What is it about zombies that has suddenly lionized the attention of SF/fantasy/horror types all over again lately? Between Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, World War Z, Zombieland and all of the other material in this vein that’s suddenly boiled out of the sewers and flooded the land, you can’t spit out your window without hitting a reanimated corpse. I suspect it’s got something to do with a renewed sense of doom in the air, which will find some way to manifest in the psyche of the popular culture. If it isn’t Godzilla knocking down high-tension lines, it’s the flesh-eating dead reducing civilization to armed camps of hold-outs.
Note that I am not complaining, merely expressing amusement at the way this stuff comes in waves. If I must choose my undead, I will gladly take Bub from Day of the Dead over the likes of, say, Edward Cullen. At least the zombie has no pretenses towards romance; he just wants to snack on your head and be done with it. That and the tone of the material is entirely different. The overheated romanticism of vampires veers too easily into self-parody. Zombie-pocalypse, on the other hand, is at its core just plain funnier: it’s a great and fertile ground for black humor, satire, parody, absurdism and farce (and you get bonus points if you can tabulate for me how each of those things differ from the other).
So far I’ve seen a few takes on the modern zombie mythos in Japanese popular culture. Among the best was Tokyo Zombie, the title of which alone is a tipoff and which managed to be funny and touching in that peculiar way Japanese pop-culture products manage to embody effortlessly. Among the worst: Stacy, a film so incoherent and inept I watched it a second time hoping I had simply been drunk the first time around. (No such luck.) And I also found myself enjoying — sometimes despite myself–oddities like Versus, Battle Girl: Living Dead in Tokyo Bay, Onéchambara, Junk, and a number of others that have since fallen out of the bottom of both my mind and my content management system.
Now we come to Velveteen & Mandala, a one-shot manga by Jiro Matsumoto (creator of Freesia) that uses the zombie-pocalypse as the backdrop for some truly strange, often outright grotesque post-modern storytelling faffery. It’s not about, say, the behavior of the survivors in the middle of such a disaster. It’s more about reflecting the disordered internal state of mind found in someone who has attempted to survive the disaster and found madness a better coping mechanism than setting up camp and stockpiling ammo and toilet tissue. It is funny, but in the black, ghastly way that something like Catch-22 or M*A*S*H (the original film, at its most embittered) was funny: you laugh, along with the storyteller, that you may not cry.
V&M gives us a Tokyo that has succumbed to some unspecified disaster. Most of the action takes place in Tokyo’s Suginami Ward, seen here as a wasteland of swamps, bridges over troubled waters and bombed-out buildings. The chief emergency is that the dead don’t seem to stay very dead. In classic zombie-survival style, they have to be gunned down lest they gnaw on you and infect you. Every so often bombers streak overhead and dump more dead (well, undead) bodies in the area. Daily life consists of hunger, boredom, bad dreams, arguments over stupid trivia — e.g., whether or not you can play Donkey Kong on a pager — and the perpetual threat of sudden messy death or worse.
At the forefront of the cleanup operation are two teenaged girls who seem to have been drafted into the job — or maybe they stumbled into it because it was better than school. (A great deal is left deliberately unclear, at least at first.) Velveteen’s the more aggressive one, with her blond hair, sailor-suit outfit and cocky attitude. Mandala sports a page-boy haircut and prim outfit, and with each chapter seems to sport a slightly different psychological quirk. They don’t like each other very much but they prefer the company of the other, however difficult, to being alone with the monsters. Their superintendent is a deranged young man with a Hayao Miyazaki fixation, who spends a disturbing amount of time naked from the waist down and comments acidly on the way the artist’s own design work “shows no class” (during an attempted gang-rape, no less).
Much of the story ambles along as one mini-adventure after another, revolving more around quirky behavior and the banter between Velveteen and Mandala rather than any particular overarching story. A lot of it is funny — blackly, horribly funny, funny in only the way stories about shooting zombies in the head can be funny. Some of it is tasteless, like a scene where one of the characters vomits and has diarrhea at the same time. (I understand there’s actually a separate term for this in Japanese: gerogeri. I could be wrong.)
Then things begin to get very strange — and yes, I know, it’s not as if things weren’t strange to begin with — and we learn some things about both girls that throw a lot of what we’ve seen into a new light. Why they were brought into Suginami to begin with, for instance, and what the real nature of their relationship is (it’s got nothing to do with sex, amazingly), and how one of them can not only survive but make a relatively quick recovery after being rammed by a truck.
The most significant development over the course of V&M is how it slowly trades the outré, non-sequitur black humor of its opening chapters for something a lot sadder and more expansive. There’s a surprising amount of emotional punch in the conclusion, enough that it invites a second reading of the book where you’re not simply puzzling through the latest bit of strangeness thrown at you from the top of the page. What seemed funny the first time now seems simply bleak and sad, a story about wasted (and wasting) lives — but that very effect is so out of gamut for this kind of material that it works to draw you back in and demands you re-examine it.
Jacques Barzun once said that an “experimental” piece of work has to operate under the assumption that the experiment can fail. Just because something attempts to be different doesn’t make it groundbreaking, and sometimes not even worthwhile. With V&M I felt the experiment was on the whole worth the trouble — even if the laughs came front-loaded with a good deal of wincing, too — but I was also painfully conscious of how Matsumoto has a lot of other work not yet in English (namely, again, Freesia), and the more I read V&M the more I got to wondering about when we’re going to see those things over here too. But this will more than do for now.