Sunday, March 22, 2009

More Stuff

Continuing from my previous post, here's some more stuff I've read or am about to let go of for good.

Sayuri 1-go 1-5 and Cue 1-3 - Katsura Murakami

Two series from the early-middle parts of this decade that ran in Big Comic Spirits. Murakami is one of those female artists in seinen magazines, similar to Fuyumi Soryo (Eternal Sabbath, Mars), with that recognizable art style: not weighed down with enough obsessive detail to be done by a man, yet not gauzy and abstract enough to be shojo. Sayuri 1-go was her serialized debut, and it originally struck a chord with me. As anyone who has had to suffer through my blubbering rants about Boys on the Run can attest, I am a total sucker for extremely painful and unsentimental romance stories about losers and fatally flawed characters. Sayuri is a story set in a college club (or "circle" as they're called in Japanese). A young man and woman are the leaders and organizers of the circle and have known each other since childhood. Naturally, the boy (Naoya) is much too close to the girl (Tomoko) to see her as a romantic interest, but she does love him. So far pretty unremarkable, right? The story begins when an attractive new underclassman, Yuki, joins the circle and immediately grabs the attention of all the male members. As a matter of fact, her face is identical to "Sayuri," the imaginary girl that Naoya has used for masturbation material ever since he was old enough to jerk off. Now we're getting somewhere! As if Naoya's instant infatuation with her and awkward, unintentional references to her as "Sayuri" weren't bad enough, Yuki is a manipulative, borderline psychopath who has joined and quit multiple circles after seducing members for the pleasure of seeing good personal relationships go sour, all stemming back to a traumatic childhood of constant moving every year and the inability to ever have a meaningful friendship. The drama is generally pretty taut and it moves along quickly and entertainingly. As a story about young adults, it straddles a taut line between developing maturity and the darker, animal instincts of the human race--a topic too advanced for adolescent romantic-comedies. Time and time again, Yuki shows how the capacity for self-delusion and the dangerous allure of "being treated special by someone special" can be used to unhinge men's ties to their friends and lovers. At some point, the story tips a scale of realism when, after the astonishing breadth of Yuki's almost inhuman machinations are brought to light, the characters choose not to simply shun her and lick their wounds, but to embrace her and "cure" her of these devastating personality flaws. The last two volumes are dedicated to this character rehabilitation, but in a shocking finale, Naoya learns one too many unpleasant facts about her, and abandons her. In terms of betraying the reader's expectations, the ending gets an A+, but it also voids the meaning of all the hard work in the rising action portion of the story, and reconfirms the reader's initial impression that Naoya is really just kind of a douchebag. It's sort of exasperating to see the characters take the eventual path that every reader would have chosen ages beforehand, but it's still quite in keeping with the story's theme of painfully flawed characters.

Cue was a follow up work from the following year after Sayuri's completion, and forgoes most of the heavy relationship themes for a story about acting and the theater. The story of a pair of middle school students who become involved in a tiny local theater troupe that gains notoriety when the lead actor is rumored to be a former rising film star who mysteriously cut his career short years before, Cue proves in the aftermath of Sayuri 1-go that Murakami is indeed an expert of pacing and story hooks. Cue also improves on Sayuri's frankly crude art. However, as I'm not particularly enthusiastic about theater acting, and given some developments and themes that I thought were stretching given the short length of the series, it didn't quite hook me as well as its predecessor. The best surprise is actually a four-chapter miniseries, "Junsui Age-Kojo," added to the end of the final volume, that combined the punchy pace and characterization of a one-shot with a pleasing extra length.

Takemitsu-zamurai 1-5 - Issei Eifuku & Taiyo Matsumoto

It's no secret that I am an unabashed fanboy of Taiyo Matsumoto, but even I was a bit nonplussed when Takemitsu-zamurai first appeared. His first major series after the conclusion of Number Five, Matsumoto joins forces with an old college friend, using Issei Eifuku's manuscript as the basis for this manga. Initially I pretty much slept on this manga -- despite the fact that I bought each volume as it came out, I largely forget the details of the story by the time the next one came around. But after finishing Vols 4-5 back-to-back, I feel confident in saying that once again, Matsumoto's doing one of the best things running in manga today.

Eifuku's story borrows a common theme of many contemporary tales of the samurai era: the deadly killer, harrowed by the slaughter he has committed and the incredible power of his blade, hides in a peaceful town and attempts to live a quiet life far removed from violence. If, like me, you immediately think, "That sounds like Rurouni Kenshin," you'd be correct, but the similarities stop right there. Unlike Nobuhiro Watsuki's cartoonish saga of videogame battles and shonen tropes, Issei Eifuku's tale is literary, poetic, and wrung through the pen of the most powerful artist in Japan. When last we had seen Matsumoto, he'd reached the apex of his "realistic period" encompassing Ping Pong and Number Five, when the crude but vivid chaos of Hanaotoko and Tekkon Kinkreet had given way to sharper detail and greater kinesis. When Number Five had concluded, you might have wondered how he could top the sheer weight of that work, and his answer was simple: don't attempt to top it, just reinvent and do something else.

