U19: trying to stand out in the world of YA dystopian fiction

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This monday has marked the beginning of what will be six consecutive weeks of new series beginning in Weekly Shonen Jump, an unprecedented occasion that’s set to include a couple of important milestones in the magazine’s history. Each Tuesday over this period I’m going to be writing a post on the debuting series that week, be it a simple review or something deeper. We continue this week with Yuji Kimura’s U19. SPOILERS FOLLOW.

Dystopian fiction written for young adults is *everywhere*. The trend appears to be much quieter nowadays, but you only have to cast your mind back a couple of years to see a world where you couldn’t turn a corner, enter a bookstore, see a movie at the cinema, without encountering these YA dystopias. The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner and the countless imitators were, and continue to be, big business. This isn’t to say they weren’t a thing earlier; you only have to look at Battle Royale or Lord of the Flies to understand that these stories have existed for decades, but the big pop culture push for them has definitely come in the 21st century, and each work seems to inform the other, to the point that you can kind of just put a template together for how these books go. Heck, with twitter accounts like Dystopian YA Novel they may well have done this very thing. It’s pretty homogenised at this point, and it takes a very special twist to stick out from the herd.

For all the things that U19 has going on, it most definitely lacks this crucial X factor.

It could be a lack of subtlety, it could just be the prevalence of the genre, it could even be something lost a little in translation (as excellent a job as Viz Media have done with the first chapter), but there’s just several concepts and moments that feel just a little *too* on the nose. This write-up as such isn’t really about deciding whether U19 is a good comic or not (I don’t dislike it, and think that teenage readers will absolutely love it if it delivers on the second chapter), as much as just examining what these things are that stand as roadblocks to a stronger or more unconventional story.

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It starts right there on the opening colour spread. It’s the near future, 2036 to be specific; a time close enough to have relatable societal touchstones, but far enough ahead that the world has believably been overhauled into a dystopia. Teenagers are being suppressed by adults, as always, and suitably enough the children are attractive and in shape, and the adults looming overhead are withered, ugly, grotesques, looking down upon them. Except for the vaguely androgynous one who I’m sure is just as twisted behind his smooth facade. There’s even the desolation behind the youths, of a society that surely came before (though as the story develops this could be something yet to be wreaked, but for the sakes of checking off a lot of iconography it serves the purpose). In a lot of ways this opening is reminiscent of the film adaptations of YA dystopian novels, where they have to use the visuals to strongly communicate the visual ideas that would normally be handled by very specific character descriptions. It’s not bad at all, and immediately gets the point across, but it doesn’t do a lot to be seen as anything but by the numbers from this opening.

There’s also the argument with the debut chapters of Weekly Shonen Jump comics, that the worst thing you can do is show a large group of characters to be established as the series goes on, a surefire way of tempting fate in the cutthroat publication, but that’s another article for another day.

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I don’t think it’s unfair to say that The Grown-Up Party is way too on the nose, is it? I’ll be the first to admit I can’t name a single political party, ruling power, or dominating class in this very specific genre, but I find it hard to believe that any of them are as crass as The Grown-Up Party. It’s actually a little damaging to the core concept of the series, beating you over the head with it rather than allowing room for the group to be presented a little more insidiously.

This said, U19 absolutely nails some important stuff in the scene this particular panel is taken from. Having a teacher, specifically one who looks like a gym teacher, the enemy of every school-bound shonen protagonist worth their salt, is a smart touch, to say nothing of how his lesson actually goes; all pomp and farce, a parade of power and miseducation that wastes the time of the children, safe in the knowledge that he can physically punish any kid that speaks up about the way he does things. The teacher gleefully bounds around the classroom, punishing students for having pencil case accessories, having sewing equipment if they’re a boy, or just plain ripping into them for being left-handed. That last one is a doozy, bringing to mind stories of times gone by where students would be beaten for something so simple as being sinistral. It’s using cruel aspects of educational history to enforce the level of dystopia presented in the story, and that particular choice is fantastic.

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More swings and roundabouts from this scene. The one kid who toes the line to the point where it seems like he is 100% definitely doing it as a ruse, and is somehow a cornerpiece of whatever resistance exists in secret against the Grown-Up Party (Also he’s on that opening colour spread with a sword amongst the other kids so). He presents the case as to how the party justifies this horrendous discipline of youths and it reeks of the crummy attitude many older people have and… Hold on, did this comic specifically reference Yutori education, an actual piece of Japanese educational policy that has received criticism over time for leading to a decrease in scholastic ability in younger students? I do believe it did, and it uses it in a believable way by framing it against the first decade of the 21st century where, yes, policy was relaxed further. In 2002 this particular policy stopped saturday school days being compulsory, a significant change for Japanese education, and if that’s not the sort of thing that this exact sort of political party would latch onto, I don’t know what would be. That’s fantastic, and a crucial step away from the typical trappings of the genre, even if only for one very small moment that may pass several readers by.

