May 10, 2011

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A Year of Takahashi Week 14: Takahashi's Rodney Dangerfield Manga (Rin-Ne)

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

If there's one thing I learned as the host of the Rumiko Takahashi Manga Movable Feast, it's that people just aren't very fond of Rin-Ne, whether they are people who read all sorts of manga, folks without a strong attachment to Rumiko Takahashi, or those who even went so far as to write fan fiction back in the day.

When I started bringing this up on twitter, I got a whole host of replies back, some of them from the same people who were giving the series lukewarm comments, reporting that they did in fact like Rin-Ne. The thing is, though, if you look at the comments objectively, Rin-Ne is a series that, not unlike Rodney Dangerfield, just can't get no respect.

The question is, does it deserve it?

Let's face it, life is pretty hard for Rin-Ne the series. It's the latest creation from a creator that's in the pantheon of manga greats. It comes on the heels of her arguably most commercially successful series. It was given the rare boost of being simultaneously released online in both English and Japanese. But perhaps most significantly of all, it's Takahashi's first series to be released entirely in the blog-tweet-status era of the internet, where reactions are shared more often, more widely, and with the least amount of barriers to sharing.

Sure, there's been an internet for a long time, and message boards and newsgroups disseminated information about manga just about as soon as the manga boom happened in the United States to say nothing of international internet usage. However, it was not omnipresent the way we experience the internet today.

Rin-Ne is a new series and as such, there are still a lot of kinks to be worked out. Instead of reading having private thoughts about these issues, they're all over the web and as a result, I think a certain buzz is generated about Rin-Ne that it's an okay series, but nothing to write home about. I wonder if some of the critical problems Rin-Ne has are related to the large volume of commentary out there today.

That's not to say we should talk less about books as they come out or stop having so many review blogs, because that would be both stupid and hypocritical. (I am not a fan of certain long-standing critics who seem to think that the world of comics criticism belongs only to them and to whom they deem worthy.) What I am saying is that I think Rin-Ne is born into a world with a) a lot more manga to choose from and b) a lot more freedom to express critical ideas, and as a result, is taking some hits that Ranma 1/2 and InuYasha could also have seen, had they started in the 21st Century instead of the 20th.

The world of reading is a very different place today than it used to be, and even Rumiko Takahashi can't escape that reality. What has worked in the past doesn't necessarily work today, and that brings me around to the content of Rin-Ne itself.

Former Marvel Editor in Chief Joe Quesada got in a lot of trouble with older comics fans (and some older comics creators) by saying that retro-style superhero comics just don't sell. People don't want books set in older continuity with older mores; they want edgier, contemporary material. What does this quote have to do with Rin-Ne? Despite being popular enough to graze the New York Times Bestseller lists for manga, I think that part of the issue with Rin-Ne is it feels like a manga caught in a time machine. Despite all we've seen in manga over the past dozen years or so, Rin-Ne and Takahashi seem stuck in the very wheel of re-incarnation that's part of the plot of the series. Rin-Ne is fun, but it just doesn't feel fresh. It's more like picking up something from a longbox and re-reading it than being part of a new comic.

I fully realize that Takahashi is not the most original manga-ka. I like her work a lot, but in terms of style, her comics tend to look similarly and take one of two paths, serious or silly. The thing is, in the past I've always gotten a sense of refinement of style. I feel like while you can draw connections between Maison Ikkoku, Ranma, InuYasha, and even One Pound Gospel, there's always been just enough change to make them feel like they're in their own world, as it were.

This time around, I just don't feel that. Takahashi is doing what she does best in terms of setting and characterization, but instead of feeling like something new, four volumes of Rin-Ne for me is more akin to getting a story set in the world of Ranma 1/2, staring an extremely toned down Ranma and Akane in the lead roles. We're back in school, we have really unbelievable plot devices that take us completely out of reality, and we have a lot of dumb jokes. Even as things start to shift into more complex plotting (at which Takhashi seems to still excel), I just can't shake the fact that Rin-Ne feels less like its own entity and more like a ghost of the past. It's only 1/4 its own manga, if you'll pardon the pun.

That's not to say I don't like Rin-Ne, because I do. I am a huge fan of Ranma 1/2, so getting more of the same is okay with me. Yes, debtor hell is full of obvious gags. Yes, the money jokes are going to get run into the ground. Yes, I like seeing characters take pratfalls at every opportunity. I've enjoyed Rin-Ne so far, and I'm sure I'll keep enjoying it. But I will enjoy this in the way that I might enjoy anything by a favorite creator--I'm looking for the familiar, the comfortable. Just like I want REM to sound like they did in the late 1980s (and am happy because they do), I want Takahashi to entertain me with silly jokes. So far, she has in Rin-Ne.

Just because I like the familiar, however, doesn't mean I can't ask for the familiar to have some new twists. That's where I think most people get hung up on Rin-Ne, especially in those first fe, key volumes. There's just not a lot that's new there beyond the character names. If REM only wrote music based on their best prior hits, covering the same topics, I'd probably get bored and others might stop listening entirely. By the same token, if Rin-Ne doesn't start to branch out, I'm not sure I'll be reading by volume ten, though I'm in at least through volume five.

It is a very different reading (and entertainment) world out there. With so many choices, people can only give books so many chances before they move on. It's quite understandable that Rin-Ne is shedding long-time Takahashi readers, because quite frankly, it's not new, it's not different, and it's not as good as what she's done previously. You don't get respect just by name value alone anymore. You have to earn it. I'm not sure Takahashi has managed that with Rin-Ne. In the final analysis, being a good story, and not a great one, might just not be enough.