A depressed young man came to see Hazel Dreis, the bookbinder. He said, “I’ve decided to commit suicide.” She said, “I think it’s a good idea. Why don’t you do it?” — John Cage, Indeterminacy
That Hazel, she sure didn’t stand still for anyone’s b.s. Had she met Nozomu Itoshiki, the titular character of Koji Kumeta’s Sayonara, Zetsubo-sensei, she would most likely have sent him schlepping with a smack to the back of the head: Look, kid, either do it or don’t do it, but for chrissakes don’t come here and advertise to me about it.
Some people have issues; Itoshiki has entire subscriptions. Itoshiki, you see, is in love with the idea of suicide. Not actually committing suicide, you see, but the idea of committing suicide. He’s so in love with the concept of killing himself out of sheer despondency, he’s never gotten around to doing it. Zetsubo-sensei, they call him. Professor Despair. The only sensible reaction to this corrupt world from such a sensitive, tormented soul as him is to find a branch, sling a noose over it, and hang himself by the neck until dead, dead, dead.
But wait. If he actually follows through on his death wish, then he can no longer collar strangers on the street and fulminate at them re: the wretchedness of life as we are condemned to live it. To that end, he elects to kill himself in ways that seem prime for interruption, like hanging himself in public or throwing himself under trains. If at first you don’t succeed, die, die again. Read more
A key concept in comic publishing in Japan is the notion of the “rice manga”, the equivalent of Hollywood’s concept of a “tentpole release”. When you pick up your weekly, telephone-book-sized copy of Shonen Jump at the newsstand, there’s typically one or two titles in there that get read by just about everyone, simply because they’re either universally popular or breezy fun or both.
Based on the fact that I tore into volume ten of Kurohime within seconds of pulling it out of the envelope, I think it’s safe to say that Kurohime’s become one of my rice manga. The first couple of volumes didn’t impress me that much, but — surprise, surprise! — it’s won me over. No, it’s not as deep or emotionally resonant as Urasawa’s Monster or 20th Century Boys, or as overwhelming as Berserk, or … you get the idea. But it is fun, unapologetically so, and I’ve grown fond of the way it swirls together a freeform mix of traditional Japanese cultural tropes and shonen-action conceits. This is why I’m writing about Kurohime #10 before Urasawa’s Pluto #2, although I suspect the only people I would offend by doing so would be me and one other guy I know who will forgive me anyway. Read more
We never know his name. He is referred to as “that mysterious boy” (不思議な童子 / fushigi na douji) by one character, but the title of the comic (たまゆら童子 / Tamayura Douji, “The Phantom Boy”) hints broadly at the fact that he’s a spirit and not a human child anyway. Give him a name, and it’s a tossup as to whether he’d take it to heart or just chuckle and look for someone else to give him another. Like the angels in Win Wenders’s Wings of Desire, sometimes he soars above all of human nature and sometimes he drops to earth to experience human nature firsthand.
The best offhand term I have to describe Tamayura Douji is historical fantasia — it’s not intended to be any kind of serious exploration of Japanese history, even if the logo on the spine of the book reads “Jidaigeki Comic Series” (jidaigeki meaning a historical tale). It leaps and floats between characters and events from Japan’s past, linking them through the adventures of the title character. The end result is somewhere between the Classics Illustrated approach seen in other manga (e.g., Mitsuteru Yokoyama’s Sangokushi) and the dreamier, more whimsical — shilling for sentimental — approach used by shōjo manga. Read more
Two names. The first is You Higuri, she of Cantarella and Seimaden and a slew of other titles familiar to shōjo fans. The second is Shinji Wada, and I wouldn’t be surprised if many people reading this went who?”. And I’ll probably catch Heinz 57 varieties of hell for this, but the second name actually got me more excited about this title than the first.
