Ever heard the phrase: Sex sells?
I’m sure you have, but I don’t think you’ll ever find a case more brazen than Prison School. Having spawned an anime adaption this past summer, Prison School is a manga that is just… something else and has left people very divided over its content. Lots of people love it, hate it, or are just downright fascinated. Let’s take a look and try to understand ourselves. Is it good?
Prison School Vol. 1 (Yen Press)
Written and Drawn By: Akira Hiramoto
Translated By: Ko Ransom
To get the obvious out of the way, Prison School Vol. 1 is not for everyone. It’s one of the most crude and lewd books I have ever read (Sex Criminals had actual sex scenes in it and I feel this series, having no sex, is somehow even more inappropriate). This is the kind of manga that makes you wonder how it got licensed and translated in the first place. That being said, Prison School is also one of the most memorable books I’ve read in quite a while and if you get what the creator is going for and are not turned off by the content, this could be the manga for you.
Most of the setup in Prison School requires a lot of suspension of disbelief, such as the concept of the prison school itself and the shadow student council. These points either make no sense when you think about them, even when the creator tries justifying and explaining how they work, or are given very flimsy excuses for why everyone just goes along with the situation. For instance, the main reason the main characters end up in the titular prison school and are forced to do hard labor is because of they were peeping on the girls in their regular school. The forced labor and being locked up is a violation of their rights, like one of them points out, but they go along with it because they don’t want to be expelled or for their parents to find out. While I get them being fearful of what their parents would do to them, it’s a weak excuse and there’s many ways for them to get out of this situation. As such, regardless of the sexual and gross content, it may be too hard for someone to buy into what the series is selling.
Otherwise, the narrative itself is your typical prison escape story. It goes through a lot of the motions you see with the characters figuring out a plan of escaping, running into many kinks and problems along the way, and gathering the equipment they’ll need. However, writer Hiramoto brings plenty of clever twists and turns (especially the last chapter of the volume). How Kiyoshi and Gakuto, the two protagonists trying to plan their escape, solve a lot of their problems or how things just coincidentally work out often involves very crude and gross humor. For example, how do they remove the one girl who is put on charge of watching them where they happen to be carving a hole in a wall to escape? One of them ends up peeing on her (as weird as it sounds, it somehow makes sense in context). There are more moments like that as well and if there’s anything positive to say, everything is pretty unexpected and at the least, very memorable.
Now let’s get to elephant in the room: the fanservice. Like I said at the beginning, this is a very explicit and at times, graphic manga when it comes to sexuality. There’s never any sex or form of sex happening (though plenty of imagery that is reminiscent of sex), but almost everything else is fair game. It focuses a lot on the girls’ bodies, with close-ups of the crotch and breasts in tight to exposing outfits or even nudity (though the book seems inconsistent in terms of switching between regular nudity and Barbie-Doll nudity), with occasional focus on male’s bodies as well. Beyond that, there’s also a lot of fetishism going on with masochistic tendencies and bodily functions to name a few. It’s material that, even if you are pretty comfortable with sexuality and the human body, really gets uncomfortable, gross at times (especially if the artist draws the characters sweating), or just flat out embarrassing. It can be a big turnoff for most and I don’t blame people who end up being repulsed by what they are seeing.
On the other hand, that’s what the the mangaka is going for: all of the sexual content and imagery is usually played up in a silly and over the top manner. The fanservice and characters’ behavior conflicts majorly with the tone, artwork, and most of the story — making this book feel utterly insane and odd — but in a way that ends up making things kind of funny and amusing. Ultimately, that’s Prison School — a manga that is intentionally made to have two tones that are diametrically opposed and constantly conflicting with one another, resulting in a very fresh, very unique comedy overall. Again, the approach is not going to work for everyone even if you understand the point the creator is trying to make, but it does help you to better understand the possible creative process at work here.
Moving on, let’s focus on the characters for a second. Almost everyone is a terrible human being besides Chiyo, who is probably the sweetest and most normal person, in the entire series. All of the guys are huge perverts, rather stupid, and not particularly pleasant to read about. Kiyoshi is probably the best of the bunch, since he acts the most normal and nicest of the group (though he has some questionable moments as well). All of the girls, besides Chiyo like mentioned, are very abusive and violent individuals, each detestable in their own ways. None of the cast are particularly fleshed out as well, besides maybe Mari, the shadowy student council president (most of the issues she exhibits daddy issues that possibly explain her hatred towards guys). Because of that, it makes it hard to really care about anyone or be invested in their character at this point.
Then there is the humor of the book. Like I said, Prison School contrasts its serious side against the weird, gross ridiculous fanservice side, and that’s where the majority of the humor comes from. Most of the time, for me at least, the humor misses the mark for many reasons. Sometimes it’s too forward and gross to work ( the peeing situation going on in the story); other times it’s too inappropriate and isn’t clever, especially when it comes to joking about serious topics (prison rape is not funny). The timing is off as well, or the jokes make no sense given the situation or the character (Meiko’s “riding” punishment for instance, since she should know better that it wouldn’t work very well as punishment given to other characters). However, there are moments where the humor does come together, like the Chairman’s attempts to hide his porn collection (while looking completely intense the entire time). Other instances of humor include the characters’ facial expressions, the physical comedy and the occasional goofiness (like when Gakuto tries explaining how he and three of the other guys are like a four-leaf clover to someone). So overall, some funny spots that are weighed down by the crudeness of others. (And some surprisingly violent female on male abuse that’s more unnerving than funny.)
Lastly, there is the artwork and frankly, it’s the best thing about this series. Akira Hiramoto’s art is incredible looking and really refined, with so much detail and skill put into every page and panel. The characters are very distinct and unique looking from one another, from their body types to their faces to even their movement and postures. The locations are drawn well and the layouts make the panels flow well from one to the next. The action, mostly physical comedy, always looks intense and brutal. Despite its content, it’s a gorgeous looking book and I do wish Hiramoto moves onto drawing books of a more serious nature in the future.
Is It Good?
Prison School Vol. 1 is quite possibly one of the most unique mangas that has come out this year, but it is also one that is certainly destined to be a niche title. It’s not something for everyone due to its content and type of humor. Even beyond that, the characters and the amount of things you’ll just have to run with may make this even more unappealing for some. However, for those who like the sound of what they’ve read from this review or like this type of humor, there may be something here for them. Overall, it’s a series that knows exactly what it is and if you get it or like this type of content for other reasons, I recommend the manga. Otherwise, just stay away.
Prison School is available from Yen Press. An anime adaption of the series has just finished its run in Japan and is currently being dubbed by Funimation (though the quality of the dub is under scrutiny currently from fans and critics alike). Another series by Akira Hiramoto, Me and the Devil Blues, was translated and brought over by the now defunct Del Rey manga division. If you can track down a copy, the series is definitely worth a shot.