Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Latest News from the Front

Well, I didn't do a very good job at keeping this thing current. My excuses are typical: I just didn't have the motivation to keep up the pace, it took a lot of time and mental energy, and so on. Since I've had time to purchase a few more books since the last update, and thus refresh my stock of things to talk about, I'd like to warm up with some short spiels about current titles of interest. One of the things that makes writing full reviews difficult for me is that I often have to wrack my brain to form extra opinions to tie together into a legitimate "piece," so maybe by working shorter I can simply type out the entirety of my opinion in one place without any extra mental work.

Today's entry was sparked by the arrival of a new package of books, some of which I am quite excited about. I've been on a big Kazuo Umezu kick as of late. No doubt some of you will be familiar with his most famous creation, the post-apocalyptic tale of horror and madness, Drifting Classroom, currently in English courtesy of Viz. I've never read more than a book or two of it, but as part of their ongoing "Umezz Perfection" line, Shogakukan has started publishing a new, deluxe edition, the first of which arrived in my hands today. Compared to the hysterically ugly covers of all previous editions, this new one, with a solid red scheme including red gilding on the pages and a neat picture superimposed on said gilding, is unspeakably tasteful. At 700+ pages, it's a massive tome, and is arranged like the entire series is really one giant book; the table of contents has a listing for three total books (the other two forthcoming as of this writing), with the page numbers being cumulative over the series. It even, bizarrely enough, ends abruptly in the middle of a chapter, with the remainder apparently kicking off the next book. One gets the impression that were it not logistically impossible to print all 2,300 pages in one book, they would have done it that way. It's really an attractive package, and well worth the $20 cost.

Additionally, I've been reading a small, bunko edition of Umezu's My Name Is Shingo, which I am belatedly realizing might be in line for the same deluxe treatment as Drifting Classroom, if this Umezz Perfection line ends up being a career-spanning effort. It's the story of a young boy and girl who program an assembly robot and manage to help it achieve sentience. Given that it was written in the early '80s, the nuts and bolts of the story mechanic are kind of laughable, but that would be missing the point, because with Umezu, it's never about the how or why, but simply drinking in the otherworldly atmosphere and profoundly weird dimension that his work inhabits. As a perusal of Shaenon Garrity's Drifting Classroom write-up will reveal, Umezu has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, but its effects are undeniably unique and instantly recognizable.

Other new acquisitions of particular interest (which I have not torn into yet) include Yoshiharu Tsuge's immortal classic, Neji-shiki (Screw Style), the Japanese edition of Akira, which I've only ever read in English, Shin Takahashi's latest book, Tom Sawyer, which is only marginally related to Twain's original, and a book titled Mankasu from the obnoxious idiot-child of the manga world, Gataro Man, best known(?) stateside for drawing the original manga that inspired the film Battlefield Baseball. Not being totally versed in his career works, I'm not sure if this manga is particularly special among his bibliography, but I should note that the title of this one, part of his tradition of incorporating his pen-name in the titles of all his books, is translated to the delightful handle, "Pussy Smegma."

Other, just slightly older releases which I have enjoyed immensely are the dual releases of the first two volumes of the Ikki series Children of the Sea and Dien Bien Phu. The former is the current series by naturalistic soul and all-around genius Daisuke Igarashi, well known for his titles Witches and Hanashippanashi. It's his first long-term epic, and though the first two (rather hefty) volumes cover a good amount of story, there's clearly quite a lot to go. This could be his shot at a legitimate hit, and I can't imagine that it will escape some kind of media adaptation in the future. The former title is a quirky take on the Vietnam War by illustrator/designer/manga-ka Daisuke Nishijima. As the link above will demonstrate, he has a very recognizable, cute and simplistic art-style which seems at odds with the rather bloody nature of his story, although I think the cognitive dissonance it creates is rather interesting. In addition to the uniquely "manga" take on the subject, with its caricatured characters and fantastical combat, Nishijima packs a lot of notes and background information about the culture and history of Vietnam at the end of the books, so despite being very quick reads, there is a lot to take in, overall.

Until next time!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

New Manga and News

Hi all! I just got back from a long vacation in Montana and I've got tons of work to catch up on in a very short time, so I'm afraid more reviews will have to wait for a bit, but they will be returning! In the meantime, I just received another shipment of manga calculated to arrive just as I got back home. In the picture below, you'll see that I've almost entirely filled out my Taiyo Matsumoto collection - new titles are Nihon no Kyodai (Brothers of Japan), Gogo Monster, Zero 1-2 and the second volume of Takemitsu Zamurai. The only books of his that I don't have now are his artbooks, 100 and 101. In the upper right corner you will see Michio Hisauchi's 1988 Garo serial Takuran (Brood Parasite), an intriguing, medieval story of "persecuted peoples."

In the middle row can be seen the first five books of the ongoing Maison Ikkoku reprint (Urusei Yatsura is also receiving this treatment, and Ranma 1/2 got it a few years back), I suppose to coincide with the new drama. Ikkoku was always a favorite of mine back in my English manga days, and certainly the only Rumiko Takahashi series I'd spend my money at this point, so it's nice to have a spiffy new set. Following are the 22nd volume of 20th Century Boys and the first half of 21st Century Boys, the concluding piece, with the second half to be published in late September. Next to that are the latest volumes of Sing Yesterday for Me and Wanitokagegisu, and a new One Piece supplemental book.

The bottom row is an assortment of new volumes, from left to right: Hatsuka-nezumi no Jikan (Hour of the Mice) 3, Boys on the Run 6, Danchi Tomoo 9, Homunculus 8, Eden 16, A Spirit of the Sun 15, and Dosei Mansion 2.

In other news, I will be a member of a panel at the San Diego Comic Con next week! It's called Lost in Translation (scroll down to 6:00-7:00) and will feature several other well-known figures in our tiny little professional industry. I'm very flattered that I get to sit among them and more than a little nervous, but if you're there, stop on by and say hello!

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Donki Korin

Donki Korin (鈍器降臨)
by Usamaru Furuya (古屋兎丸)
published in Da Vinci (Media Factory)
1 volume (1997-2004)

In an earlier post, I reviewed Usamaru Furuya's breakout masterpiece, Palepoli, and this review netted me a suggestion to check out its spiritual successor, Donki Korin (The Hammer Falls). Collecting six years' worth of the column he has run in the pages of serial novel and culture critique magazine Da Vinci since 1997, Donki Korin employs a unique structural format. On the right page of every spread is a short essay sent in by a reader and chosen by Furuya, and on the left page is a four-panel comic drawn by Furuya relating to the essay.

The book makes a good first impression with a gaudy, baroque cover that recalls Palepoli in both design and the variety of historical art styles employed. It also features hilariously bombastic blurbs in English on the front and back:

"Pictures of Usamaru are the Mirrors of Your Life."
"Looking through Them, You will find the Truth of the World."
"Readers wrote down Their Anger and Pleasure, then sent it to Usamaru."
"Usamaru received the Words of God, then drew a Hammer."
"Readers wrote the words of God, Usamaru drew a hammer of God."
"Usamaru and Readers shall bring down the Hammer together."

For the most part, the collaboration aspect is fruitful. The essays range from existential and poetic to absurd and comical, though typically more serious than not. Furuya's half of the collaboration is often simply a joke based on the subject or message of the essay. At the beginning he appears to be on a roll. In 1997 he was fresh off of Palepoli, which ran through 1996, and the art bears a strong similarity to the detail of that piece of work. His ideas, too, are fresh and smart, if not as surreal and boundary-destroying as what he exhibited in Palepoli. Perhaps he was attempting not to upstage the essay section (thus unbalancing the work), or perhaps he just wasn't interested in making the same kind of statements he had done previously.

However, over the course of the book (arranged chronologically) Furuya's half of the formula begins to suffer, his artwork growing simpler and more streamlined with time. There are a few throwbacks to his Palepoli days in the latter half of the book, both art-wise and with the use of recurring characters -- a feature he employed often in Donki's predecessor -- but for the most part there is a steady degradation of quality. In addition to the essay/manga content, there are a handful of short interviews sprinkled throughout, where Furuya called up some of the essay senders years later to discuss the subject and how things might have changed since then. While a nice touch, these interviews are mostly pointless and contain little added insight.

The best line of action to enjoying Donki Korin is to ignore my example and avoid comparing it to Palepoli. The book itself is an interesting concept, it is cleverly-executed and an entertaining read, regardless of its relation to the Usamaru Furuya's previous work.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Flying Girl

Flying Girl (フライングガール)
by Tetsu Kasabe (笠辺哲)
published in Ikki (Shogakukan)
2 volumes (2005-2006)

When Ikki was founded as a side publication of Big Comic Spirits in 2000, it was outfitted with a hefty lineup of critical and artistic favorites. With Taiyo Matsumoto (Ping Pong, Blue Spring), Naoki Yamamoto (Believers, Dance Till Tomorrow), Iou Kuroda (Nasu), Toyokazu Matsunaga (Bakune Young), Jiro Matsumoto, Kahori Onozuka and Yoko Nihonbashi, they attracted significant interest by loading up on big names. By necessity, as those artists finished their series -- one of the defining features of Ikki being its remarkable trust in its authors and total shunning of the popularity survey method of determining what to run -- some of them returned but others drifted off to other publications, and Ikki would be forced to develop its own new talent. Three artists in particular (Kazuo Hara [Noramimi], Hisae Iwaoka [Flower Cookies] and Tetsu Kasabe) have made Ikki their home for several books' worth of material, and with fairly similar styles combining a light fantastical touch with episodic content, represent what I consider to be the model of homegrown Ikki mangaka.

