Sunday, 26 March 2017

Approaching Mediocrity: A Review of 'Kindred Spirits on the Roof' (2015 manga)

Perhaps this collection appeals to fans of the original game, but Kindred Spirits on the Roof underwhelms as a standalone manga. Cameos pop up, as though we should care about them, and maybe players of the game do. But none of the characters in this work are compelling or distinct. What we have here are graphic novellas that feel slight and unsatisfying.

Both stories share Shirojo high-school as a setting, but otherwise do not overlap. The first story focuses on Shiori. She still pangs with guilt over fleeing her best friend, Mako, when Mako confessed her love for Shiori. With the help of her new friends, Hina and Seina, Shiori must learn to stop running from her problems, and her feelings.

The second story concerns a girl, Hase, who adores seeing female friendships. She loves her voyeurism so much, she joins the quiz club just to pour over the friendship of the club’s two leaders, Tomoe and Sasaki. Together they aim to win the national quiz tournament. And will Tomoe and Sasaki’s friendship become something more? (Not even a spoiler: it will.) 

Anyone uninitiated into KSotR should hold their wallets back. As for how the initiated should act, I can’t say, because I have never played the VN. Maybe the players will find this spin-off just as mediocre. I hear the game is very good. Apparently, it presents lesbian coming-of-ages with tenderness and depth. The manga does not display such skill. Perhaps players who’ve spent hours with these characters (I assume the game contains these characters), will bring character depth over with them. Maybe the characters have quirks and nuances that did not have the necessary knowledge to notice. Perhaps the cameos will seem more welcome and less distracting to the players. Perhaps I’d understand why, for no reason, two ghosts appear.

The first story did not strike me as terrible, merely cliched. The difference between cliché and universal is in the execution. The story explores coming to terms with your past actions and your current feelings. Those times when one must swallow their hesitance, their fear for societal consequence, and act for the sake of others’ and themselves. The writer undermines these perennial themes with platitudinous execution. Shiori ‘ran’ from Mako when she confessed her love. Shiori has never stopped ‘running’, but if she wants to grow, she must stop ‘running’. (Because she’s literally running from her problems – get it?)

Shiori stops running when her friends give her words of wisdom, and aid her reunion with Mako. The writer introduces these friends, Seina and Hina, with two twenty-five words text boxes. These boxes contain such unique traits as: ‘[Hina-san] doesn’t talk much, but when she does, she makes it count.’ And: ‘[Seina-san’s] a hard worker at the centre of the class.’ Over the rest of the story, they get little more characterisation than this. They barely get as much characterisation as this.

As for our main character, she is a little bland, but her turmoil is compelling. We do feel her shame and self-doubt (even if said emotions are expressed in cliché). What’s more, the story does not bog down in self-doubt. Outside of her uneasiness with Mako, Shiori smiles, she has friends, she has goals, talents. Albeit, those friends, goals, and talents are shallowly painted.

Unfortunately, for a love story, the love is not convincing. Shiori and Mako fall in love because… this is a love story. That seems to be the main reason they get together: the genre requires it. Key to the story is Mako’s confession to Shiori, but I felt no chemistry on Shiori’s side towards Mako. This story could have limited itself to themes of reconciliation. Or it could have put more effort into the love story.        

But although rote and not romantically convincing, I prefer the first story to the second. The first story may express its theme platitudinously, but at least it has a theme. The first story has no compelling characters, but at least it has a somewhat compelling protagonist. The second story slogs along, sans theme, sans character, with only a superficial sweetness.

In the second story, you’re not sure who the protagonist is, and you suspect the writer didn’t know either. As the story begins with Hase’s narration, we assume she’s the protagonist. But no, the story arc focusses on the two girls Hase voyeurs on, Tomoe and Sasaki. It focusses on their love, and their goal to become quiz champions (or something, it’s too dull to remember).

Framing narrators have a respectable legacy. Holmes has Watson, and Gatsby has Caraway, but in these cases, Holmes and Gatsby – the characters being framed – are interesting. And there are insights to be had by looking at them through another’s eyes. But none of Tomoe, Sasaki, nor Hase have depth. We have an uninteresting couple seen through the eyes of an uninteresting narrator.

The second story’s illustrations worsen the shallowness of the characters. By itself, the art is decent, full of fresh-faced, dewy-eyed characters. Unfortunately, all the girls have the same fresh faces and dewy eyes. Only length and shade of hair differentiates them, but in close-up even these differences vanish. It’s already difficult to care about what’s being said, but too often I don’t even know who’s talking.

But maybe there is something in the second story, something self-aware and subversive. (Warning: I’m about to give this manga too much credit.)

KSotR is not a good manga. Its first story only reaches competency. Why does it exist? Well, because it spun-off from a semi-popular VN. But why else does it exist? Because it serves a niche. A lot of readers (I will swallow my pride and count myself among them) will read it because it is yuri. Like an action film buff will watch any old action trash for its generic bombast (and I mean generic in both senses), a yuri fan will read any old yuri manga because of the central love-story between two women. They could be the dullest women in the world, but as long as they’re in love. Yuri fans are quite like Hase, the voyeuristic narrator of the second story. She calls herself a ‘girl who loves friendly girls’ (emphasis theirs). She joins the quiz club not from any interest in quizzes, but because two ‘friendly’ girls head it. She would have joined any old club, so long as two ‘friendly’ girls headed it. And what ensues is a quiz tournament that she has no real stake in, just as we the readers have no real connection to the story.

The writer probably did not intend this. Perhaps they did intend Hase as an audience stand-in, but in a less subversive, more ‘Hey, she likes thing you also like’ kind of way. I guess I’m just trying to find something redeeming in the second story.             

But while I can’t recommend the second story, I’d say maybe try the first. Only if you’re a fan of yuri, of course. If you’re not, there are far better examples of the genre out there (just take a look at my previous reviews). But as I said, fans of a genre are generally willing to put up with mediocrity for the sake of beloved tropes. That said, buy this on the cheap, it’s not worth $20.99US.

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