Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
Bamboo Blade continues to feature observational teen humor, ridiculous hijinks, and sly self-referential winks at the readers. And oh yes, sometimes the characters even remember to play a little kendo.
Bamboo Blade offers something fairly unusual in my experience of sports manga — instead of lovingly depicting every second of the kendo matches, the title judiciously edits each match so that we are given only the most consequential moments. It is true that the conclusion to the newly formed kendo team’s first practice match takes up the first third of the book, but the remainder the volume takes us through the everyday lives of the players, with an emphasis on star team member Tamaki. Volume 4 further highlight’s Kojiro’s (the faculty advisor’s) complete failure to be useful as a kendo instructor, Miya’s (pictured on the cover of volume 3) hilariously weird middle school history with a strange stalker girl, and all the girls’ quest to find a mysterious fifth member to round out the team roster.
With volumes 3 and 4, the story starts to branch off from the usual training-competition-reflection cycles common to sports manga and develop the characterization of the true star of the team, the young otaku Tamaki. Tamaki begins to come out of her self-protective shell when she picks up a part time job…so she can buy a limited edition DVD box-set of one of her favorite anime shows (Okay, so I can relate to this…probably a little too much). I was particularly fond of the scenes where Tamaki has to gather up her courage in order to say “good day” and “come again” to customers at her new work place. I have to admit I was very much reminded of my own experiences as a first time employee in high school. While I don’t necessarily always “get” the sports-team aspect of the title, I still appreciate the writer’s inclusion of these very relatable teenage experiences.
These volumes also shed a little bit more light on Kojiro’s background and I find myself enjoying his weird brand of negligence and pushiness as an instructor. He shouldn’t even be allowed to call himself an educator and in order to compensate for his lackadaisical style, the girls and guys are starting to develop their own system of support for each other. There’s a great do-it-yourself ethic among the kids and when one falters the others seem ready to pick up the slack. The only worry is there is a huge amount of pressure put on poor Tamaki’s shoulders — pressure that clearly foreshadows a great big fall in this talented girl’s future. There are also small hints Kojiro will pull through one of these days and think about someone other than himself, but as things stand we’re still a long way off from him becoming an effective team leader.
Outside the observational teen humor, the kendo (i.e. action) scenes achieve varying levels of success. At times I found it difficult to decipher which girl is scoring in the matches thanks to the often overwhelming use of thick speed lines to indicate a particularly strong blow with the so-called “bamboo blade,” also known as a “shinai.” In spite of the occasionally confusing depiction of the sport of kendo, I still find the main thrust the title — which is essentially how a bunch of very different girls and two guys can come together to create a supportive team environment in the absence of decent leadership — remains enough to keep me interested and often amused.
Review copies provided by Yen Press.
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