March 15, 2011

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A Year of Rumiko Takahashi Week 9: My Takahashi Heresy Part 1 (One Pound Gospel)

My year-long look at the work of Rumiko Takahashi continues here. A great creator deserves a whole year of examination! You can find all of the posts here.

Written by Rumiko Takahashi
Illustrated by Rumiko Takahashi
Viz

It's time to take a little break from Ranma 1/2 and talk about one of Rumiko Takahashi's shorter series, One Pound Gospel. This is a four-volume story that took absolutely forever to finish, starting in 1987 and finishing in 2007. Nearly five US Presidents served as this series sat behind her other works, and I think some of that shows in the story itself, as we'll see.

I have to start off this review with two personal notes. The first is the cross-country trip my editions of the book made. In one of those things you can't make up, the copies of One Pound Gospel that I ordered from Wyoming (or some similarly far-flung place) actually started their life on the shelves of my current local library, which recently replaced them while I was ordering these books. How funny is that?

The second personal note is that, try as I might, I just couldn't bring myself to like One Pound Gospel. I was offended by the crux of the crucial romantic plot, which dismissed the importance of religion to a young woman, and that feeling only got worse as the series progressed. Takahashi is a talented writer who can make comedy out of almost anything, but here she fails badly in my opinion. Keep that in mind as you read this--it's entirely possible your impressions are/will be quite different from mine.

In terms of plot, One Pound Gospel is the story of Kosaku, a young boxer with a mean punch and an unending hunger. His desire for food is just about destroying his career, and with a few more failed bouts, he's going to be out of work. Enter a young nun in training, who gets involved in Kosaku's life and tries to put him on the right path. Unfortunately, Kosaku not only can't keep himself away from the buffet, soon he can't keep himself away from her.

As the story progresses, we see Kosaku struggle with his desire to eat all he wants and his dream of becoming a champion boxer. (This idea drives many of the visual gags, and unfortunately gets tiresome after the first few times we see Kosaku trying to hide snacks or hide himself under a buffet table.) Meanwhile, Sister Angela/Marie, his inspiration, wrestles with the very serious idea of serving her faith or serving her desires as a woman. (This idea is not the least bit funny and it's definitely not something I enjoyed reading for reasons I'll go into momentarily.) Caught in the maelstrom of Kosaku's conflicted life is his boxing trainer, a man burdened with a boxer who could be the next Ali--or the next unintentional sumo wrestler. (This constant slow-burn is vintage Takahashi and works brilliantly--the high point of the manga.) Both Kosaku and Sister Angela learn about life in the usual comedic Takahashi way, and together they must make important decisions about their future in the years to come.

On first blush, there are some patented Takahashi tropes in here which should work better than they end up playing out on the page. We have an apparently selfish male character who must change or face a dire fate. There's a female lead who refuses to like the male lead, though that resolve is constantly challenged. There are rivals for their affection. There are older characters who act as checks on the impulses of the younger protagonists. Most importantly, the whole thing is played for laughs, a tried and true Takahashi trademark. The characters and setting change, but a casual glance might make the reader think that this is just Takahashi being Takahashi.

That's true to a certain extent, but as you look deeper, there are definitely one major difference that actually hurts this manga in my opinion. We'll spend this week focusing on what I think the major flaw in One Pound Gospel is--namely the poor selection of romantic leads.

Takahashi's stories often revolve around romance, whether they are seinen or shonen. She's quite adept at using the idea of opposites attracting to drive her stories, and this one is no exception. However, unlike a good hearted tenant and his landlord or two young martial artists or even a strong-willed girl and a demon, One Pound Gospel tries to bring together two people who have absolutely no business being together.

The biggest problem One Pound Gospel has is the inevitable relationship between Kosaku and Sister Angela. While I'm normally rooting for the guy to get the girl (or vice versa), this time, it actually bothers me that we are being asked to hope that Sister Angela gives up her vows and runs off with the bloated boxer, no matter how good-hearted he is.

I'm not a terribly religious person by nature, but I do respect those who've decided to dedicate their lives to service in their God or Gods. While I may again be bumping up against cultural differences here, I just don't think it's cool to make religion the butt of the joke or to make the reader want to have a person give up their faith to go with a person who really hasn't shown they love her. The fact is, Marie/Angela is excommunicated for doing this. She's giving up God for Kosaku, and that's not even given so much as a passing thought. The words of her Mother Superior warning of dangers to come is as weak as a well drink at a fancy bar. It's clear we're meant to be happy these two are together

That's simply not cool to me, especially given we also have domestic abuse laughed off in Volume three, which I will talk more about next week. In this comedy, it seems like women are supposed to fall in line with what their men want them to do, making me laugh out loud when I recall the complaints about Takahashi hating men that I discussed in Week Four.

I might have tolerated this forced romantic ending except that this is a comedy not a tragedy, and Sister Angela is giving up all that she has just to be with a man who is basically a boorish, gluttonous, selfish jerk. Kosaku has no redeeming features as a character. He wants to win, but doesn't want to work for it. He sees nothing wrong with putting characters through mental anguish, and his only altruistic act has an ulterior motive attached. Kosaku isn't pretending to be a stupid jock jerk--he *is* a stupid jock jerk. I fail to see why we want Sister Angela to give up her vows to be with a man who isn't Rocky Balboa. There's nothing noble I can find in Kosaku, and having him get the girl isn't entertaining for me--it's frustrating.

Perhaps it might have been too radical, but what if Kosaku and Sister Angela *didn't* get together at the end? Would it have been too much for the long-suffering readers if Takahashi had opted to go the sad romantic comedy route and end up with her semi-lovers agreeing to just be friends as they grow into their own worlds? Maybe I'm the only one who finds that idea appealing, but I just don't think Kosaku is a good enough person to justify getting his way in the end.

Still, even a weak Takahashi has some appeal to it, and I guess if the religion angle didn't bother you as much as it bothered me, then I could see why this series could appeal, though I find it hard to warm up to Kosaku as a character. Next week, I'll go over some of the other parts of One Pound Gospel, and show that even a heretic can note the good points of the other side.