In Kasabe's case, he carved out his niche with a lengthy series of individual one-shots (six, in fact) over a span of 18 months, all of which were collected in the excellent Bunnies and Others, before starting on his first serial with Flying Girl. On paper, Flying Girl sounds like a cross between Urusei Yatsura's expand-and-conquer hijinx and Richie Rich's gadget-a-day utility. A completely boring, whitebread (or is that miso-and-rice?) government employee named Yamada is set to "Todd Duty" by his smirking boss -- Todd Duty being the supervision of eccentric genius inventor Professor Todd. Todd's inventions are superbly fascinating but often lacking in common sense or just plain dangerous, and it is these more questionable devices that Yamada is supposed to prevent the professor from creating in his mountainside retreat. Complicating matters is the beautiful and busty (her bust measurement in centimeters displayed on the very cover of the book) assistant Isogai, whom Yamada, being somewhat of a putz, immediately falls in love with. Ostensibly this infatuation and its potential realization are the ultimate goal of the story, but the clear star of the show are the inventions themselves.

Kasabe's creations exhibit the kind of dynamism necessary for this type of wacky, character-based comedy -- from the dopey yet stoic Yamada to the benevolent but aloof Professor, to the curious and rambunctious Isogai, as well as several others -- but it is the inventions themselves, many stemming from classic sci-fi archetypes, that act as the catalyst to bring about the humor. In one early chapter, Yamada attempts to slip Isogai the Professor's powerful new arousal drug, only to swallow it himself and share a passionate tryst with a goat, as the others look on and comment. In another, the Professor's "soul-switcher" exchanges the minds of Yamada and Isogai, then follows their mishaps in each other's bodies; Yamada finds that it's hard to run like a man when you have boobs and desperately avoids the temptation to feel himself up, while Isogai enacts her deep desire to pee off of a cliff. The gee-whiz inventions and their effects are nothing you couldn't imagine in the golden age of Tezuka and Leiji Matsumoto sci-fi manga, but Kasabe's addition to the formula is the giddy, anarchic lengths to which he pushes it.

In addition to multiple cases of the above-mentioned bestiality and sexual adventure, Flying Girl features a yakuza's severed, living head in a jar; his son, a "jungle boy" raised in the wild; a squat, bald mob boss who acts as the severed head's lover/caretaker and surrogate mother to the boy; as well as several talking animals - all the result of Professor Todd's inventions. Despite the level of chaos on parade, each installment generally ends with all wrongs righted, and the unruffled characters are willing to wryly comment on whatever disasters occur, such as one episode in which Yamada and the other characters are turned to stone for a year. When they are restored, he panics and calls his boss, expecting to be fired for a full year's absence, but the boss flippantly responds, "Oh, you're alive? Well, keep it up." This breezy nature is accentuated by Kasabe's rather plain, sketchy artwork, featuring simple, cartoonish portraits and humble, hand-drawn backgrounds, adding up to a light, quick read.

This formula of low-key cleverness is what distinguishes Kasabe and his compatriots Hara and Iwaoka from other artists and characterizes latter-day Ikki material. Flying Girl isn't exactly the kind of thing one would build a collection around, but it makes for excellent garnish.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Chinatsu's Voice

Chinatsu's Voice (千夏のうた)
by Sho Kitagawa (きたがわ翔)
published in Young Jump (Shueisha)
3 volumes (2004)

I often think of Sho Kitagawa in very similar terms to another artist named Mochiru Hoshisato. Both spent most of their careers wedded to one publisher, Kitagawa to Shueisha's Young Jump and Hoshisato to Shogakukan's Big Comic and Big Comic Spirits. Both are responsible for one relatively well-known classic (Kitagawa's Hotman, Hoshisato's Living Game) in specific genres (family soap opera and romantic comedy, respectively). And the rest of their outputs are uniformly derivative and mediocre. It's as if each were playing a game of roulette, circulating through similar ideas until one stuck and achieved popularity. Once they had gotten the big hit, they never again hit upon that winning formula.

Lowered expectations might help with finding a worthy champion amid so much banality. Sho Kitagawa seems to specialize in painfully sappy family-based dramatic stories that are tailor-made to be adapted into TV drama format, so much so that it's almost astonishing that only Hotman has ever managed to win itself this treatment. Consider the concept: a young man acts as a surrogate father to his parentless younger siblings and takes care of his fragile little daughter at the same time. If that doesn't sound like an excuse to make housewives weep themselves silly on the couch, then I've missed the entire point of Japanese TV dramas.

Flash forward several years to Chinatsu's Voice, Kitagawa's (as of yet) last serial work. Having remembered enjoying Hotman in a passing way, I pick up the three books hoping for some light entertainment. The first thing that jumped out at me was the drastic improvement in the backgrounds, much like the huge shift between Slam Dunk and Vagabond for Takehiko Inoue. However, unlike Inoue, Kitagawa is not a great character artist, merely a solid one. So all of these vibrant and hyper-detailed natural backgrounds in Chinatsu's Voice can be chalked up to hiring some very expensive or diligent assistants. Kitagawa is like Shin Takahashi (Saikano) in being a male artist utilizing the more abstract paneling and flowery tones of shojo manga. The end result, especially in this case, is a quick-paced and breezy read that is crammed full of beautiful detail. While there's nothing wrong with those two things, their combination often feels empty when so much work is put into so little story, and Chinatsu's Voice, in keeping with Kitagawa's TV drama style, is anything but subtle. The reading experience is almost wasteful.

The titular Chinatsu is a 10-year-old girl who has moved to a rural beach town to live with her grandparents. Her magical singing voice can cause butterflies to dance around her, heal dying puppies, and mend the wounds in people's hearts. If just that description sounds sappy or trite, you can imagine the effect stretched over several books. She uses her songs to heal various problems and coat over various domestic situations in her own family and others. There's really not much to elaborate upon because that just about covers it.

If it seems like this review has been riddled with comparisons to other artists, it's not entirely because I'm simply grasping for straws. It's because Kitagawa himself doesn't really have enough of a personality on his own to merit discussing on his own terms. At the end of the day, Chinatsu's Voice is nothing more than yet another beautifully-drawn yet completely boring read.

Sunday, May 13, 2007


Abara (アバラ)
by Tsutomu Nihei (弐瓶勉)
published in Ultra Jump (Shueisha)
2 volumes (2005-2006)

In the world of science fiction Japanese entertainment, there are naturally multiple spectrums of creation -- some childish (sentai), some hokey ("kaiju" monster movies), some conceptual and elegant (Leiji Matsumoto's Leijiverse). As well, we find a large variety of flavors in fandom. If detail- and factoid-heavy epics like the Gundam universe and Five Star Stories spawn walking encyclopedias like Trekkies or Star Wars fans, then Tsutomu Nihei's cultish fanbase is surely drawn in by the elements of Ridley Scott's original Alien film. Nihei uses his architectural background as a sweeping canvas upon which he sprawls those things which stood Alien apart from its forebears -- claustrophobic dread, desolate loneliness, futuristic decay, an absence of camp and H.R. Giger's sensual, inhuman designs. The result is one of the most striking and recognizable visual styles in manga. Though his 10-volume debut Blame! will no doubt always be his signature series, Abara is actually his most consistently high-quality work, and the best place to begin.

In contrast to Blame's lengthy, segmented and often baffling narrative, Abara keeps itself concise and potent with a simple, but no less vibrant conflict. In a future city hugging the base of massive, looming structures called "sepulchers," a mutated monstrosity known as a "white gauna" (gauna coming from an archaic Japanese term for a hermit crab) goes on a spree of destruction, moving faster than the human eye can see. Only Denji Kudo, a former member of a shady organization who has been given experimental "black gauna" capabilities, can stop it. There are various other characters and details to engage the thinking types, but the main attraction of Abara is this conflict between "good" black and "evil" white.

This duality is played to the hilt with the book design as seen above -- grimy and monochrome, the traditional two-volume "up-down" standard of Japanese literature is blended in with the black-white motif in the circles beneath the title. This logo is seen on the backs of the books as well, next to the English words "Black/White." Unlike the swirling yin-yang harmony of Taiyo Matsumoto's black and white that I wrote of last month, these are pure semicircles, rigidly absolute in their opposition, and never the twain shall meet. Abara's conflict plays out much the same, two sides of power locked in a breathtaking struggle. Perhaps Nihei's absolutist perspective is related to his love for American comics (see his Marvel-published Wolverine: Snikt), or perhaps that's reading too far into it. But it would be interesting to note that his breathtaking action scenes bear the highest similarities to another piece of Western entertainment, but one that borrows heavily from Eastern sources: The Matrix. Abara's detailed, kinetic battles pay much lip service to the iconic, exaggerated choreography of the Matrix, and Nihei's cyberpunk styling, though predating the Matrix's filming, fits it to a T.

