"You should buy this book immediately. If necessary,you should also spend the cab fare needed to get to the nearestbookstore. You should do this because this is a book that knowsperfectly well that you are seething inside."
—from Algis Budry’s review of Harlan Ellison’s SF anthology Dangerous Visions
And yes, Tanpenshu knows you’re seething inside, too.This is praise, since so few manga ever reach for anything like that.They may entertain, but they don’t always touch us. Tanpenshu doesn’t just touch you; it cuts you, and it draws blood as well.
I’d actually encountered part of Tanpenshu before(the chapter entitled “For Those of Us Who Don’t Believe in God,” in afan-translated edition), and it shook me so badly that by the time thewhole book came out in a legitimate edition, thanks to Dark Horse, itended up sitting on my shelf for weeks, still in the shrinkwrap. It wasone of the most profoundly intimidating manga stories I’d everread—not just the subject matter or the treatment shook me, but thesheer amount of insight and talent Hiroki Endo had to burn in that onestory made me feel like I simply couldn’t measure up. I finally chokeddown my nerve and broke open the plastic—and yes, I was againintimidated. Made jealous, even, but in a good way, a way that made me want to go out and create something at least as good so I could measure up.
Tanpenshu just means short-story anthology, and that’sprecisely what this book (and its follow-up) are: three self-containedtales from the creator of the post-apocalyptic SF manga Eden, and if you’ve already read Eden you’llbe that much more familiar with Endo’s blend of gut-level philosophyand cruel realism. The opening story, “The Crows, the Girl and theYakuza,” gives us two specimens of human refuse: a homeless girl and ayakuza on the lam from both his own cronies and the police. Everyoneelse has rejected them, so they find solace with each other—but moreimportantly, the gangster learns something else from the girl, a senseof meaning through self-sacrifice, one which he didn’t really havebefore. She lost her eye to a crow once, and feeds dozens of them fromher little trash-riddled hovel, living in the certainty that one dayshe may need to offer herself to them again as a sacrifice. Her logicdoesn’t seem to make sense to the gangster—not until the ending, whenthe tragedies of their lives reach Grand Guignol or maybe “heroicbloodshed” dimensions. “To be born one of the weak is no reason tolament,” the girl says, and proceeds to use her very life to prove thatstatement.
“Because You’re A Cute Girl” works in a moreripped-from-the-headlines vein, as a high-school girl slides intoparanoia and murderous hatred for her father while her classmates lookon obliviously. She remembers better times with her family, not allthat long ago, and is disgusted at how easily all of that happinessevaporated. Does that mean it never existed to begin with, and thatshe’s been deluding herself the whole time? The violence that comes isall the more shocking because the story doesn’t seem to be setting usup for anything of the kind, and it ends on a particularly grimnote—how sometimes a person’s life can be over before it’s ever reallybegun, and how the people who “just snap” have in fact been smolderingfor far longer than we might realize.
“For Those of Us Who Don’t Believe in God,” the originalstory that rattled my eyeteeth so fiercely, might not seem like much atfirst. It deals with a collegiate theatrical troupe in the process ofstaging a play about a remorseless mass murderer, and at first Ithought the story was setting us up for a situation where the roleseach character played would be comments on their real-life situation orvice versa. What happens is nowhere nearly as obvious, but a lot morerewarding over time—in fact, the story itself works a little likemethod acting, where the total impact is through an accumulation ofdetails and not any one specific thing.
The pieces come together, and we see each of the players isindeed somewhat unhinged, in the way many young people embracing somekind of passion (whether it’s art or the statistics of mass killings)throw themselves into things almost without regard for their ownsafety. They’re drawn into pairs that endanger them more thancomplement them—like the way the director and his girlfriend engage insadomasochistic abuse that’s too crude and vicious to be safely labeleda “lifestyle choice.” They both agree such mutual torment is probably arestaging of their conflicts with their parents, and then they go anddo it anyway. Yes, they “understand” those things, but that doesn’tmake them any the less impulsive or emotionally turbulent as people. Itapplies also to anything you’d “understand” about someone else: theheart and the head often go about their own business without everreally talking to each other.
Similar illogic also exists in the play-within-the-story:the serial killer has no remorse, but his victim bears no malice,either, since it’s impossible to ascribe feelings to a dead man, isn’tit? And in the end, we’re left with the sense that these people willfollow their hearts right off any available cliff, and embrace doom andtriumph in about equal measure—but then again, what’s life for if notto embrace such extremes completely? People are not rational creatures,and out of that, somehow, we find a way to live, much as we alwayshave.
I’ve had people tell me that they never want to read books like Tanpenshu becausethey’re “depressing.” I have two answers to that. One, whenever weencounter something that stirs up extreme emotions we don’t have alabel for (or any prior experience with, especially when a creativework is responsible for them), we often fall back on words like“depressing” to describe what we feel, even if that isn’t really closeto the mark. Two (and this is something I owe to Roger Ebert,actually), no good book is ever truly depressing, because it’s alwaysexhilarating on some level to watch an artist work at the peak of theirform. It’s the wasted opportunities and missed moments that are reallydepressing, and this manga doesn’t miss out on anything it brings up.It knows what’s ticking inside you.
Translation: I resisted the temptation to compare thefan-translated version of “…God” with the one in this volume—for one, Idon’t have access to an untranslated original, so I wouldn’t be able todraw any conclusions from that. Also, since this is the version thevast majority of people are going to read in English anyway, it shouldbe judged on its own merits—and the translations for “…God” and theother stories in this volume are all pretty solid.
I suspect some of the slightly stilted dialogue, especiallyin “…God,” is not actually a flaw of the translation but is simply theway Endo originally wrote everything—and considering it’s between agroup of college students, some of whom take themselves a bit moreseriously than they should, is that really a flaw? Finally, Dark Horsedid the smart thing and kept the original right-to-left formatting;flopping a title like this would have been like colorizing ablack-and-white movie. FX are annotated directly on the page, in areserved and undistracting way.
The Bottom Line: Tanpenshu is the embodimentwhat they mean when they say a given manga is for “mature readers.”It’s adult in the sense that it deals with things that will reverberatemost with those who have already been knocked down a few times in life.Maybe that’s not your thing—but maybe it is, and in that case, youshould quit reading this and go spend the cab fare.
Other Lives Of The Mind