I’m going to start my discussion of the second and third volumes of Paradise Kiss with the sex scene in volume 2. Actually, there’s a couple of such scenes, but the one that comes most crucially to mind involves heroine Yukari and her lover / antagonist / homme fatale George. I mention it not as a way to denigrate the story, but entirely the opposite: if Paradise Kiss is able to take one of the hoariest, most stock components of any romance — the good-girl heroine losing her virginity to her bad-boy lover — and make it into a complex and nuanced story about whether or not the guy and the girl even deserve each other in the first place, or deserve something better than what they currently amount to.Read more
Third installment in this symphony of adolescent emotional brutality pits hapless would-be seeker of transgression Kasuga against his (female) mentor in perversity Nakamura, with his would-be sweetheart Nanako caught between them. After Kasuga and Nakamura enjoy — not sure that's really the word, actually — an orgy of destruction in their school homeroom, Nanako's forced to see what Nakamura wants her to think the "pervert" Kasuga is really made of ... except that Nanako is even more pure-hearted than anyone banked on her being. Where the story goes from here ought to be a real challenge; let's see if they branch out even further and more daringly, or simply repeat the same beats as per a goofy sitcom where nobody ever learns. My money's on the former.
Vertical has been attempting to snag a bigger slice of the mainstream manga pie in various ways now. This latest attempt is the adaptation of the Stan Lee + BONES anime which I liked for being an interesting Japan-POV take on the American kids'-comics mythos: kid has his robot toy struck by lightning and it turns into a giant fighting companion (see: Johnny Sokko, et al.), one which comes in great handy when fending off a burgeoning alien invasion. Emphasis here is not on the gimmick but on little Joey Jones's growing accustomed to the idea of being anybody's hero, especially when he's spent the better part of his young life being everyone else's kickball. Bad points: amateurish art by Tamon Ohta, and a translation that seems way below par for the typically meticulous Vertical folks.
It’s been said that genres are reading instructions. A book bearing the label science fiction earns certain exemptions of tone and content right out of the gate that a book labeled fantasy or romance or literary fiction does not. Romance is a label we associate freely with broad brushstrokes of emotion (e.g., hate-that-is-actually-love), coincidence, and a great many other things we’d only tolerate in small doses, if at all, in something not sporting that label.
In other words, a genre is a label for a specific kind of suspension of disbelief, and that may explain why many people turn their nose up at certain genres. Some people find the suspension of disbelief re: human behavior or motivation required for a romance to be far more absurd than the suspension of disbelief re: physical reality required for a fantasy, SF, or four-color comic story. I don’t believe this mechanism underlies all instances of why people snub a romance for something else, but it sure explains why many people never try out certain genres at all. They have evolved a certain discipline for their suspension of disbelief. They do not let themselves play outside of those strongly-painted lines.
It’s a shame, because within any genre there is always the possibility for happy accidents and lively discovery. Shojo manga, the whole subdivision of manga nominally intended for girls, has many titles with plenty of crossover appeal. Having a mainstream breakthrough experience with one of them doesn’t much increase the odds of the others following suit — the Dark Knight Trilogy hasn’t caused mainstream moviegoers to pick up too many Batman comics — but it can at the very least expose the reader to new territory. The very best of shojo manga has included some territory I might never have discovered on my own: Keiko Takemiya’s To Terra, for instance, or Moto Hagio’s remarkable work that freely crossed between labels: romance here, fantasy there, science fiction at times, all of it remarkable. Read more
In my first years of reading about Japan I learned quickly to separate the sociological wheat from the pop-psychology chaff. Most anything I encountered originally in English about “conformity in Japanese society” was potted pop-psychology churned out in the 1980s, when fear of Japan buying out America rode high and books that purported to explain those inscrutable Japanese were being hustled out into airport bookstalls. (The big airport-reading trend now is neuroscience for businesspeople, which manages to be even more insulting to the intelligence of everyone involved than Yellow Panic For Dummies.)
I find the whole discussion of Japanese social conformity to be at least partly a red herring, because society is by definition a conformist enterprise. Most of us are conformist if only in that we do not kill the other guy because we know that if we do most everything we ourselves could draw on runs the risk of spontaneously collapsing. The idea that Japan puts greater pressure on people to fit in and work together seems borne less of perspective on the very tangible historical conditions that shaped such things, and more out of a need to contrast their straightlaced ways with more allegedly freewheeling ones elsewhere. It’s not that conformity doesn’t exist in Japan; it’s that most of how non-Japanese talk about the subject is unenlightening, sanctimonious b.s. designed to make anyone not Japanese feel like they dodged a sociological bullet.
