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!

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Some Things I've Read Recently

Since I'm just banging this out before bedtime and with the momentum of a beer or two behind me, I'll run through these real quick in the order I see them on my shelf:

Goodnight Punpun 1-2 (Inio Asano)

Despite Asano's insistence that he was starting this with a fresh outlook, it's really quite familiar territory for him. The cartoony, iconic protagonist is sometimes comical and sometimes endearing, but otherwise isn't so different from his past outings, just starting from an earlier age. It's a charming and surprisingly affecting work that covers commonly-tread ground, but with Asano's patented sense of style and polish. The crusty record store clerk types among us will scoff and say that he's losing his edge and they've got a point, but for now I'm still cruising the wave.

Mysterious Girlfriend X 1-2 (Riichi Ueshiba)

These books actually arrived to me courtesy of a generous stranger (who I'm sure will see this at some point). I don't own anything else by Ueshiba but I'm vaguely familiar with his other material. We discussed it for a bit as a follow-up of sorts and found agreement that it seems to be a rather calculated attempt to gain a hit for Ueshiba, who's usually a little too weird and fetishized for mainstream acceptance (as far as the Afternoon readership goes)...but it's a very savvy attempt, and it seems to be working. Of course, you could say the same thing about Punpun above, but the difference here being that I generally dig Asano's shtick, while Ueshiba's just creeps me out a bit too much. Call it the hipster vs. otaku dynamic.

Kyomusume 1 (Kon Kimura)

Another Afternoon title, this from the author of the totally ignored Kobe Zaiju. It's frankly nearly unadaptable for a Western audience, thanks to its overabundance of tiny, between-panel vertical narration columns and truly bizarre and unmatched sense of humor... Which is a shame, because in a perfect world, it would be adapted and mindblowing. Essentially it's about a "huge girl" who is in every way (size, attitude, sexual appetite) just a hairy-chested caveman, with a "loli boyfriend" who is in every way (demureness, innocence, speed to tears) a helpless damsel. There are plenty of other twisted characters but the only thing that really remains constant is the devastatingly sarcastic and wordplay-saturated commentary. It's very dense stuff but pure quality. Worth at least three times the money you pay for it.

Ode to Kirihito 1-4 (Osamu Tezuka)

I'll be the first to admit that for a guy who's more well-read than 99.99% of English-speaking manga readers, I'm woefully unfamiliar with Tezuka. For one, where do you start? Essentially I've only ever sampled two very polar opposites of his career: Parts of Tetsuwan Atom (Astro Boy), the pinnacle of his early, child-oriented commercial works, and Adolf, one of his very serious, dramatic stories at the very end of his life. As much as I enjoyed Adolf, Kirihito totally blows it out of the water with its furious visual experimentation and rich themes. A lot of the visual work on display here--bizarre paneling, bold imagery--is brilliant and surprisingly fresh for a series from the early 1970s. Unfortunately I have a feeling that it comes off as "fresh" because the commercial manga community didn't have the guts to fill the void Tezuka created behind him with this material. Great story, great comic.

Beshari Gurashi 4-5 (Masanori Morita)

Morita's comedian manga, which flopped in Jump and had to be suspended when he was unable to keep up the weekly pace, picked up again in Young Jump where Morita's status with a generation of dudes stoked on Rokudenashi Blues and Rookies would be more forgiving of a lax schedule. My own personal interest in this series picked up momentum with these volumes too, especially now that it has gone past "funny teenager wants to be a comedian" into "funny teenager struggles to be a comedian." It doesn't sound like much of a difference, but the addition of big-time pro comedians and the presence of the comedy industry in the story has suddenly made it far more fascinating and well-defined. I've told people multiple times that this is a very hard story to grok for those who aren't familiar with or interested in the Japanese brand of comedy (and it has to be said that the actual comedy routines in the manga aren't that funny, much like say, the music scenes in Beck aren't that rockin'), but it's developed into a rewarding little series for those who do.

Chinomi 1-2 (Ryuta Yoshinaga)

Those who know me personally can attest that somehow, despite my utter disregard for the entire world of vampire-related fiction, it certainly has its dashing, elegant fangs stuck in my helpless neck (kill me now). Well let it be known that there is one vampire story in the entire world that I can tolerate, and I have found it. Chinomi eschews the time-honored traditions of vampires as either a) gothic aristocrats who ravage beautiful women for the titillation of unsatisfied housewives and frumpy D&D chicks everywhere, or b) inhuman, bestial monsters that rip shit to pieces for the uproarious enjoyment of drunken/blazed nu-metal dudes, and instead finds a comfortable compromise in a brand new endeavor, c) greasy, dim-witted ex-grunge gen-x slacker vampires!
Chinomi is the manga equivalent of finding an awesome band's demo tape, and realizing that no one else will ever enjoy it the way you do, and nothing else the band will do in the future can top it. It's just got too much character to ever be successfully replicated by the author. Yoshinaga is clearly putting everything he can think of in this manga. His art isn't particularly good; it has its quirks which will be interesting to comix nerds but isn't nearly attractive enough to interest a widespread audience. Instead, he compensates by simply cramming every page and panel with an impossible amount of detail, often making it difficult, if not nearly impossible to decipher what is happening. There is a ton of text and a ton of text bubbles. Bizarre references abound and I know that some people reading this will appreciate that in a single chapter, I spotted mentions (through dialogue or art) of Steven Seagal, John Candy and Don fucking Vito (of Jackass)! There are some moment where you cannot help but feel the cosmic connection to another man's mind, and I've learned to stop doubting those moments.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Latest News from the Front

Well, I didn't do a very good job at keeping this thing current. My excuses are typical: I just didn't have the motivation to keep up the pace, it took a lot of time and mental energy, and so on. Since I've had time to purchase a few more books since the last update, and thus refresh my stock of things to talk about, I'd like to warm up with some short spiels about current titles of interest. One of the things that makes writing full reviews difficult for me is that I often have to wrack my brain to form extra opinions to tie together into a legitimate "piece," so maybe by working shorter I can simply type out the entirety of my opinion in one place without any extra mental work.

