Saturday, February 10, 2007
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 Since Gogh's two volumes were issued in 2000, Kato has been largely withdrawn from serialized work, issuing only two books of collected short material: Obrigado in 2003 and Ranman in 2006.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.