Cipher 11

February 25, 2012

Minako Narita – CMX – 2008 – 11 volumes

The finale! My interest has waned in the last several volumes, when the character study of Jake and Roy has gone on just a bit too long. But the final chapters of the series make the wait worth it.

There are many happy meetings, sad partings, and bittersweet reunions in this volume, which is what the last five or so volumes has been leading up to. The most touching, other than the inevitable reunion between Siva and Cipher, was the goodbye Cipher had to say to his roommate. It’s better to read this yourself, and nothing I say can really accurately convey just how beautiful this scene is. It’s not a goodbye forever, but the moment between them is absolutely perfect in just the right bromantic way.

I’ve always been a little confused by the male relationships in this series. It’s clear that Narita is not slashing her own characters, and they’re not really romantic in any way. But they are way, waaaay to close to be just friends. I might be able to let it go if only one male relationship like that existed in the series, but there’s at least three of them. It’s a little… weird. But this is a shoujo manga, and in the end, they can all be best buddies forever.

And then there’s the reunion between Jake and Roy. It’s also perfect. Worth all 11 volumes.

Also, within the first pages of the volume, we find out that Roy dressed as Ronald Regan for Halloween. This is why Cipher will always be the best shoujo manga ever. Plus, they celebrate Thanksgiving again, and the manga ends with the observance of Ash Wednesday. I love the way Narita uses holidays to note the passage of time in this series, and I loved that she nailed just the right ones for the US.

I feel like I should offer deeper analysis for the end of this series, but I’ve been reading Cipher for a long time, and I think I’ve said just about everything I want to about it. It’s a very genuine, character-centric series that takes a look at sensitive relationships, and actually does a better job with friendship than romance, an interesting quality in a shoujo manga. It also lives and breathes the 80s and New York City as hard as it possibly can, and instead of being vague or wrong, Narita captures all of it just right. It’s unique, and I’m more than thrilled that CMX saw fit to publish this in English. It’s unique, and any fan of shoujo looking for something different should try and seek this out. It’s a little slow, and probably not for everyone, but it’s definitely worth trying out for yourself.

Cipher 10

January 2, 2012

Minako Narita – CMX – 2008 – 11 volumes

The penultimate volume! I had been waiting for the self-reflection to come to an end here, but unfortunately, there’s plenty more of that to go around, and the characters sit around and talk about their feelings for, like, the third straight volume in a row. But the conclusions here are more solid than they previously have been, and both Siva and Cipher realize things about themselves that stir them into action by the end of the volume.

There are two American holidays in this volume. Well, one of them is a “holiday” in the sense that it was a celebration of the re-opening of the Statue of Liberty in 1986, the Liberty Weekend to celebrate the centennial of the monument. Liberty Weekend and Independence Day served as a backdrop to the contemplation in this volume. Most of the self-reflection is still from Siva and Cipher, but the New York setting, and the Liberty Weekend event, always seem to fit better with Anise. She does some reflection of her own, and comes to a conclusion, then acts on it. Thank God someone finally did something, though her actions were more than a little confusing and nonsensical. Actually, Anise is all about action, since she did go to LA to try and find Cipher last volume. I do like that she follows through with her feelings, rather than ruminating on them for however long. Her out-of-character remarks do serve their intended purpose, spurring Jake into action, but I have no idea why or how she decided to do it that way.

The other holiday we stumble across is Father’s Day. I hadn’t thought much about Father’s Day outside the US before. According to Wikipedia, it’s celebrated in Japan at the same time as the US, but this is the only manga I can think of that features it, and the fact that it’s explained makes me think that it’s not a common Japanese holiday. It’s Cipher’s friend that celebrates it (Cipher can’t, for obvious reasons), but it is used as a device to make him reflect more on his relationship with Siva.

And after all that thinking about themselves, Anise is on the move, and both Siva and Cipher look ready to make up. The last volume should be the long-awaited reunion, and hopefully it will also bring closure to Siva’s love life, or at the very least, a new beginning.

