In the fifteen or so years that I’ve been reading literature from Japan, there are maybe two or three books from that whole oeuvre that I’ve come back to again and again and discovered more in each time. One was Kenzaburo Oe’s The Silent Cry; another, most likely the one I have come back to the most, is Osamu Dazai’s No Longer Human. The two books could not be more dissimilar. Oe’s story is epic in detail and unabashedly literary in its language and imagery, while Dazai’s novel is barely two hundred pages and constructed out of language so simple and spare there seems to be no room for further reduction. And yet I’ve come back to that short space again and again, and each time I do, I find something else that simply did not seem to be there before. I know I’m the one that’s changing, of course, and I suspect the day I sit down to read No Longer Human and find nothing in it any longer will be the day I no longer see any of myself in it. I hope that will be a happy day. Read more
There was once a movie called The Wild Bunch, a Western that did what no other Western before it had done: it made the West look like a horrible and violent place, not a breeding ground for heroes or men of honor. In Roger Ebert’s words, the movie “cleared away the moralistic oatmeal” of the Western and left behind something a lot less romantic, but a whole lot more realistic and thought-provoking. This wasn’t the West we wanted, but it might well have been the West we deserved.
In the same way, Berserk clears away the moralistic oatmeal of the fantasy genre. It takes the epic-adventure that we see in something like The Lord of the Rings and strips out all of the assumptions we bring to it: that the bad guys will lose, that the good guys will win (and that they deserve to), and that violence doesn’t just strike like lightning and kill whoever happens to be standing there. What is left behind is one of the darkest and bleakest stories you’ll ever read, but once you get started you won’t be able to pry yourself loose. If you have a strong stomach you owe it to yourself to discover what may be one of the most horrifically violent, philosophically desolate, and yet also flat-out best manga out there. The first volume is only a taster of what it’s all about — the beginning of a story that has already been unfolding for years and will continue to unfold across over thirty published volumes of manga in Japan (and eighteen or so in English, as of this writing).Read more
Tie-ins — comics created as an adjunct to a video game or a movie — are typically for fans only. One such example: The King of Fighters 2003: The Comic is absolutely and unabashedly for the fans of the game — a vehicle for SNK’s characters where they can use the thinnest possible excuse for a story to justify having them smash each other through walls, into parked cars, and (as in the climax of the fight at the start of the book) bury them under a landslide, all in splashy full-color. If this sounds like fun — trust me, you don’t need this review; you’ve probably already got $14 burning a hole in your pocket as I speak.
Everyone else, however, doesn’t need to rush out and blow that kind of dough. Right from the start it’s clear you’re in fan-only territory: the plot summary at the start of the book doesn’t explain much of anything to the uninitiated. With even less preamble we’re thrown into a showdown in the wilderness between two key characters in the game’s mythology: Kyo Kusanagi and K’ (read: “K-prime” or "K-Dash"), a fighter infused with Kyo’s genetic material to grant him many of the other man’s powers. The brawl ends with K’ burying his opponent under half a mountain and walking away, but Kusanagi doesn’t stay dead. In steps the priestess Chizuru Kagura, who brings Kusanagi back from the dead as a puppet under her control … and out step the two of them for the rest of the volume, presumably to return in a future installment.Read more
How is it that a gigantic hoard of Buddhist literature came to be concealed in the Thousand Buddha Caves near Tun-Huang, in the northwest of China, and remained undiscovered for almost a thousand years? The explanation provided by Tun-Huang is of course fiction, but it’s fiction backed up by a good deal of careful research and thought about its time and place — a corner of the Chinese empire that was in constant conflict and under the perpetual threat of invasion or insurrection. That’s more than enough exotica to draw my attention, but there’s more: the author is Yasushi Inoue, author of The Samurai Banner of Furin Kazan, one of Japan’s most highly-lauded novelists next to Musashi author Eiji Yoshikawa.
Like Yoshikawa, Inoue is criminally undertranslated. Furin Kazan only appeared in English last year, and his other major works under the Kodansha label — Tun-Huang and Lou-Lan, a short-story collection — are both out of print. I wonder if part of the reason why his work has not been embraced as avidly as others is because he doesn’t try to artificially pump up what he’s writing about. For a story that takes place in an exotic time and a faraway place (even to a Japanese author!), Inoue adopts a very straightforward, unpretentious, unadorned style, and the book itself is not very long — barely 200 pages. Musashi was nearly a thousand pages and had to be broken across five paperback volumes, but only because it was dealing with the span of a man’s life; the language in it was equally direct. Read more