Formulations like X is the Y of Z are easy to come up with, but do a lousy job of conveying real information. When I saw ad copy along the lines of “Kōji Suzuki is the Stephen King of Japan,” I rolled my eyes. If all that’s meant is that Suzuki has roughly the same stature in Japan as a writer of horror, it’s valid — but outside of that the parallels break down, and it’s probably to Suzuki’s benefit that they do. He’s a more scrupulous and disciplined writer than King, and while King’s output has been enviably massive it’s also been horribly scattershot and long-winded. Suzuki is able to do in thirty pages what King would have filled five hundred with.
Most people know Suzuki through his novel Ring, which essentially booted up the J-horror phenomenon as we know it. Adapted into movies not only in its native Japan but in Korea and the U.S. as well, it embodied everything that has become synonymous with its larger category: paranoia about Western technology merged with primal Asian dreads, and the restless spirits of the undead with long hair hanging in front of their faces. Most of what’s come since has been about the words but not the music, like all the wretched knockoffs of Alien or Halloween or Jaws that littered theaters in the Seventies and Eighties. Read more
I’m tempted to like Batten just for its period setting, but most especially for its ultra-goofy hero — easily the most flamboyant creature of his kind since “Peter” minced across the screen in Funeral Procession of Roses. His name’s Tsubaki Seijurō and his outlandish dress and manner make him doubly a denizen of Yoshiwara, the “gay quarters” of Edo Japan. His occupation: tsukeuma (付け馬 / “attached horse”), which Kodansha’s Dictionary of Basic Japanese Idioms defines as a person who goes home from a bar or cabaret with a customer to collect money he owes. Said book also mentions its use in criminal slang as a (police) tail, which makes sense given that Seijuro spends about as much time righting wrongs of one kind or another as he does shaking down geisha’s patrons for juice.
Seijurō — or “Sei-san” as the Yoshiwara-ites call him — swathes himself in a ridiculously splashy geisha’s outfit, complete with hairpins and off-the-shoulder kimono, with a pipe always dangling from one corner of his mouth, a biwa hanging off to one side, and a sword concealed somewhere about his person. “The most fundamental tactic of a tsukeuma,” we are told, “is that they be as annoying as possible,” and Sei-san delights in being a royal pain in the ass to anyone who’s behind on their bar bills. From popular favorites played horribly to endless (if wholly innocent) flirting to surprising a client while he’s still in the sack, he knows all the ways to make his more straightlaced victims cave in. Read more
Yasushi Suzuki frustrates me. He’s a brilliant artist trying to expand his horizons by branching out from character designs and book covers into manga. Great. Except that twice now he’s tried to do this and gone face-first into the ground. With those odds, I’m not sure I want to hang around for attempt #3.
His first botch was Purgatory Kabuki, which sported a phenomenal concept and some remarkable design concepts, but was so muddy and incoherent I couldn’t recommend it. I’m not using “muddy” metaphorically, either: the pages looked like they’d fallen face-down into a puddle. And now comes Goths Cage, which isn’t quite as incoherent but only because it has proportionally less story. It consists of three short (very short) stories woven together by no particular theme other than that Suzuki wrote them and they are uniformly morbid and semi-pointless. Read more
Let’s skip ahead a bit, shall we?
The last review I wrote of Berserk feels like ages ago, and while I was planning on going through the whole series in order before arriving at the most recent volumes, I had a nasty run-in with this thing called real life. Then volume 25 hit my doorstep, and I decided to save us all a lot of trouble and jump ahead. I should say that if you’ve any kind of investment in being surprised by the way Berserk unfolds and you haven’t gotten anywhere near this far, go back and get caught up. I hate to ruin a perfectly good surprise.
Volume 25 takes place in the main line of Berserk’s plotting — where Guts is a hulking engine of destruction, Casca a mute shell of a woman, and the world around them is being torn to pieces by demonic incursion. This installment kicks off in the middle of deep trouble, where Guts and his companions have stopped to aid a village being overrun by trolls. Guts’s sword, impressive as it is, only goes so far, and so a local magician — a lithe young girl named Schierke — steps in to lend a hand. Her use of sorcery sparks the ire of the local priest (“Blasphemy!” he thunders), but the townspeople could care less about blasphemy when their village is being overrun. Read more
A major hallmark of pop-culture success in Japan is how many times your work’s been adapted or reincarnated. What starts as a manga might turn into a TV anime, an animated feature film (or a whole bunch of them), a light novel, a literary novel, a drama CD / radio play, a live-action film, a stage musical … and I probably haven’t covered half of the derivatives out there in this list. If you’re big in Japan, you don’t just “cross over”; you break on through to the other side.
That makes it something of a curiosity as to why, until very recently, there was no manga adaptation of the perennially-best-selling fantasy series Guin Saga, now one hundred forty volumes and climbing. Us Yanks were lucky enough to see the first five books — the self-contained “Marches Episode” — translated into English thanks to the good graces of Vertical, Inc., but the Irish bookie in me is not about to pay on any odds that we’ll even come close to seeing the rest — not in my lifetime, anyway.
A big part of why I was hot in the biscuit to see a Guin manga in the first place was as an end run around the language barrier: if I couldn’t read the books, then the very least I could do was see what was going on, and maybe cobble together some semblance of comprehension from my own limited command of Japanese. When a Guin manga did come into existence (The Seven Magi), it was not from the main story itself, but derived from one of a number of gaiden or “side stories” — novels written to fill the gaps between one phase of the saga and another. I enjoyed it, but it only made me all the more curious as to what a manga adaptation of the main line of Guin novels would be like. Read more
After a certain point, most manga hit a kind of a plateau. They’ve set up the basic situation, and for the next however many volumes they’re going to run through variations on it like John Coltrane riffing for a solid hour on “My Favorite Things”. The good manga spiral out from their original inspiration and find new and wonderful places to go, like Coltrane did; the mediocre ones just repeat themselves, or run aground.