So the action sequences are candy for the eyes and certainly the most instantly-noticable feature of Abara, but what truly sets it apart from Nihei's earlier work is the excellent balance of his various strengths. The silent introspection of Blame's splendid, numerous long-range shots is used sparingly to temper the frenetic action. The story is woven deftly and purposefully, in a manner that is more cinematic than serial. And though his protagonist Kudo is, like Blame's Killy, a weary and taciturn warrior of fate compelled to his task by great necessity -- and Nihei's characterization is, as always, bloodlessly unsentimental -- the designs of the characters are more detailed and consistent than ever before.

Of course, being approachable for Nihei doesn't mean it's a total walk in the park. I find his work similar in execution to the great American science fiction writer Gene Wolfe (Book of the New Sun) in their shared love for totally insular worlds that run by their own logic and demand the reader acclimate himself, rather than accomodate and thus compromise. Both authors define their worlds by certain conceptual rules, setting strict boundaries on their characters and their own narration to avoiding breaking the fourth wall and describing their fictional conceits in terms familiar to You, the Reader (circa 2007 AD). It's a philosophy that enriches its material and greatly increases the amount of rigorous thinking and imagination required, but carelessly applied, will lead to frustrating inscrutability -- a charge often leveled at Blame. However, Abara's hurdles are easily the lowest of Tsutomu Nihei's output, and with its high quality and short length, it makes the perfect introductory point for new readers.

Saturday, April 28, 2007


Ressentiment (ルサンチマン)
by Kengo Hanazawa (花沢健吾)
published in Big Comic Spirits (Shogakukan)
4 volumes (2004-2005)

In an earlier review of a Big Comic Spirits title, I said that I had a bad tendency to write off BCS series due to a rash of what I like to call "man-boy" seinen series, manga that are no more sophisticated or demanding than simple shonen material, only with plenty of tits and gore to appeal to intellectually stunted men. This, I admit, is a false charge; if any Shogakukan magazine deserves that label, it's Young Sunday, which is much closer to man-boy status than BCS (a sister publication of middle-aged Big Comic). Kengo Hanazawa's Ressentiment is another reason for me to regret this hasty stereotyping, for I often stared the title in the face when browsing the list of Spirits series during its publication, and only this year have I finally been forced to read it for good and admit that I really missed out.

When discussing the topic of "otaku," there are several facets of this subculture that can be examined. The obsession with two-dimensional fictional characters. The inability to relate to other people, particularly the opposite sex. The cruel ironic joke that is moe, eliciting the desire to protect and provide from the people least capable of even taking care of themselves, a poisoned fang that keeps them from forming real personal relationships and distances themselves from reality, sucked further into the cynical economic machine that preys on unpopular men. The latest and most visible piece of work to really delve into these topics headfirst to find answers is perhaps Welcome to the NHK, but Ressentiment differs from it in several key ways.

Set in 2015, Ressentiment's principle conceit is that consumer computing and AI development have reached the point that "girl games" (dating/sex simulations) are now done with VR technology, and the girls are so advanced that they might as well be human. The main character, Takuro, is a fat, ugly, balding 30-year-old man living a barren, empty life. Unlike NHK, in which the lead is a hikikomori fully trapped in the snares of otaku culture, Ressentiment's Takuro is not an otaku, just a loser who never talks to women, content to use his yearly bonus from his paper company job at a soapland brothel. Feeling panicked by the onset of his 30s and intrigued by the insistence of his old friend (a true otaku) that VR girls are the best, he decides to make the plunge, giving up on real women forever and reliving a new adolescence with his girl of choice, Tsukiko - Takuro's VR self being based on an improved, attractive version of his high school yearbook photo. "Ressentiment" is defined as a feeling of cynicism or futility at being able to improve one's station in life, and it is this emotion which Takuro succumbs to when he decides that it is pointless hoping for anything out of real women.

Hanazawa maintains an expert balance of sentimentality and pathos, aided by plenty of slapstick humor. Takuro and Tsukiko's relationship is attractive but fake; Tsukiko is just a program and Takuro is playing an unreal and attractive version of himself. Their courting, at times awkward, raunchy, embarrassing and sweet, is intercut by Hanazawa's insistence on reminding us that none of it is real. At the most telling scenes, he pulls back the camera from VR to real life, as when Takuro, comforting a sobbing Tsukiko wailing about how lonely she was before he came to her, says "Don't worry, you're not alone." All we see is fat ugly Takuro, standing alone in his room, rubbing the shoulders of an invisible person. In another scene, the pinnacle of this hilariously heartbreaking trick Hanazawa uses so cleverly, Takuro and his uber-otaku friend Echigo stand hooked up in Echigo's apartment. Echigo delivers a speech about the glories of the VR world, wherein all those disgraces and embarrassments, the shame and inferiority they suffer in real life are turned around, where they can be attractive, popular, winners. He poses as his devilishly slick, brown-haired alter-ego Reinhart, surrounded by his fawning harem of girl game archetypes - twins, maids, tsundere (brusque girls who are sweet on the inside), young sister. In the next panel, Hanazawa pulls back to reality again, where Echigo (also fat, balding and ugly, but short to boot) is posing grandly in his dark, dingy apartment covered with anime posters, while the sounds of rough sex from the couple next door seep through the wall.

Echigo, in fact, despite being the most obvious source of humor in the story, also appears to be the coolest character for being the most comfortable with his choice. Although obnoxious and haughty in person, his chivalry and dedication to Takuro in alter-ego form is rather touching, and his significant part in the climax ensures that he is both the funniest and saddest person in Ressentiment. Of course, as the dramatic lead of the story, Takuro has no such convictions, and is forced to make a decision between the real and unreal worlds, with the pressure being applied from the "real world" side coming from his coworker Nagao, an attractive woman driven desperate by her pushy personality, a lack of meaningful relationships and the need to get married before she grows too old. This choice forms the centerpiece of the climax, and it's quite a climax indeed.

Hanazawa fleshes out his story with continual exploration and development of his science-fiction setting. It starts with fascinating explanations of the physical hows and whys of all this VR technology, the helmets, tactile gloves, cameras affixed to the corners of the room, a full body suit and a special expensive penis case for sexual encounters. As the story progresses, a background narrative develops explaining Tsukiko's very extraordinary nature, with various other characters central to the modern technology displayed coming in and out of the plot. Matters escalate until Tsukiko, her AI on a rampage, demands that Takuro make his choice (her, or Nagao?) before she takes over the entire net and nukes the world. If nothing else, it makes for a bombastic love story, where one person's romance not only dictates the entire world as seen through their own eyes, but for everyone else in the world as well.

What is most impressive about Ressentiment is how deftly and solidly all these disparate elements are crammed into a rather small amount of space. Unlike Boys on the Run, Hanazawa's current ongoing series, which is completely open-ended and on pace to be several times the length of the four books here, Ressentiment is very tightly plotted and carefully maintained. One senses a lot of Hanazawa himself in this manga, and the very meticulous locations and settings provide a stronger background for his story. Boys on the Run is similar in general feel, but with a more "normal" protagonist and no sci-fi, it seems more likely to find a mainstream audience. I have no clue how popular Ressentiment was within Big Comic Spirits, but it seems likely that if it did attract a readership desperate to see a fat ugly loser fumble his way through bizarre romances, it clearly wasn't large enough to sustain the series for longer than necessary. Which is a good thing when it creates such an excellent investment for your time and money.

Friday, April 20, 2007

I'm Taking the Week Off

Don't believe I'll be able to summon the energy to write this weekend. I also need to take a whole lot more pictures to go with the articles, as I'm running low on the initial batch I snapped.

In the meanwhile, those of you with French inclination might be amused to see that my Palepoli review is now made legendary by its inclusion in Gallic form to the venerable French comic site They also have an English section and their choice in titles to review is most classy, so I'm very pleased to be a part (however small) of their site! Xavier says that he will be picking out more reviews in the future to translate into French, so by all means, keep checking.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Tekkon Kinkreet (a.k.a. Black & White)

Tekkon Kinkreet All in One (鉄コン筋クリート)
by Taiyo Matsumoto (松本大洋)
published in Big Comic Spirits (Shogakukan)
3 volumes (1993-1994)
1 volume omnibus (2007)

To capitalize on the new animated movie by Michael Arias and Studio 4°C, Shogakukan released this single volume edition of Taiyo Matsumoto's classic just a few months ago. It's a massive book at 600 pages, and made more massive by the upgrade to B5 size from the original's A5. However, the choice to publish in a single book is appropriate; Matsumoto has never practiced the open-ended serial in the style of his more successful countrymen. His series are perfectly concise and contained in the way of an author in total command of his story, making them suitable to be read in one full installment.

