There was a time when I sought out writing and artwork that seemed to exist mostly to find rules to break. William Burroughs, Dennis Cooper, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Maldoror, Eden Eden Eden, Michael Gira’s The Consumer. Once the novelty of all that taboo-smashing and transgression wore off, though, I was left with very little worth keeping. There was the occasional author who shocked you into a new kind of awareness — pace Hubert Selby, Jr. — but the vast, vast majority of the time they simply bludgeoned you into numb submission in what amounted to a game of one-upsmanship. Eventually I got fed up with what I called the Endurance Test School — the precept that the real value of a work of art was in how effectively it weeded out the weak ones in the audience. If an author or creator could find a way to make boundary-breaking a logical outgrowth of his work, great, but I wasn’t going to hold my breath waiting for the next Naked Lunch. And even if something like that did come along …
For those reasons, I was a little reluctant to dive into Lychee Light Club. Author and artist Usamaru Furuya had impressed me elsewhere without plunging nose-first into taboo-breaking. His contributions to the Underground Comics Japan compilation, for instance, attached jumper cables to the humdrum four-panel comic format and zapped unpredictable new life into it. There, as well as in the two volumes of Short Cuts — published in English by VIZ under their now-defunct Pulp imprint — he also showcased an astonishing capacity for dead-on stylistic mimicry of a precision I haven’t seen since MAD Magazine’s heyday in the Sixties and Seventies. Furuya, it seemed, could pick up any set of visual tropes and run with them, not only out to the end of the dock but clear across the water itself. So for him to do something like Lychee, an exercise in stylized brutality and cruelty, almost seemed like a step down — a narrowing of his wide-ranging focus, like Andres Segovia plinking out Foreigner or Chicago covers.
That said, Lychee is not so much narrow as focused. It’s homage, in both look and spirit, to the theater of cruelty explored in the works of manga creator Suehiro Maruo. A cult figure among both manga artists and manga readers, most of Maruo’s works remain unpublished (and maybe unpublishable) in English, with only the occasional title — Mr. Arashi’s Amazing Freak Show, for instance — seeing the light of day here, and then only in extremely brief print runs. (His adaptation of Edogawa Rampo’s The Strange Tale of Panorama Island has been forthcoming in English from Last Gasp for some time now.) Maruo’s work plays like an X-rated homage to the distinctive, sharp-lined look of the Japanese “boy’s club” magazines of the Twenties and Thirties — violent, sleazy, sexually graphic, and black-humored in ways that defy description in polite company.
Lychee retells a stage play originally devised by the Tokyo Grand Guignol theatrical troupe, a group that Maruo himself designed the promotional material for and even starred in. The play, and Maruo’s art, had a tremendous impact on the young Furuya, and in this adaptation he has apparently attempted to bring the theatricality of the original event — the heightened staginess, the effects that are so startling when they take place a mere few feet from where you sit — into a comic format. That much works: there is not a page that does not register in some way as an attack on the senses, when it isn’t also working as an attack on the sensibilities. Audiences who are drawn to it because of their attraction to one facet of the material (sex, violence) may find themselves shoved just as violently away by some other facet that’s indulged in just as gleefully (violence, sex).
That it is meant as a theater of cruelty, not an objective documentation of cruelty’s reality, is enforced throughout — if anything, we’re tipped off to that right away, since the first thing we see is a hand about to part a curtain and kick off the show within. All that’s missing is a seething John Zorn soundtrack — like the one Zorn dedicated to the original Grand Guignol of France, which also sported Maruo’s artwork on the inside.
The “Light Club” of the title is a gang of teenaged boys — seven sycophants under their self-appointed leader, Zera, who assemble in the rusted-out bowels of a disused factory. Their roster of fun afterschool activities includes nothing less than torture and murder. A fellow student who’s accused of spying on their hideout is punished by having his eyes burned out with a spotlight; a female teacher is stripped naked and summarily dissected. Their resentment of the outside (“adult”) world is driven mainly by fear of rejection — specifically, rejection by girls. To get around that, Zera has hatched a plan: they have been secretly cobbling together a Frankenstein’s monster of a robot, Lychee (powered by the fruits of the same name) to kidnap beautiful girls and bring them back to their lair.
After some trial and error, Lychee finally brings them a suitable maiden, Kanon. She’s as gentle and prepossessing as the boys are savage and repugnant, and forms a bond with the equally out-of-sorts Lychee. (“Kanon” is, appropriately enough, the Japanese name for the bodhisattva of mercy in Buddhism.) The two of them share a tenderness not exhibited by any of the others — especially not when an increasingly paranoid Zera orders one purge after another of his own comrades, and the other boys stab each other in the back (and not always metaphorically, either) to earn back his favor. Gothic overtones and decadent sexuality abound, especially when said sexuality is frustrated and becomes violence instead. The last fourth or so of the story is a non-stop parade of bloodshed, drawn with gruesome zeal: there’s a moment involving someone being disemboweled with a toilet, which seems designed to allow you to choose whether it’s absurd, funny, ghastly or some combination of the above. (The victim’s shirt button pops off in the split second before his innards follow suit.)
Readers have wildly different thresholds of tolerance. Some are not offended by sexuality, whether straight or the explicit male/male variety shown here (as in Zera’s dalliances with his underlings, or their lusting after each other). Some shrug off blood and guts, which Light Club has both of in gallon buckets. What bothers more of them, myself included, more than all of those things put together is emotional cruelty — something I see a good deal more of in Japanese horror than almost anywhere else. It’s not about what happens, but how those events tie back into something personal on your part. Oniroku Dan did this in his own work; ditto Maruo as well. Furuya’s clearly aiming for the same thing, making every spilling of blood (or smashing of a head, or burning of flesh) a direct expression of the characters’ own emotional conflagrations. He also knows how to supply appropriate contrasts, as when Kanon sings hymns for the dead and weeps for their souls, even when they held nothing but ill will for her.
If the story’s too overwrought for some — in my case, I knew full well going in that was par for the course; expecting restraint or subtlety from something billed as the Grand Guignol is like expecting finesse and sensitivity to character from Michael Bay — few people will complain that the book doesn’t work as a showcase for Furuya’s talents as a manga-ka. So precisely has Furuya replicated the details of Maruo’s style that I did double-takes on most every page, but it’s also clearly his own work: it’s Furuya transmuting Maruo, for lack of a better word. Decadent sexuality, or just plain decadence, suffuses every frame and worms its way into every detail: the angle of an eye, the way a forelock flips up, the positioning of the fingers on a hand. Some parts of it (like the burning fields of lychee in one chapter) hearken back to another influential horror / fantasy manga creator, Hideshi Hino, whose phantasmagorically autobiographical Panorama of Hell alternately froze and curdled my blood. The taboo-smashing act here serves a purpose, even if that purpose is just to showcase Furuya’s splendid skill as a visualizer. Fortunately he has a lot more in him than just that.
Postscript: As extreme as it is, Lychee Light Club is a mere prelude to the real main event coming later this year: Furuya's adaptation of Osamu Dazai's No Longer Human, soon to be offered in English also by Vertical.