As much as I’m complaining about all the character development… while there is an excessive amount, I still like it quite a bit. I’ll talk a bit more about my thoughts on the end, though, after I’ve seen how things wrap up next time. I’m sure there won’t be a whole lot of surprises, but is there anything more satisfying than finishing a really good shoujo series?

Well… probably. But still. It should be pretty great.

Cipher 9

December 27, 2011

Minako Narita – CMX – 2007 – 11 volumes

Oh man. As good as this series is, the occasional lapses into shoujo la-la land are more pronounced when some of your characters are New York gang members. At one point, after trying to prove that Siva is tough enough to be Levi’s friend by punching him, the gang members apologize and explain that Levi “is a little shy inside,” that he “idealizes his friends, and leaves people when they don’t meet expectations,” and that they “love hanging around him” because of his “pure, innocent soul.” This is a little bit above and beyond Banana Fish levels of gang sentimentality, and it made me laugh pretty hard.

Other things of note: said gang members have chest hair, which goes against the shoujo la-la land image, though endears them to me a little more. After all, how often do you see that in shoujo manga? I know that’s a weird thing to fixate on, but still. Also, Minako Narita lets us know in a sidebar that she doesn’t like the direction the Thompson Twins’ music is moving in, but she still keeps an eye on their videos, because after all, she’s dreamed about them 116 times, so she can’t just give up on them.

Aside from that… this volume was a little rough for me. At first, it’s very clear that Jake and Roy are each ready to reconcile, and the beginning of the volume gets the characters ready for that. Back in New York, Anise and Levi both agree that Jake looks like he’s coming around, and Anise makes efforts to contact Roy. In LA, Roy can’t stop remembering Jake, and having phantom pains and out-of-body experiences, et cetera.

Then the preparation keeps going. For the entire volume. There’s lots of both Jake and Roy sitting around discussing their “real feelings” with their respective best friends. There’s so much parsing of “who they really are” that I kept losing the thread of conversation. Basically, both Jake and Roy want to be true to themselves, and while the time apart is meant to separate them and make them into their own people, they both seem to realize who they are… and I guess each other is part of that? The story doesn’t really make that clear.

I’m waiting for the next volume to get things going again. I don’t think there could possibly be much more of this sitting around and talking, so hopefully at least a few of the characters will talk next time.

Cipher 8

November 24, 2011

Minako Narita – CMX – 2007 – 11 volumes

There’s not really any good manga to review on Thanksgiving, for good reason. But Cipher is the only manga I’ve ever read where the characters celebrated the holiday, and I haven’t read it in awhile, so here we are.

It really is great. I’m reading Mars right now as well, and the two are very similar in that they both put a lot of work into character development. Both build their characters through conversations with others rather than events and monologues, which is a refreshing change of pace, and both feature some fairly complicated and worthwhile relationships.

There’s a strangely ambiguous one in this series between Jake and his roommate, Levi. With a lot of quiet, awkward moments and all-but-moving in together, combined with ambiguous ass-grabbing and Levi’s feminine looks, all the signs are there for the two as a couple. Except I don’t think that’s the case. Commentary from other characters suggests that Jake is simply being himself with Levi, and acting the same with him as he would with Roy. I think it is a friendship, plain and simple, but it’s a strangely… “sensitive” one.

Both Roy and Jake are doing well apart in this volume, but Anise is the one who’s most affected by the split in this volume. She still lives in New York and is close with Jake, but being close isn’t good for either Jake or Anise, since it only reminds them that Roy is gone. She can’t make her peace with Levi, the new friend in Jake’s life, and she can’t stop thinking about Roy.

Roy, on the other hand, is doing quite well. As is Jake, for that matter. The two extremely shy and introverted celebrities are learning to make friends, and the nuances of their mood and interaction with others is what makes this a great volume, and a great series in general. Seeing Jake and Roy apart is heartbreaking, but both are learning new skills, and about being apart, and it’s better for them.