Most serious manga readers should be more than familiar with Taiyo Matsumoto by this point, so there is little I can say about him that isn't already well-known or elucidated with more finesse by Xavier Guilbert in his excellent review. Matsumoto's art is a melding of Western (European, most specifically) comic styling and Eastern sensibilities. His linework is chaotic, his perspectives mutable and shifting, and I'm positive the man never uses a ruler except to draw his panels. Matsumoto is one of the true auteurs in contemporary manga, and to many this is his masterpiece.

I first came into contact with Tekkon Kinkreet, like many, with Viz's publication of "Black & White" under their Pulp line in the late 1990s. Though I'm sure there have been grumblings about the change of title, it's really not so bad of a replacement. The Japanese title is somewhat of a portmanteau combining tekkin (steel rebar) with concrete. While "Black & White" is suitable to describe the two main characters, Kuro (Black) and Shiro (White), and the yin-yang duality of their relationship which forms the core at the heart of the story, "Tekkon Kinkreet" suggests the intertwining of steel and concrete, the combination that most defines modern architecture and which brings to mind the other great character of the story, the town itself. I don't remember too much about the Pulp edition, other than that at age 15 or so, I thought it was awesome -- a fact that I'm proud of now, considering some of the tripe I was reading at the time. As the footnote in Guilbert's review points out, I do recall the catch-copy of "senseless, random violence," (a misleading description, to be sure) but I'm a bit surprised at the vehemence of the criticism of the translation. Revisiting it now for the first time in Japanese, Tekkon seems to be identical to how I remember it in English.

Shiro and Kuro are the partially-titular protagonists of Tekkon Kinkreet, two boys who make their home in Takara (Treasure) Town, an indistinct archetype of seedy Japan that exists both nowhere and everywhere. It's a raw, vibrant neighborhood full of crooks, vagrants and mobsters, an urban jungle made larger than life by Matsumoto's exaggerated depictions. In fact, on re-reading Tekkon with a wider perspective of his career and manga in general, the sheer activity struck me even greater: the way Matsumoto crowds walls with graffiti and messages, such as several references to his cousin Santa Inoue's manga Tokyo Tribe; his fondness for inserting an animal into the foreground of wide shots, often speaking a short interjection -- a conceit he used liberally in his other early-'90s story, Hanaotoko; the way he often describes the onomatopoeia of common objects using the printed dialogue font rather than drawing the sound effects, as if to put these inanimate things on the level of speaking characters. The busy fusion of all these elements form the unmistakable character of Takara Town, the soul that is the treasure to which the name refers. Shiro and Kuro are its guardians, two boys waging a perpetual war against the adults who invade the town and seek to change it. Thematic comparisons to Peter Pan are apt; both stories feature the conflict of children and adults and a mythical Neverland setting that is more representative of an ideal than an actual location.

Shiro (White) and Kuro (Black) form a yin-yang duality right down to their names. Of the two, Shiro is the more innocent: childish, naive, imaginitive. While Kuro is more grown-up: responsible, protective, violent. Together, they fight a shady syndicate that seeks to change Takara Town by tearing down its seediest and most recognizable landmarks (porno theaters, strip clubs) and replacing them with lurid, lucrative kids' attractions. The various characters about town, the old bum who acts like a godfather to the boys, the veteran cop and local yakuza express their disgust with the peril and lawlessness of Takara to various degrees, but neither do they wish to see it changed into the false, safe paradise promised by the syndicate. If a neighborhood and its people form a symbiotic whole, each informed by the other, then these figures are the conscience of the town's character itself, a self-defense mechanism fated to be eternally disproving of its faults but ever fiercer in resisting change. If the theme of the story is to be accepting of oneself (whether as a person or a society) and to maintain an equilibrium balancing disparate elements, then it is only right that the ultimate climax be played out within this relationship of Shiro and Kuro, the very manifestation of Takara Town. Their roles begin somersaulting, the equilibrium reeling, as Kuro's pragmatism fails to protect himself from the darkness within himself, while frail, innocent Shiro must use his inner strength to rescue Kuro. In the end, they are righted, changed by the experience but balanced once again. The town has not been "saved," as signs advertise construction of more kids' palaces, but inner peace reigns once again until the next change in the tide, the next chapter in the endless cycle of change and stability.

I'm not sure whether Viz plans a large-size omnibus (similar to Sexy Voice and Robo, perhaps) when they republish it as "Tekkon Concrete" later this year, but whatever the details, they should be applauded for bringing back this masterpiece to North America, and along with the movie, this should give Tekkon a large chunk of the attention it deserves. Don't miss the chance to get your hands on this one. It's just too good to be passed up.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Restocking Time

I'm going to switch things up a bit today.

I typically get books in two different ways. First, I tend to order my specialty books through Acclimate Solution. It's pretty simple; I email them a list of titles and ISBNs, and they tell me what they can get and quote me a price. I've been making orders of 20-30 books every 1-2 months for the past three years or so, and I'm pretty happy with the results. It's good for tracking down things you wouldn't necessarily find in a bookstore and if a book is out of print, they'll offer to buy it from auctions or Amazon Marketplace sellers, who typically don't ship out of Japan.

The other way I get books is from the local Sanseido bookstore in San Diego, which is located within Mitsuwa Supermarket. I tend to think of it as like an airport bookstore. It doesn't have great selection but you can always count on it to have the latest One Piece, or Mitsuru Adachi book... things I wouldn't need to spend shipping on.

It just so happens that I got two hefty packages from Acclimate today, so I thought I'd share what I got. Feel free to leave a comment if there's anything you'd want to see me review sooner rather than later, or if you just want to make fun of my taste in books.

I typically get a mix of both recent releases of series I'm following, and a few complete series of an author or two whose library I'm trying to fill out. Today was a big Taiyo Matsumoto day. I've had all 8 volumes of Number Five for a while, and last order I got the recent one-volume omnibus edition of Tekkon Kinkreet (Black & White) that was released to tie in with the animated movie. This month I decided to splurge and picked up Blue Spring, Hanaotoko, and a very odd edition of Ping Pong. I highly approve of Shogakukan's habit of releasing Matsumoto's books in A5 formats and larger -- Hanaotoko and Blue Spring are both examples of this. My No. 5 and Tekkon books are B5, which is even larger, the size of the original magazines they were published in. Ping Pong has multiple editions in different sizes, so I went for broke and paid extra for the used out-of-print B5 edition that was released to coincide with the Ping Pong film. Oddly enough, though it's labeled as three volumes (A, B, C), each of these is just three very thin (100 pg.) books held together with an obi, making nine in total. I'm a bit disappointed in the flimsiness, but I can put up with it for the larger format. They also come with stickers!

The second big storyline (ooh, I do like to dramaticize my shopping habits) was a trio of Kotobuki Shiriagari books: Jacaranda, A*su, and Hinshi no Essayist. The hype from his recent Angouleme award and some intriguing descriptions from Adam Stephanides' blog caught my interest, and I'm looking forward to tearing into these. I also acquired two more artsy-fartsy books: Kan Takahama's Awabi (I haven't read her yet) and Usamaru Furuya's Donki Korin, which was recommended to me as a good follow-up to Palepoli.

Moving on to more entertainment-minded fare, I purchased the entire output of my latest man-crush, Kengo Hanazawa. Hanazawa's two series for Big Comic Spirits, Ressentiment (4 volumes) and Boys on the Run (5, ongoing) have had me totally spellbound for the past month, as I'm sure anyone within earshot can confirm. While ostensibly categorized as romantic comedies (which usually means stay away), Hanazawa's savagely funny sense of humor and hefty doses of pathos make these books read like cousins to Minoru Furuya's recent work (Ciguatera, Wanitokagegisu).

I also paid out the wazoo for used versions of Rurou Seinen Shishio, an out-of-print two-volume series from Shinkichi Kato that I mentioned in the Ranman review (the price I pay for my beloved favorites)... As well as these new volumes in the following series:

A Spirit of the Sun v.14 (Kaiji Kawaguchi)
Dorohedoro v.9 (Q Hayashida) - a secret favorite of mine
Freesia v.8 (Jiro Matsumoto)
Shojo Fight v.2 (Yoko Nihonbashi)
Hyougemono v.4 (Yoshihiro Yamada)
Biomega v.1-2 (Tsutomu Nihei) - the new Shueisha edition
Vinland Saga v.4 (Makoto Yukimura)

(click for fullsize version)
Top (L-R): Ping Pong, Hanaotoko, Blue Spring, Dorohedoro
Middle: Jacaranda, Awabi, Donki Korin, Hinshi no Essayist, A*su, Rurou Seinen Shishio, Biomega, Shojo Fight
Bottom: Ressentiment, Boys on the Run, Hyougemono, Vinland Saga, Freesia, A Spirit of the Sun

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Disappearance Diary

Disappearance Diary (失踪日記)
by Hideo Azuma (吾妻ひでお)
published in various places (East Press)
1 volume (2005)

Hideo Azuma's award-winning, non-fiction, soon-to-be-English work. For those who haven't yet heard the premise, Azuma was a moderately successful manga artist in the 1970s and '80s who fell into alcoholism and escaped his work by running away from his responsibilities in 1989 and going homeless. After this experience and his eventual return to normal life, he repeated the cycle in 1992, this time finding work in a new town as a gas pipe layer. In 1997, his alcoholism was so bad that he was forced into a rehab clinic. These three experiences form the three different chapters of the book, which also includes a few descriptions of his career in general scattered throughout.