This may seem like a loaded lead-in for a review of a manga — Keiko Suenobu’s Limit — but I cite it here as a lead-in for a story that, in its own pop-culture way, attempts to look at conformity in Japan from the perspective of a type most vulnerable to it: the schoolgirl. Limit’s main schoolgirl character is Konno, and in the opening pages she makes it clear that the ability to conform, to merge with the current and just drift along, is not something you do because you like it. It is simply a fact of life, a survival trait you either acquire and use to your advantage, or ignore at your own peril.Read more
It all starts when near-penniless Kiriko makes the trip to Tokyo to enlist the help of lawyer Kinzo Otsuka. Kiriko is a hapless woman trying to scrape together a legal defense for her brother; he stands accused of a murder for which there seems a preponderance of solid evidence to send him to the gallows. Otsuka, on the other hand, is everything she’s not: well-heeled, surrounded by peers who appreciate his hard work, enjoying the affection of a woman who runs a classy French restaurant.
Kiriko presents herself in Otsuka’s office, minutes before he’s about to run off and enjoy a tryst with his ladyfriend, and he finds himself having to give her one piece of bad news after another. It’s not just that she can’t afford him, but that he’s also convinced she wouldn’t be getting significantly more robust legal representation by paying for a “name” lawyer. And no, he won’t take her case on pro bono. She tries to change his mind, and her single-mindedness instead leaves a impression with a journalist who’s been sniffing around for a story that might look good in the issues-and-controversy magazine he writes for. But even he has to admit the deck is stacked heavily against Kiriko’s brother — and the whole thing seems to end with a thud when the brother is convicted and dies in prison before his execution.Read more
A while back I reviewed Sakuran, the motion picture, and I called it “the antidote to Memoirs of a Geisha”: funny, sassy, bold, and bitter, where Geisha was just wistful, sodden, and romanticized in all the wrong ways. The same good things could be said for the manga that was the source for Sakuran, now out in English thanks to — who else? — Vertical Inc., who are increasingly becoming to manga what Criterion or perhaps Kino International have been to film.Read more
Takeshi Kitano (or Beat Takeshi to his legion of fans) nominally gets notice as a filmmaker, but he's written a bevy of books — some fiction, some non- — slowly finding their way into English. Boy was a good taste of his talent; A Guru Is Born is even more ambitious and rewarding.Read more
The second volume of this mix of antisocial-kid thriller and outsider-kid romance ratchets tension further as bookworm Kasuga is pulled all the more violently between the innocent girl he's had a crush on (Saeki) and the sociopath girl who's yanking his puppet strings (Nakamura). Against all odds, Kasuga manages to take Saeki out on something resembling a normal date ... even while the whole time the poor kid's wearing Saeki's gym clothes under his own, as part of his contract with Nakamura. In the end he collapses all the more definitively on the side of the devils, although how he does this or to what end I won't ruin here — seeing how it unfolds is a major part of the book's substance. Further proof that psychological torment is far more effective (and affecting) than the physical kind, although one wonders if in the end Oshimi's going to be best known for introducing a new subgenre of manga for American readers: mental-torture-porn. But his yarn-spinning is tight and deft enough to make concerns like that secondary.
When I first heard about Enma the Immortal, I am ashamed to admit I was immediately reminded of another Japanese pop-culture phenomenon, one which has lionized the attention of comic lovers: Blade of the Immortal. Aside from the similarity in titles, there are other connections: both start in the late feudal era, and both involve an antihero who’s been given the curse (not the gift) of immortality. But Enma is no BotI clone, and in fact once you start reading Enma it quickly diverges from anything BotI-ish and takes on its own flavor.Read more
High schooler Takao Kasuga has two ways of coping with life in the backwater known as Hikari City. Both should be innocent, but they turn out to be anything but. The first is books — the more esoteric and offbeat, the better, and that includes Charles Baudelaire’s poetry (which the title of this series references unambiguously). The second is his classmate Nanako Saeki — “my muse, my femme fatale,” as he rhapsodizes over her. So smitten is he for her, and so intoxicated has he become with Baudelaire’s hymns to lordly indecency, that when Nanako forgets her gym clothes at school one day he hastily swipes them and takes them home with him.
No, even he doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s a lethal admixture of two normally incompatible impulses: a guilty conscience and an impulsive heart. Stealing Nanako’s shorts and tank top will take him the rest of his life to pay back; this he is positive of. And yet he went and did it all the same … and, worse, he finds out has a witness to his crime: Nakamura. This is not one of the other boys in his class, who rib him about his love of weird books and his moon-eyed feelings for Nanako. Nakamura is another girl, and if the text for Takao’s spirit is a hesitantly-read Baudelaire, hers is an enthusiastically-devoured Marquis de Sade. Read more
Bit of a gamble, this. For the first time, Vertical, Inc. is resuming a manga series that was previously being issued by another publisher. In this case, the publisher was Tokyopop and the series was GTO (Great Teacher Onizuka): The Early Years. It's an interesting parallel tie-in with Vertical's other GTO-themed offering, which I covered previously.