Takemitsu-zamurai presents a sharp shift away from the realistic detail to a more stylized look, but rather than return to the European style of his early work, he has added a strong influence of ukiyo-e art, in fitting with the setting of the story. While some scenes may be unmistakable "Matsumoto-esque" work, others have a fanciful storybook quality. Rather than skewing his perspectives, he flattens them. Rather than filling in backgrounds with pre-printed tones, he uses ink brushes that give them an irregular watercolor styling. And as always, he has a master's touch when it comes to timing, deftly switching between different levels of detail as the scene calls for it. Even now, over twenty years into his career, long past the point when even the most individualistic of artists have honed and programmed their styles to be efficient to mass-produce, no one can surprise with the joy of new and unfamiliar looks with each turn of the page in the way that Taiyo Matsumoto does.

Another new characteristic found in the manga is its placid pacing. Matsumoto is no stranger to the practice of inserting "beat" chapters before the story continues. Just about every one of his series has a chapter without dialogue consisting of simple background scenes, the sight and sound of his universe breathing. But with his brief stories and tight plotting, it's virtually impossible for anyone to claim these are simple delaying tactics or padding out his volume total. Matsumoto's auteur's mentality have left him at odds with the usual manga rat race: "do whatever it takes to prolong popularity so you can get those regular paychecks." However, with Eifuku controlling the reins on the story of Takemitsu-zamurai, we see more detours and meanderings than if Matsumoto were penning the entire series himself. The volume count sits at five, with at least one or two to go yet, and an easy possibility of several more. It's hard to claim whether this is a good or bad thing -- virtually all manga artists are formulaic enough that after a certain point, you're no longer buying/reading to be surprised, but just to run out the rest of the plot. Kaiji Kawaguchi series are so predictable on the artistic side that you're not really reading a manga so much as a hideously fat and expensive Tom Clancy novel. But Taiyo Matsumoto is one of the few artists around that consistently deflects this issue, and I'd be crazy if I tried to explain the joys of reading and absorbing Takemitsu-zamurai only to follow that up by saying that I want it to end in the near future.

I realize that I'm probably doing Issei Eifuku a disservice with all the talk about Taiyo Matsumoto, but as he's sort of an unknown quotient, it's difficult to gauge how much credit to give each person in this artistic collaboration. Suffice it to say that the combination of story, dialogue and art contained in these pages and stemming from the talents of these two men is a sublime achievement and worth the attention of any enthusiastic follower of comic art.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

This is the worst blog ever... dying out gracefully!

So in the almost-year since the last time, a Book Off (a Japanese chain for used books/CDs/DVDs/games) has opened about 15 minutes away from me, and I've come across some really interesting stuff there. It's also very useful in keeping my book collection at a manageable size, because despite adding two cases to the only free wall of my room, I'm just about at capacity, and some things I'd rather get rid of so that other people can read them, rather than throw them away. Some of my odds and ends are actually extraneous -- I bought last year's Monster perfect edition with color pages and an A5 size, which renders my original volumes obsolete -- and some of them are just plain crappy. I've set aside the books to be sold off, but I'm trying to reread each of them before I give them up, so that I can decide for good if I care to read them again, or if they deserve a second chance. I'd like to say a few things about them and some of the awesome shit I've dug up in the store, so let's get on with it, before I grow bored again!

Miraizer Ban (Bunko Edition) 1-2 by Leiji Matsumoto

This set of books is one that I'm giving up, though in all honesty it deserves to be read. I first borrowed it from a friend back in high school and lost it (sorry Jason) but ordered it again years later. In a way it's almost interchangable with Galaxy Express 999 or any number of other "Leijiverse" titles. You'll recognize all the familiar calling cards: a confused, goony dwarf of a hero; an exotic, elfin heroine; metaphysical wanderings throughout the universe and a whooooole lot of water pressure meters disguised as futuristic technology.