The most immediately striking feature of the book is the dichotomy between the serious, depressing content and the buouyancy of the cheerful cartoon art. Azuma claims that he removed all realism from the art because it would be "tiring and depressing" to depict it that way, but without any experience with Azuma's previous work, I can't say whether this means that he could have drawn with more detail, or if this is his only style. Certainly the images of characters from his older manga appear to be in the exact same style as the people in Disappearance Diary. His previous work appears to be a mixture of frivolous, tittilating romantic comedies and light sci-fi, a B-level output enough to give him a cultish weirdo following -- I have a feeling Yuzo Takada owes no small debt to his formula.

As for Disappearance Diary, it lives up to its moniker, consisting largely of minor anecdotes of daily happenings. The first account, of his stretch of solitary homelessness, is easily the most brutal. Azuma describes his daily struggle with starvation and the cold in heartbreaking detail: eating grass, drinking discarded bottles of tempura sauce, ransacking garbage cans. The pipelayer and rehab sections are similar in execution, except that Azuma's personal quirks take a backseat to the eccentricities of his fellow workers and patients. Throughout, Azuma continues his goofy slapstick framing, leeching the realism and pathos of his experiences out of the manga. His insistence on distancing himself from the reality of the situation in his depiction because it would be "too depressing" is somewhat disingenuous, however. At face value, as the slightly silly and undramatic life of a homeless man, Disappearance Diary is boring. What makes it interesting -- and I believe that Azuma recognizes this -- is the distance between his version of events and what we can imagine to be the reality of the situation, all of the things he's left out. What was most shocking to me was the offhand revelation, after we have seen Azuma trotting out the lowest periods of his life, that he had a wife during these entire travails! You'd never imagine he was a married man if he hadn't admitted to it, and their relationship, other than the fact that she does his assistant work when he draws, is left completely in the dark. This facet of his life I found to be much more interesting than what he actually does tell us.

It's possible that my mild dislike of Disappearance Diary as it stands stems from the art, which I will admit is not to my liking. As well, the many accolades and awards possibly had me expecting something different, and those expectations clashed with my lukewarm reception. It's certainly an intriguing book, and its concept is a rarity in the world of manga. But fittingly enough, these traits I only find myself admiring from a detached standpoint, much like Azuma's book, and the true core of enthusiasm I could have felt toward Disappearance Diary is as hidden as the real events obscured behind his creative veil.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Heibon Ponch

Heibon Ponch (平凡ポンチ)
by George Asakura (ジョージ朝倉)
published in Ikki (Shogakukan)
4 volumes (2003-2005)

Don't be misled by that pen name; George Asakura is, in fact, a woman. For a manga magazine, Ikki has, I'm sure, an interesting readership cross-section. While every magazine naturally has some combination of readers from both genders, in general the target audience is solidly in one camp. Even Weekly Shonen Jump, which has a surprisingly large female readership (though this could be simply because of the mainstream visibility of it), has very clear male values at the core of its philosophy: competition, effort, victory. Ikki, however, seems to aim for as many demographics as possible. In addition to literary and character-drama authors that aren't confined by a gender-specific genre (Daisuke Igarashi, Iou Kuroda, Taiyo Matsumoto, Yoko Nihonbashi, Natsume Ono), the more target-specific output runs the gamut from manly violent/sci-fi fare (Dorohedoro, Jiro Matsumoto's Freesia, Mohiro Kitoh's Bokurano) to female-created and/or oriented series (Hisae Iwaoka, Sakumi Yoshino's Period, and the brand-new BL comic Seishun Sobat). George Asakura's Heibon Ponch seems to find itself right at home in this environment by combining elements of several different styles into a highly unorthodox pastiche.

While I haven't read any of Asakura's other works, a quick browsing of the covers and summaries on her official site would suggest that she's done her share of shojo material. One glance at Heibon Punch is enough to dispel any notion of it being a typical girl-meets-prince fantasy, however. Aki Mashima is an overweight 30-year-old movie director with acne, who also happens to be a borderline lolicon with an irrational fear of large breasts. Mika Wanibuchi is an aggressively ambitious actress with an acute shortcoming in the mammary area, and an obsession with getting a pair of jugs that would make Pamela Anderson jealous. Shortly after their first meeting, Mika murders a famous busty idol, and Mashima decides to go on the run with her, filming their life on the lam. As if this set-up wasn't bizarre enough, Asakura adds more twists. Mashima is attracted to Mika's prepubescent figure, a figure which she despises. She is attracted to his fat, pimply look, but whenever Mashima grows too fond of her, his looks change overnight to a handsome, svelte version of himself, a transformation which is barely questioned by the characters and explained away as "the power of love." This good-looking version, of course, repels Mika. In addition to this "magical" transformation, a large part of the story revolves around the mythical "Village of Big Breasts," a sort of combination between an El Dorado of the male libido and a casino bus tour for senior citizens.

As you can see, Asakura is truly working with fire here. The manga walks a razor-thin line between the viciously funny and surreal gag context and the incendiary, violent romance between the two main characters. Any and every possible concept to complicate the relationship is implemented with abandon. Mashima is torn between heightening the brilliance of his road movie with Mika and thus regaining his prestige as a director, and his romantic feelings for her, and she too must balance her relationship with him with the sole-encompassing act of playing her "role" in his movie, a step on her stairway to fame. Whenever the sparks get too close, the fact that each of them desires to be what the other despises pushes them apart. Asakura has an expert grasp of the high-level adult romance at play in this love/hate relationship, and she utilizes this expertise with the velocity of a rocket. As fascinating as it can be, the extremely unpredictable and complex romance is often bewildering and incomprehensible to me, though it seems clear that in the hyper-stylized, extreme relationship setting Asakura depicts, reader identification with the characters is perhaps not the number one priority.

In addition to unorthodox setting, Asakura's art seems to fall inbetween the stereotypes for gender-specified genres. Her characters have an unmistakable shoujo/josei cast to them, but the use of tone-as-background and the general practice of ignoring background settings altogether, so prevalent in mundane shoujo series, is entirely absent here. There is plenty of emphasis on the relationship of character to background within her composition, and enough detail is paid to the locations to make their presence felt. This, in conjunction with several content topics more weighted on the male end of the gender spectrum -- an abundance of large, exposed breasts, murder scenes -- makes for a finished product that contains elements of both male- and female-oriented manga styles.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Little Forest

Little Forest (リトル・フォレスト)
by Daisuke Igarashi (五十嵐大介)
published in Afternoon (Kodansha)
2 volumes (2002-2005)

I'll follow up my post last week about one hotshot artist's "fans only" book with another one.

In general I dislike the term "slice-of-life," mostly because it gets overused when people confuse it with the simply mundane. I don't think that the lack of tournaments, murders or slapstick romance automatically means that a story is "slice-of-life," as in, nothing happens. In order to get a truly accurate portrayal of a bit of ordinary life, you need constant reminders of the things we do day in and day out. Eating, for instance. If I were to describe a manga that is truly "slice-of-life," it would need plenty of copious descriptions of cooking. Hmmm, a gourmet thing, like Oishinbo? Nahh. Let's say it would be set out in the country, in a farming town. Throw in some descriptions of local flora and fauna, give it some area background. Now we're getting somewhere. Give it an extra kick and pack it with all sorts of DIY tips and tricks, elaborations on the pitfalls of living on your own in the sticks, a real primer on rural Japan. Now drain out any hints of character, plot, or sentimentality, until it's just you out there, gathering fruit and harvesting vegetables. Welcome to Little Forest.

I exaggerated a bit for dramatic effect there. There are characters in Little Forest, though you would be forgiven for not realizing it. Of course, there's no missing Ichiko, the protagonist, who occupies at least 95% of the screen time. Bits and fragments of her background are revealed through anecdotes (all relating to food), but these are provided offhandedly, without a clear dramatic purpose. There are many things you could call Little Forest: a cookbook, a journal, a handbook. But it is not a "story."

The aesthetic effect is complex, particularly on a non-Japanese mind. The entire point of the series appears to be self-sufficiency, so each installment features a dish or meal scavenged or harvested from Ichiko's surroundings in rural Komori ("little forest"). Country food, where the people truly live off the land, is nearly unrecognizable from the prepared and packaged food of the city, and this holds true in Japan as well as America. Though Igarashi does provide some descriptions of flavors and textures through the narration for the benefit of his metropolitan countrymen, there is absolutely nothing but the imagination for ignorant Westerners such as myself to rely upon. The utilitarian almanac material that makes up most of the book is occasionally mouth-watering but unlikely to be of practical use to any but the most adventurous of souls. So if it primarily consists of a dizzying amount of natural information that is useless to 99% of its readers, what is the point of Little Forest anyway? It lies in the effect this information has on the reader as it passes through the brain. If the prospect of going to the supermarket and buying ingredients and produce for a recipe is daunting, imagine having to spend weeks and months growing that produce, or hiking into the mountains looking for those leafy herbs to use for flavor. The sheer amount of labor necessary to create the dishes depicted in the manga is mind-boggling to those living in the lap of luxury, a reminder of both the value of food and the merits of hard effort.