I’m not really doing the series justice. At this point, it’s not really a romance comic, but seeing the angsty Jake and Roy learn and grow as people throughout the course of the series is wonderful, and Narita really knows how to write characters. She does a really good job with the setting, too. Manga set in the US is usually at least a little distracting with small inaccuracies, and the older the series is, the more hilariously wrong such things are. But Narita makes the characters interact with New York City quite well, and even in this volume, the city is used towards the end when the characters relive a tour from earlier in the series, then search for a lost person. Narita also pays close attention to US holidays. I mentioned Thanksgiving earlier, but Anise also discusses St. Patrick’s Day offhandedly here, as well.

Then again, there’s a really hilarious scene where people go skiing in t-shirts and bathing suits and things. Narita’s usually pretty good, though. And since I’ve never been skiing in California, maybe people actually do dress like that. Roy lives in Los Angeles, and maybe there’s some confusion there about what to wear when it’s cold. I’m told that winter wear in LA includes wearing a scarf over your tank top.

Also, Narita’s author notes continue to be a high point for me. She really loves the Thompson Twins.

Cipher 7

October 15, 2010

Minako Narita – CMX – 2007 – 11 volumes

You know, I love reading older shoujo stories. I love seeing how modern storytelling conventions came to be, and I love seeing a particular period take on a problem. Cipher is different, I think, than even its contemporaries (though I haven’t read a lot of 80s romance manga), since I think the American setting puts a slightly different spin on things, and it’s just so sensitive. Lots of long, meaningful stares, and lots of earnest friendships.

Two new characters enter in this volume, one male friend each for Siva and Cipher, who are now living on opposite coasts. The two new characters couldn’t be more different from one another. On the west coast, Cipher gains a roommate who is very laid-back and likes to joke, taking life as it comes. He doesn’t know how to respond to the very serious Cipher, who takes all his jokes seriously, but eventually the two find a groove and seem to be very good for each other, with the boy helping Cipher get acclimated to the west coast and life away from his brother.

In New York, Siva gains a friend from a random modeling job, a boy who mistakes him for Cipher and looks up to him, and inevitably leads him back to Harlem and the family of the deceased girl he fell in love with. This boy is very serious and earnest around Siva, but Siva desperately needs a friend, and Anise isn’t sure what to do with him anymore.

This volume is a little hand-wringing and depressing, especially in New York. Cipher’s adventures in California aren’t nearly as depressing, since he’s come to terms with his decision and is merely learning to live around different people and away from his brother. But Siva has to deal with the loss of both his girlfriend, who he never told the truth to, and his twin brother. He won’t open up to Anise, who is trying desperately to bring him out of his depression, and is desperately lonely. Somehow, he clicks with the boy who at first is angry with him for not being Cipher, then looks up to him anyway. They seem to find a lonely kind of groove with one another.

Admittedly, both boys click with Siva and Cipher on very deep levels. It was nice to see the relationships portrayed as a brotherly friendship, too, rather than romance (I’m sure a thousand girls slashed them in their heads, because that’s kind of what it looked like). I loved the silent panels of everyone sizing each other up and trying to decide how to respond, how to portray themselves, and what exactly there was to see in the person across from them. There are few series that could portray this level of human connection and emotion outside of Cipher, and it’s a pretty incredible read.

I’ve been putting off reading the rest of the volumes because of the depressing split last volume, but after the interesting way the boys are putting back together the pieces of their lives, I think I’m going to have to pick up the volumes much more quickly now.

Cipher 6

May 1, 2010

Minako Narita – CMX – 2007 – 11 volumes

Wow.  And I thought I would be treated to the rough story of Cipher’s drug addiction in this volume.  I was, and it was very good.  Even better, I didn’t really think about it, but the story was told from Siva’s point of view, and judging by the author margins, there will be a retelling soon from Cipher’s point of view.  It was an interesting version of events, because while it was Siva doing all the looking after, Cipher was the one that was having all the problems, and Siva mostly glossed over that in favor of highlighting his behavior problems.  I liked how it eventually got to the part where they shared one identity, too.

