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.