The art is, as with all of Igarashi's works, gorgeous. All of his manga contain such love for the imagination and the natural world (and total disinterest in "normal" city life) that it's hard to imagine him not coming up with something like this at some point in his career. While there are no wild flights of fancy as in Witches or Hanashippanashi, the organic linework and majesty of nature featured within tap into that same source of magic. Little Forest is a very acquired taste on its own, but just another piece of the stunning tapestry Daisuke Igarashi continues to weave today.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Eiga ni Ke ga Sanbon!

Eiga ni Ke ga Sanbon (映画に毛が3本!)
by Iou Kuroda (黒田硫黄)
published in Young Magazine Uppers (Kodansha)
1 volume (1998-2003)

A peculiarly unique oddity among Iou Kuroda's distinguished library. While Kuroda has tackled longer, serialized stories (Japan Tengu Party Illustrated), short story collections (Daioh, Kurofune), melting-pot concept pieces (Nasu) and episodic adventures (Sexy Voice and Robo), Eiga ni Ke ga Sanbon! (Three Hairs on a Movie) is possibly unique among all of manga: a collection of one-page manga movie reviews. (Let me parse that out: Each page is a self-contained manga that is a review of a movie.)

The series appears not to have been created as a primer for Kuroda's favorites, or significant movies, but simply, as with any typical published critic, reviews of the latest movies to be shown in theaters. Therefore the Japanese release dates for these selections start in 1998 and proceed at about a month at a time until 2003, when the book was published. The movies encompass a wide range of sources, from Hollywood blockbusters (Saving Private Ryan, Deep Impact, American Pie) and more sophisticated fare (Eyes Wide Shut, Magnolia, Road to Perdition) to European (Dancer in the Dark, Life Is Beautiful, Bandits) to Asian (Shaolin Soccer, Shuri, Flowers of Shanghai) and of course, Japanese (Ping Pong, Battle Royale, Spirited Away, Samurai Fiction). The formatting is set up so that one page has the title and main credits, a short blurb, then a quick description of the movie and written comment by Kuroda, including a "moral learned," with the manga itself on the facing page.

I've found that Kuroda's voice within his dialogue requires an acclimation period. I wasn't able to fully follow his nuanced, fill-in-the-blanks flow the very first time I read Nasu, and the novel format he uses in Eiga has several more hurdles to overcome. First of all, there's only so much you can get out of them if you haven't seen the movie, and being a poor excuse for a movie buff, I've only seen a handful of the 60-something reviews in the book. Second, with just a single page to craft a review, Kuroda naturally channels his thoughts as succinctly and vividly as possible, so if you don't really get what his point is, there's no time to let it sink in. Either you see where he's coming from, or you don't. Occasionally he will make a point that is funny or memorable that can be appreciated apart from the movie itself, but for the most part a lot of the reviews blew past me without sticking in my head. Of course, being Kuroda, he wastes little time on formalities and gets straight to the point, so many of these read like thoughts and impressions told directly in person, with a fresh frankness that is befitting the odd medium and quite unlike a stuffy newspaper review. It makes for good bathroom reading, at the very least.

Kuroda stopped his reviews for a few years but has apparently picked them back lately, according to his blog, so one only assumes there will be another "Eiga" book sometime in the distant future.

Friday, March 9, 2007

The World Is Mine

The World Is Mine
by Hideki Arai
Published in Young Sunday (Shogakukan)
14 volumes (1997-2001)
5 volume reprint (2006) [Enterbrain]

Hideki Arai's end-of-the-century cult classic, for years out of print, was reissued last year in 5 massive bricks weighing in at over 600 pages each. A controversial masterpiece that defined an era in Young Sunday alongside Koroshiya Ichi, this title has not achieved the worldwide infamy that its cousin has, for the lack of a movie adaptation (though the late Kinji Fukasaku was considering it before his death). However, it commanded an even higher rate of critical praise in comparison to its relative obscurity. Indeed, the catch copy advertisements wrapped around these books come with blaring accolades from beloved figures in contemporary Japanese entertainment: hip writers like Kotaro Isaka and Kazushige Abe, Shigeru Kishida of the rock band Quruli (who even named an album "The World Is Mine") and rap group Rip Slyme adorn TWIM with glowing quotes, a practice that does exist in Japanese publishing, but with nowhere near the frequency of North America. Even actor/director/writer Suzuki Matsuo and Evangelion director Hideaki Anno are counted as fans.

TWIM has alternately been described as the bible to a new millennium and an absolute disaster in the wrong hands. On the surface, it is a blindingly intense and violent action/suspense story about two criminals, the bestial, ferocious Mon and his partner Toshi, a malevolent bomb fanatic. As Toshi-mon (as they are called by the media) orchestrate a campaign of terror across Japan's mainland, they cross paths with the equally violent Higumadon, a creature that seems to resemble an enormous, dinosaur-sized bear. Toshi-mon continue to murder civilians and evade capture by the authorities, striking fear into the heart of the Japanese establishment and destabilizing the very society of their country. As the unexplainable phenomenon of Higumadon grows more and more connected to the unstoppable fugitives, the story begins to take on a religious tone to the psyche of the entire nation. When the series reaches its final story arc, the scope expands exponentially, blasting what began as a crime spree beyond the very history of mankind itself.

There are two great appeals to TWIM: the shockingly vivid violence and the extraordinarily-portrayed characters. The violence can be problematic, as mentioned above. When a truly intense action or emotional scene occurs in TWIM, there is really nothing else like it in the world of manga. Arai has no qualms about pushing the limit for what he will portray. In an extended interview broken up and printed throughout all 5 volumes, he describes his position toward violence as inspired by that of Beat Takeshi's gangster movies. Violence, he says, must not be portrayed as cool or stylish, lest it lose its potency. In order for it to be effective and have meaning, it has to hurt. There are a multitude of simple shootings within the manga, but it is the close-quarters murders, such as when Toshi first takes a life by clumsily stabbing and slashing a young woman as she screams and wails, that are most haunting. As Toshi and Mon come to dominate the national attention, crass, disenchanted youths across Japan flock to them in hero-worship, a jeering mass of cultish followers. In a way, these are a representation of the TWIM readers who see and admire nothing but the endless depravity of the Toshi-mon killing spree. Arai wishes us to weigh the cruelty and immorality of his main duo, while challenging us with the sheer, arresting spectacle of their actions.

The other quality that Arai uses to great effect in TWIM is his characters. Nearly every character is impeccably developed, starting with the dichotomy of the two leads. Mon is a modern-day Mowgli, raised in the wild. He is rash, violent and base, yet also holds an innocent and serene softer side. He is Early Man and childhood. Toshi is a postal worker living a relatively normal life who finds an interest in the internet and explosives. He is cruel, vindictive, petty and cowardly, a Modern Man and the product of a filthy, unjust society. The heroine Maria is unsurprisingly a Mary figure full of empathy and compassion for others, who must balance her strong beliefs with her surging hatred for Toshi-mon's deeds when she is kidnapped and dragged along on their spree. Arai's secondary characters make up for the smaller screen time with vivid eccentricity: A lewd, cherubic prime minister of strong mind who does not play by the politician's book; a newspaper writer who constantly scribbles penises in his notebook as he follows his leads; a catatonic police commander with slack facial muscles, causing him to slobber and spit uncontrollably when he speaks; a wizened, wily bear hunter from Hokkaido who comes to the mainland to hunt down Higumadon and forms a fragile friendship with the newswriter.

Beyond the action and characters, TWIM also received recognition for the frequency and accuracy of the portrayal of regional Japanese dialects. Much of the story takes place on the north end of the main island of Honshu, in the prefectures of Aomori and Akita, northeast of Tokyo, and Arai took special care to recreate the accents and speech patterns of the local people, despite the fact that he himself was raised in the big city, where there is no accent. This feeling of geography is very important to the manga, which uses an almost ludicrous amount of Godard-esque (or would that be Anno-esque?) subtitles, announcing the time and place at every scene change. In this way, the events of the story are given a strong documentary-like realism, a grounding that helps further reinforce the sheer scale of what is portrayed. It is often difficult to follow the dialogue, for a variety of reasons. The regional dialects of Aomori and Akita can be quite unfamiliar compared to standard Tokyo Japanese, and require an acclimation period before the patterns sink in. As well, Arai's voice as an author carries some peculiarities. In moments of quick action or extreme emotion, his characters will often break down from full sentences to choppy, blurted interjections. It's hard for me to tell if these are simply attributable to the idiosyncracy of the writer, or are perhaps a depiction of the slowing of time during sequences Arai wishes to emphasize (thus breaking the comic Golden Rule that you have all the time in the world to give your speech before the next panel advances the sequence). In addition to these more fundamental language issues, Arai also bogs down some of the pacing in the middle of the story with extended technical discussions about things like the military chain of command, political maneuvering and manipulating public perceptions, things that he himself admits he did not understand before drawing the manga, but were necessary to give it the serious portrayal his subject deserved.

