Saturday, June 9, 2007

Donki Korin

Donki Korin (鈍器降臨)
by Usamaru Furuya (古屋兎丸)
published in Da Vinci (Media Factory)
1 volume (1997-2004)

In an earlier post, I reviewed Usamaru Furuya's breakout masterpiece, Palepoli, and this review netted me a suggestion to check out its spiritual successor, Donki Korin (The Hammer Falls). Collecting six years' worth of the column he has run in the pages of serial novel and culture critique magazine Da Vinci since 1997, Donki Korin employs a unique structural format. On the right page of every spread is a short essay sent in by a reader and chosen by Furuya, and on the left page is a four-panel comic drawn by Furuya relating to the essay.

The book makes a good first impression with a gaudy, baroque cover that recalls Palepoli in both design and the variety of historical art styles employed. It also features hilariously bombastic blurbs in English on the front and back:

"Pictures of Usamaru are the Mirrors of Your Life."
"Looking through Them, You will find the Truth of the World."
"Readers wrote down Their Anger and Pleasure, then sent it to Usamaru."
"Usamaru received the Words of God, then drew a Hammer."
"Readers wrote the words of God, Usamaru drew a hammer of God."
"Usamaru and Readers shall bring down the Hammer together."

For the most part, the collaboration aspect is fruitful. The essays range from existential and poetic to absurd and comical, though typically more serious than not. Furuya's half of the collaboration is often simply a joke based on the subject or message of the essay. At the beginning he appears to be on a roll. In 1997 he was fresh off of Palepoli, which ran through 1996, and the art bears a strong similarity to the detail of that piece of work. His ideas, too, are fresh and smart, if not as surreal and boundary-destroying as what he exhibited in Palepoli. Perhaps he was attempting not to upstage the essay section (thus unbalancing the work), or perhaps he just wasn't interested in making the same kind of statements he had done previously.

However, over the course of the book (arranged chronologically) Furuya's half of the formula begins to suffer, his artwork growing simpler and more streamlined with time. There are a few throwbacks to his Palepoli days in the latter half of the book, both art-wise and with the use of recurring characters -- a feature he employed often in Donki's predecessor -- but for the most part there is a steady degradation of quality. In addition to the essay/manga content, there are a handful of short interviews sprinkled throughout, where Furuya called up some of the essay senders years later to discuss the subject and how things might have changed since then. While a nice touch, these interviews are mostly pointless and contain little added insight.

The best line of action to enjoying Donki Korin is to ignore my example and avoid comparing it to Palepoli. The book itself is an interesting concept, it is cleverly-executed and an entertaining read, regardless of its relation to the Usamaru Furuya's previous work.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Flying Girl

Flying Girl (フライングガール)
by Tetsu Kasabe (笠辺哲)
published in Ikki (Shogakukan)
2 volumes (2005-2006)

When Ikki was founded as a side publication of Big Comic Spirits in 2000, it was outfitted with a hefty lineup of critical and artistic favorites. With Taiyo Matsumoto (Ping Pong, Blue Spring), Naoki Yamamoto (Believers, Dance Till Tomorrow), Iou Kuroda (Nasu), Toyokazu Matsunaga (Bakune Young), Jiro Matsumoto, Kahori Onozuka and Yoko Nihonbashi, they attracted significant interest by loading up on big names. By necessity, as those artists finished their series -- one of the defining features of Ikki being its remarkable trust in its authors and total shunning of the popularity survey method of determining what to run -- some of them returned but others drifted off to other publications, and Ikki would be forced to develop its own new talent. Three artists in particular (Kazuo Hara [Noramimi], Hisae Iwaoka [Flower Cookies] and Tetsu Kasabe) have made Ikki their home for several books' worth of material, and with fairly similar styles combining a light fantastical touch with episodic content, represent what I consider to be the model of homegrown Ikki mangaka.

In Kasabe's case, he carved out his niche with a lengthy series of individual one-shots (six, in fact) over a span of 18 months, all of which were collected in the excellent Bunnies and Others, before starting on his first serial with Flying Girl. On paper, Flying Girl sounds like a cross between Urusei Yatsura's expand-and-conquer hijinx and Richie Rich's gadget-a-day utility. A completely boring, whitebread (or is that miso-and-rice?) government employee named Yamada is set to "Todd Duty" by his smirking boss -- Todd Duty being the supervision of eccentric genius inventor Professor Todd. Todd's inventions are superbly fascinating but often lacking in common sense or just plain dangerous, and it is these more questionable devices that Yamada is supposed to prevent the professor from creating in his mountainside retreat. Complicating matters is the beautiful and busty (her bust measurement in centimeters displayed on the very cover of the book) assistant Isogai, whom Yamada, being somewhat of a putz, immediately falls in love with. Ostensibly this infatuation and its potential realization are the ultimate goal of the story, but the clear star of the show are the inventions themselves.

Kasabe's creations exhibit the kind of dynamism necessary for this type of wacky, character-based comedy -- from the dopey yet stoic Yamada to the benevolent but aloof Professor, to the curious and rambunctious Isogai, as well as several others -- but it is the inventions themselves, many stemming from classic sci-fi archetypes, that act as the catalyst to bring about the humor. In one early chapter, Yamada attempts to slip Isogai the Professor's powerful new arousal drug, only to swallow it himself and share a passionate tryst with a goat, as the others look on and comment. In another, the Professor's "soul-switcher" exchanges the minds of Yamada and Isogai, then follows their mishaps in each other's bodies; Yamada finds that it's hard to run like a man when you have boobs and desperately avoids the temptation to feel himself up, while Isogai enacts her deep desire to pee off of a cliff. The gee-whiz inventions and their effects are nothing you couldn't imagine in the golden age of Tezuka and Leiji Matsumoto sci-fi manga, but Kasabe's addition to the formula is the giddy, anarchic lengths to which he pushes it.

In addition to multiple cases of the above-mentioned bestiality and sexual adventure, Flying Girl features a yakuza's severed, living head in a jar; his son, a "jungle boy" raised in the wild; a squat, bald mob boss who acts as the severed head's lover/caretaker and surrogate mother to the boy; as well as several talking animals - all the result of Professor Todd's inventions. Despite the level of chaos on parade, each installment generally ends with all wrongs righted, and the unruffled characters are willing to wryly comment on whatever disasters occur, such as one episode in which Yamada and the other characters are turned to stone for a year. When they are restored, he panics and calls his boss, expecting to be fired for a full year's absence, but the boss flippantly responds, "Oh, you're alive? Well, keep it up." This breezy nature is accentuated by Kasabe's rather plain, sketchy artwork, featuring simple, cartoonish portraits and humble, hand-drawn backgrounds, adding up to a light, quick read.

This formula of low-key cleverness is what distinguishes Kasabe and his compatriots Hara and Iwaoka from other artists and characterizes latter-day Ikki material. Flying Girl isn't exactly the kind of thing one would build a collection around, but it makes for excellent garnish.