The Child is father of the Man.
— William Wordsworth
We are, all of us and inevitably, the heroes of our life stories. The camera is in our own head; the plot was always written specifically to accommodate us. Time and again come those moments when it all seems true — those perfect few seconds here and there you had as a kid, when you climbed to the top of that tree or pitched that no-hitter or snuck into the P.A. room at school and piped T. Rex’s chart-topping new single into the ears of all those unsuspecting other kids.
You never did notice when those moments had grown so few and far between that you can’t even remember the last one by itself. Just that there was a span of time, Childhood with a capital C, where even the bad days seemed wonderful. Where even the skinned knees and the boredom and the near-drowning in the pool at the bottom of the gravel pit all had the haze of transcendence about them.
And now you’re in your thirties and you’re still working at your parents’ liquor store — well, it’s a convenience store now; that was something you managed to pull off — and you’re spending your days with your derelict sister’s baby strapped to your back. The movie’s not about you anymore. There are no heroes except in the comics you threw out decades ago. You’re just another one of the faces that spend most of its time turned to the gutter and, only very occasionally, up at the stars.
This is the opening of Naoki Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys, the newest manga from the creator of Monster. After Monster concluded its run in English, it was like watching a friend die: that series stands to remain in my library long after many others have been given away or sold off. I suspect the same thing will happen with 20th Century Boys, which like Monster wastes no time in announcing its ambitions and its epic scope — even if the two stories couldn’t be more dissimilar in tone and outlook. Monster was about the fact that evil is quite real and is done by mortal men; Boys is about how we can be heroes, even if just for one day. Sometimes more. Read more
Closing the cover on the last volume of Monster was like burying a friend. Like Vagabond, Berserk, Vertical / Viz’s Tezuka reprints and Blade of the Immortal, Monster is one of the few manga I know I will own long after many others have been given away or sold off. Assuming you can get the whole thing for an average of $7 a volume, it’ll be among the best $126 you’ll ever spend on any manga series.
The hardest part of talking about this final volume is the fact that there is little way to do it without ruining everything. So much of what makes Monster special and worth reading in the first place is the way things are revealed — how one character’s salvation is another’s curse, or how people who seem to be polar opposites in fact share both common origins and destinies. A plot summary also does not do justice to Naoki Urasawa’s dialogue and storytelling: it’s not just what happens, but the way he has his characters confront it and dramatize it. As fantastic as the circumstances may have been through this whole series, they have been happening to people we care about. Read more
Get past the lurid title, and Shocking Crimes of Postwar Japan offers a fair amount beyond the cheap frisson promised there. Part true-crime anthology and part social history, it uses the crimes in question as jumping-off points for insights into Japanese society, both conventional and criminal. The author, Mark Schreiber, has approached the subject as an insider. As a resident of Japan with a long journalism pedigree for many English-language publications there, Mark writes with the confidence and authority needed to make this more than just a rehash of what’s in the newspaper archives.
The opening and closing chapters are devoted to what is arguably Japan’s most infamous crime of late: the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo subway gassings, the details of which were still unfolding as the book was being written. For this reason the book doesn’t focus in much detail on that incident — a book like The Cult at the End of the World may serve the curious reader better — but it works as a useful way of bookending all the other material covered here. Japan’s just as capable as any other country of having its equilibrium punctured, no matter what the internal or external perceptions. Read more
An installment of Black Lagoon where scarcely anything blows up would seem to be, on first glance, not much of an installment of Black Lagoon at all. Like glycerin without nitro (har, har). But one of the pleasures of this story is how there’s, well, a story in between and above the sound of gunfire and empty shells hitting the ground. A story is about people. Lagoon listens to its characters and gives them freedom of speech and thought, and so the story’s about them and not just a pile of spent ammo.
The last book closed off on a cliffhanger, which is quickly concluded in the first chapter here — it’s notable mostly for the way Revy tears Rock a new one (verbally and darn near physically, too) for nearly messing up the whole mission. She doesn’t respect anyone she has to go and bail out, and what’s more she figured she was beyond all that with Rock: he can go to the bathroom all by himself and everything, right? Of course, the real insight here is not that either of them is going to abandon their position completely — Revy’s no more going to become a marshmallow than Rock is going to become a stone cold killer — but that over time they’ll find a place somewhere in the middle of both extremes. Read more
No other country inspires the same morbid fascination as North Korea. Here is an utter basket case of a nation, a totalitarian state with absolutely zero personal, political and economic freedom. Its only hope for future growth lies in what few economic ties it can build with China and its southern cousin. Few people enter the country at all, and those who do are presented with a façade as elaborately choreographed and stage-managed as a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Its general populace dares not speak to outsiders of its true sufferings for fear of reprisal. Some within its walls are not deluded by the official stories of the “imperialist warmongers” and bribe their way out to a better life. A very few enter the country of their own accord and are never seen again.