The 5-volume reprint was also advertised as having many extra pages added by Arai to flesh out the story. For fun, I found scans of the original 14-volume run and compared them as I read. Ignoring the few niggling typos in the supposedly superior version, the additions to the story (mostly at the end of the last volume) are actually not quite as illuminating as you might expect. There is very little added content; Arai simply stretched out sections that were either cramped or lacked the impact he wanted, taking single expository paragraphs from the original and cutting them up to cover several panels and make the manga read easier.

All in all, The World Is Mine is as grandiose a statement as the title would suggest. It's at once a lurid spectacle, a thrilling adventure, a heady and difficult statement, and a take on some of the most basic questions of humanity and life. Highly recommended.

Saturday, March 3, 2007


Palepoli (パレポリ)
by Usamaru Furuya (古屋兎丸)
Published in Garo (Seirindo)
1 volume (1994-1996)

Clearly the work of a recent art school graduate. Palepoli has achieved minor recognition for its excerpts reprinted in Secret Comics Japan (it also provided the cover art), so it might look familiar to some readers of this blog. Furuya has really charted a bizarre course with his career: probably the last big successful artist to spring from the pages of venerable old Garo, he went from this book, a veritable bible of clashing art styles, artistic deconstruction/experimentation and subculture attitude, to Short Cuts, a snarky, sarcastic take on mainstream Japanese pop culture and sexual fetishes, to Pi (Pai), a headfirst dive into and acceptance of those same values packaged as the search for "the perfect breasts." But enough about falls from intellectual grace; let's indulge in the past.

Palepoli is a real joy to behold. It employs a 4-panel gag structure that differs from the linear vertical style of typical newspaper strips, rather having the four panels arranged into a square and progressing from UR to UL to LR to LL. The artistic methods Furuya uses often differ wildly from page to page. His most common tool is the use of heavy tones that are cut in crosshatch patterns to emulate elaborate texture and shading, but he also tackles a variety of other styles such as pointillism, European woodcuts, early 20th century cartoons, ubersimple Japanese pop art, as well as individual takes on artists such as Picasso, Michelangelo, Tezuka and Fujiko Fujio's Doraemon. Much like the presentation, the content varies immensely, from simple slapstick gags and wordplay to surrealist humor to serious conceptual pieces. Furuya establishes several recurring skits and situations which he revisits from time to time. One of my favorites is a series combining Furuya's humor and structural experimentation called the "Rejection Ghost." Each entry features Furuya sitting at his desk finishing up the page we are presumably reading. A comical-looking ghost comes out of the wall and dismisses the manga by sabotaging it in some way (doodling on it, crumpling it up, slapping an inky handprint on it, etc.), much to Furuya's horror. The kicker is that since this is the very page we are reading in the book, the signs of the ghost's mischief appear directly on the page, thus, the installment in which the ghost crumples the page appears to have been crumpled up and hastily smoothed out again. Such playfulness can be seen throughout Palepoli.

Another one of the more striking series in the book are the double-image portraits, where Furuya draws four scenes that also form famous faces when seen in a different light. He depicts the four Beatles singing Let It Be out of people contemplating by the waterside, then does up four central characters of Doraemon as people having sex, accompanied by the lyrics of the theme song, which now carry a much more sensual meaning. Heaviest of all is a take on the well-known Japanese saying, "Are there no Gods or Buddhas?" The four pictures are of scenes of suffering (a hung man, two men burned at the stake, a dinosaur weeping for its dead child, and an atomic bomb explosion) all lamenting the question at hand, while their images also form recognizable depictions of Jesus, Buddha, etc, the title of the piece being "Gods and Buddhas Are There."

The melding of all these disparate elements and styles is dizzying at first glance, but the high level of execution and polish makes each pleasing to take in on its own, and despite what the entire package might suggest, there is really a minimum of avant-garde difficulty for difficulty's sake, though a general knowledge of the various artists and comics being parodied will undoubtedly lead to a more rewarding experience. It's a book that chooses its readers, but is very worthwhile for those chosen few.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Danchi Tomoo

Danchi Tomoo (団地ともお)
by Tobira Oda (小田扉)
Published in Big Comic Spirits (Shogakukan)
8 volumes at present (2003-)

A charming and curious series from one of the more unique comedic artists in Japan, Danchi Tomoo is a story for adults about the trivialities of being a suburban Japanese child. A "danchi" is a high rise apartment complex that often contains multiple buildings (if you've ever read Otomo's Domu, you've seen one). Our protagonist Tomoo lives in a danchi, and thus, this is the story of his escapades with the eccentric cast of kids and characters that live there.

Tomoo (pronounced To-moh, not To-muu, though this is the punchline of a joke that is used once within the manga) is a classic lamewad kid in the vein of Doraemon's Nobita: Clumsy, stupid, lazy, obnoxious, impatient, yet somehow lovable. He's the ideal representation of a fond childhood for the legions of ne'er-do-well slacker 20somethings reading this manga. Tomoo and his classmates and friends are constantly involved in some kids' activity: playing sports (and losing), collecting things, catching bugs, and, as with all kids, getting tired of them. It's a boring set-up, but the trick to enjoying it is to recognize Oda's comedic formula. The special weapon of his arsenal is the shortened length of his chapters, on average 12 pages, rather than the typical 18. By working with less material, Oda is largely free from having to fully develop or stretch out a premise, making them punchy and loose. In fact, his forte is a sort of abrupt anti-conclusion, in which a chapter will end with no punchline or period at all. There is also a bittersweet edge to the mix that works well with the humor, and generally the two sides balance out, neither becoming too slapstick nor too serious. It took me a few volumes to really latch onto Oda's sense of humor and unique build-up and payoff methods, but once I did the flavor of the series really blossomed.

As with the majority of successful episodic comedies, Danchi Tomoo maintains an ever-burgeoning cast of eccentric characters, from Tomoo's classmates and family to the local residents of the danchi. The eccentricity is perfectly pitched to match the general feel of the manga; it's just odd enough to carry a sheen of artifice without being completely unbelievable, as in some of Oda's short material. Danchi Tomoo is a much more balanced and palatable mix than his maddeningly brilliant but inconsistent short story collections, but bits of that distilled nature shine through in the short "Captain Sports" excerpts, a manga that Tomoo and friends read about a mustachioed cyborg in a karate robe with a gyoza for an ear. Oda expertly fleshes out his side characters and reuses them, building details and staying consistent with them. Small arcs exist here and there: Tomoo visits his dad, who lives apart from the family on work assignment, an old man dies and his identical brother moves in, Tomoo befriends a baseball player. Tomoo gets a new jacket, and he is seen wearing it constantly several volumes from that point onward until it gets ratty. For an attentive reader, there is a wealth of such small surprises.

For me, Danchi Tomoo also carries another meaning. I've read my share of great series from Big Comic Spirits in the past, but when I visualize it in my head, I have a tendency to focus on the man-boy oriented schlock that chokes it, as in any weekly seinen magazine. But little gems like Danchi Tomoo always remind me that BCS is always good for at least 2-3 brilliant serials at any one time.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Kijin Gahoh

Kijin Gahoh (奇人画報)
by Shintaro Kago (駕籠真太郎)
Published in Manga Erotics and Manga Erotics F (Ohta)
1 volume (2002-2003)

Marginally infamous in the English-speaking world for his piece in Secret Comics Underground and his inclusion in Pulp's (R.I.P.) list of the 10 Manga That Must Never Be Translated for Kagayake! Daitoakyoeiken, a satirical manga in which Japan lays waste to all in WW2 with giant schoolgirl tanks that shoots cannons of shit, Shintaro Kago is... well, he's just kind of a sick fuck. Kijin Gahoh (Eccentrics Illustrated) finds him balancing black humor with the grotesque in a way that is both appalling and amusing.

The majority of the book is a series of stories about collections. The first one starts out innocuously enough, compared to the rest of the book. A girl with a fanatical crush on a boy in her class takes samples of everything he touches, to add to her collection. What starts off with bits of chalk, library books and umbrella handles eventually turns to pieces of her own skin when he makes bodily contact with her. When she learns he's been making out with another girl, she kidnaps the offender and removes the skin of her hands, her mouth, and (because he had gotten to second base) her breasts. This mutilation proves fatal for the poor girl, which sets up the punchline when her dad walks in on the gory scene. Rather than being shocked or upset, he is pleased that he can now add another brain to his brain collection.

The following story is far more disturbing, the test of mettle I had to pass to be able to read the rest of the book. A playboy with a penchant for taking pictures decides to combine photography with his favorite pastime of receiving head. In a structural move reminiscent of some of Naoki Yamamoto's short stories, Kago tells the story through a simple chronology of repetitive snapshots with descriptions. The pictures, each of a woman with his penis in her mouth, start off plainly enough, but as the playboy grows tired of the same old thing, the entries get more and more adventurous. He has one girl attempt the act with various types of food in her mouth. Each time, he describes the sensation and whether or not he was able to ejaculate. Eventually he is moving on to animals and women with horrible mouth infections. The entries get more and more sadistic, introducing torture until each one is of a corpse killed and mutilated in a specific way. As with the first chapter, Kago saves a punchline for the final snapshot. Finally out of all other options, the sicko decides to go for the final frontier by severing his own head and using it on himself.

