Reading D-Frag! is like listening to an excited four-year-old talk about their first trip to Disneyland: their elementary grasp of language makes it difficult to give you a full, coherent recap, leaving you to smile and nod. The problem with D-Frag! is that it’s hard to tell what is going on; the rudimentary elements of its plot are pulled in so many directions by its characters that by the end of volume two, I had no idea what I was reading. Is this the manga equivalent of Seinfeld, a “manga about nothing,” if you will?
Kazama Kenji is a high schooler looking for trouble. A self-described delinquent, he roams the halls of his high school boasting and picking fights like Stephen Chow’s character in Kung Fu Hustle. Flanked by two of his childhood friends, the portly Yokoshima and the Groot-like Hiroshi, Kenji is willing to do whatever it takes to be top dog. In an attempt to put on a show of strength, he invades the school’s Game Development Club with the intent to steal their games. Instead, he happens upon a group of girls accidentally starting a fire. After putting it out, he is forced to join the club, much to his displeasure.
Left to brood, Kenji is soon overwhelmed by his club members’ behavior, as the girls are incredibly wacky and eccentric. Their games are similar to LARP, as they fight one another using their affinity “powers.” Outside of magical combat, the group spends time playing and designing games. Given the 8-bit flavor of the manga’s packaging, I was expecting/looking forward to chapters devoted to girls playing video games as a means to celebrate the medium. Instead, “gaming” in the context of the series spans video games, live action role play, pub games (like darts), and board games. Not a bad direction to take, though it would have been cool to see the girls program their own video games (and it would have made pushing the series for STEM content all the more easier). In volume two, the club’s first major creation is a board game with the objective to be the first to collect the most alien pornography.
The girls themselves are designed to be intentionally peculiar. On the surface, they are nothing more than gender swapped tropes of high school boys. There’s a jock, a nerd, the introvert, and the pervert. It’s nice to see the male character (playing the role of the straight man) outnumbered by females but the characterizations feel a bit empty and superficial. The teens here act the way real teens would, especially the club’s designated pervert. There’s a decent amount of scenes that pray at the altar of breasts, with numerous characters drawing attention to another classmate’s bust size. During a confrontation between Kenji and a gang that plays rhythm-based video games, the group fights over who plays the smutty board game by exchanging candid photos of the Game Dev Club girls. The photos are clean, with the impression that these boys admire beauty over naughtiness, and the manga doesn’t take the easy way out with random nudity.
Artistically, D-Frag! is drawn like most modern manga. The girls are cute and the guys are handsome and lanky. Tomoya Haruno uses straight, clean lines to create people and build the world they live in. Haruno shows a steady and elegant hand, though the style has the same emotional resonance as architectural drafting. But because this is a Japanese manga, the characters are allowed to express themselves in colorful ways when something excites, confuses, or enrages them. Character faces are either simplified or morphed into cute chibi expressions for comedic effect.
The central issue I have with D-Frag! is that I am confused with what it wants to be. The girls of the Game Dev Club clearly enjoy their hobby, but there isn’t enough activity to define what exactly they do. Kenji’s role in the series is his quest to be king of the hill by beating up other problem kids. There are moments where the interest of both parties align, giving Kenji the insight he needs to understand the girls who have come into his life. However, D-Frag!’s overexcitement makes for an exhausting read, as it favors slapstick comedy and fight scenes that have neither hide nor hair to do with whatever the story is supposed to be about.
D-Frag! vols. 1-2
by Tomoya Haruno
Vol. 1 ISBN: 9781626920705
Vol. 2 ISBN: 9781626920712
Seven Seas, 2014
Publisher Age Rating: Teen