The protagonists don't interest me greatly either. The fat bloke talks like a bloke, and Lin so far looks like a male's idea of a tough female. (Rukia Syndrome, a character I can live happily without.) Judging by the short stories, characterization isn't Mieville's specialty. But I'm still enchanted by the thing because it introduces a garuda who suddenly appears in the hero's house to tell him he's the heir to the sacred throne of a tiny eastern kingdom. No, of course not. But the echoes, which must must must be fortuitous, make me very happy indeed.
I picked up vols 1&2 of Kawasou Masumi's Kurotsubaki (Black Camellia) eighteen months ago in New York, and 3&4 last November. My first try at reading it back in '05 got sidetracked by the Kyoto dialect and a certain initial resistance to fast reading inherent in Kawasou's work, if Karin is anything to judge by. But like Karin, once you get into it it swims.
Not that geisha and kabuki actors and the supremacy of The Dance are sure-fire hits with me (this manga is all about kabuki actors and geisha for whom the essence of their art is in fact dancing.) However Kawasou is sophisticated enough to play around with questions of gender politics and the oddly counter-culture nature of these two deeply cultural icons. Kabuki has men who play women, and might actually want to be women; it has families where inheritance of the name goes by talent rather than blood. The geisha world is fundamentally matriarchal and its family relations too run on different principles than mainstream society's. A geisha who dances may perform the same roles as a kabuki actor, but she may not do it on a kabuki stage or gain the mainstream popularity he does. This raises the question of whether she, like her onnagata counterpart, might wish she'd been born the opposite sex: but for professional and not personal reasons. Hell, any manga that tells me how you say trans-gendered and trans-sexual in Japanese has to be worth reading. (Though I'm vague as to what the difference is in English, and the kanji don't particularly enlighten me.)
With all this the main relationships are robustly heterosexual, but still wildly and straight-facedly unconventional. The heroine is the child of a top-ranking geisha dancer and an onnagata kabuki actor: the attraction between them, she says, was one of rivals in the dance. 'If they'd both been men they'd have been life-long professional rivals. Since they were man and woman, it was expressed sexually.' She's happily hooked up with the son and owner of the geisha house in which she grew up, a man she calls nii-han, who energetically takes care of all aspects of her life and career, down to doing her hair for her on ceremonious occasions when she doesn't wear a wig. But she wants a child, as her mother did, and her guy knows he's not an artistic genius of any kind: so he arranges an affair for her with a leading kabuki actor. And then, and simultaneously, with the actor's son. *That* should take care to get good genes into the family. While apparently continuing her off and on relationship with the father, the heroine seems to set up a more ongoing ménage à trois with her lover and the son, and no one blinks an eye.
I don't know if all mangaka draw the same characters over and over, but there are a couple of familiar faces in this one. Alas that the kabuki actor's son, who becomes both besotted by and an inspiration to the heroine, is the spitting image of the dork Emperor of Heaven in Karin; while the heroine in her geisha-ish moments has a passing resemblance to the high tramp Western Mother *and* the evil bishounen Rui. Kawasou's art style is as umm quirky here as in Karin, especially when she draws three-quarter views, and her men tend to have the trademark big noses, but at least the eyes aren't *quite* as scarily enormous.
And alas, while I was convinced for 18 months that I'd bought vol 2, it turns out I'd actually got myself vol 6. So I'm dithering about buying the missing volumes from amazon. Except that what I really want to buy is all my missing volumes of Genjuu no Seiza with their dorky sincere Garuda bird-man.