Today's entry was sparked by the arrival of a new package of books, some of which I am quite excited about. I've been on a big Kazuo Umezu kick as of late. No doubt some of you will be familiar with his most famous creation, the post-apocalyptic tale of horror and madness, Drifting Classroom, currently in English courtesy of Viz. I've never read more than a book or two of it, but as part of their ongoing "Umezz Perfection" line, Shogakukan has started publishing a new, deluxe edition, the first of which arrived in my hands today. Compared to the hysterically ugly covers of all previous editions, this new one, with a solid red scheme including red gilding on the pages and a neat picture superimposed on said gilding, is unspeakably tasteful. At 700+ pages, it's a massive tome, and is arranged like the entire series is really one giant book; the table of contents has a listing for three total books (the other two forthcoming as of this writing), with the page numbers being cumulative over the series. It even, bizarrely enough, ends abruptly in the middle of a chapter, with the remainder apparently kicking off the next book. One gets the impression that were it not logistically impossible to print all 2,300 pages in one book, they would have done it that way. It's really an attractive package, and well worth the $20 cost.

Additionally, I've been reading a small, bunko edition of Umezu's My Name Is Shingo, which I am belatedly realizing might be in line for the same deluxe treatment as Drifting Classroom, if this Umezz Perfection line ends up being a career-spanning effort. It's the story of a young boy and girl who program an assembly robot and manage to help it achieve sentience. Given that it was written in the early '80s, the nuts and bolts of the story mechanic are kind of laughable, but that would be missing the point, because with Umezu, it's never about the how or why, but simply drinking in the otherworldly atmosphere and profoundly weird dimension that his work inhabits. As a perusal of Shaenon Garrity's Drifting Classroom write-up will reveal, Umezu has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, but its effects are undeniably unique and instantly recognizable.

Other new acquisitions of particular interest (which I have not torn into yet) include Yoshiharu Tsuge's immortal classic, Neji-shiki (Screw Style), the Japanese edition of Akira, which I've only ever read in English, Shin Takahashi's latest book, Tom Sawyer, which is only marginally related to Twain's original, and a book titled Mankasu from the obnoxious idiot-child of the manga world, Gataro Man, best known(?) stateside for drawing the original manga that inspired the film Battlefield Baseball. Not being totally versed in his career works, I'm not sure if this manga is particularly special among his bibliography, but I should note that the title of this one, part of his tradition of incorporating his pen-name in the titles of all his books, is translated to the delightful handle, "Pussy Smegma."

Other, just slightly older releases which I have enjoyed immensely are the dual releases of the first two volumes of the Ikki series Children of the Sea and Dien Bien Phu. The former is the current series by naturalistic soul and all-around genius Daisuke Igarashi, well known for his titles Witches and Hanashippanashi. It's his first long-term epic, and though the first two (rather hefty) volumes cover a good amount of story, there's clearly quite a lot to go. This could be his shot at a legitimate hit, and I can't imagine that it will escape some kind of media adaptation in the future. The former title is a quirky take on the Vietnam War by illustrator/designer/manga-ka Daisuke Nishijima. As the link above will demonstrate, he has a very recognizable, cute and simplistic art-style which seems at odds with the rather bloody nature of his story, although I think the cognitive dissonance it creates is rather interesting. In addition to the uniquely "manga" take on the subject, with its caricatured characters and fantastical combat, Nishijima packs a lot of notes and background information about the culture and history of Vietnam at the end of the books, so despite being very quick reads, there is a lot to take in, overall.

Until next time!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

New Manga and News

Hi all! I just got back from a long vacation in Montana and I've got tons of work to catch up on in a very short time, so I'm afraid more reviews will have to wait for a bit, but they will be returning! In the meantime, I just received another shipment of manga calculated to arrive just as I got back home. In the picture below, you'll see that I've almost entirely filled out my Taiyo Matsumoto collection - new titles are Nihon no Kyodai (Brothers of Japan), Gogo Monster, Zero 1-2 and the second volume of Takemitsu Zamurai. The only books of his that I don't have now are his artbooks, 100 and 101. In the upper right corner you will see Michio Hisauchi's 1988 Garo serial Takuran (Brood Parasite), an intriguing, medieval story of "persecuted peoples."

In the middle row can be seen the first five books of the ongoing Maison Ikkoku reprint (Urusei Yatsura is also receiving this treatment, and Ranma 1/2 got it a few years back), I suppose to coincide with the new drama. Ikkoku was always a favorite of mine back in my English manga days, and certainly the only Rumiko Takahashi series I'd spend my money at this point, so it's nice to have a spiffy new set. Following are the 22nd volume of 20th Century Boys and the first half of 21st Century Boys, the concluding piece, with the second half to be published in late September. Next to that are the latest volumes of Sing Yesterday for Me and Wanitokagegisu, and a new One Piece supplemental book.

The bottom row is an assortment of new volumes, from left to right: Hatsuka-nezumi no Jikan (Hour of the Mice) 3, Boys on the Run 6, Danchi Tomoo 9, Homunculus 8, Eden 16, A Spirit of the Sun 15, and Dosei Mansion 2.

In other news, I will be a member of a panel at the San Diego Comic Con next week! It's called Lost in Translation (scroll down to 6:00-7:00) and will feature several other well-known figures in our tiny little professional industry. I'm very flattered that I get to sit among them and more than a little nervous, but if you're there, stop on by and say hello!

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.