John Updike once wrote down a few good rules for reviewing books (or any other media, really), with the first one being “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.” I did my best to keep this rule fixed firmly in my mind — or “engraved on my liver”, as they say in Japan — while reading Akira Arai’s A Caring Man. I had to do this for one simple reason: I kept comparing it, unfairly I suspect, to another book I felt was thematically similar but superior in execution, Ryū Murakami’s Coin Locker Babies. The two even share something of the same plotline: a young man abandoned by his biological mother and with the mindset of an outsider sets in motion a plan to take revenge on the society that failed him.
I know by now, though, that most people are less interested in the question of which book is “better” than they are in whether or not this particular book is any good. It is a good book, up to a point (and I’ll get to that in due time), but I had the shadow of the earlier book hanging over me all the while I read this one, and I would be dishonest if I didn’t cop to that. Babies is the far more artful, experimental, unabashedly “literary” of the two, while Caring Man is the more rigorously plotted, accessible, and upmarket-thriller story. It isn’t a groundbreaker and it won’t live forever, but it wasn’t meant to: it was written to give the reader a good ride. And for the most part it quite aptly provides said ride, but I do have to admit the ways it fumbles its own ball are annoying. Read more
Volume 15 of this series continues to assemble pieces that ran after Black Jack’s original run ended, and in some ways this is the best of the “pick-up” volumes yet. Read more
Shinji Wada died earlier this week. Regular readers of this site might remember him as the creator of Sukeban Deka, a '70s shojo manga of remarkable influence that was also amazingly violent for a "girl's comic". I'm inclined to think that was just the times and the mores: look at Wild Seven, another period piece allegedly for kids that had stuff that would never pass the censors today for that age group.
The concept for Deka sounded loopy enough: paroled high-school delinquent Saki Asamiya gets re-inserted back into the school system under a special juvenile-crime prevention program, and her one weapon is a yo-yo — albeit a rather high-tech yo-yo with a hidden badge that helps her out of a number of tough spots. If this sounds familiar, it probably is: the "girl with a toy as a weapon" conceit in most modern anime and manga can usually be traced back to Deka in some form.
After a prison break that's only slightly less preposterous than the one in Stalag 17, the series focused on various high-school level mysteries before adding a generous helping of swashbuckling action and eventually pummeling violence to the plot. Over time the scope of the series widened and its ambition broadened to the point where by the end of the fourth volume Saki was battling a surgically-altered nemesis on the deck of an exploding cargo ship.
Evidently Wada had meant to kill her off and end the series there, but a stupefying influx of fan mail kept the show going, and soon Saki turned up in the U.S. with a case of amnesia that turned her into a deliberate parody of weepy shojo non-heroines. She got her memory back, though, and over the course of the next several books things ramped up further and further until she faced down an archnemesis who had plans to take over all of Japan ... as well as her own estranged mother, who turns out to be a criminal mastermind in her own right. And that's not even counting the existential headfake coda, which I'm still puzzling over after all these years. It was an operatically-pitched series, and it was difficult not to get swept up into its excesses even when you knew they were as absurd as they came.
Deka became a cottage industry unto itself, even after it finished running. The animated version covered the first book and a half of the manga with some omissions; the live-action movies (plural) and TV series (three seasons) used the original concept more as a springboard for their own innovations. Most recently we were privy to a live-action cinematic remake, with Kenta (son of Kinji) Fukasaku behind the camera, and Aya Matsuura and the perennially-snarking Riki Takeuchi in front of it. That version even spawned a softcore parody version of its own, about which the less said the better.
Wada went on to produce a lot of other work after that, but from what I could see none of it really had the same punch or presence as Deka. His last work was Crown, which was being translated by Go!Comi, and the first volume of that was enough to let me know we weren't going to see the likes of Deka again from him. But something like that once in any career is rare enough.
After the visionary (if ponderous) future-robopocalypse Casshern, Kazuaki Kiriya drops back several hundred years and punts with Goemon, a fantasia that is oh so very loosely based on Japanese history but so much fun to watch that historical accuracy or fidelity to the word of legend can just go take a walk. The heroic thief of the title was a figure of legend in Japan, even if no two of the legends can agree on who he was or what he actually did; Kiriya's approach is to use his infamy as a springboard for the sort of visual-synthesis-by-greenscreen that seems to have become all the rage for mid-budget SF and fantasy epics after 300 left its mark.
The plot's no groundbreaker, but you won't mind. Goemon loots the corrupt aristocrats of 17th-century Japan and spreads the wealth from the rooftops, but his dark past as a ninja for the Shogunate looms up once again when he discovers the truth behind the death of his former master — which also separated him from the princess he loved from afar. It's all little more than a setup for two basic kinds of scenes: lush tableaux that frames the actors as they fire impassioned emotional countercharges at each other, and action sequences that are as cheerfully fake-looking as they are insanely kinetic. (Goemon's standard attack is to charge up the middle of his enemy's ranks and scatter them to both sides by slashing hither and thither.)
Come to think of it, there isn't a realistic-looking moment in the film — even the grass underfoot is a CGI fake — but it all works because the illusion is so consistently maintained. Even wilder are the scenes inside the Shogun's castle, where his fetish for all things European runs not only to furniture and clothes but a bit of self-portraiture that shows him off in the style of a conquistador. Historically accurate? No. A daring re-invention of how a period Japanese film can look? Absolutely. The film may be all style over substance, but it has the saving grace of being a style that's been invented from scratch for this production and not just recycled wholesale from a dozen others. Bonus points are awarded for the always-excellent Kitano-gumi Susumu Terajima in a crucial supporting role.
In my book, Shinya Tsukamoto can never completely stink. This is the man who gave us the original Tetsuo: The Iron Man, a film so deranged the first time I watched it I thought it was gonna melt inside my VCR all on its spontaneous own. But this is the third time he's been over this particular territory, which makes that ... what? First time tragedy, second time farce, third time sheer redundancy? I don't object to Tsukamoto remaking Tetsuo; what I object to is how in the process he somehow reduced the primal scream of the original into a mere cat's yowl.
The plot this time around borrows from pieces of Tetsuos 1 and 2: a half-American, half-Japanese man (Eric Bossick) with a Japanese wife and kid leads a happy life until the day a stranger (Tsukamoto, once again credited as "The Guy") runs over his son with his car. Dad's rage fuels his mutation into a giant walking metal scrapheap, and there are complications involving his own dad, his wife, a possible future baby on the way, his own genetic heritage, etc. The amazing experimental cinematography of the first film is now reduced to a mindless blur that looks like Tsukamoto pounding nails with the camera, and the visual callbacks to the original films — including a redux of the title sequence — play less like homage and more like someone who's just plain run out of ideas.
The biggest mistake is how Tsukamoto tries to assign an explanation or motive to everything. The whole charm of the original Tetsuo was its very raggedness and inexplicability. It wasn't supposed to make a lot of sense; it was just supposed to bite your face off and scream in your ear. Tetsuo: The Bullet Man is so mercilessly explicable it even has a happy ending. Even in the face of all this, I aver that Shinya Tsukamoto can still crowbar more sheer neurological overload into 75 minutes than most people manage in an entire trilogy.