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.