External Book Reviews: Tanpenshu Vol. #1

Note: This article was originally written for Advanced Media Network. Its editorial style differs from reviews for this site.

"You should buy this book immediately. If necessary, you should also spend the cab fare needed to get to the nearest bookstore. You should do this because this is a book that knows perfectly 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 a fan-translated edition), and it shook me so badly that by the time the whole book came out in a legitimate edition, thanks to Dark Horse, it ended up sitting on my shelf for weeks, still in the shrinkwrap. It was one of the most profoundly intimidating manga stories I’d ever read — not just the subject matter or the treatment shook me, but the sheer amount of insight and talent Hiroki Endo had to burn in that one story made me feel like I simply couldn’t measure up. I finally choked down my nerve and broke open the plastic — and yes, I was again intimidated. 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’s precisely what this book (and its follow-up) are: three self-contained tales from the creator of the post-apocalyptic SF manga Eden, and if you’ve already read Eden you’ll be that much more familiar with Endo’s blend of gut-level philosophy and cruel realism. The opening story, “The Crows, the Girl and the Yakuza,” gives us two specimens of human refuse: a homeless girl and a yakuza on the lam from both his own cronies and the police. Everyone else has rejected them, so they find solace with each other — but more importantly, the gangster learns something else from the girl, a sense of meaning through self-sacrifice, one which he didn’t really have before. She lost her eye to a crow once, and feeds dozens of them from her little trash-riddled hovel, living in the certainty that one day she may need to offer herself to them again as a sacrifice. Her logic doesn’t seem to make sense to the gangster — not until the ending, when the tragedies of their lives reach Grand Guignol or maybe “heroic bloodshed” dimensions. “To be born one of the weak is no reason to lament,” the girl says, and proceeds to use her very life to prove that statement.

“Because You’re A Cute Girl” works in a more ripped-from-the-headlines vein, as a high-school girl slides into paranoia and murderous hatred for her father while her classmates look on obliviously. She remembers better times with her family, not all that long ago, and is disgusted at how easily all of that happiness evaporated. Does that mean it never existed to begin with, and that she’s been deluding herself the whole time? The violence that comes is all the more shocking because the story doesn’t seem to be setting us up for anything of the kind, and it ends on a particularly grim note — how sometimes a person’s life can be over before it’s ever really begun, and how the people who “just snap” have in fact been smoldering for far longer than we might realize.

“For Those of Us Who Don’t Believe in God,” the original story that rattled my eyeteeth so fiercely, might not seem like much at first. It deals with a collegiate theatrical troupe in the process of staging a play about a remorseless mass murderer, and at first I thought the story was setting us up for a situation where the roles each character played would be comments on their real-life situation or vice versa. What happens is nowhere nearly as obvious, but a lot more rewarding over time — in fact, the story itself works a little like method acting, where the total impact is through an accumulation of details and not any one specific thing.

The pieces come together, and we see each of the players is indeed somewhat unhinged, in the way many young people embracing some kind of passion (whether it’s art or the statistics of mass killings) throw themselves into things almost without regard for their own safety. They’re drawn into pairs that endanger them more than complement them — like the way the director and his girlfriend engage in sadomasochistic abuse that’s too crude and vicious to be safely labeled a “lifestyle choice.” They both agree such mutual torment is probably a restaging of their conflicts with their parents, and then they go and do it anyway. Yes, they “understand” those things, but that doesn’t make them any the less impulsive or emotionally turbulent as people. It applies also to anything you’d “understand” about someone else: the heart and the head often go about their own business without ever really 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’t it? And in the end, we’re left with the sense that these people will follow their hearts right off any available cliff, and embrace doom and triumph in about equal measure — but then again, what’s life for if not to embrace such extremes completely? People are not rational creatures, and out of that, somehow, we find a way to live, much as we always have.

I’ve had people tell me that they never want to read books like Tanpenshu because they’re “depressing.” I have two answers to that. One, whenever we encounter something that stirs up extreme emotions we don’t have a label for (or any prior experience with, especially when a creative work is responsible for them), we often fall back on words like “depressing” to describe what we feel, even if that isn’t really close to the mark. Two (and this is something I owe to Roger Ebert, actually), no good book is ever truly depressing, because it’s always exhilarating on some level to watch an artist work at the peak of their form. It’s the wasted opportunities and missed moments that are really depressing, and this manga doesn’t miss out on anything it brings up. It knows what’s ticking inside you.

Click on the image for more examples of Tanpenshu's art, courtesy of Dark Horse. (C) 1998, 2007 Hiroki Endo. English translation (C) 2007 by Dark Horse Comics, Inc. All rights reserved.

Art: Endo’s art is much the same here as it was in Eden, too — it’s from roughly the same school of manga realism as folks like Katsuhiro Otomo. It’s finely detailed, with little comic exaggeration in expressions. Come to think of it, the reserved and detached expressions he uses on many characters’ faces brings to mind the way movie director Robert Bresson would force his actors to dial their performances all the way down, so much so that even the slightest gesture of warmth would bloom enormously. In the same way, here, even a small hint of a smile goes a long way — and when you’re telling stories about how the world won’t just break your heart but crush it, that makes perfect aesthetic sense.

Translation: I resisted the temptation to compare the fan-translated version of “…God” with the one in this volume — for one, I don’t have access to an untranslated original, so I wouldn’t be able to draw any conclusions from that. Also, since this is the version the vast majority of people are going to read in English anyway, it should be judged on its own merits — and the translations for “…God” and the other stories in this volume are all pretty solid.

I suspect some of the slightly stilted dialogue, especially in “…God,” is not actually a flaw of the translation but is simply the way Endo originally wrote everything — and considering it’s between a group of college students, some of whom take themselves a bit more seriously than they should, is that really a flaw? Finally, Dark Horse did the smart thing and kept the original right-to-left formatting; flopping a title like this would have been like colorizing a black-and-white movie. FX are annotated directly on the page, in a reserved and undistracting way.

The Bottom Line: Tanpenshu is the embodiment what 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 reverberate most 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, you should quit reading this and go spend the cab fare.

Tags: Japan manga review

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This page contains a single entry by Serdar in the category Books | External Book Reviews, published on August 8, 2007 7:45 PM.

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