It’s over. The English-language translation of Old Boy, the manga that served as the inspiration for one of the best movies of recent years, has run its course at last. That said, the book and movie diverged broadly enough that to talk about one in the context of the other seems almost unfair: they’re not the same thing, and aren’t intended to be. They’re different animals, and in many respects they accomplish different things. The manga is not the movie, and over its length it doesn’t quite have the same impact (what could?), but taken as a whole Old Boy the manga is still extremely impressive. It’s a series that I hold back on giving higher marks to if only because I suspect many people will find it frustrating, not enthralling.
At the end of Goto’s quest, he has found that his tormentor of ten years, “Dojima” — real name Kakinuma, fellow classmate in elementary school — has been running the whole shooting match behind the scenes in many different ways. He used hypnotism to suppress Goto’s memory of a crucial emotional event in their childhoods; he used hypnotism to get him and his newly-found girlfriend Eri to meet and fall in love; and now he’s banked his entire sense of self on the outcome of his game. If Kakinuma loses — if Goto can figure out what happened so long ago, despite the blocks erected in his path — then Kakinuma will take his own life. Read more
There was a time when a record label — like Motown, Stax, or Atlantic — represented a certain taste and aesthetic that you couldn’t confuse with anyone else. Records were one major way this sort of thing surfaced, but books, too: an imprint like New Directions or City Lights Books carried with it a far better idea of what they published than more generically corporate monikers like Random House or Basic Books.
The only publisher I’ve come across lately that has some of that same guiding, idiosyncratic taste is Vertical: everything they’ve put their name to has been at the very least interesting, and often downright amazing. They pick titles that hit big at home in Japan, that open doors here in the States by dint of being readable, eye-opening and absorbing, and that are a step beyond the usual genteel “literary” offerings. Vertical’s previous forays into hard-boiled crime fiction from Japan have included works by Kenzo Kitakata (his Winter Sleep made me lose about three hours in a day without blinking), but now they have a new name to add to that roster: Arimasa Osawa and his Shinjuku Shark series. Read more
I’m faced with a bit of a dilemma when it comes to The Seven Magi. Do I urge people to dive into this book now, or do I recommend they pick up at least the first book in the outstanding fantasy series it’s derived from? You’ll have a fine time either way, but you might enjoy The Seven Magi all the more if you have some idea of where it’s coming from.
You know what? Don’t hold back. Go pick up Magi, as it’ll be worth diving into now and re-savoring later when — not if — you read the novels. A good manga is worth your money no matter what its backstory, especially when it’s from an outfit of real taste and daring (like, say, Vertical, Inc.)Read more
Sometimes you just can’t explain what makes you laugh. I’ve gone in circles trying to explain to people what it is about Gin Tama that kicks my funnybone harder than most anything else I’ve read lately, and in the end I’ve had to fall back on explanations that don’t really explain anything. Gin Tama makes me laugh because it’s like a piece of Japanese history (and a few of its modern-day dilemmas) as seen through a funhouse mirror, but I know I’m going to get a size-six blank stare if I tell that to most people. So I cop out and tell them that Gin Tama just makes me laugh, period, and who needs to explain this stuff when they can just be persuaded to experience it for themselves?
The third volume kicks off right where #2 had stopped, in the middle of an ongoing plotline about a bunch of aliens who’ve been hustling drugs to the natives. Shinpachi and Kagura ended up being kidnapped, but then Gin and Katsura show up — dressed in the least convincing pirate disguises ever created; even Luffy would laugh himself sick if he saw these two — and endeavor to save them. No prizes for guessing what happens, but the plot is never the main thing in this book — it’s the asides, the double-takes, the dippy deadpan shots that Hideaki Sorachi does so well. Read more
Across both volumes of Gyo I kept asking myself: Where on earth is Junji Ito leading us with all of this? The creator of Uzumaki had spun out one fascinating and hallucinatory (and often depraved) variation after another on his basic theme: a wave of monsters, half-machine and half-animal, that come ashore from the sea and infest civilization. Then I got to the end of the second and final volume and realized, to my dismay, he wasn’t heading much of anywhere.
The end of Gyo is terribly disappointing, so much so that it comes close to trashing the whole series. It doesn’t so much conclude as it simply terminates, on a note of vague and unresolved hope, one that seems ill-suited to the incredible darkness that suffused the book up to that point. The second volume does take the premise that was set up in the first volume and expand on it — but only slightly, and in directions that are more for the sake of atmosphere and general weirdness than coherence. Not that this is a bad thing; at the bottom of it all, every horror story runs because it is an engine of fear, not logic. The bad news is that Gyo keeps edging towards an explanation of what’s going on, but pulls up short and leaves us frustrated. Read more
And now we come to the concluding volume of Uzumaki, which closes the series off with a boom and also gives us something remarkable for a horror story. It not only includes the usual generous amounts of terror and aghast incomprehension of the unknown (a staple item in horror from Poe to Lovecraft to Stephen King), but a certain amount of awe and fearsome wonder, too. That makes it at least one to two cuts above the usual horror story — including Junji Ito’s later work, Gyo, which started promisingly but petered out when it became clear Ito didn’t really have an ending in mind. (That didn’t make it any the less amazing to read, though.)
Uzumaki, though, comes to a very definite (if extremely grim) conclusion. In fact, the whole of the third volume almost works as a self-contained story, since much of what happens in it is set up directly in the first few pages. The “spiral curse” of the whole series is still pivotally important, but here it’s given an arena to play out in, one where the real significance of the curse doesn’t become clear — by design — until the last few pages. Read more
The seventh volume of Old Boy pushes us incredibly close to the secret of why the rich and powerful “Dojima” locked up the ordinary salaryman Goto for ten years. But you won’t get the answer just yet — the story’s been constructed to hold off revealing that particular piece of information for as long as possible. And, on top of everything else, it’s been put behind a door labeled “hypnotism,” but more on that later.
It all comes down to how patient you are, I guess. If you’re the type to squirm angrily while critical details are held over your head in a story — not just once but again and again, as part of the story structure — if you don’t savor the journey as opposed to the destination, Oldboy will drive you monumentally nuts. But if you like that sort of thing, if you are as fascinated with the steps towards the solution as the solution itself, this has proven itself to be a series worth following through to the end. It’s not where we get in life, but how we got there and what it all means. Read more