My Favorite Things
Story and art by Yoshiki Nakamura
Translated by Tomo Kimura
Lettering and retouch by Sabrina Heep
On the first Tuesday of the month, I dutifully make the journey to my local Borders to pick up the new manga volumes. But the title I always look forward to isn't some obscure release from Fanfare or Vertical. It isn't the latest volume of Naruto or Bleach, or even Nana or Yotsuba&! No, the comic I'm always looking forward to is Yoshiki Nakamura's Skip-Beat!.
Skip-Beat! is the story of Kyoko Mogami, who's a decidedly strange firl. She's dropped out of senior high school, doesn't have any friends or family, and is holding down two full-time menial jobs just to make ends meet. But Kyoko's living a dream — she's sharing an apartment with her childhood crush Sho Fuwa, who also happens to be a famous rock star. She's perfectly happy to sacrifice her own dreams for Sho, because she knows that in the long run her love will be repaid a thousandfold.
Except, as far as Sho's concerned, she's just his housekeeper. And Kyoko happens to overhear him telling this to his real girlfriend. Needless to say, she doesn't take it well.
Actually, that would be a serious understatement.
This scene sets the tone for the rest of Skip-Beat! You've got high drama and low comedy, realistic emotional reactions welded on to bizarre hijinx right of Looney Tunes. It's an oddly appealing combination, one that lets Nishimura put her characters through the wringer without letting things get too depressing.
(Also, I love how the panel borders almost — but not quite — line up between pages. That's a great way to help establish continuity across a page flip. I'll have to remember that technique...)
Getting dumped by Sho is a transformative experience for Kyoko. The sweet, innocent girl who first came to Tokyo is transformed into a bitter, vicious schemer with revenge on her mind. Kyoko decides that the best way to have her revenge is to become an even bigger celebrity than Sho. Unfortunately, she doesn't have any special talents other than "gritty determination" and her recent experience has left her missing the one thing a celebrity needs — the ability to love and be loved. But something about her caches the eye of president of the LME talent agency, and she finds herself drafted into the agency's "Love Me" section, where emotional cripples are rehabilitated into successful celebrities.
By doing menial work.
In a hot pink jumpsuit.
Did I mention that Kyoko is the first actual person to join the "Love Me" section, and that everyone else thinks it's a crazy idea? Or is that just understood from the above description?
One of the things that's appealing about Skip-Beat! is the reversal of cliché Lucky shojo heroines get to dance with the man of their dreams while wearing glamorous haute couture. Kyoko, on the other hand, gets to chisel dirty chewing gum off the floor while wearing a hideous work uniform. Most shojo heroines are two-dimensional nice girls. Kyoko's so bitter that her favorite word is fugutaiten — the feeling of hating someone so much you want them to die.
It's also refreshing to see a character driven by negative emotions as well as positive ones. Her goals are not constructive — she's less focused on improving herself and more on dominate and destroying her enemies (she eventually has more than one). In spite of all her talk about being bitter and cynical, though, Kyoko isn't all that bad. Deep in her heart, she's just a normal girl who longs for simple things that she's been denied for years — friends, family, and love. Maybe life has kicked her around to the point where she no longer remembers how to enjoy these things, but as she works for the Love Me section these feeling start to come back. One of the joys of the series is watching her move past her bitterness and become a better person.
Nakamura's character design for Kyoko manages to encapsulate her dichotomies perfectly — she's cute without being cutesy, tough but vulnerable, wild and unpredictable but very conventional at the same time. The short unkempt haircut, the wide (but not huge) eyes, even her tremulous chin and the upturned collar of her uniform all help create an image of someone trying to project an image that's directly opposite to their being.
The open-ended nature of the Love Me section's business lets Nakamura thrust Kyoko into any number of strange situations. She gets locked in an "acting battle" with a young starlet with a bad attitude, helps the LME president's granddaughter reconcile with her estranged father, makes a new friend out of an actively hostile enemy, and has to babysit an actor who can't be bothered to take care of himself. She even gets a few breaks in showbiz — appearing as a regular on a variety show (albeit in a chicken suit) and winning a role in a soda commercial via an open audition. And shadowing her through all this is the mysterious Ren Tsuruga, the veteran actor who's been mysteriously cruel to her since the moment they first met...
One of the other appeals of Skip-Beat! is the way it's relentlessly cartoony in an old-school way. For all the serious drama that might be going on, you never know when Kyoko might desire something so much that a "hand came out of her throat"...
...or find herself plunged into the "depths of despair" (complete with marine life)...
...or even "spring into action" with gigantic, elastic arms.
A character who's "surrounded by a dark aura" will be emanating an inky black cloud that's totally visible to other characters. When something "hits someone like a ton of bricks" they'll find themselves driven into the ground by a giant cement block. There's also Kyoko's "grudges" (seen in the first image at the top of this entry), who are always flying around providing her advice. They've also got the abilities sense "evil emanations", to hold people down or assault them from a distance.
They're also a great example of something that comics can do seamlessly. To use a dated reference, they're like Ally McBeal's flights of fancy, except seamlessly integrated into the narrative in a way that only comics can do. And really, that's why I look forward to Skip-Beat! every other month — to see what sort of wacky visual metaphor Nakamura will come up with for the current situation.
Special thanks to Shaenon Garrity's "Overlooked Manga Festival", which introduced me to Skip-Beat! oh so many months ago.