Back in 1975 — when dinosaurs roamed the earth, and George Lucas was ripping out his beard trying to write the first draft of something he called “The Star Wars” — Wada created a shōjo manga series named Sukeban Deka (スケバン刑事), which could be variously translated as “Bad Girl Detective” or “Delinquent Teen Cop”. Said series starred Saki Asamiya, a tough-as-Nine-Inch-Nails teen sprung from the hoosegow by the Powers That Be so that she might better infiltrate the nation’s crime- and corruption-infested schools on their part. In lieu of a gun or a knife, Saki carried a yo-yo — albeit one made out of high-tech ceramics that could smash heads or strangle opponents with its wire.
You can probably guess this was no flowers-and-hearts love story. Deka was a sprawing, violent, operatic saga that spanned continents and concluded with a Femme Nikita-like existential twist. It also created a set of cultural tropes in Japan as striking and recognizable as Rei’s plugsuit and blue hair, and a whole slew of live-action films, a TV series, an anime adaptation and a recent theatrical remake (directed by Battle Royale II helmer Kenta Fukasaku). Wada went on from that to create a number of other shōjo titles — Amaryllis the Thief, Shark Girl — but Deka remains the one thing he’s best remembered for. It was a first-of-its-kind product, made no apologies for its glorious excesses, and got away with it thanks to a gallery of terrific characters, Saki herself being first and foremost. Read more
Most of us, I suspect, have a deep-seated distrust of anything “nuclear”. The infamy of the atom has many monuments to its name: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Bikini Atoll, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Mayak, Windscale. Nobody wants a reactor in their backyard — even if nuclear power is one of the few large-scale ways to wean ourselves from burning coal. (Irony of ironies: we spew more radiation into the environment by burning coal than we do with a well-regulated and well-designed nuclear plant.)
The key words, of course, are “well-regulated” and “well-designed”, and while there are probably plenty of the latter it’s becoming all too clear there isn’t nearly enough of the former. For bad design and poor regulation, Chernobyl stands as the grossest example of both in conjunction. In its shadow there have been other accidents, albeit not as well-known or with such widespread effects, but which illustrate all too clearly that the most pressing danger of nuclear power is not radiation but human ignorance.
A Slow Death: 83 Days of Radiation Sickness documents how negligence and corruption at a nuclear-fuel processing plant in Tokaimura, Japan caused that country’s worst nuclear accident to date. One of the workers there, a pleasant family man named Hisachi Ouchi, received a dose of radiation nearly ten thousand times the normal background level, and over the course of the next two months and some-odd days literally disintegrated under the eyes of his doctors. Most of us know of radiation sickness only from the exaggerations of bad science fiction movies, but Mr. Ouchi’s case is even more ghastly than anything dreamed up by any screenwriter.Read more
With all those names on the front cover of the first volume of Pluto, I feared I was looking at a case of Too Many Cooks Syndrome. Sure, manga can be a collaborative art form, and typically is: any given issue of Naruto usually only has Masashi Kishimoto on the cover and no mention of his stable of art assistants. The poor guy can’t meet his deadlines without them. But to explicitly credit not only Naoki Urasawa but Osamu Tezuka (actually, his son Macoto Tezuka), co-author Takashi Nagasaki and “the cooperation of Tezuka Productions”, all right up front — well, I got … I dunno, edgy. Twitchy, even.
Reading about the what-and-why of the story put some of my twitch a little less on edge. One day Urasawa got it into his head to get in touch with the Tezuka estate and pitch them a story idea: a reworking, in his own fashion, of the Astro Boy / Tetsuwan Atomu (鉄腕アトム) story “The Greatest Robot on Earth”. To his surprise they loved the idea — and who in their right mind says no to someone like Urasawa? — and so the gears were set a-turning. Knowing all this, I felt something like performance anxiety in reverse when I opened the cover: with the pedigree of the people involved, you’d throw yourself off a bridge if it turned out to be a mess.
Perish the thought. Pluto wears the names of all its creators with pride, and any fan of either Tezuka Elder or Younger, or Urasawa, should put this down on their shopping lists. No, it isn’t perfect; in fact, there are some things about it that quite frankly bug me. But — again, a happy sort of irony at work here — they’re the kinds of flaws that I think will cause people to enjoy the work all the more because of them and not in spite of them. Read more