by Negi Banno; translated by Stephen Paul
published by Yen Press; $10.99 US
Review by Ed Sizemore
S.S. Astro reminds me of two things. First, there is a Calvin & Hobbes strip where Calvin complains about how the characters found on the comics page are all either stereotypes or shallow generalizations. Calvin’s father sarcastically points out that everyone finds well-rounded characters funny.
The second is Azumanga Daioh. Both are done in the four-panel comic strip style. Astro starts by introducing us to two young female teachers who have been friends since junior high. This is their first year as teachers at the high school they graduated from. One is a gym teacher and the other teaches language. One is spacey and likes to nap; the other is more sensible. There is even a lecherous older teacher. Yen Press is aware that American readers are going to make this comparison, so on their website, they mention how Astro is in the same genre made popular by Azumanga Daioh.
However, there are several differences between the two series. Astro focuses almost exclusively on the teachers. In fact, the setting is so incidental to the series, this manga could have just as easily been about office ladies. The lazy and irresponsible teacher is the gym teacher, Maki. The lecherous older teacher, Karasuma, is a lesbian who has the hots for Maki. Since she doesn’t know Maki’s sexual preference, she keeps her feelings secret and satisfies herself by taking candid photos.
This brings us back to the wisdom of Calvin’s father. He’s right, well-rounded characters really aren’t that funny. At best, they can be said to be mildly amusing. The author, Banno, has done an excellent job of giving the central cast three dimensions. The four lead teachers are generally conscientious and hard-working. They may goof around at school, but they never let that get in the way of their teaching responsibilities. They enjoy video games on their hand-held consoles, but only do so during their break time. They lack the excesses that make for good comedy.
Banno’s artwork is as wonderfully crafted as his characters. The line work is delicate, and there are lots of details in each panel. The four lead women are attractive, but very realistic looking. Thankfully, you won’t find any DD-cup women here. Occasionally, the faces are slightly generic. You may have to depend on hairstyle or glasses style to tell two characters apart. Banno does a great job of evoking different moods. You can tell by just looking at a panel when a character is being silly or serious.
The book includes a paragraph at the back explaining what a ‘nursing teacher’ is and what his/her responsibilities in a Japanese school are. There is explanation of the school’s logo. There are also wonderful translation notes. The book opens with four pages of beautiful color illustrations, including mock teacher identification cards. Yen Press has done a great job with the presentation of this manga.
Astro is very different from what you expect reading the publisher’s description. The humor is dry and quiet. Often a strip doesn’t end in a joke as much as make a point about some facet of a character’s personality. Like the characters, this is a very polite look at the lives of high school teachers.
In fact, I consider this book less a comedy and more a light-hearted drama. The four-panel format is ill-suited for Banno’s storytelling style. Banno is forced to come up with a punchline or observation immediately upon setting the scene. Considering the time and craft Banno took to create these characters, they would be better served by a traditional manga format. They deserve stories that take their time and walk the reader through the daily life of first-year high school teachers.
There’s a lot of potential to tell stories about what it’s like to teach in the school you once attended. Stories could focus on how the town has changed in the six years since they were gone, how school rules have changed, and how student culture has changed. You can also do stories on what stays the same, the problems of young adults in adjusting to the work place, high school traditions, and struggles teachers face connecting with students. Given the tone of the series, there’s a lot of potential to make insightful observations about Japanese society, being a women, and the role of teachers.
This series feels like a missed opportunity. I would love to know why Banno chose the four-panel format over the traditional manga structure. If Azumanga Daioh was a little too silly and over-the-top for you, then here is a more down-to-earth manga about Japanese high school teachers. But calling it ‘hilarious’ (back cover) is stretching the imagination to the point of breaking. It’s a well-written, good-natured look at new teachers. Unfortunately, it’s not a compelling read nor very memorable. This is the perfect book for either beach or travel reading. It will occupy your attention enough to pass the time but not distract you from the important things. When you’re done, you can gift it to the library or a friend without any worries of missing the book later.