Life Manga, Volume 1

January 22nd, 2007

This is the first review brought to you through the generosity and kindness of the folks who purchased something for me from or through my Amazon Wish List. In this case, the review has been sponsored by pachy_boy and many thanks to him for it. He thought this manga would interest me and it does – but not for the reasons he thought. (Sorry…)

The story is, at least for the first volume, mostly realistic. Ayumu, a girl with low self esteem and poor study skills, relies on her smarter friend for assistance to pass the exams into high school. When, through a bizarre turn of fate, her friend Shii does not pass the exam, she begins to resent Ayumu, then outright hate her.

Personally, I question the fact that her friend could have possibly lost skills through helping Ayumu study. That simply makes no sense. If they were studying at a level high enough for Ayumu to pass, then they were studying at a level high enough for the friend to pass too, but be that as it may. Full of self-loathing, Aymu becomes a “cutter.” That is to say, Ayumu begins to cut herself in order to inflict punishment on herself for her self-perceived unworthiness and to feel alive at all. This part, at least, is written incredibly well – Ayumu’s feelings match those of many teenagers who cut themselves.

Ayumu goes on to the new high school, determined to be antisocial, but a shiny happy, incredibly superficial and immediately loathsome girl, Manami, pops into Ayumu’s life and takes it over. And this is where I had to check out of the story. Manami is, as I say, entirely loathsome. So much so that I cannot for the life of me conjur up the least little sympathy for Ayumu after she decides to be friends with such an obvious skank. I felt for her about the cutting, I really did. It’s nothing I ever did, or would ever do – I much prefer to take my bile out on others rather than direct it towards myself – but still, I understand the thing that drives a person towards cutting well enough. But if she didn’t take one look at Manami and think, “what a tick”, well, she’s going to get into miserable situations.

And she does, of course. I did a quick overview of the next several volumes, and it looks like the story goes from one misery to another, with no hope for redemption or resolution in sight. Yeah – I’d want my teenaged girl to read this…not. I imagine it will resonate well with girls facing similar situations, but if there are that many girls facing that many similar situations, then our country has WAY more to worry about than kids cutting. And maybe it does, I don’t know. I despair to think that that many girls might well be in that many horrific situations. I have to believe that it’s a soap-opera mentality; wanting to see people marginally like you in crisis situations that are like yours blown well out of proportion to increase the dramatic potential. I fervently pray that it is so.

What *did* interest me about Ayumu was that, although she is in no way lesbian, she is an exceptional example of a woman-identitfied woman. Most of the examples I can come up with are lesbian characters, so I found Ayumu’s behavior very interesting.

It’s not uncommon to see women, of any orientation, notice what other women are wearing, or comment on their looks. What is less usual is to see women represented as noticing and caring what other women think of them. This is hardly uncommon behavior in real life, but I only tend to see it portrayed in “chick lit” and/or dismissed as an example of the superficiality of women. But Ayumu is more than that. She watches the girls around her almost exclusively, measuring herself against them, not for the sake of a boy, but for the sake of herself. It’s hard to miss that she comments on the looks of the other girls in the class, but completely ignores the appearance of the boys. And yet, I believe she is straight. Ayumu notices the girls for their beauty or popularity, not because she desires them, but desires to be measured against them. She identifies herself in relationship to them, not in relationship to the guy(s) in her life, as Manami does.

So, I don’t see any yuri at all, but I do see a reasonably woman-identified-woman. A rare thing in manga.

Unfortunately for Ayumu, her desire to be carried away in the company of women is going to be getting her in mounds of horrible trouble. I won’t be reading the next volumes of Life, but I might skip to the end to see what happens, when the series finishes.

And, if I did have a daughter who was reading this series, I’d definitely take the opportunity to discuss some of the many issues in here with her.

Unfortunately, Tokyopop blows a HUGE opportunity to engage the reading audience in a dialogue about cutting. The final page is a pedantic, dry and overwhelmingly dull discussion of cutting by a women who has a bunch of letters next to her name. Way to disengage a teen audience there, guys. A small box with the Cutting Hotline number and short, simple and unpretentious message would have served everyone far better. No young person in emotional distress wants some psychologist going “blah, blah, blah, blah, blah” at them. Hell, I don’t want it now, and I’m no longer a teen, nor in emotional distress.

And btw: Hotline for Teens who Cut: 1-800-366-8288

Talk to someone about it. Seriously.