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Of course you can’t have a proper YA dystopia without indulging in a very specific sort of main character, and U19 doesn’t disappoint at all. As we dodge the typical first-person trappings this sort of tale might have in novel form, we instead have to have other characters mention the attributes that make Eiji Kudo special, starting with the almost innocuous idea of him being herbivorous, a pretty common insult nowadays, to imply that someone is overly passive or unable to make a move in areas like romance, but to follow it up with him being rebellious. This is to give him a very typical relatable streak despite what’s to come; he’s passive and timid, like many a teen reader may be, but absolutely willing to stand up for what he feels is right, which might not be something every reader feels capable of, but certainly gives them something to aspire to. Also he has conventional good looks and a unique signifier in his forehead scar, the sort of visual touch that can stick with readers in the right story (look at Harry Potter, for example)

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This alone wouldn’t be bad, in fact it’s excellent character design for this particular sort of series, and something I hope works in its favour, but as seems to be the case with this first chapter, we then get beaten over the head with how special he is *again*, as the kids in class discuss the supposed secret resistance of kids that have developed powers to fight against the grown-up party. It takes almost no time at all for the person explaining the powers to pick up on the protagonist-like qualities of Kudo, lampshading the idea that yes, it will probably be Kudo who develops special powers. The fact that the qualities he shows are a contradiction of terms is a very simple character beat too, acknowledging that dang, Kudo is a complex kid.

To get back on a positive for a second though, let’s talk about ‘libido powers’, which are almost definitely the best-named abilities for teenagers in a teens-versus-adults comic like this is shaping up to be. If there’s one thing you’d think about teens over adults, it’s that they’re full to the brim with hormones, the horny little so-and-sos, and it makes sense for this to be the supposed source of the abilities they would have over the adults, long settled into the routine of their adult bodies. If there’s anything that could manage to be the hook that pulls this series out of the checklist feeling it’s giving off so far, it would be this idea, though time will tell when it’s actually built upon (chapter 2, probably, because this is a very early review).

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This page seems both a little generic and a little fantastic all at once. It shows the scenario that lead to the Grown Up Party taking control, a world where achievement was restricted to wealth, and the promise of everyone getting something out of life by following the tier system of employment enforced by the party. It’s understandable, to an extent, but also eerily wrong, somehow, in how it justifies the replacement of one system with something just as bad, hidden beneath a veneer of equality that isn’t actually equality. Animal Farm, innit. It feels like something that can be seen quite often in these sorts of stories, but is told with an efficiency and a clarity that establishes it very clearly.

Also it’s only occurred to me looking at this page with Kudo’s rank D father (the lowest of the four employment ranks), but Kudo coming from a poor family feels like it’s *very* in line with the genre.

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The Grown Up Party are Nazis. Because it is always Nazis, in reality and in fiction. Goodness knows if the allegory was laid out so deliberately here because of the current american political climate, but it’s absolutely a mark in its corner regardless to go for something so relevant at this precise moment. I’m sure it’ll lead to some people defending the Grown Up Party in real life; we are talking online manga communities after all, and we’ve yet to have our ‘Nazi Punks F**k Off’ moment.

Some final thoughts here that don’t really need a lot of digging into: This chapter introduces the classist ranks people get as they complete education that dictate their careers and freedoms in this dystopian society, and follows it up with blood testing as a means of introducing eugenics to proceedings, giving us some actually disgusting practices to immediately turn readers against the Grown Up Party. These feel very similar to the district set-up that The Hunger Games has, but has a bit more an American Dream feel in that anyone can attain a higher rank than their parents by working hard to follow the party’s ideals in education, or as the blood testing is introduced, by simply having fantastic genes. These don’t feel particularly stand out, but are incredibly well-explained and introduced in the story.

None of this is to criticise the story. We’re one chapter in, and because of the heavy world-building done in these initial pages, we haven’t even really gotten to the start of the story proper, so the jury is still out. But there is value in looking at what this series does as a Young Adult Dystopia, and more so what it does to stand out, and my concerns are significant in size. I don’t feel it will matter if chapter 2 delivers on what this first chapter has set up, and at the least I’m very excited to see if it does so.

I’m also excited to talk about the different approaches this and We Never Learn take to talking directly to their teenage audience, but that’s an article for later in the week.

U19 is pronounced Under Nineteen, and is available in English from this week’s issue of Weekly Shonen Jump, produced by Viz Media, and available on IOS and Android, as well as their own website. The issue literally costs a handful of pennies, and is packed with lots to read and think about.

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One thought on “U19: trying to stand out in the world of YA dystopian fiction

  1. Late comment, but I really enjoyed your dissection of U19 strengths and weaknesses as a piece of YA dystopian fiction, and more extrapolation on what the Yutori education policies were since I was intrigued at them being noted as a catalyst for the social upheaval and takeover by the GU party in the world of the series. U19’s combination of a Kids Next Door-esque premise + criticism of japanese education system + historical allusions + using teenage hormonal impulses (libido) as the source of their superpowers generally intrigues me because it’s such an insane combination of ideas that could go in many directions. Though what’s really interesting is how the series seems to be taking it’s time setting up it’s premise. It seems like a sign of confidence by both the mangaka and the editorial staff that the premise and characters are hooks enough, and I wonder if the risk of allowing the series to spend two chapters on just character and world-building before introducing the action element will really pay off. In a way, not knowing what to make of it certainly makes it leave quite the impression and tempts you to keep reading to see where it goes, at least for me.

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