External Book Reviews: Tanpenshu Vol. #2

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

There’s got to be a way to talk about Tanpenshu #2 without scaring you all off.

Think about it from my side, that’s all I ask. I’ve been trying to get this review written for two days, and I’ve shot more blanks than a whole class full of third graders with cap guns. “Just go get the book,” I was tempted to write. “Just go and expose youselves to this fire-eating, heart-unclogging piece of power, because it burns the b.s. right out of the soul, and anything that does that in this world is something to cherish and defend.”

That’s why I had such great things to say about Apollo’s Song and MW and Abandon the Old in Tokyo, which all hurt. Hurt like being slapped by someone you loved, right after you’d blurted out something unbearably careless and hurtful to their face. So — and you can see the dilemma by now — Q: Why then would anyone want to subject themselves to it?

A: Because of what you are when you come out the other side.

So goes the theory, anyway. In practice, most people are not interested in giving themselves an aesthetic scourging that they’re not being tested on later. This is why Merzbow does not routinely outsell Shakira, and the first volume of Tanpenshu didn’t hit the New York Times bestseller list (which is a crying shame).

What they’re missing is that they’re always being tested on this later. We don’t read about heartbreak only so we can vicariously experience heartbreak (although that’s one reason for it). We read about heartbreak and self-destruction and you-name-it so we can be that much more prepared for the real thing when it does hit. Maybe that strategy doesn’t always work, but that’s why these things are created in the first place — not to gouge you in the eye, but to talk to your heart.

The second Tanpenshu volume does about an equal amount of gouging and talking, sometimes both at once. It also shows a bit more of Hiroki Endo’s taste for science fiction as a delivery platform for stories about human nature — the sort of thing he’s done most excellently in his longform series Eden (also available in English courtesy of Dark Horse).

Endo does that very thing right in the first story, “Hang,” which combines dystopian SF concepts with the kind of grim, mercenary sexuality that also figured into the first volume of Tanpenshu. A young man and his girlfriend wander to the edge of Japan with the girl’s “brother” — nothing more than a brain in a box — in tow, sharing sex and a particularly ugly secret. Japan itself, by the way, has been suspended over the planet by an array of guy wires, like a gigantic suspension bridge, and even though this is fully revealed in the last panel we never do see what’s at the other end of those wires, holding everything up. The construction of their world is like a Greek chorus complement to their own equally absurd lives, and after reading it you’ll feel a bit like you’ve been dangled over an abyss yourself.

Then comes “High School Girl 2000,” which is either autobiography or auto-idolatry, or maybe a bit of both. It’s allegedly a story about Endo himself (all bets are off, I think) in the full flower of his shamelessness — talking dirty to his assistants, leering at girls from the balcony of his apartment studio, and fending off middle age with the sort of narcissistic horror that you’ll either laugh at because it’s just utterly pathetic or identify with completely. Both Endo-the-creator-of-the-story and Endo-the-character flash back to high school and remember better times, when you could make plans for the future — like how becoming an artist would be the best revenge against everyone who ever beat you up. If most of the rest of Tanpenshu is meant to puncture our own heart, Endo uses this story to puncture his and show what comes bleeding out. Too bad the results are more merely lurid and uncomfortable than actually compelling, but the rest of the book more than makes up for it.

“Platform”, in two parts, is the book’s other masterwork (apart from “Hang”), and is so radically unlike the first two that if you’d started reading Endo’s works with this book you might have assumed he was simply a hired gun with someone else taking over story duties each time around. A simple synopsis does not do the full impact of this story justice — it leaps back and forth through time, from when you could glance at a girl on the other side of a train station and feel like you were in touch with everything perfect in your world all the way back to the present, where your father’s a gangster and you despise everything about his life and has that exact same girl as his lover. And she’s attracted to that kind of power and strength, all of which you do not have, and when you try to emulate his strength all you get is pain and trouble. I read this story with Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks playing in the background — not by any design, just by accident — and to say that it all made for an unsettling, soul-devouring experience is a little like saying that’s a mighty big night sky up there.

Maybe Endo couldn’t bring himself to close this book off on such a monumental note of rage and loss, and so at the end we get “Boys Don’t Cry” (Robert Smith, call your office). It has all the flavor of someone capping off a Nobel Prize acceptance speech with a knock-knock joke. But the way I see it, after all the heartbreak he’s put us through, he’s entitled to try and make us giggle.

(C) 1998, 2007 Hiroki Endo. English translation (C) 2007 by Dark Horse Comics, Inc. All rights reserved.
Art: Endo’s art is 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 up on the screen. 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: My comments about the translation for Volume 1 were based mainly on a comparison of the fan-translated story “For Those of Us who Don’t Believe in God” with the version that showed up in the actual published book. The translation’s as readable, poetic, and occasionally flat-out vulgar as it needs / has to be. Dark Horse also 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: Here’s what you do. If you’re feeling like life just walked in and kicked your nose in, go buy both volumes of Tanpenshu and read them back to back and see if that doesn’t give your soul a little electroshock therapy. And if you’re in a good mood, go buy both volumes of Tanpenshu ANYWAY and save them for a day when you’re not. It never hurts to have a contingency plan.

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 January 1, 2008 1:11 PM.

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