Ratings:

Art – The Usual Teen Manga – 6
Story – The Usual Melodramatic Teen Manga – 5
Characters – The Usual Melodramatic Self-loathing Teens – 5
Yuri – 0
Service – 3

Overall – 5

It wasn’t awful. it wasn’t good. It wasn’t my cup of tea. The biggest problem with the story? I didn’t like a single person in it.

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22 Responses

  1. Meiko says:

    I find this concept of “woman-identified-woman” very intriguing! I believe to be (mostly) straight, yet I’m much more interested in women (as “people”) than in men. Weird.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Being a teenager myself, I can say that Ayumu is probably one of the most realistic characters in manga i’ve ever read about. Blaming her friend for her failure and comparing herself to other girls is something pretty normal for teens.

    I really wish more manga would make characters like this.(minus the cutting) Sure it’s fun reading about the idiot characters antics, or rolling your eyes at the cliche and overdone the big breasted ‘accidently-fall-on-male-sexily’ girl. But what i’d really like to see is a character I can actually relate too. (I think others would agree)

    But who knows, maybe in japan 6 hot girls really are competing over a worthless average nerd and there are ninjas everywhere screaming ‘Beileve it!11!’.

  3. I didn’t make up the “woman-identified woman”, believe me. :-)Smarter people than I have written about it.

    anonymous – thank you for writing in. Seriously. I was wondering if any teens read Okazu. You answered that. I agree, I thought Ayumu was realistic – at least in this volume, some things happen later on that make it a tad less realistic, at least for one girl to have all this happen all at once.

    I just wish I could like Ayumu, and I couldn’t.

  4. Shoujofan says:

    I read this first volume too, and I had a different impression. The relation betweeen the two friends was very accurate. As a teacher at a very competitive school I see a plenty of boys and girls like the protagonist best friends: they are excellent students since they are surrounded buy peers without confidence, if the friends start to study the top student may feel jelous and even loose focus. So Life was not a unreal to me.

    But I read just one volume and most people I know say the manga gets worse and over in the situations… Well, well, I wanted to read more of it. And I really liked Vitamin an oneshot of the same author. The point is, the two stories are similar in many points.

    >> I feel sorry for my English… I should be sleeping by now. :)

  5. Emma says:

    I have a question: how does man/woman-identification manifest itself in relation to whom we find more interesting as characters when we read a book, or watch a film? I’m a lesbian and whatever book I read has to have a strong or at least likeable female character for me to read it; so I have no special interest in Yaoi and find the majority of shoujo drama vaguely insulting. But I have a friend who is also gay (or said she was in high-school, when it was still trendy) who is a yaoi fangirl and has only favourite male characters. So, does the gender we identify with have nothing to do with our sexuality or how we identify with characters in fiction; or can lesbians be male identified or was my friend simply not very gay, or at least an exception to the rule?

  6. Thanks, shoujofan for your point of view!

    And for emma – yes, being male or femal “identified” is not fixed by orientation, although many straight women are male-identitifed. But that hardly means all are. And the characters one likes in stories is not really an indication of being “identified”. My wife, prefers stories with male main characters, but she is in no way, in her real life, male-identified. (Actually, its kind of funny to even think of her that way…)

  7. Shoujofan says:

    I love your blog, Erica. But my message was really awfully written. Sorry for it. ^_^’

  8. Not at all! You have nothing to apologize for. Your comment was more coherent than many I get – often by native English-speakers. LOL

  9. MisaChan says:

    This manga was very diffrent and i like things that are diffrent. It was very hard for me to put it down because it was reality, i know alot of people who cut but not many. Most teens only scrath because they want attention and they are too scared to really cut. Overall i really do like it, i like reading more about high school “real” problems then some fake fantasy stuff. I recommended all my friends at school about LIFE.

  10. Lorna says:

    Although cutting was in the story, it wasn’t the main problem. It is all about the bullying in Japanese schools, nothing about this was intended to be about America. This manga did so well in Japan because a lot of students identified with the bullying shown in “LIFE” (and it can get very vicious). It is now a popular Japanese drama.

    Ayumu is a very believable girl. She shows all the emotions that I went through when I was that age. As for Manami is the embodiment of a typical Japanese high school girl (and a rich one at that). Her friends flatter and follow her, because they want to be a part of her group. The girl, Hiro, is a perfect example of the Japanese psyche (perhaps taken to a bit extreme).

