Welcome to Doubutsu No Oishasan ("The Animal Doctor"), an outstanding manga full of humor, student life, crazy situations, inadvertent veterinary information, and lots of spirited animals and their individual foibles.
Neither stereotypical action-adventure-sex nor sugar-sweet-romance-tragedy, Doubutsu cuts a bold swath through the under-appreciated field of plain old good daily-life fiction. You won't find deep tragedy, deep philosophy, heavy romance, nor fast-paced beat-em-up-action: instead, just lots of funny situations, quiet compassion, memorable characters, and an overall great read. The hero is a young man with a dog (the aforementioned "Hamuteru" and "Chobi"); the setting is a veterinary college in relatively spacious Hokkaido (the northernmost of the main Japanese islands). The situations and the stories are funny, enlightening, informative, and (mostly) believable, all at the same time.
From sticking an arm into a cow to check its internals, to fighting over which laboratory equipment to buy, to the territorial battles between chickens ... Doubutsu has it! But more than that, it pays a lot of attention to humor from panel to panel. Almost every page is packed with little jokes and dryly humorous situations, from renditions of what the animals are thinking (ugly Chobi thinking cute "Let's play" thoughts, to the haughty look on the cat's face when she's totally embarrassed), to the single-panel expose of the nutty professor's idea of a dog sled team (a mixture of every kind of breed except sled dogs -- whatever was convenient to borrow), to the way the humans wound up stealing all of Chobi's cool hiding places in the heat of summer (even to store melons ... poor dog). There's a great mix of both text-based-humor combined with visual humor, and it's not slapstick (well, unless you count the case of the horse who wiped his nose on your shirt as slapstick).
Most of the characters have a rather ironic sense of humor, which adds to an air of ... sophistication without pretense. And the characters themselves are each distinct, intelligent, slightly off-the-wall people -- exaggerated but plausible, and definitely likable (even the professor, if only for brief moments of time). There's no overdone cuteness (except when some large-eyed animals turn on the charm). There's also actually no romance in this girls' manga, which keeps the setting clean for lighthearted humor. Some of the characters have an interesting (mostly harmless) streak of self-centeredness that plays nicely off the animals. All in all, a refreshing kind of manga.
Add all this to an understanding of and a real liking of animals -- both in story, characterization and in art -- and one gets a winning combination.
Some stories are as follows:
One day, the class of hapless veterinary students find themselves having to empty the incubator of all their precious microbe cultures ... all for one person's personal favor. The eccentric professor is helping out a friend of his by hatching a bunch of (pet) duck eggs. Though the students grumble, they suddenly realize one thing: newly-hatched ducklings will imprint on the first moving thing they see. The thought of adorable little fuzzy ducklings following them everywhere is too much: the once-reluctant students start camping out by the incubator and taking immensely good care of the eggs. (They don't tell the professor their plans, though, because they know he'd somehow mess up everything.) Twenty-seven days later, the haggard students have gathered around the incubator and the hatching eggs, awaiting the magic moment, each hoping to be the Lucky One. They trick the professor into leaving ... they play rock-paper-scissors to see who gets to open the incubator ... all to no avail. The professor sticks his head in at just the wrong moment. The students are stricken with dismay as the cute little fuzzy ducklings go trooping after their mean old nemesis! Alas, nothing is to be done, and in any case, the ducklings are shipped off to be raised by their rightful owner. For a while after this incident, "`let's incubate some fertile eggs' disease" was rather popular ... but the veterinary incubator was returned to its usual duty of guarding microbe cultures.
Speaking of cute, in another story, the students come across a cage of young flying squirrel orphans who, hand-raised by the professor, were ready to be released back into the wild. The young squirrels are adorable and friendly, with their huge beady eyes and soft fur, but the professor sternly warns the students to not let them out of the cage or else "irrevocable consequences" would occur. The students figure he's just being mean, and let out the squirrels. Even mouse-phobic Nikaidou finds the squirrels cute and adorable. They're so adorable that even their fleas seem like a trivial problem. But no, the real horror is yet to come! The professor gloatingly warns them that now is the hour of the squirrels' awakening. And suddenly the squirrels are jumping onto everyone's shirts ... and letting loose great bursts of pee and poop! The horror has been unleashed. The professor has gotten his entertainment. The squirrels are released back into the wild as planned.
One story finds the students in Hamuteru's class fiercely whispering about the power of a mysterious old woman over their crotchety professor. She often dispensed her own (good) advice to other people in the professor's veterinary waiting room, something the professor would normally find intolerable. How could she get away with it? The students suspect it's her impassive, ever-smiling Buddha-like countenance. So, they try out the same facial expression -- to no avail; the professor just uses them like dirt anyway, and their Buddha-like masks quickly crack. But at last the truth comes out -- a truth even the professor had only subconsciously realized. The old woman had once been the professor's pharmacology instructor, long ago. An infamously tough teacher, she had yet saved her equally obnoxious student from expulsion after he'd done things like barbecuing meat set aside for dissection. She had saved his academic career! To which the professor's present-day students could only demand: "Why didn't you expel him!" But the students have one last hope: just as the old woman had gone from a blackboard-throwing tough cookie to a smiling, impassive saint ... maybe the professor might change, too! Yeah ... right....
In another story, we find Hishinuma (the weird woman researcher) wondering why her parents' obnoxious male dog turns into an utterly submissive, groveling wimp whenever she's around. The dog, once an arrogant and contemptuous animal, became the type that would submissively wiggle around on his back seeking her approval -- so much so that once, he accidentally wiggled his way into a deep hole he'd dug himself. ...So (Hishinuma wonders) why the change? Gradually the memory clicks ... years ago, as a new driver, when her skills were even worse than her current driving skills (which are still bad), she had once missed the garage and driven into the doghouse, smashing up one side. The dog, who had been arrogantly barking at her up until that moment, was scared witless. He was absolutely convinced that she had thrown down the gauntlet with her fierce automobile attack. In other words, she had masterfully asserted her dominance over him (he thought), and from then on he was one groveling dog in her presence .... But of course, to Hishinuma, the realization only serves to rub in the humiliation about her driving skills.
Yes, they aren't save-the-world stories. No earth-shaking romance. Just human and animal stories presented with tact and humor.
The author of this series, Sasaki Noriko, has two big things going for her:
Problems and disadvantages?
In any case, for a great "adult" (meaning: grown-up) read, especially for anyone who likes animals and a "sophisticated" (but not uppity) sense of humor, try Doubutsu No Oishasan!
HyeShin Kim's review of Sasaki Noriko's "Heaven?"
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