Even fewer still are brought there by force, and meet a similar fate. Decades ago North Korean agents kidnapped a thirteen-year-old girl out of her hometown in Japan, hid her from the world (and her parents) for decades on end, and only admitted to having done so after great pressure was brought to bear by both international leaders and other aggrieved relatives daring enough to be outspoken about their missing loved ones. The whole thing had the aura of a beach-read paperback thriller, not the true workings of international espionage. But it was true, and the fact it took as long as it did for the truth to come out bespoke of terrible cowardice on both sides. Bad enough that the “Democratic People’s Republic” kidnapped people for its intelligence efforts, but even worse that those who had children and siblings go missing were not helped by their own society. Read more
Sometimes it’s hard to remain a skeptic when all the evidence is splayed out right in front of you. The fanboy in me screams to accept the Guin Saga manga as nothing short of The Real Deal — a name-taking and ass-kicking comic adaptation of what has quickly become my favorite fantasy series. The art’s detailed and powerful, the action hits fast and furious, and the whole thing is over way too soon (always a good sign for me). So how come I still feel a little, I dunno … hesitant?
Chalk it up, I guess, to something you could call Geek Nerves. Within every fanboy lies a germ of terror that the things they most look forward to will be mangled horribly. The second-stage version of this paranoia is even worse: they’ll be mangled horribly but only in a way they find egregious, so they won’t even get to share the pain with their fellow fans (or anyone else). Or the work in question gets within 98% of its goal, only to take the remaining 2% and augur headfirst into a wall with it.Read more
Nobody, certainly not the reader, gets off easy in the end with Osamu Tezuka’s Black Jack. This is a fantasy medical drama used as the disguise for one troubling meditation after another about life and death and our place in the universe and all the other things Tezuka was determined to use to keep his readers awake at night along with his wild visual imagination. What’s worse: to be powerless, or to have the power of a god but not be able to use it when it most matters? Should the two even be compared like that? Or is it best to just put your head down and do what you can with what you have, and not fret about the larger implications even when they make a mockery of you? Is your head hurting yet?
This third collection of Black Jack stories delivers everything we’ve come to expect from manga’s most infamous unlicensed practitioner: maladies that would make Dr. House’s head spin (House vs. Black Jack — who’d win that showdown?!); human nature in all of its grand and grotesque extremes; and Pinoco’s elastic face and physical pratfalls. You laugh, you wince, you watch in wonder, and when it’s all over, you find yourself reflecting on what you’ve seen for a lot longer than you might originally suspect.
Now that I have three volumes under my belt, my favorite stories from the series consistently tend to be the ones about Black Jack himself. Come to think of it, the comparisons to House aren’t wholly off-base: he has few, if any friends; his work garners the ire of colleagues and superiors; and his curmudgeonly skin conceals a more fragile and loving soul than he lets on. (Heck, he was House before House was House, but don’t tell Hugh Laurie.) And like all the best anti-heroes — like, say, TV’s Dexter, to draw another parallel — he’s compulsively watchable. We keep turning the pages just to see what the heck he’s going to do next. Read more
“Epic” is such an overused word. Everything from Harry Potter to Lawrence of Arabia to (gag, retch) Twilight gets the “epic” label. Keep this up and before long, everything will be epic — which means that by that token nothing is epic, and the whole idea of epic has been ruined to boot.
With this in mind, I hope I don't get yelled at too much if I apply the “epic” label to Vampire Hunter D: Pale Fallen Angel. The book is 324 pages and it's not even the whole story — it's just the first half of what was published in Japan as four separate books, each one only slightly shorter than any of the previous VHD novels. To not use the word “epic” for something of that scope seems like a mistake. The only thing remotely close to PFA among VHD's previous episodes was the two-part Mysterious Journey to the North Sea, long rumored to be the source material for a VHD animated series. (Hey, we're getting an animated Guin; if we get a new animated VHD on top of that I might have to retire early.)
I should note that “epic” is not automatically a synonym for “quality”. With North Sea, the extra effort to show us that much more of the D-verse was worth it. With Angel, I feel like Kikuchi is getting a bit overdrawn at the fantasy bank. The book teeters between being epic and merely long — $14.95 worth of long — with enough adventure and calamity and mishap and comings and goings to grant it fail-safe redundancy. By the time I got to the three-quarter mark for the volume (which isn’t even the halfway mark for the whole story) I started doing that thing where you thumb through the rest of the book to see how much further you really do have to go. Turns out the excerpt in the back and the note from the author shaved off a good twenty-seven pages. Lucky me. Read more