    And the manga deals with a lot of other problems in contemporary Japan, bullying, cutting, domestic abuse, rape, kidnapping…

    So give it another chance and read a little further. Even if there isn’t any Yuri, it is a good story that is made for teens and that teens can identify well with.

  11. Midori says:

    When reading this series [which I enjoy], further on I found some hints of shoujo-ai elements. For example, Miki Hatori takes interest in Ayumu, as does Ayumu her. They have a friendship element, but it seems almost far more.

    I don’t know. In volume 7 they had this moment near the end.. the whole romantic set-up kind of thing. Looking into each other’s eyes, and then Ayumu says to Hatori that she is her light. And they have hand-holding and other things like that. It’s.. confusing to say the least.

  12. Anonymous says:

    i actually understand why Ayumu would become friends with Mana. in fact, im trying to fix all the fake relationships ive made in school out of my lonliness, so i connected to Ayumu in that aspect.

    i agree with Midori that there are some pretty strong shoujo-ai elements between Ayumu and Mika….but im only on the 6th volume, and it could just be wishful thinking XD;;

  13. *~midnight~* says:

    Even though some people think that the things that happen in LIFE is overexaggerated, it’s true. I personally think that this manga is great, since it’s not totally made up and it actually shows how cruel other people can be.

    I can relate to the manga because I used to live in Japan, and I was bullied. Even though it wasn’t close to as bad since I was in elementary school, it still hurt.

    Now I live in California, as a normal 13 year old middle school student. I find that people over here don’t do the whole “bullying” thing as often as they do in Japan. Also, there’s more of a mix in ethnicity, race, and religion. Part of the reason I was bullied in Japan was because I was a “foreigner”. Some kid even called me an illegal alien, even though I was totally legal and had moved there with my family because of my dad’s job. It’s easier to fit in here.

  14. midnight – Thank you for your comment. It’s good to remind me from time to time how hard school is. You’re right that bullying can be extremely cruel. I’m sure that many people can identify with what you said. I’m glad that you’re in a better place to go to school now, too.

  15. Emiri Chan says:

    I believe that this manga is very accurate, well, okay, i have read the whole manga series, but still, the things that manami does is yes, overexaggerated. but still, this manga gets the point that a) people are cruel and you never can truly know someone and b) for what you do you will have to pay for sooner or later. personally, i love the art, i find it amazing….. sorry C= and also the charrecters, very very nice, i think it deserves more than a 5…. more like a 7 or 8…. yes i like is that much C=

  16. karylle says:

    for me i mean the book relates to me because i used to cut myself but what the books’ story line explains real life teens…i giv it a 7 or 8 in rating because it is partially true

  17. etch says:

    When I first picked up the “Life” manga, I was intrigued by how realistic the problems and relationships it portrayed were in comparison to most other manga, and many other books, that I’ve read. I quite like your “woman-identified-woman” concept – while I wasn’t thinking of it in those terms while I was reading, I did appreciate the fact that Ayumu wasn’t lovestruck or boy-crazy (finally, a character who isn’t solving her problems with the power of “true love”!) and was more concerned with the way people, especially her female peers, saw her than with snagging a man. I’ll admit I didn’t call Manami on her skanky personality as quickly as you did- I thought she was annoying, insensitive and over the top, but I thought that that was part of what made her normal. I really believed her to be just a friendly girl who had invested too much of herself into her boyfriend. Sure, we see her manipulative side at the end (though at the time, I just thought she was desperate- man, I’m a terrible judge of character), but not nearly to the level we see later on.

    That’s what threw me when I started getting further in. I’ve gotten sick of girlfight stories where the “nice” girl gets tormented by the popular girl who gets her butt kissed by everyone. I’ve never seen a situation in real life, only in movies or books, where one girl has elaborate and malicious plans, runs the entire show, has an army of henchwomen to do her bidding, and truly believes that she deserves whatever she wants, whenever she wants. Since you say you haven’t continued reading the series, I might as well tell you that Manami shows herself to be manipulative to the point where it’s ridiculous. In the first couple of volumes, when she starts giving Ayumu crap, it’s of the sort that I know does happen in real life, and her apparent motivations are realistic as well. But later on, it’s like… I don’t even know how to describe it. It’s absurd.

