Masuji Ibuse is not one of Japan’s better known writers in the West, which is another way of saying that a country’s greatest literary treasures often remain too long undiscovered and underappreciated from the outside. He was responsible for one novel which has achieved some modicum of domestic fame, Black Rain — no, not the source for the wretched Michael Douglas thriller, but it did inspire a movie of the same name courtesy of Shohei Imamura — an angry indictment not only of the use of atomic weapons but Japan’s largely unspoken stigmatization of its victims for decades after the fact. I read Black Rain shortly after seeing the film, and what struck me most about it was the same thing that makes the two novellas that comprise Waves stand out: Ibuse’s amazing command of life’s detail and local color. He knew more about Japan in particular than many people would ever forget, and that was something I wanted to catalyze a bit of if I could. Read more
There’s something weirdly fascinating about seeing any manga set not in Japan or in some fantasyland, but in the United States. Granted,Gunsmith Cats isn’t meant to be remotely serious, of course. The story is half gun-happy action movie, half modern-day Western, but it’s still neat to see a story set in an environment that the creators might never have visited in person and only know about vicariously through movies and TV. The “cowboy culture” of the USA, authentic or not, takes on a life of its own through the eyes of others.
Burst's gun-slingery is a continuation of the adventures from the previous Gunsmith Cats comics by Kenichi Sonoda (all of which are also now being reprinted by Dark Horse), but enough is explained casually that you don’t need any previous experience with the series to understand it. It presents us with Rally Vincent, a bounty hunter / gun-shop owner and weapons expert, and her bomb-happy ex-prostitute partner Minnie-May Hopkins, both plying their trades in Chicago. When they’re not behind the counter of the gun store, they’re out rounding up convicts on the lam — and both of their lines of work tend to land them in tons of trouble. Again, not remotely realistic, but you won’t care: it’s two tons of fun all the way through. In this series, when one of the characters bites into a can of Spam, can and all, then spits it back out again (as a distraction), you’re not inclined to ask “Now how’d he pull that off without slicing up the roof of his mouth?”Read more
The second Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex book is actually a collection of three novellas, or maybe lengthy short stories. As with the other GITS:SAC novels (The Lost Memory and White Maze), any one of these could have been made into one or more episodes of their own — they were, after all, written by series co-scripter Junichi Fujisaku, who obviously knows theGITS:SAC canon from the inside out. They are not only entertaining and briskly-paced, but serve to fill in a great deal of background information about the show’s setting and character’s motives. Because these particular installments are that much smaller than the ones in the first and third books, they’re not as ambitious in their scope or execution, but still intriguing, and they each end with a solid little twist that’s right in line with the themes in GITS’s extended mythology: the larger questions of identity and self that the show constantly plugs back into.
“Double Targets” gives us Tanaka and Sasajima, two cybernetically enhanced down-and-outers who work dirty and dangerous jobs in one of Japan’s post-WWIII Refugee Zones. They’re actually ex-military men who were disavowed by their own country, and can’t afford to be picky about their work. One day they apply for a “dismantling” job, only to find out it’s a codename for an assassination. The target: Daisuke Aramaki, the white-haired chief of Section 9. The rest of the group springs into action, though it's not simply to protect Aramaki, since he’s been a target more times than he can count. What they want to know is who commissioned the kill and where they got their funding. When Section 9 follows the trail to its end there’s a nifty climax that calls to mind that deceptive editing trick in the movie The Silence of the Lambs.Read more
The second volume of Berserk does three things at once, all of them well. It pushes us farther into the plot that was tentatively established in the first volume; it establishes a key component of the Berserk mythology, and it continues to serve up the astonishing levels of violence and bloodshed that have become a major hallmark of the series. It’s easy to miss the forest for the trees with this series, though. Under all the spattering gore and over-the-top machismo (ironically enough, the very things that draw some people to Berserk in the first place) is an enormously smart, if deeply bleak, story. Once you start reading it and get over the initial shock of how dark it is, you’ll want to stay on for the whole ride and find out where it takes you. To paraphrase an old beer ad, it refreshes the parts other manga do not reach.
At the end of the first volume, Guts — the diabolically powerful Black Swordsman with one eye and a mechanical hand, an immovable object to everyone else’s irresistible force — had run afoul of the Count, a tyrannical ruler grinding his kingdom into fearful submission under his heel. Everyone who tries to contradict the Count is branded a “heretic” and summarily executed. It doesn’t take long for Guts — marked with the Brand that indicates he’s fodder for the demons of the world beyond — to become the Count’s next big target. Guts refuses to go quietly, of course, and a good portion of Volume 2 is taken up with Guts encountering one successively more bulked-out minion of the Count after another and somehow coming out on top, no matter what it costs him (or the people around him). The end of the volume’s an over-the-top cliffhanger, with the Count mutating into an obscenely huge wormlike beast, the better to devour Guts whole — as he has devoured so many others, a grotesquerie which we glimpse in one particularly ghastly flashback.Read more
With the English-language release of Mysterious Journey to the North Sea (originally written in 1988), the Vampire Hunter D series begins to get that much more ambitious. And, I have to admit, I had mixed feelings: the VHD series worked because it was light, fast, unpretentious fun, and didn’t get bogged down in the ponderousness that afflicts most written fantasy these days. On the other hand, I could also see how after a high point like Pilgrimage of the Sacred and Profane, the series might end up eating its own tail and repeating itself in the worst possible ways. The most likely scenario was an endless treadmill of: “D meets bad guy; D stands stock-still; bad guy attacks; D kills bad guy without mussing a hair; lather-rinse-repeat.”
Thankfully, Hideyuki Kikuchi did want to try to play that much farther over his head, as he admits in his postscript to the English-language edition of the book. With Sea, he started to expand both the length and scope of each individual story beyond the single-volume treatments he’d been giving them so far. And since he was already no stranger to multi-book epics, the time was probably more than ripe to try it out here.Read more
One of the things that always troubled me about the fascination with madness and the intertwined eroticism and death that always pervaded the Romantic and Surrealistic sensibilities was that they were almost always expressed by people who seemed to be celebrating those things without having known their cost in personal suffering. I’m not trying to apply some kind of politically-correct standard to the appreciation of such works, just pointing out that while some were idolizing the dark underbelly of the human psyche, others were helpless to it, and found nothing remotely romantic about the experience. Read more