Monkey High (Saruyama!) shoujo manga volume 1 review: An exercise in cute by huamulan03
Consult the Oracle at Mountain View about "Saruyama" and the query returns Saruyama Rengō, Wiki's entry on the alliance formed by three Pirate captains in the One Piece anime/manga, in the top spot. You get warmer if you type in "Saruyama manga" (what I should've done in the first place), but not by more than a few degrees (the page one hits include my own blog post about this title. Twice.)
IOW, fairly on my own here.
So what is Saruyama!? Titled Monkey High for North American release, サルヤマっ！ Saruyama! is among the new manga titles for fans of
zany high school comedy that VIZ Media has scheduled for early 2008 release. I will note down at the end of this review what the other
everything from gritty crime dramas and fantasy/action tales to bittersweet romance stories series are. For now, the first quarter titles that niche into that comedy slot are: High School Debut (Koukou Debut) by Kawahara Kazune-sensei and Monkey High by Akira Shouko-sensei, both of which have been previewed in Shojo Beat and feature heroines named Haruna.
Since Koukou Debut is already an online favorite, I'm reviewing the under-the-radar Saruyama! (Synopsis, Shojo Beat online manga scan, my efforts at translating the Indonesian version, and some out-there speculations after the jump.)
Original title: Saruyama!
Streets: 4 March 2008 (VIZ Shojo Beat imprint volume 1)
Series status: 7 volumes (as of November 2007, ongoing serialization in Shogakukan's Betsucomi magazine)
After her parliamentarian-father's involvement in a graft scandal, Aizawa Haruna is forced to transfer schools to prevent further "decline" in school standards. Because of this fall from oujo grace, Haruna views all educational institutions as monkey mountains—simian stratification, cliques, and tussles attendant. Haruna expects neither welcome nor clemency at her new public school and likewise assumes that she will also be a pariah there. Curious (George)©™ classmates who eavesdrop on her interview with the principal, however, don't seem to suffer from malice premeditated—especially not the short but not quite chibi
I'm still growing Yamashita Masaru who upon being discovered just grins and introduces himself with Yoroshiku! impulsiveness. Nonplussed, Haruna sees Masaru (against a tone background of stars) as a baby monkey, complete with playful tail.
Considering her disposition, the predictable prince to Haruna's seemingly emotionless, princess I-am-not should've been the class playboy who dispenses charm like a gardener spreads fertilizer, Atsuyuki Kido. Atsu in fact gets nominated by popular fangirl demand as the prince in the class presentation of Snow White in Tail (chapter) one and he suggests Haruna for the fairest of them all title role—because, you know, they just fit sooo well together (she objects, of course).
So how come Haruna ends up in Macharu's Sneezy dwarf costume? And "proposing" to a prone Masaru in the school infirmary at the close of Tail 1?
I started reading Saruyama! in September 2007 (when the Indonesian version came out) because of
best shoujo manga to come out of Japan since sliced bananas hype. Peer and online pressure though weren't the only reasons why I read; I already adored Akira Shouko-sensei from her earlier shoujo anthologies, most notably, Honey Moon.
First off, I should observe that Haruna's DIY schools equal monkey mountains philosophy flirts dangerously close to cancelling out disbelief. I get that the outcasting of Haruna would continue, regardless of where she enrolls, but that a bruised, my father is a convicted crook heroine could come up with such an analogy skosh stretches credulity. Okay, I can be generous and give her that because she's supposed to be smart but still. Other tropes—like the more predictable jungle one—would've worked equally well and additionally, might've made the Macharu/baby monkey metaphor more impactful. Wow. What hubris. As I wrote what I just did, I'm struck by the realization that this is probably the reason why Akira Shouko-sensei's editor suggested that the manga-ka create a story starring a baby monkey in the lead and set sed story on a monkey mountain; it was bypass the jungle and head straight for the colony. (That the inspiration could've easily come from the more Occam's razor theoretical simple as a picture of Japanese snow monkeys chilling out in hot springs or the more esoteric monkey mind concept in Pure Land Buddhism meditation, or even that it's the hook, dammit! don't occur to me at all. Zen zen.)
But once you do suspend disbelief (the novelty of an extremely genki male monkey romantic lead does pull you in), Saruyama! becomes a grow-on-you kind of story (it seems I can't recommend without dragging in a yama-san of caveats). The relationship development and handling of angst are more low-key than other Shogakukan shoujo dramas, especially those serialized in Betsucomi (Bokura ga ita comes to mind, especially as Masaru reminds me so much of Yano in chara design, don't ask me why). The focus here really is the healing of Haruna, which will become a Masaru Special.
An example: In the first chapter, Haruna refutes her interest in any of the monkeys in Kitayama High, least of all Atsu whose fangirls are foaming at the thought Haruna might think she's something special just because Atsu pays her attention. (
He's nice to everyone!) Masaru goes after Haruna saying he doesn't understand what she's saying and goes on to ask her: if she truly believes school is nothing more than a monkey mountain, then how does she view herself? Where on the mountain does she stand? Haruna replies she doesn't know, but by the end of the same chapter, she realizes that, wherever my place is, it's possibly beside you.
There are other examples (a lot!) but I'm restraining myself from spoiling too much. Suffice it to say that I lean towards calling Masaru "Masaru" more than his more popular nickname "Macharu" to indicate that Saruyama! is all about Haruna and Masaru warm and fuzzy; that Masaru doesn't suffer from comparison with other more flashy shoujo leads; and to reinforce that Saruyama!, for its comic hook and trappings, is really a drama with moments of levity thrown in to pacify the original monkey mountain premise.
low-key, I did, but this however, does not mean slow. By Tail 2, Confession: Climbing a Mountain is Easier or the baseball cap chapter, Haruna and Masaru end up an established couple, so you don't have to wait too long for cute relationship moments.
Omake that make this series worth the read: VIZ sez that Akira Shouko-sensei's art toes the Betsucomi house style of
rosy cheeks and cute, clean designs. This is very evident in Saruyama! and makes the read a shoujo fan's delight. But more importantly, Akira Shouko-sensei shares the backstory of each chapter at the end of the volume. Though not quite as formidably overshare-ish as Higuchi Tachibana-sensei's, the end-of-tankoubon omake provide welcome insights into the making of the manga. What, you don't read them? Well, I do. And enjoy them.
Rating: seven of 10 lettuce leaves (the counter will make sense after you've read volume three; I just didn't want to use bananas).
My omake: the other VIZ Teen and Older Teen releases for Q1 2008 are: Sand Chronicles by Ashihara Hinako-sensei (the series won the 50th Shogakukan Manga Award and has spawned a live-action television series and a feature film, set to be released next year; volume 1 already available), High School Debut by Kawahara Kazune-sensei (volume 1 already available), Honey and Clover by Umino Chica-sensei (available 4 March 2008), to be published under the popular Shojo Beat imprint; Ral Ω Grad by Obata Takeshi-sensei (available 5 February 2008) under the Shonen Jump Advanced imprint; and Switch by the Naked Ape duo, a collaboration of artist Nakamura Tonomi-sensei and writer Saki Otoo-sensei, to be offered by the VIZ Media imprint (available 11 March 2008).
~niki AKA 花木兰03 who dreads the possibility of being netless for a while