    In spite of this, I’m still reading the series. I want to see what happens next, and Ayumu’s rare moments of badassery are almost like little bonus prizes for sticking with it.

  18. Etch says:

    Oh, sorry, I didn’t realize how long ago this review was written. Apologies!

  19. Bree says:

    Very intresting review, it’s good to know the different perspectives that people look at this book with. I personaly started reading LIFE when I was 13 and it didn’t relate to me at all but I found a strange twisted comfort in it.

    Like myself I KNOW most American teens don’t think daily on the wellfare of others…so everytime I’d feel depressed because I had a bad day, I didn’t fit into a “bigger picture”, I wasn’t accepted by a guy; anytime “I” was used more than “she”, “he”, “they”, “those other million people” I’d pick up a copy and then pretty much hit myself for being so selfish! It wasn’t till I started reading that I figured out that every event in these books could be happening RIGHT NOW, I mean I knew…I just never felt any sorrow for them.

    I didn’t really cry for any of my friends sorrow, or a strangers till I got to volume 3. …I know it sounds stupid and totally teen drama but I just can’t help myself; the world’s twisted, and we need to learn to cry for people we don’t even know.

    All we need to know, is that out there something in one of these books is happening and it’s a huge stain on any possibility of even considering ourselves civilized human beings. This manga shows the true sinful animalistic side we all have hidden under a mask, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a nun or a hobo, cause if you wanted to, you could do it.

    But now I’m going off on a self rightous babble so I’ll stop. Just saying, in all honesty, if you have something to get off your chest do the following:

    Pick up a volume (or go the mangafox.com), flip through to a part in the book that makes you feel disgusted, and then see how this one characters life is screwed up because of the two faced people who inhabit her daily life…and then find the thing you need to rid yourself of, cry…and blame it on the book. :P In all seriousness, it works…I would know.

    Also! Check out Vitimans, by the same author, same self tortured character, sept. she gets a happy ending quicker.

  20. Anonymous says:

    As I understand from your post you didn’t see this manga to its latest release. So I have to say if you did follow it it is realistic. Extreme in some eyes but one can’t dismiss the fact that things like this ARE happening. Some teenagers may have it worse.

    And wemon identifying with wemon is only too common. You don’t need to read this manga to know that. You don’t even need to ask a teenager or woman. Simply look to the media. Notice how there seems to be a standard to what is considered beautiful in society. Look at the weight loss commercials and adds for what’s “in”.
    All wemon want to be pretty and if media is saying what is pretty than girls will compare themselves to the ideology the media on what is attractive.
    This manga is amazing and its upsetting how little people know about it and how harshly they critic it because of its unique storyline.

  21. Iris says:

    When I first heard of LIFE I thought it’d be over-the-top drama about the self-injury but actually I realised it was handled really well. The storyboarding was amazing. Keiko Suenobu visually showed that there are many circustances for hurt yourself, and the depictions of cutting are so accurate I had flashbacks. I have a feeling Suenobu had personal experiences of self-harm. It also shows the effect of self-injury on your everyday life. Although, by the way Ayumu keeps cutting her lower arm, I suspect she never had to do the washing up.

    The blurb TokyoPop wrote was as awful as the patronising note at end. “She cuts her wrists” doesn’t do this manga any justice, even making it sound like ‘self-injury porn’.

    Mana was disgustingly fake but so is, you must admit, 90% of shoujo heroines. At least she has the grace to be bitch as well. And I don’t blame Ayumu because having one friend is better than having no friends. And since Ayumu also didn’t have a personality, it would make sense that she sizes up any girl who does.

    But jeez, despite the really strong first volume it just got worse and worse! The molestation storyline was absolutely ridiculous.

  22. Anonymous says:

    The bullying-theme at first was intriguing enough for me to start reading it but…It was mainly Ayumu who made me stop reading it. She’s just, so…weak (at least at the start) and she just lets people take advantage over her; makes me want to wack her on the head to get a move on with her life! Ah but, I suppose she was realistic to some girls. I dunno, maybe it’s because I can relate my personality more with Miki Hattori than her that makes me see her as weak. I dunno. The manga is too annoying and has just TOO many bad things happening to Ayumu that it’s actually unrealistic and…just plain stupid.

    This is just my opinion of the manga, I know that bullying does make the victim want to stay silent and such…It’s just, Ayumu made me very annoyed. So did Mana.

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