As a TV series, Ghost in the Shell was top-of-the-line. As a movie, it was an ethereal, free-floating meditation on the ideas introduced in the story. Then you go back to the original manga and it’s like being devoured alive by the incestuous offspring of an R-rated cartoon pinup and an Aibo field-service repair manual.
Thing is, I’m not sure I’d be compelled to make such a florid comparison for the sake of a book I didn’t like. After almost two decades, Shell not only holds up but inspires all the more to follow in its path — if only because at every page you’ll have another example of Masamune Shirow going that much further through the ceiling to cement his status as Overlord of the Otaku. His books have great girls, great guns, great gadgets, and more incomprehensible technological jabberjaw per square inch than the last issue of the Proceedings of the IEEE. Shell has story and characterization to balance out those things — more so of both than there was in the dizzying slap to the head that was Orion, for instance. I read Orion and felt cheated, like the victim of a shaggy-dog story. Then I read Shell, and while its plot is also a bit of a rambling free-for-all, it’s rooted that much more in characters we come to be curious about and follow all the more eagerly for what they’ll choose to do on their own. Read more
I have this fantasy wherein some Japanese historian unearths a cache of scrolls that tell us what the legendary “ninja” Yagyū Jūbei was really like. The most exotic version of this fantasy has Jūbei himself coming forward in time to the present day, and reading all the crazy mythology that grew out of people simply not having a lot of hard facts about his life. He’d probably laugh until he fell out of his chair. Or, better yet, he’d take that very mythology and twist it for his own ends. Turn it into a weapon. Use it to give the Evil Overlords of the Universe a few sleepless nights. In short, he’d do everything he’s been doing in this series.
There’s pleasures big and small alike in Yagyū Ninja Scrolls, but one of the most consistent is how Jūbei approaches everything with the same cocky little smile. This man has seen them come and seen them go, and has sent a great many of them on their way with his own two hands. He’s having a grand time of it, and that’s part of why his opponents are such nasty stiffs. It’s not just that they’re evil, but that their entire idea of a Good Time is kidnapping helpless young women for their mega-harem. They need less vile hobbies. Jūbei has one: messing with their heads. Read more
The term set piece in filmmaking refers not to something that happens on a set, but the sort of action sequence that you go and tell your friends about after you get out of the theater or turn away from the TV: And then he jumped out with his legs on fire and kicked all their butts! It’s something that happens in manga, too, as just about all of Gunsmith Cats would serve as evidence for. The whole series is one giant excuse to give us car chases and shoot-outs, and often a mix of the two.
Very little that has come before in the series prepares us for the set piece that takes up most of volume 4 of Gunsmith Cats Burst. It’s a shootout in a house — up and down stairwells (before and after being blown to pieces by grenades), through walls and doors, between floors and you-name-it. It is, very literally, what you’d use to storyboard for the inevitable live-action version of this series. Given that no deal has been cut yet — although somehow they found the money to make a movie version of, god help us, Monopoly — we’ll have to settle for the manga, but the manga’s always been good enough that it’s not like we’re settling for anything inferior. Read more
Dogs: Bullets & Carnage. Truth in advertising. Or, at least, a declaration of attitude. Manga noir, we could call it: a dark, stylish world where the outfits are vintage Harajuku, the guns are wartime surplus, and the swords are classic Muramasa. Like Sin City before it, everything is shades of gray as expressed in the starkest of blacks and whites — but with a tot more Spooky Cute on top.
You J-Culture fans should know what I mean by Spooky Cute. It’s that mix of endearing and blood-curdling that you see in everything from Tim Burton movies to Junko Mizuno’s artwork. It manifested back in “volume zero” of this series, Dogs: Prelude, and it shows up here as well in the form of the Hardcore Twins, Luki and Noki. They’re a pair of death merchants that only look like cute little girls dolled up in pink-and-black outfits; the inside cover spread and the chapter titles hint at the colors, even if the interior art doesn’t. And from their sleeves, they produce guns and knives that are about the size of small schoolbuses. They arrive, they giggle, they devastate, and then link arms and skip off into the sunset. Kids these days. Read more
The other week I finally watched Hot Fuzz (yeah, I know, what kept me?), which did the neat trick of making fun of the very thing it was paying homage to. It worked as comedy, it worked as an action film, and it worked as a comedic action movie — you could take your pick of any one of those three and come away happy.
Black Lagoon’s been straddling a similar divide. On one side of the divide is gun-bunny insanity where the cheese is blown off the mountaintops every couple of pages. On the other side is a knotty political-intrigue plot that wouldn’t be out of place in a mid-Eighties Oliver Stone screenplay (e.g., Salvador), where honor-of-a-sort flourishes among thieves and the various Powers That Be are all busy screwing over each other and everyone else in their way. Read more
Once upon a time, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and the VHS of Akira was still marketed by Streamline Pictures, there was a little monthly named Mangajin. They were, and still are, a godsend for someone who wanted to not only learn Japanese but learn about it through Japanese popular culture, via excerpts of translated manga. I even wrote briefly for them (I penned a couple of pieces about Japanese text processing in English editions of Windows), but then — in a move that played like a plot twist out of this very comic — they went belly-up and nothing like them has come since. And with the licensing costs for manga now through the roof it’s not likely anything ever will.
Curious, then, how Sayonara, Zetsubo-sensei comes fairly close to filling one of the roles Mangajin played. Its U.S. edition is English-only, as opposed to Mangajin’s bilingual production, but it’s as culturally omnivorous an entertainment as The Simpsons, and easily as difficult (if not doubly so) for outsiders to appreciate. Each volume sports more marginalia, annotations and endnotes than most other series’ complement of such things. It’s brutally funny and deliciously mean-spirited, a black comedy of manners that got dressed up as a cultural encyclopedia and went trick-or-treating. Call it a “200-level” manga. This is what you pick up when ninjas in orange jumpsuits isn’t enough of a challenge for you, and you now want to learn about how one can “plead the Fifth” in the guise of a holiday observance by shoving a five-foot sushi roll into one’s mouth ... and gnawing on it for a whole week. Read more