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.