But that was… hm.  The second half blew that away.  I don’t want to spoil it, because I didn’t see it coming, but something happens that completely blows apart everything that is happening in the story.  The characters are scattering, and I’m guessing all the dynamics are changing next volume.  I’ve also never seen such an event handled so well in a manga, too.  The characters explain what happens, and you are left to draw your own conclusions about how they feel, for the most part, although they also speak through their actions.  You are never told what any of them are thinking.  I loved that, and it lent a lot more gravity to the situation.  The situation was made even worse by having all sorts of regrets hanging around it, too.

Sad stuff.  Unbelievably good, too.  I’m out of volumes for the time being, but am definitely getting the rest of the series sometime very soon.

Also, I loved the side bars where the author talks about how obsessed she is with the Thompson Twins.  She liked them.  A lot.  She talks about how (very) frequently she dreams about them, among other things.  I was very amused.

Cipher 5

April 16, 2010

Minako Narita – CMX – 2006 – 11 volumes

Wow, I love the subtle touch this series has.  Jake has been completely mute all this time that Roy and Anise have been getting close.  We were given hints towards the fact there was something wrong, but never, ever anything solid.  A new character in this volume cracks his character wide open, not only in the present, but also leads into a long flashback about the twins, so we can finally learn about the circumstances leading up to their lifestyle.

I accidentally started reading volume 6 before this one, and I initially didn’t like Dana.  I love the closeness between Roy, Jake, and Anise, and I hated the thought of someone else splitting the three of them apart, even Roy and Jake.  But Dana’s not like that.  Dana is someone for Jake to reach out to and let his feelings out.  Someone that he doesn’t feel responsible for, and really, a love interest, which is important if this series isn’t going to run off into twincest territory (and I give it a lot more credit than that, even with all the weird, but somehow still sentimental and not creepy, smooching those two do).  Jake feels comfortable at Dana’s house in a way that isn’t possible where he lives, and he winds up opening up to Roy and Anise a little more as a result, too.

Dana dabbles in performance, and it turns out she has a role with “Siva” in their next job.  Basically, Roy is doing the job and the two have to lie to Dana about their identity, which she doesn’t notice but her mother does.  When her mother threatens Jake, that’s when he opens up about his life story that we get to hear.

I don’t have that much to say about the life story.  It’s interesting in that it makes the fact they grew up as actors seem completely unglamorous.  That part is downplayed quite a bit, but the relationship between and with their parents isn’t.  There’s a lot that goes unspoken, and throughout the flashback, you can see Jake feeling more and more uncomfortable with his role as the “adult” of the twins where Roy gets all the attention for being the more flashy brother.  I love that the interpretation of most scenes is left up to the reader.  It’s not rocket science or anything, but I adore it when there’s not an inner monologue or narration ruining flashbacks like this.  I can think what I want, and his reactions help reinforce or change my opinions accordingly.

There’s also a really elaborate Thanksgiving scene in this volume.  Again, I’ve only read a handful of manga set in America, but none peg it as accurately as this.  This is the only instance of Thanksgiving I think I’ve ever seen, and it really is portrayed simply as a family meal and a simple holiday with a parade to celebrate.  I only wish we still had Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man floats in our Thanksgiving Day parades.  Also making a random appearance: The Pet Shop Boys.  They appear in a side bar, but one of the chapters is also called “East End Boys and a West End Girl.”

It’s still wonderfully sentimental and subtle, and more a drama of the twins than it is a romance or anything like that.  A bizarre shoujo coming-of-age story featuring twin boys rather than a central heroine.  In fact, Anise wasn’t in this volume at all.  Maybe she’ll be back more next time, but it sounds like the story moves away from her.  I’m interested to see where it goes, if it’s not a romance between Roy and Anise.