When it comes to reviewing manga for The Comics Journal, I am spoiled by not only reviewing prestige titles, but oftentimes not reading much else. Over at SOLRAD I've snuck in some abject sleaze, but for the most part it’s been a while since I've read straight-up trash that wasn’t at least a little reputable.1 Tucker Stone recently approached me with an offer to review more contemporary “shlock”, as he termed it.2 I wasn’t sure if Summertime Rendering would be schlock, by my standards: schlock to me suggests vulgarity, a mishmash of blunt grabs at imitating populist hits, yes, but also some kind of marginality or readiness to be forgotten that can’t really exist in a Big Mouse cultural landscape - and with an anime adaptation streaming on Disney+ in nine countries, I figured there was no way I wasn’t in for the sanded-down, focus-grouped pandering the media monolith circulates worldwide like a weapons manufacturer. However, a few pages in, I was greeted by a sight that assured me I could be ready to take in some schlock:
This is the the younger sister of the protagonist's seemingly dead friend - not his little sister, that would be weird. She is introduced like this, panties first. She just tripped and is about to land in the water, and get her clothes all wet. Only our hero, a young man a little older than her who has known her since childhood... like a big brother... can save her! Don’t laugh though, you little weirdo, this is an important plot point. The story involves time-travel, and these panties are going to be a major location; we will return here. That is why this upskirt drawing occupies one-third of the page… it’s a clue. This panel navigates a razor-thin tightrope walk of double meaning, desperately conveying through a wealth of context that this image is not pornographic but crossing its fingers that some readers will be reminded of ero manga scenarios. This is the schlock of today: work that panders to the most ashamed and the most shameless readers simultaneously.
Summertime Rendering is a manga by Yasuki Tanaka which ran in Shōnen Jump+, a digital offshoot of Shūeisha’s juggernaut magazine that, at a glance, appears to be targeted at slightly older teens who really really like reading manga tie-ins of juggernaut franchises. Although Summertime Rendering started as a manga and is only now receiving an anime adaptation, it has that hasty, pandering feel with which video game and anime tie-in manga often impress me - a rush to hit certain story beats married to digressive, leering comedy interludes that practically advertise the creation of fanart. Casual misogyny in a Shōnen Jump-affiliated title shouldn’t surprise anyone who has ever read a manga that ran in Shōnen Jump, nor should it surprise anyone that nerdy women are probably going to eat this shit up anyway. It is always a bit weird to read a manga so thoroughly drenched in otaku pandering that is still clearly intended for a massive audience - the edges of perversity are smoothed, of course, but not by very much. I suppose that’s par for the course with crossover hits these days. The nerds won, comic books are movies, and incest porn is among the most widely-viewed media genres in America, as long as the "siblings" aren’t related.
Pretty much every woman in Summertime Rendering is introduced in the sort of normalized, permissible hetero-perverse manner so commonplace as to nearly evade remark: hero falls into boobs; hero crashes into a girl and sees her panties; hero walks in on naked girl bathing. Meanwhile, people talk about boobs they saw, debating their cup size. A mysterious girl washes ashore, dressed in a sleek swimsuit that mysteriously phases off of her body when the hero takes her to his bedroom (to hide, of course). How embarrassing, but justified, since there’s a lore reason for that happening; this was a hint. A host of fawning women abound near the mild-mannered protagonist, along with enough tall skinny hot guys who get overly emotional about something to stock a whole navy of M/M ships. The perversity is constant, yet typical - toned down and justified enough that I’m sure dozens of teenage fujoshi already have worked out impassioned defenses of every bit.3 The logic that keeps this series respectable is somehow the most ridiculous thing about it - but hey! This isn’t ecchi! The back cover says Mystery/Horror! And basically, that’s what it is.
Summertime Rendering opens as a murder mystery but quickly reveals itself to be survival horror with a bit of sci-fi flavor breathlessly building out its own lore until quickly becoming too complicated to summarize. Like many hopeful media mixes, the story begins with the protagonist's return home to a fictional island village that is functionally a self-contained world, convenient for providing numerous characters a reason to introduce themselves to him, establishing their relationships to each other already fully-formed in limited space. Our lad, Shinpei, is visiting his hometown of Hitogashima for the first time in two years to attend the funeral of his childhood crush, Ushio, who died saving a little girl from drowning on the beach. Ushio appears to Shinpei in a dream, in a swimsuit, with an enigmatic message, imploring him to find her. What could this mean? Waking up, Shinpei trips and falls on a woman’s boobs (an important clue, I tell ya, don’t forget this!). Upon arrival, Shinpei quickly gathers that everything is not what it seems. Conveniently, one of the many old friends he speaks to tells him a local legend of killer shadows, the sight of which at night spells doom. The legend is, of course, real. Shadows are congregating, killing villagers. Ushio might not be dead. At dusk, a shadow of Ushio's sister shoots Shinpei in the head - and he wakes up, again on the day of his arrival, falling into narratively important boobs.4
Thus the real gimmick of Summertime Rendering is unveiled: Shinpei returning to an earlier point just as he and everyone around him meets a horrible death at the hands of the supernatural, with only a little time to solve the mystery, protect those he loves, and delay the inevitable until he can discover a way to avert it. But there are limitations to time-travel, mechanics if you will, unresolved so as to become a source of tension that, by the end of the first volume, is already being compared to save points in video games. The manga unfolds as a race to and from Shinpei’s save state in the desperate hope to avoid overwriting the file until a complete run has been achieved, with as few losses as possible, the hero save-scumming to avoid taking damage while feeling every fatality as the fate of his friends, his family, and every cute girl in his vicinity hangs in the balance.
