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
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
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