lot of shojo manga, characters tend to be very flat, especially in the face, and a lot of the usual stylistic tics (flowing hair, pointy chins, big poofy lips) tend to be used as shorthand even when the artist doesn't really have a great idea of how they should look from every angle. Here, though, Morinaga's clearly put a lot of thought into how the characters (admittedly doll-like) faces would work. True, no one is ever going to look like that in real life, but I appreciate how she's trying to add a dash of plausibility to the proceedings.
Overall, My Heavenly Hockey Club is a well-drawn, highly entertaining comedy that just about anyone can enjoy. Check it out next time you're at the bookstore - you won't regret it.