This deeply marketable high concept has similarities to the isekai genre, with its themes of reverting to childhood amid a cool pop genre premise and its explicit narrative connection to video games and franchising. However, Summertime Rendering is not an isekai; rather than the isekai’s RPG-sploitation, the manga seems to riff more on the structure of visual novels, which largely remain the major missing piece in American manga and anime discourse, as those games are 100 hours long at minimum and usually receive horrid translations at best. The mechanics of visual novels involve multiple-choice options, leading to many bad endings (death, dating the wrong cutie, etc.) before the rare good one(s). The goal in these games for their fans is not so much to get the good ending (unless they REALLY want to end up with a particular cutie), but to get every ending, and thus learn everything about the characters and their world that is available to know. Summertime Rendering is a linear narrative that exploits the same impulse; if the protagonist can die and then return to an earlier save point, then every corner of the mystery can be made knowable.
The artwork does a lot of the heavy lifting here, pleasantly polished and just loose enough to scan as distinctive to a reader who has only read popular shōnen manga from the last ten years and nothing else. On closer inspection, Tanaka and his studio’s cartooning isn’t really all that great - panel compositions are as rushed as the pacing, and most locations are vaguely defined at best. What really stands out are the character designs, which look like some kind of adaptation-ready screentoned chimera of Yoshiyuki Sadamoto and Naoki Urasawa: not exactly distinctive, but immediately appealing. Everyone has a lot of weight and depth on the page; for some readers a drawing of an anime girl stretching or whatever is more than enough cause to develop an attachment to a story, and were this comic just a bit more interesting that really would be plenty.
The horror imagery is effective enough, a dumbed down iteration of those creepy Daijirō Morohoshi drawings of silhouetted beings skulking in the mirror or above cities, although in execution it's more Higurashi kill scenes meets the Heartless from the Kingdom Hearts games. It scratches a certain nub in my idiot brain - for a teenager, this shit might be manna from heaven. Additionally, Tanaka deploys some fun effects done with patches of digital mosaics representing supernatural interference, nicely jarring against the character art that is polished but just loose enough to remind you that a hand pressed pen to paper to draw it - a bit like how the very unrealistic CG effects in Kōji Shiraishi’s found footage movies are the scariest shit ever because they feel like they came from somewhere else and intruded on reality. If this were a manga preoccupied with building and riffing on these motifs, rather than codifying them and explaining them as lore, it might go somewhere. I don’t get the sense it will. I don’t like this impulse in mainstream schlock to explain frightful incursions, to follow some guy striving to understand and gain mastery over that horrible mass of things that go bump in the night while melting the hearts of different types of girls™ along the way. It’s dull and incurious. But it’s appealing, isn’t it? To imagine that reading-- no, consuming something like this long enough will solve disturbances, that reaching the end or binging as much as you can will give you authority over the shock that hooked you in to begin with.
Serialized pop media, like anything else intoxicating, demands you consider your engagement with it to be meaningful. Every chapter or volume or episode or level urges you to continue closer to your enlightenment, promising a climax and a resolution, the excitement of reaching the end of the next part and the beginning of the one after: finding out. A manga like Summertime Rendering is a game as well as a manga, not only because its structure supplies possibilities for video game tie-ins, but because by reading more and more of it, consuming it, you are offered a chance to win. And in writing a silly extended tangent in the guts of this essay, I play a game of my own. I’ve reduced the manga to a thing, an example, a piece of something (shlock?) to pull apart and hook into my developing network of concepts of how comics work, how pop culture works, how my overactive mind works as pages of preview PDFs slip smoothly away from my memory and I strain to find another thing to say.
Ultimately, I don’t think Summertime Rendering does much for me beyond urging me to keep reading more of it, and it’s hard for me to imagine that many readers of TCJ would disagree. I doubt I will be reading more. However I don’t feel much of a desire to tear it apart either, much as I can easily open the series’ seams and uncover a hollow apparatus powered by stupidity, sexism, sublimated desires, a huge pile of lore, and an even bigger pile of earlier hit franchises. I imagine somewhere some kid verging on puberty is giving their disinterested parent a very awkward and passionate explanation of everything amazing about the series. That’s who it’s for, that’s what it’s for. Sometimes those kids grow up and turn those fannish rants into thoughtful essays. I enjoy reading those. Time will tell.
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- Officially, anyway. I’m doorknob!
- Well, not that recently - this review was delayed several months, and I am diligently revising it to account for the passage of time.
- I know I did this kind of thing when I was a teenage fujoshi.
- These boobs get slightly larger every time they appear, and by the time the woman they are attached to becomes a real character in the story she declares them to be a size so superlative that it leads me to imagine she must have been wearing a chest binder in the first chapter. I don’t really care about whether it’s sexist to draw “unrealistic bodies” but it’s definitely really funny and, for lack of a better word, deflating of the work's loftier pretenses. Maybe she just started progesterone?