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.