This is a title that has been on my “meaning to read” list for *ever*. Last month, completely by coincidence, as I was leaving that haven for used, obscure and hard-to-find manga, Book-Off, the title caught my eye from a shelf I never look at. Lo and behold! They had the complete set in reprint. So today’s review is dedicated to Wendy, who kept ragging on me to read it.
And here we are, at the first volume of classic Yuri manga Applause by Ariyoshi Kyouko. which is still in print and available over at Amazon JP. If you’re really into shoujo manga, you may recognize the mangaka’s name as the author of Swan, which is now out in an English-language edition.
Applause begins at St. Maria’s, a private Catholic school in Belgium. The two stars of the school are Junaque, a relative of the Belgian royal family and Shara, a Japanese transfer student. Shara is tall, athletic, boyish; while Junaque, two years her elder, is sensual and attractive. Both are tops in their classes in studies and both are a little bit mischievous. They are roommates despite the differences in their ages and it is widely known that they share a bed much of the time. They are also about to star in the school play which is supposed to be the typical annual Christmas pageant, but in secret (along with all the rest of the girls) they have been preparing another, scandalously racy play. It is the tragic love story of Manon Lescaut. It’s a pretty shocking play and all of the school, sans the teachers who are out of the loop, is excited and titillated about the kiss scenes between the two school stars.
Early on, their relationship comes under fire; from jealous schoolmates, teachers and administration. When challenged to kiss in front of everyone, Junaque launches into her lines as Manon and she and Shara, as the Chevalier Grieux, kiss. But where for Junaque it appears to be all in a day’s work, for Shara, it is clearly more.
The story, which is VERY detailed and long and which I am cruelly synopsising here, follows the two as the play approaches. We can see that Shara is very in love with Junaque, and it appears that her feelings are returned but, even though they do have a very close relationship and do share a bed, they never approach the matter that lays so heavily between them. We also learn that Junaque is affianced to her cousin Georges, who we instantly dislike because of his condescending body language, snarky comments and smoking habit.
On the day of the pageant, in front of teachers, administrators, relatives, alumna, they perform the play. Of course there is an immediate outcry, but somehow they are allowed to continue. During the performance, they rewrite the lines to more closely reflect their own true feelings of love, something that thrills and shocks the audience no end. When the play is over, Junaque approaches Shara, confesses her love and kisses her, for the first time as herself. Shara, horrified by her own feelings, rejects Junaque, shutting her friend out completely. It isn’t until Junaque withdraws into herself and stops talking to Shara that she realizes what a horrible mistake she’s made. But it is too late – Junaque won’t talk to her and Shara knows that she’s done something terrible to both of them. Junaque leaves school, and Shara, without a word. Shara sees her beloved play a concert, but can’t approach her. She collapses into hysterics.
To escape from herself and from Junaque’s absence, Shara leaves upon graduation and goes to New York City where she will become a famous dancer. (I have to admit, that seemed really weird to me – she played tennis and acted…you’d think…anyway….)
In New York she ends up with a troupe full of “colorful” people, as they say, complete with gay men Gerald and Alfie, who run a theater. Shara is attending college and dance lessons, but steadfastly refuses to join the actors, even when the leading lady goes missing and they BEG her to. She refuses flatly and the show has to refund the ticket costs and close. At one point, as they beg, she shouts that she’ll never go on stage again! – which comes a total shock to all her friends, who had no idea that she ever acted in the first place. In between many passages where Shara is mistaken for a gay boy, it turns out that someone in the audience claimed that they they didn’t refund the ticket price and the police show up. Gerald resists, and Shara punches a cop which lands them both in jail. She admits that she was on stage previously, but doesn’t tell Gerald why she won’t act anymore.
Because of bail, and the show closing, the theater loses their space and has all their equipment repossessed. They need 5000 dollars to pay it all back. 5000 dollars!?! End of volume
Okay, so bottom line – there’s two completely different stories here. One, the school arc, which ends tragically. The arc that begins in New York is like a completely different manga, with a different art style and a totally different tone. But don’t worry, the two arcs intersect again later. I admit that, when I finished the volume I was bit “huh?” and went back to see if I had missed something. Also, at this point, I was a bit apprehensive that I’d find myself wrapped up in a Claudine-like story, in which Shara goes through tragic affair after tragic affair with women. But no worries on that account – which isn’t to say that there aren’t any worries coming up. ^_^
In terms of art, I think the story suffers a bit from being shoved into A4 format. It’s really too small to make out some of the details and all the dialogue gets squished together on the page. It just tires one’s eyes out. The art is *very* classic shoujo manga, with all that entails, like “shock!!” eyes. Shara is drawn adult, masculine, girly, young, as the scene requires and Junaque is mostly drawn with Miya-sama-esque bearing and expressions. My favorite pieces of art are when they are both drawn like the young women that they are supposed to be. When we reach the end of the school arc, Shara is consistently shown as more grown up, and also more masculine, although she never once tries to “pass.” Nonetheless, as they are clearly in the Village, she ends up being mistaken for a boy all the time. Which pretty much freaks her out every time it happens. You’d think she’d get used to it.
Did I like it? Yeah, I think so. I was concerned that the story would be unremitting tragedy, without the over-the-topness that made Maya’s Funeral Procession work for me, but the story really matures as it goes along. It starts off with that oh-so-stereotypical hothouse of the Catholic school, but moves off after we hit New York into something much hipper, much more adult and more whimsical without losing the sense of drama. This series has enough angst for the emo-est of teens, but also has some moments of genuine fun – and shows some glimpses of good writing from time to time. Unlike Wendy, I don’t consider classic shoujo to be the only worthy genre, but Applause makes a much-appreciated break from the shounen fare I’ve been watching and reading recently.
Art – *so* shoujo – 7
Story – 7
Characters – 6
Yuri – 9
Service – 3
Overall – 7
This story is full of the usual tropes of shoujo and josei storylines and characters. It’s not original (not even for it’s time) but it is a very decent example of the breed.