DRAWN & QUARTERED
‘Gals!’ totally delivers
It would be easy to dismiss the "Gals!" franchise as just another Valley Girl romp.
Perhaps you've seen those series before. There are, like, a bunch of girls and stuff, and they're, like, totally obsessed with the words "like" and "totally" when they're gabbing away on their cell phones planning their next shopping trips to buy new wardrobes that will be SO LIKE TOTALLY TO DIE FOR. And when they're not doing that, they're drooling over the totally hot boy who during chemistry class TOTALLY LOOKED AT THEM SO LIKE OH MY GAWD THEY'RE SOOOO GONNA MELT.
It would first appear that the adventures of Ran Kotobuki and her posse, gangster-turned-cutester Miyu Yamasaki and shy Aya Hoshino, fit that stereotype.
Yet the manga "Gals!" and the anime adaptation "SuperGALS!" present more than just a story about Valley Girls gone Japanese. It's also an extended love letter to the Japanese "kogal" subculture, an after-school special with a touch of preachiness, and a spazzy comedic romp.
Japanese serialization: Ribon, 1999-2002
U.S. publisher: CMX
Volumes available: Eight (Vol. 9 scheduled for release Feb. 28)
Japanese broadcast: July 2001-September 2002
U.S. publishers: ADV (Episodes 1-26, English and Japanese soundtracks); Right Stuf (Episodes 27-52, Japanese soundtrack only)
As one of the "Ironclad Rules for GALS!" from the anime points out, gals gotta have heart, and this franchise delivers that in spades.
Manga author Mihona Fujii explained that her inspiration for "Gals" came from reading an essay entitled "The Kogal Boom Is Over." The kogal subculture first made its presence felt in the mid-1990s in Japan, primarily in the city of Shibuya. High school girls who belong to this group are known for their conspicuous consumption, wearing baggy socks that go up to their knees, platform shoes, piles of designer accessories and lots of makeup.
But it's the darker side of kogals -- namely, a belief that some engage in "enjo kosai," the practice where girls are paid by older men to go out on dates with them -- that the Japanese media and some Western observers see as embodying the subculture. It was about the time that media coverage of kogals tapered off and the essay was published that Fujii got her inspiration.
"I'm thinking that kogals have become a more permanent fixture of Japanese society," Fujii wrote in a note in the first manga volume. "And though I bought into (and was surprised by) the media's depiction of kogals as all wearing long, loose socks and having dyed streaks in their hair, I felt more skeptical about the much-touted claims that all kogals were deviants. I mean, there are all kinds of kogals, and there must be at least one who's funny and passionate."
THUS EMERGES our hero and Shibuya's "number one gal," Ran Kotobuki. While generations of Kotobukis have been involved in police work -- Ran's father, mother and older brother are officers, and her younger sister loves running around playing "junior detective" with her boyfriend -- Ran wants nothing to do with it. She just wants to live the kogal life to the fullest, having fun and not letting anything petty like adult expectations of her get in her way.
Yet while she might not conspicuously acknowledge her family's law enforcement heritage, she still possesses a strong sense of justice that reveals itself throughout the series.
Nowhere is this more evident than in her choice of friends, Miyu and Aya, two girls with shady pasts whom Ran wholeheartedly embraces. Miyu was once the leader of a youth gang; she turned from her past thanks to the kindness of Ran's brother Yamato (not to mention a rather goofy fight between her and Ran for control of Shibuya). Aya, one of the top students in Ran's class, was secretly doing enjo kosai to earn spending money before Ran talked her out of it.
Often accompanying Ran, Miyu and Aya on their adventures are two guys who are often pictured in what would be the Japanese equivalent of American teen pin-up magazines, Rei Otohata and Yuya Aso. Rei is considered the top "GL" (good-looking) guy in the area and has a cool, detached demeanor; Yuya, who the girls take to calling "Number 2" for his second-place finish in the same poll, is more outgoing but can't express in words his secret crush on Ran. (This crush is later crushed when Ran's "rival" in Ikebukuro, Mami Honda, hooks up with him in a series of wacky misunderstandings.) Joining the fun later is Tatsuki Kuroi, a master of the arm-flailing-yet-tightly-choreographed "para para" dance.
THE BASIC concept does seem a bit clichéd -- there are many series that feature these types of characters. The situations involved, like a teacher heaping unwarranted punishment on his students, the struggles to keep grades up and get into a good college, and the pinings of unrequited love are clichés, as well.
But this series really shines in fleshing out its characters through their interactions with one another. One can tell by their actions that while their backgrounds might be different, these teens are a really tight-knit group of friends. And when things seem to get too serious, there's always some sort of wacky comedy bit just around the corner.
While Fujii's manga is good in its own right, the 52-episode anime produced by Studio Pierrot is even better, serving as a "director's cut" of sorts. Events like Ran and Miyu's first encounter with Aya and their first meeting with Rei and Yuya are rearranged and fleshed out somewhat to provide more background behind what is going on, and background characters are given more prominent roles. (Watching Ran's sister Sayo and her sister's boyfriend Masato constantly running around acting like life is one big police drama -- right down to the partner's "noble sacrifice" -- is worth the price of admission alone.)
This approach has its drawbacks, however, particularly in some episodes that were never a part of the manga. It might have seemed like a good idea, for instance, to bonk Ran on the head and turn her into the girl her parents always wanted, or to switch Ran and Sayo's personalities, but those supernatural elements seem out of place. Still, those episodes are easily ignored in the overall layout of the series.