CLAMP's "Gate 7": The grand experiment that wasn't
Dateline: the last weekend of July 2007. The Simpsons Movie had just opened in theaters, Barry Bonds hit the 754th home run of his asterisk-appended career, and hotel rooms were sold out throughout downtown San Diego.
Yes, it was Comic-Con International time, and the eyes of fans of all things pop-culture related were pointed in the direction of southern California. Anime and manga fans certainly had much to be excited about -- Viz announced it was adding Bleach to Shonen Jump, Funimation picked up Vexille from the production team that did Appleseed (well, it certainly seemed like a good idea at the time, although in retrospect, perhaps not so much), and several publishers snagged good series that were criminally under-read by U.S. audiences and subsequently stopped before their full runs were complete: Seven Seas' Hayate X Blade, Del Rey's Me and the Devil Blues, pretty much everything announced by Broccoli Books and CMX.
And then there was the announcement relevant to our interests, seeing as how this is CLAMP month for the Manga Movable Feast, hosted by Melinda Beasi over at Manga Bookshelf. Five years ago, on July 28, Dark Horse announced that it was teaming up with the four-member artist collective to usher in "a new era of manga." From the original press release:
CLAMP's original manga with Dark Horse will be launched simultaneously in the United States, Japan, and Korea. The story will come out in a small digest consisting of about eighty pages each, which will then be collected into trade paperbacks with bonus material. CLAMP and Dark Horse are coining the bilingual term Mangettes to describe this innovative new format for manga distribution. This digest format, or Mangette, signifies CLAMP's personal wish to reach their large international readership by now speaking to them directly as artists through Dark Horse, and on a basis of equality with their Japanese fans.
CLAMP and Dark Horse chose the term Mangettes to describe this revolutionary format, whose Japanese pronunciation, mangetsu, means "the full moon." The two kanji in mangetsu also have the individual meanings of "fulfilled" and "monthly," reflecting what will be a monthly appearance of each CLAMP Mangette.
According to CLAMP, "Mangettes are a completely brand new experience for us, too, and we're really happy to be working on this. And we're really looking forward to the day when we can bring you this new story from CLAMP, and the day when we can meet our fans face-to-face to hear what you think about Mangettes!"
Anime News Network followed up with the news that these mangettes would be released in 2009, CLAMP would have full creative control over the contents, and they would be 5 inches by 7 inches in size.
It was a can't-miss proposition. For years, CLAMP had attracted a flock of U.S. readers with series like Cardcaptor Sakura, Magic Knight Rayearth, Chobits, xxxHolic and Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicles. Tag-team partner in fandom Wilma J. did her part in sharing the CLAMP love by writing about Clover, Wish, Shirahime-syo and a double feature of Suki: A Like Story and The One I Love. And now we were getting a new story from them, day-and-date with two other regions, monthly? Sign us up.
Turns out fans would be eager to meet CLAMP -- and, by extension, Dark Horse -- face-to-face to echo one common thought about the mangettes: "Where are they, and what are they going to be about?" After the grand reveal, the project promptly burrowed into a deep, dark corner of Dark Horse headquarters in Milwaukie, Ore., and was rarely heard from again. In April 2008, Dark Horse confirmed to Anime News Network that the mangette had no official name. In December 2008, that name quietly leaked onto Amazon's Canadian site, where it was promptly snagged and shared by Lissa Pattillo at Kuriosity: Gate 7. The first cover image, seen at right, surfaced on Amazon's Japanese site in March 2009.
And that was it for Gate 7, the revolutionary mangette. 2009 turned into 2010, CLAMP put the project on the back burner as they worked on xxxHolic for longer than they expected. Then Dark Horse prioritized new omnibus releases of Clover, Cardcaptor Sakura and Magic Knight Rayearth. By the time Dark Horse reintroduced Gate 7 to U.S. audiences in April 2011 prior to the release of the first volume in October, the series had been running in Japan for several months, the 80-page format had been scrapped in favor of traditional chapters, and it was ... well ... like pretty much every other manga that's been released before and since.
That similarity to other manga ended up extending to Gate 7's story. It's your typical fantasy fare, where an average, nondescript person somehow gets pulled into an alternate dimension where forces for good are battling a mysterious power beyond all human understanding. (No, really, trust me -- you'll read the first volume like I did, and then you'll try going through it more slowly, and you still won't understand what the forces for good are fighting against aside from "hulking snarling beasts dripping with evil.") These average Joes or Janes usually have no idea what's going on, but naturally (a) they gets pulled into the fray for the long haul and (b) they has some latent power that has everyone oohing and ahhing over them, even though no one can fully comprehend what that power is.
In the case of Gate 7, that seemingly unremarkable person is Chikahito, a high school student who gets yanked into the aforementioned other dimension while visiting his beloved Kyoto. Our forces for good are Hana, a mostly quiet girl with a penchant for noodle dishes, animal caps, making her hands go "wriggle wriggle wriggle," and styling her hair somewhat like Misaki Suzuhara's in Angelic Layer (compare it: here's Hana, and here's Misaki); Tachibana, the more stoic, analytical member of the group, with dark hair to match; and Sakura, the more easygoing, calming presence, with light, spiky hair to reflect that personality. Tachibana and Sakura are drawn as bishonen, or pretty boys, which will undoubtedly send the more hard-core (read: crazy) fans scrambling over themselves as they write various boys' love fan fiction tales featuring the two, umm, interacting with each other and other similar bishonen across the CLAMP-iverse.
In the process of skewering these tropes, though, one can't help but think: This is a CLAMP series we're talking about here! The group's had fans worldwide following their work since 1989! Surely there's some redeeming quality, some point where things start clicking and the story kicks into a higher gear! There always is!
To which I reply: Sometimes there is no higher gear. Just look at what some critics said about CLAMP's Kobato at San Diego Comic-Con's "Best and Worst Manga 2012" panel. (It wasn't pretty.)
As for Gate 7, it looks like that redeeming quality is going to have to wait for a future volume. Because aside from the group's trademark gorgeous artwork, teeming with lines and strokes that are at turns intricate and delicate and bold and energetic, it takes a considerable amount of effort to figure out exactly what's going on. There are eight pages of translation notes in the back of the book. You will be referring to them frequently to refresh your memory on what the ura-shichiken is (it's a term referring to "Seven Secret Houses" or "Seven Back Houses") or how Chikahito is not from an inou family (a term described as being comprised of the kanji for "unusual" and "mind") or to investigate one of the multiple historical details about Kyoto that CLAMP has injected into the Gate 7 mythos.
Whether readers stick with Gate 7 beyond the first volume really depends on how willing they are to put in this extra effort to understand what's going on, and how patient they are to see things through.
But here's one more point to consider: The ground covered in this first volume -- 168 pages worth -- would have covered roughly two mangettes worth of material that would have been released over a two-month span. Volume 1 of the Gate 7 manga was released in October; volume 2, in February. It may be like comparing apples and oranges at this point, but it seems highly likely that readers would have given up on Gate 7, with its current story, faster with its condensed release schedule than they would with several months in between to process what they read.
Perhaps, in the case of Gate 7, it was for the best that the mangette revolution remained just a patchwork of dreams rather than a concrete reality.