Saturday, May 26, 2007

Chinatsu's Voice

Chinatsu's Voice (千夏のうた)
by Sho Kitagawa (きたがわ翔)
published in Young Jump (Shueisha)
3 volumes (2004)

I often think of Sho Kitagawa in very similar terms to another artist named Mochiru Hoshisato. Both spent most of their careers wedded to one publisher, Kitagawa to Shueisha's Young Jump and Hoshisato to Shogakukan's Big Comic and Big Comic Spirits. Both are responsible for one relatively well-known classic (Kitagawa's Hotman, Hoshisato's Living Game) in specific genres (family soap opera and romantic comedy, respectively). And the rest of their outputs are uniformly derivative and mediocre. It's as if each were playing a game of roulette, circulating through similar ideas until one stuck and achieved popularity. Once they had gotten the big hit, they never again hit upon that winning formula.

Lowered expectations might help with finding a worthy champion amid so much banality. Sho Kitagawa seems to specialize in painfully sappy family-based dramatic stories that are tailor-made to be adapted into TV drama format, so much so that it's almost astonishing that only Hotman has ever managed to win itself this treatment. Consider the concept: a young man acts as a surrogate father to his parentless younger siblings and takes care of his fragile little daughter at the same time. If that doesn't sound like an excuse to make housewives weep themselves silly on the couch, then I've missed the entire point of Japanese TV dramas.

Flash forward several years to Chinatsu's Voice, Kitagawa's (as of yet) last serial work. Having remembered enjoying Hotman in a passing way, I pick up the three books hoping for some light entertainment. The first thing that jumped out at me was the drastic improvement in the backgrounds, much like the huge shift between Slam Dunk and Vagabond for Takehiko Inoue. However, unlike Inoue, Kitagawa is not a great character artist, merely a solid one. So all of these vibrant and hyper-detailed natural backgrounds in Chinatsu's Voice can be chalked up to hiring some very expensive or diligent assistants. Kitagawa is like Shin Takahashi (Saikano) in being a male artist utilizing the more abstract paneling and flowery tones of shojo manga. The end result, especially in this case, is a quick-paced and breezy read that is crammed full of beautiful detail. While there's nothing wrong with those two things, their combination often feels empty when so much work is put into so little story, and Chinatsu's Voice, in keeping with Kitagawa's TV drama style, is anything but subtle. The reading experience is almost wasteful.

The titular Chinatsu is a 10-year-old girl who has moved to a rural beach town to live with her grandparents. Her magical singing voice can cause butterflies to dance around her, heal dying puppies, and mend the wounds in people's hearts. If just that description sounds sappy or trite, you can imagine the effect stretched over several books. She uses her songs to heal various problems and coat over various domestic situations in her own family and others. There's really not much to elaborate upon because that just about covers it.

If it seems like this review has been riddled with comparisons to other artists, it's not entirely because I'm simply grasping for straws. It's because Kitagawa himself doesn't really have enough of a personality on his own to merit discussing on his own terms. At the end of the day, Chinatsu's Voice is nothing more than yet another beautifully-drawn yet completely boring read.

Sunday, May 13, 2007


Abara (アバラ)
by Tsutomu Nihei (弐瓶勉)
published in Ultra Jump (Shueisha)
2 volumes (2005-2006)

In the world of science fiction Japanese entertainment, there are naturally multiple spectrums of creation -- some childish (sentai), some hokey ("kaiju" monster movies), some conceptual and elegant (Leiji Matsumoto's Leijiverse). As well, we find a large variety of flavors in fandom. If detail- and factoid-heavy epics like the Gundam universe and Five Star Stories spawn walking encyclopedias like Trekkies or Star Wars fans, then Tsutomu Nihei's cultish fanbase is surely drawn in by the elements of Ridley Scott's original Alien film. Nihei uses his architectural background as a sweeping canvas upon which he sprawls those things which stood Alien apart from its forebears -- claustrophobic dread, desolate loneliness, futuristic decay, an absence of camp and H.R. Giger's sensual, inhuman designs. The result is one of the most striking and recognizable visual styles in manga. Though his 10-volume debut Blame! will no doubt always be his signature series, Abara is actually his most consistently high-quality work, and the best place to begin.

In contrast to Blame's lengthy, segmented and often baffling narrative, Abara keeps itself concise and potent with a simple, but no less vibrant conflict. In a future city hugging the base of massive, looming structures called "sepulchers," a mutated monstrosity known as a "white gauna" (gauna coming from an archaic Japanese term for a hermit crab) goes on a spree of destruction, moving faster than the human eye can see. Only Denji Kudo, a former member of a shady organization who has been given experimental "black gauna" capabilities, can stop it. There are various other characters and details to engage the thinking types, but the main attraction of Abara is this conflict between "good" black and "evil" white.

This duality is played to the hilt with the book design as seen above -- grimy and monochrome, the traditional two-volume "up-down" standard of Japanese literature is blended in with the black-white motif in the circles beneath the title. This logo is seen on the backs of the books as well, next to the English words "Black/White." Unlike the swirling yin-yang harmony of Taiyo Matsumoto's black and white that I wrote of last month, these are pure semicircles, rigidly absolute in their opposition, and never the twain shall meet. Abara's conflict plays out much the same, two sides of power locked in a breathtaking struggle. Perhaps Nihei's absolutist perspective is related to his love for American comics (see his Marvel-published Wolverine: Snikt), or perhaps that's reading too far into it. But it would be interesting to note that his breathtaking action scenes bear the highest similarities to another piece of Western entertainment, but one that borrows heavily from Eastern sources: The Matrix. Abara's detailed, kinetic battles pay much lip service to the iconic, exaggerated choreography of the Matrix, and Nihei's cyberpunk styling, though predating the Matrix's filming, fits it to a T.

So the action sequences are candy for the eyes and certainly the most instantly-noticable feature of Abara, but what truly sets it apart from Nihei's earlier work is the excellent balance of his various strengths. The silent introspection of Blame's splendid, numerous long-range shots is used sparingly to temper the frenetic action. The story is woven deftly and purposefully, in a manner that is more cinematic than serial. And though his protagonist Kudo is, like Blame's Killy, a weary and taciturn warrior of fate compelled to his task by great necessity -- and Nihei's characterization is, as always, bloodlessly unsentimental -- the designs of the characters are more detailed and consistent than ever before.

Of course, being approachable for Nihei doesn't mean it's a total walk in the park. I find his work similar in execution to the great American science fiction writer Gene Wolfe (Book of the New Sun) in their shared love for totally insular worlds that run by their own logic and demand the reader acclimate himself, rather than accomodate and thus compromise. Both authors define their worlds by certain conceptual rules, setting strict boundaries on their characters and their own narration to avoiding breaking the fourth wall and describing their fictional conceits in terms familiar to You, the Reader (circa 2007 AD). It's a philosophy that enriches its material and greatly increases the amount of rigorous thinking and imagination required, but carelessly applied, will lead to frustrating inscrutability -- a charge often leveled at Blame. However, Abara's hurdles are easily the lowest of Tsutomu Nihei's output, and with its high quality and short length, it makes the perfect introductory point for new readers.