The images are horrific to be sure, but Kago retains a playful air while telling the stories. There is a constant air of amusement and aloofness present that prevents any particular images from being too heavily repeated or emphasized by the author. Indeed, some of the stories are more humorous than shocking, most particularly the final chapter, in which Santa Claus is a figure of terror, striking without warning at any moment and deluging his victims with a bombardment of presents that crush them to death.

Kago's artwork is relatively detailed, but his use of predominantly straight lines, spindly physiques and slight hatching gives off a nervous, stark air that suits the macabre subject matter. Unsurprisingly, there is a noticeable increase in detail and attention on the more grotesque scenes. Between the unflinching portrayals of violence and the obvious lack of hesitation to use any subject matter that comes to his mind (fetuses, sexual fetishes, mutilation), Kago's work is a very heady and sometimes fascinating brew, but the kind of thing that could shatter social relationships if someone happened to stumble across it on your bookshelf. I'll get around to reading more of him someday... once I work up my stomach.

Saturday, February 10, 2007


Ranman (乱漫)
by Shinkichi Kato (加藤伸吉)
Published in Shosetsu Gendai and Esora (Kodansha)
1 volume (2002-2006)

Shinkichi Kato is one of those rare authors where you're not quite sure whether to be furious that he publishes so little, or grateful that what he does finally put out is always so brilliant. His career goes back to the early 90s, when he drew his signature series Kokumin Quiz (National Quiz) with author Reiichi Sugimoto. That 4-volume series (his longest) was set in a world where Japan was a world superpower, and the highest-acting branch of the government was a quiz TV show where regular citizens would compete to see their wishes granted, whether it was "bring me the Eiffel Tower," or "find my pet dog." It was an extremely cynical series satirizing the excesses of the height of Japan's bubble economy in the 80s, featuring a flamboyant host that was perfectly suited for Kato's wild and imaginitive artwork. After that, Kato followed it up with the now out-of-print Rurou Seinen Shishio, which was a self described "total flop," and then the heartwarming Baka to Gogh, the story of a group of friends struggling to find their places in life without having to grow up. The differences between Quiz and Gogh is all one needs to find the range in Kato's style. Quiz is wild, bold, fanciful and cynical; Gogh is emotional, optimistic and touching. Since Gogh's two volumes were issued in 2000, Kato has been largely withdrawn from serialized work, issuing only two books of collected short material: Obrigado in 2003 and Ranman in 2006. If Quiz and Gogh were starkly opposing examples of Kato's range, these collections are the best place to find a melding of all of his requisite flavors in one place. Ranman, particularly, excels in variety and content.

Published entirely in Shosetsu Gendai (Contemporary Novels), a serialized fiction magazine, and its sister publication Esora, which features short stories from both novelists and manga artists, Ranman has several fascinating concepts worked into it. The material from Shosetsu Gendai comes in two forms. One is a series of short 4-6 page vignettes about a variety of subjects, each just long enough to establish a mood and tell a short story before moving on to another. The other is a collection of even shorter 2-4 page "mixed quotations," in which Kato takes a quote from a famous book, whether War and Peace, Tom Sawyer, Alice in Wonderland or a number of Eastern texts, and fits them with new imagery he has reinterpreted on a whim. For example, the Tom Sawyer quote is a conversation where Tom asks Becky if she likes dead rats tied up in a string to be twirled around the head, and she responds that she'd rather have chewing gum. In Kato's reimagining, a young boy and girl in Wild West get-up are surrounded by a gang of giant rats. The boy lassoes one around the neck and swings it about, scattering the others, while the girl blows bubbles and shoots at the remaining rats with a pistol. In another quotation, from Prince Shotoku's Seventeen-Article Constitution ("Matters must not be decided by one, but argued between all"), a class of children is taking a vote. On the blackboard, nearly all votes are listed under a drawing of a haunch of meat, with a lone vote underneath a heart. On the next page, the class is visiting the bunny cage behind the school, where they are seen roasting an enormous 4-foot tall rabbit on a spit over a blazing fire. In the last panel, the lone girl who voted to care for the rabbit is seen crying as she chews on a drumstick.

Most stunning of all is the range of style that Kato wields from piece to piece. The artwork can change dramatically to suit the nature of the setting, from bubbly and poppy on the lighthearted bits to heavy and noir-ish on the dark ones. Because of the very low output and visibility of these pieces (2-6 pages published only once a month or less), Kato is free not only to pursue whatever whim he chooses with a piece, but to cram it full of as much detail as he possibly can, making even the most flippant throwaway scraps enormously evocative and stunning to behold. The two stories taken from Esora are longer, and unsurprisingly, vastly different from each other. One is a text-free story of a wild jungle princess who rescues a gorilla friend from King Kong-style captivity in a comedic physical adventure. The other is of a nihilistic, disconnected young man in an increasingly warlike Japan who discovers a girl's diary buried beside a riverbank. As he reads more and more of it, he begins to fall in love with the unseen owner of the diary and to awaken to his situation and reality, until he discovers in a vision that she had committed suicide. In the final scene, he is seen reburying her diary by the river and murmuring that he hopes he can see her again someday.

Ranman is best described as the manga equivalent of a book of poetry, lacking in any kind of story or plot but densely packed with vivid splashes of ideas and images. Shinkichi Kato is absolutely one of the finest and most criminally underappreciated artists in Japan, and Ranman is possibly his best collection of material. I'll be ready for 2009, when my calculations say he should be due for another book to outdo the previous.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Kaiki Hanga Otoko

Kaiki Hanga Otoko (怪奇版画男)
by Naoki Karasawa (唐沢なをき)
Published in Big Comic Spirits 21 (Shogakukan)
1 volume (1994-1997)

Quite possibly the most amusing, selfless, masochistic novelty manga ever made, Naoki Karasawa's Kaiki Hanga Otoko (Bizarre Woodcut Man) is the first and only manga consisting entirely of woodcuts. Karasawa is known as one of the leading artists in the gag manga field (primarily for stunts such as this one), where presentation and ideas are generally second to the ability to mass-produce stale or surreal jokes. His ability to create high quality, readable content out of bizarre and experimental ideas has been praised far and wide in Japan. Out of a career in which he has taken on such disparate ideas as lampooning the mangaka profession, a manga entirely about Macintosh computers, and a retelling of the original Gundam in which all the characters are dogs, Kaiki Hanga Otoko is easily the strangest and most creative.

Literally everything in Kaiki Hanga Otoko, with the exception of the barcode on the cover, was created from a woodcut. The art, the text, the cover, the contents page, the afterword, even the copyright page were all carved in relief into a block of wood, then dipped in ink and stamped on a piece of paper. According to Karasawa, he wanted to do the barcode as well, but was not allowed. The manga consists of about 20 chapters published over a period of four years in a special monthly supplement to the weekly Big Comic Spirits. Each 4-8 page installment features Hanga Otoko (Woodcut Man), a freakish, irascible character who pops out of nowhere to accost random passersby and demand various tasks, such as that their New Year's postcards to friends and family (a Japanese tradition) be made in the old-fashioned woodcut style. When the bystanders comment on how lame/old-fashioned/labor-intensive the concept is, he inevitably flies into a violent rage, often using his victims as woodblocks for his own art. Over the course of the book, Karasawa throws in numerous experiments in new "woodcuts," taking vegetables, thumbprints, even a whole fish, and inking, stamping and integrating them into the manga. Most of the chapter titles are spoofs of other media, including "Hanga 1/2" and "Picnic at Hangang Rock." One chapter features two bilingual, middle-aged men speaking in both Japanese and English. The Japanese is a hushed conversation about a Hanga Otoko encounter as if it were a UFO sighting, but the English sentences appear to have been taken from a Japanese-English handbook on naughty language, including such lines as "Have you ever had anal sex? How many times? Did you like it?" and "Wouldn't you like to bury your face in my hot vagina."

Taken all together in a short description like the one above, it sounds like the most wonderful treasure trove of Pythonesque conceptual humor that could possibly be hidden away in the Far East, but despite the best efforts of the author to find new ways to torture himself (multicolor pages requiring a new woodcut for each color, intentially drawing enormous crowd scenes), over 100 pages, the concept begins to wear thin, and it becomes apparent that cracking nerdy jokes about woodcut art is really just a distant cousin of Jerry Seinfeld riffing on pen caps or tennis rackets. What is truly interesting is the infinitesimally small ratio of laughs to effort expended. Not only did the creation of this manga require Karasawa to carve out his manga two separate times for each page (art and text), but the image itself must be carved in mirror, as the act of stamping it turns the image around. The overriding thought while flipping through the book is not "Gee whiz, this manga sure is funny" (though it is), but "Gee whiz, how goddamn long did it take to do all this?!" Thereby shifting appreciation from the art itself to the process of creating it, and proving why people think Karasawa is such a big deal in such a particular and limiting genre of manga.