With volume 4, Nightmare Inspector feels like it’s hit a plateau — but not in the sense that it’s becoming redundant. It’s found a groove that works and is exploring it, and it’s also taking the occasional detour back into the roots of its premises — the former life of Hiruko, the baku, among other things, which provides plenty of meat for future twists. So maybe it hasn’t plateaued at all, and it certainly hasn’t peaked. Even if the plotting runs aground in this series, I’ll probably still snap it up for the artwork, the decadent 1920s Tokyo atmosphere that drips off every page — and the grim little twist ending that caps off every chapter, like a razor between the ribs. Read more
The shopworn cliché “page-turner” describes The Poison Ape, but since I hate clichés, here’s another metaphor. It’s a machine for mass-manufacturing paper cuts on your fingers. That’s how fast you’ll be ripping through the follow-up to Arimasa Osawa’s Shinjuku Shark, second in his series of tough-as-construction-nails detective thrillers set in Tokyo’s equally-tough Shinjuku district. Good thing there are something like ten other books in this series, right?
The first book introduced us to Inspector Samejima, a detective pounding (and kicking, and stomping) the Shinjuku streets. His ongoing mission: to boldly go where no straight-arrow cop has gone before. Cops and thugs alike both fear him — the former because he’s got some thermonuclear-grade dirt on other cops that he uses as an insurance policy against being double-crossed by his own men; the latter because he makes their lives intensely difficult no matter how cozy a “business arrangement” they have. The few friends he has are either as much outsiders as he is — like the cadaverish fellow detective Momoi, or his rock-star girlfriend Sho (whose appearances this time around are regrettably limited). Read more
When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. — Hunter S. Thompson
You’re not really friends with someone unless you and the other guy can slag each other’s tastes with full-bore venom and still pal around with each other the next day. The other week I had the quote unquote pleasure of having one such friend drill into me for liking Witchblade. I saw a show about motherhood and the pain and joy thereof; he saw a bunch of top-heavy chicks powering up DBZ-style and clobbering the tartar sauce out of each other. But we agree to disagree there, and that’s that — and we both loved the hell out of Casshern, so it isn’t like we’re always at each other’s throats.
I’m expecting a metric truckload of the same kind of “you, sir, are an idiot” missives sent my way after I recommend ×××HOLiC: ANOTHERHOLiC: Landolt-Ring Aerosol (best title ever, by the way). I read it and I see an attempt to create a set of tie-in stories for the ×××HOLiC anime/manga universe, faithful to it in spirit and form, with as distinctive a voice and a set of literary tropes as the ones the author brought to his own original works earlier this year. You, on the other hand, will read it and think I am a complete pud. Fine. I still haven’t found a flaming gunblade on my front lawn for the way I savaged Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, so pud I am and pud I remain. I’d like to think I at least have a justification for my pud-dom. Read more
The other day I did my best to describe Kurohime to someone who’d never read it, and my description came out something like this: “It’s a romp through Japanese mythology and fantasy, with shonen action scenes and hot girls, and tons of magic, and oh yeah, there’s a love story in there, too.” Small wonder their reaction amounted to a bit of a blank stare. As fun as Kurohime has shaped up to be (especially after the shaky first couple of volumes), it doesn’t pigeonhole easily.
Volume nine gives us the “de-powered” witch gunslinger Kurohime and her gang of comrades now facing the snow goddess Yuki-Onna — she who holds one of the four Spirit Kings whose powers can help Kurohime liberate her lost love Zero from his spiritual bonds in the afterlife. (How’s that for a thumbnail plot recap?) They end up acquiring a most unusual ally — Yuki-Onna’s Yeti-like flunky, Yuki-Otoko. He’s stuck with his missus all these aeons, even if Onna’s idea of love runs parallel to Kurohime’s original notions of same: why settle for the love of only just one man when you can have ‘em all? (Especially when you can flash-freeze them and store them for later?) Thing is, Kurohime knows better by now. The real and true love of one is always better than the love of many in the abstract — something she learned from Zero, which is all the more reason she’s fighting to liberate him. (Wait: Kurohime, learning? Becoming a better person? Perish the thought!) Read more
The problem with OEL (original English-language) manga is simple: most of them stink. Red String and In Odd We Trust were both awful by any standards, and the worst part is that I didn’t want them to be that lousy. We deserve good graphic novels no matter what the source.
So, now the good news: Nina Matsumoto’s Yokaiden doesn’t stink. In fact, it may be the best OEL manga I’ve read thus far, not only because it taps into the usual trove of visual tropes from manga but also a whole cache of concepts from Japanese mythology. Such things have typically been explored only by Japanese creators themselves, but here and there non-Japanese authors and artists are venturing into that territory (me included). I figure if Hideyuki Kikuchi can combine tropes from all around–from Hammer horror productions to gunslinger Westerns and Chinese mythology–and create something like Vampire Hunter D, why can’t we do the same in return?
Yokaiden gets its title from two words: yokai — the spirits and creatures of Japanese myth and legend — and the suffix –den, meaning “stories” or “tales”. The hero of the story, Hamachi, is a youngster who’s developed a fascination with the yokai: he’s read every scrap of literature he can find on them, and wants more than anything else to meet one for real. Read more