In this one, the titular Ban is put through an experiment that fuses his consciousness with all his descendants and ancestors through the great "ring of time," and most of the manga consists of him rocketing around and experiencing events through various personas from before life on Earth to other planets around the galaxy. As usual per Matsumoto's distinguishable style, the different settings and scenarios are much more imaginitive and fanciful than the hard nuts-and-bolts sci-fi that came to popularity in the '80s (Miraizer Ban was from '76-78), and part of his head-in-the-clouds style of storytelling is the ephemeralness of earthly concerns like plot, characters or logic. Leiji's oeuvre occupies that same niche that psychedelic music and film do -- if you're willing to go along for the ride without questioning, it can be heady stuff, but if you're sucked out of the mood it's very hard to take it seriously again. The setting of an immortal man who lives throughout his descendants until the end of time actually works well for the pace that Matsumoto gives the work -- anytime Ban gets into serious danger, his consciousness pings through space and time to another point on the ring -- but the brevity and interchangability of the scenarios means that only a few stand out and the rest become a blur. In terms of longlasting artistic value per volume (a metric I'm considering more and more as I find myself running out of room) it's probably more worthwhile than Three-Nine's 21 volumes, but I think I've gotten all the enjoyment I will ever get from it.

The Outsider by Go Tanabe

This was actually a book that I bought from Book Off and almost immediately sold back. It had a cool concept -- manga editions of short stories by Western writers -- and the title piece was from a Lovecraft story, but the execution was actually quite weak. Finding out that it wasn't a Cthulu story was a disappointment too, but the real killer was the awkward art. All the characters had identical facial features and models, as if the artist was tracing photos of a wooden marionette, and few other distinguishing marks between the characters made it hard to tell what was supposed to be happening. Add to that a general clumsiness in panel layouts and it was just painful. When you consider the concept of a Japanese artist making comics out of prose stories from English, Russian and Czech writers, there are basically two outcomes that spring to mind: either "this could be a really fascinating idea" or "this could be a really bad idea," and a bad idea it was. Unfortunately, I can't remember the author's kanji and google images is not helping with the cover, so you'll have to go without.

Moyashimon by Masayuki Ishikawa

This one I am most absolutely not selling away, but rather translating at the moment for Del Rey. I'd heard the title mentioned years ago without ever being aware of the concept of the manga, and knowing that it was a title from Kodansha's Evening, I made a mental note to check it out when the anime adaptation was announced a few years back. I archived the animated series (psst that means I downloaded it, don't tell anyone) for a rainy day, and then the offer to translate the manga fell into my lap. It's hard for a quick explanation to do it justice, but the most efficient way I can manage is to put it in a mathematical equation with Genshiken. We're all familiar with Genshiken (if you're not you probably shouldn't be reading this blog) and its combination of college setting, subtle characterization and subculture errata. To arrive at Moyashimon, simply replace the "otaku" field with "microbiology," dial down the in-joke factor and make it more educational and outsider-friendly, replace cosplay boobs with adorable merchandising icons for the eye-catcher, and then double (no, triple) the amount of text. The manga is honestly great and sadly, will probably not garner a fraction of the attention it deserves upon its release, but make no mistake -- it does deserve it. The art is dense and detailed, the story crams an astonishing amount of information down your throat, and the characters slowly grow under your skin. Best of all -- in my authoritative position as translator -- is Ishikawa's hilariously dry sense of humor, which oozes from every sentence.

Unlike virtually every other manga, which remove all the eye-catching and generally useless summaries, character bios and author's messages from the serialized magazine chapters when it comes time to collect them into books, Moyashimon retains all of them. It's pretty apparent at first glance that this editorial decision came from the need to keep all of the microbe bios that appear in the sidebars, as these are very rarely ever fully described within the dialogue of the story. However, the more you see of the other information, the more you appreciate the author's wickedly understated and rewarding sense of humor. Short character bios will appear on the sides of pages in every single chapter, yet there are subtle differences every single time that make it worth poring over each and every one. Add all of this bonus information to an already dialogue-packed story, and this a book you can truly sink your teeth into. Since the market for manga in America seems to have spoken, and spoken for tweeny-bopper stories about Hogwarts ripoffs and puppy-dog crushes, it's rare that you'll get the chance to translate something truly challenging and rewarding, and Moyashimon is the sort of thing that I dream about working on. I got to pull out all the stops, and it's easily the most impressive and entertaining piece of work I've done. Be on the lookout for "Moyasimon" (the English title is slightly altered, apparently at the unyielding request of the author) whenever it hits shelves.

Unfortunately, the anime version suffers a fair amount in comparison to the original. I was initially stunned at the incredible opening sequence, which easily stands among the very best examples of its kind this decade. However, the presentation quickly drops after this point. It gets a passing grade overall because they did a fine job with the depiction of the actual microbes, but the bland acting, bland animation and bland directing really do a disservice to what is quite a clever and subtle series. Needless to say, if you did happen across the anime and find yourself disappointed by a pedestrian treatment of an intriguing topic, consider giving it a second chance with the manga.

I'll have more stuff to post in the next few days!