Most of us English-speaking folks know the word “Rashōmon”, if only as a synonym for “conflicting points of view” and not as the title of a classic work of Japanese short fiction. A fair number of us know Akira Kurosawa, he who took the short story by that name, plus another by the same author, and fashioned one of the most famous Japanese films. But too few know Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, the author of the stories in question and a great deal besides. A fair part of that has been the way his work has been translated into English: in a scattershot fashion, with most of that material out of print for decades at a time.
Jay Rubin’s new translations of “Rashōmon” and seventeen other stories from throughout Akutagawa’s short but fiery career goes a long way towards fixing that problem. It compiles several of Akutagawa’s most important works — including, of course, “Rashōmon” and “In a Grove”, but also key stories from the end of his career (“Spinning Gears”, “The Life of a Stupid Man”), freshly-translated work that shows off his affinity for cheeky interplay (“Green Onions”, “Horse Legs”), and at least one of his other masterworks (“Hell Screen”). And the whole thing sports a manga-esque Yoshihiro Tatsumi cover — great by itself, but next time around, maybe they can get him to do illustrations within, too? Read more
When you open what you know to be the last volume of a manga series, you tend to go in with preconceptions or second guesses about how everything’s going to turn out. With Dororo, I thought I had all the cards face-up on the table after the first two books: the hero, Hyakkimaru, was going to win back all of the missing body parts demons had stolen from him; and Hyakkimaru’s impish sidekick Dororo was going to earn Hyakkimaru’s sword for himself at last.
It doesn’t quite work out that way, for reasons that seem at least as much due to Tezuka’s production schedule as the mechanics of the story he was telling. Dororo’s final volume wraps things up with a little too much haste for my own comfort — but at the same time, it doesn’t feel thematically wrong. Everyone gets what they have had coming for a long time. That and what might come off as middling (or rushed, or clumsy) for Tezuka is still outstanding by anyone else’s yardstick — and really, the whole of Dororo is more than worth the cash and the effort. “Nobody is born whole,” reads the blurb on the back cover, and now that I’m done with the series it makes sense as more than just ad copy.Read more
Readers of Roger Ebert’s reviews columns will probably remember his discussions of the “hyperlink genre”, a variety of movie where multiple plot threads intertwine, overlap, lead into and out of each other, and sometimes strap on crash helmets and collide. Two Days in the Valley, Traffic, Syriana, Babel and (in my opinion the vastly overrated) Crash typically get tagged with this label.
I don’t think Hideo Okuda was consciously paying homage to any of these movies when he wrote Lala Pipo, but I suspect few people are going to make that connection anyway if they read it. They’re going to be laughing too hard, and gaping at how many boundaries of taste are cheerfully violated, to make any connections. I read most of the book while sitting on my bed with my cats nearby, and kept scaring the poor beasts half to death with my guffawing. You laugh at the book, and then you laugh at yourself for having laughed at it in the first place. Read more
When Adam and Eve were banished from Paradise, I was born. With the descendants of Adam and Eve, I was stolen away … and thrown into a new world. And in this land I was raised, amid the suffering of its people … My name is the Blues.
So begins Akira Hiramoto’s Me and the Devil Blues, my most recent and dramatic example of how ambitious manga can truly be. It’s doubly unusual in that it’s a Japanese comic about a figure from American musical history — but let’s face it, you’d have trouble overestimating the impact of American popular culture in Japan in all of its forms, especially American music. One of my own favorite musicians from Japan, underground guitar-god Keiji Haino, was inspired by Blind Lemon Jefferson and calls himself “just a bluesman”; heck, they even the word blues itself in Japanese — ブルース — is a direct import from English.
Devil turns to the life of Delta bluesman Robert Johnson for its inspiration, someone whom the term “legendary” follows around like a halo. The broad outlines of his life do read like legend: he had a prodigious talent for the guitar at a young age, drifted around and played and womanized, recorded only a bare handful of songs that have all since become blues staples, and had only two photographs taken of him in his entire life. And then in 1938, at the age of 27, he was dead — poisoned by a jealous husband, or so the mythology goes, for hitting on his wife. The mythology was all the more aggrandized by the notion that Johnson had indeed sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads in exchange for his guitar wizardry. Devil assumes the myth is true, and spirals feverishly outwards from that conceit to create a kind of parallel mythology of Robert Johnson’s life. It’s not meant to be a factual biography, but a fantasy about Johnson and the America he lived in at the time — a land of depression, Prohibition, racism, superstition, violence, and, yes, that ole devil blues.Read more
In December of last year I stood less than ten feet away from Takehiko Inoue and watched him as he painted with sumi ink on a blank wall, where a single mistake would have scotched the whole job. He was putting the finishing touches on a mural commissioned for the second story of the New York City branch of the Kinokuniya bookstore. Grasses bending in the wind and the embroidery on a samurai’s kimono appeared casually from the end of his brush, like they had somehow been stuffed in there and he was just gently shaking them out one line at a time.
Inoue is easily one of the single greatest manga-ka alive right now, and I don’t feel I’m indulging in hyperbole by saying that. Here is the guy who created Slam Dunk (which is only just now reaching us in a legitimate translation; how’s that for slow justice?), Buzzer Beater, and Vagabond — with Vagabond alone being so good that anyone else could easily have retired after finishing it. But he started another manga, Real (about wheelchair basketball), while Vagabond was still running, and judging from what little we’ve seen in English so far it’s clear he’s not doing it out of a sense of responsibility to anything but his art.Read more