Tuesday, June 12, 2007

YAMADA TARO

Yamada Tarou Monogatari ("The Tale of Taro Yamada")
by Ai Morinaga, Asuka Comics, 12 volumes and still running.

Now, here's something different--a wildly over-the-top comedy disguised as shoujo manga. Taro (that's a long "ou," but I prefer to spell it "Taro" rather than "Tarou") Yamada is the star of his elite private high school--a top student who excels at all sports, and whose looks drive all the girls crazy. But his home life is a mystery... is he the heir to a world-class corporation? The son of a bank president? Or just old money?

Actually, Taro's one weakness is that his family lives in abject poverty. His father is a good-for-nothing would-be-artist who hasn't come home in over a year, his mother is a simpleminded airhead who squanders the rent money for their broken-down hovel on worthless objets d'art, and he has six young brothers and sisters. It falls to Taro to earn money, plan the family budget, cook and clean, raise the kids, and still keep up appearances at school.

In addition to the Yamada family (the father reappears intermittently), there's Takuya Mimura, Taro's blasé best friend and classmate, the heir to a house of tea ceremony masters. He usually is more content to watch the action from the sidelines, but occasionally helps them out, such as by offering Taro a job as a maid, or by buying an outrageously expensive antique so Taro's siblings can get hundreds of contest entry forms to win Taro a plane ticket for the school trip. He also ends up engaged to Taro's nine-year-old sister.

Another recurring character is Taro's classmate Takako, desperate to find a rich husband at school so she won't end up like her common, vulgar parents. Initially, she falls for Taro, but much to her dismay, not only is he even poorer than she is, he becomes her mother's apprentice in the art of pushy, obnoxious bargain-hunting. Takako keeps trying to choose money over love, with little success.

A lot of the comedy comes from the lengths the family will go to to find food. Their primary diet seems to be the cookies and chocolates Taro receives from his infatuated female classmates. A family trip to the park to see the cherry blossoms turns ugly as Taro's cute young siblings trap pigeons and seize ornamental carp from the pond. Not even the family dog is safe.

Another source of comedy is his classmates' continuous misunderstanding of Taro's pennypinching techniques. Someone notices that his uniform is a little different from theirs, and he reluctantly admits that it's "hand-sewn." They immediately assume that his is haute couture, while theirs are merely designer brands. In fact, Taro sewed his uniform himself, and the back of every manga cover features Taro frantically sewing the elaborate costume he's wearing on the front.

"Yamada Tarou Monogatari" isn't without its faults. If Taro is set on going to work at some menial job (his dream is to be a clerk at the local grocery store, NikoNiko Mart) after graduation instead of going to college, why didn't he just drop out after junior high? The artwork is uneven--characters who are supposed to be cute just look sort of strange. And Taro's parents are really, really annoying. But I admire Morinaga's continuity (Taro receives a year's supply of pancake mix in one story, and even in the next volume, you can still see the boxes of pancake mix stacked around the house), and "Yamada Tarou Monogatari" has made me laugh harder than any other shoujo manga. It's definitely worth a read.

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