Early Years is, as the title implies, the story of GTO back when he was just "O": Eikichi Onizuka, young punk with an idealistic streak that tends to put him on the wrong side of most fights. Years deals with his time in a high-school gang along with his buddy Ryuji Danma, and much of what goes on is a lot like what Onizuka-the-teacher would himself be dealing with years later: gang wars, trouble from the wrong side of the law, trouble from the right side of the law, and the endless ways Onizuka can get rejected by women.Read more
Back before No Longer Human had even its first volume released in English, I went and copped all three volumes of the original untranslated Japanese edition. I read the first two of them back-to-back on one train ride back home, and I read the third a month or two later, while sitting in Bryant Park on a cool autumn afternoon (an incongruous setting for enjoying such a punishing piece of work). In short, I knew what I was getting myself into when Vertical, Inc.’s English translation arrived, but that didn’t make the experience any less emotionally shattering.
It says something that I can finish the story, find flaws with it that bothered me on a conceptual or dramatic level, and yet still see the whole as being unassailable. I’ve since found that’s the only sort of perfect you’re likely to get in this world: one where you can see something’s flaws all the more clearly because you love the whole, and in the end you forgive the whole those flaws because the entire package is worth the effort. Read more
The end. And it’s a fitting end to a manga series that’s always stood poised on the knife-edge between sweet fairy-tale simplicity and the tougher sensibilities of stories for mature audiences. Black Jack might well have been Osamu Tezuka’s finest work by dint of how it combines the accessibility of works for younger readers (Astro Boy, Unico) and the sophistication and ambition of his experimental productions (Phoenix). Now’s the time to go back to the beginning, if you haven’t already, and experience the whole of this saga of a black-market medical man from start to finish.Read more
If one were to travel into the universe of GTO: 14 Days in Shonan and look up Badass on Wikipedia, I would find the article deficient if a picture of Eikichi Onizuka didn’t appear as the illustration of choice on that page.
GTO stands for Great Teacher Onizuka, and the adventures of Onizuka and his stupefying excursions into rock-ribbed machismo have been chronicled in both a manga and its subsequent anime adaptation. Both were translated into English, but are now sadly out of print. Enter Vertical, Inc., who have been looking to broaden their manga offerings. Rather than reissue all of GTO, which would have been problematic at best, they elected instead to bring English-speaking audiences this previously-untranslated follow-up series. It’s a gamble, but not a reckless one, and the presence of previous GTO stories doesn’t create a major barrier for newcomers. Read more
There’s been any amount of talk lately about how comics, science fiction and fantasy, movies, and all the rest of pop culture constitute a new mythology for the age. I go back and forth about this one myself, because one of the things a mythology seems to imply is the presence of some larger belief system about what is being mythologized. Maybe it’s a matter of terminology: would a fairy tale for the modern age imply that much less baggage than a new mythology?
It isn’t as if I think fairy tales sit further down the ladder from full-blown mythos — more like they occupy different seats on the same general bus. One thing I can say about Osamu Tezuka is that he seems to have been comfortable in any of those seats, as well as comfortable driving the whole bus. He created works that were not only mythology for the new age (Phoenix) but which dealt with real-world myth figures (Buddha) — and on top of that created a whole slew of manga which we could comfortably call fairy tales without feeling like either his work or the term itself was being demeaned. Read more
Ain't it fun when you're always on the run
Ain't it fun when your friends despise what you become
— The Dead Boys, “Ain’t It Fun”
In the second volume of No Longer Human there is a moment when Yozo, the self-destructive and conflicted main character who has spent his whole life keeping the rest of the human race at bay, dismisses the idea that he’s a good person. He’s fooled everyone around him into thinking that, because it’s all he knows how to do. “You are a good person,” says the little girl he’s talking to. “Everyone says so.” She is the daughter of the woman Yozo has shacked up with, used for sex and milked for money, and even she chooses to look the other way.
A story about someone so despicable should not be so absorbing. But that was one of the paradoxes of the original 1949 Osamu Dazai novel: it was about someone we ought to hate, who engages in things we find revolting, but all the same we cannot look away because he exposes himself so completely. The face he presents to the world is not the face he presents to the reader, and out of that dichotomy comes all the energy and fire of this story. The same has happened here in Usamaru Furuya’s adaptation, with the split between the Yozo we know and the Yozo the world sees widening all the more precipitously.Read more
The worst sort of crime, it could be argued, is that which is committed thoughtlessly. It’s intent that makes a true criminal, which is why we have both manslaughter and murder. Such is the theory anyway, but I imagine those words add up to little more than cold comfort in the mind of a victim. The victim wants justice, not rationalizations about the nature of the criminal. All he knows is that he’s been wronged, and that things must be set a-right.
Osamu Tezuka’s The Book of Human Insects gives us a character that embodies this dilemma: a woman who, at least at first, ostensibly doesn’t understand her criminal nature. Stealing, lying and betraying are not acts of evil, but simply the way she plays the game — the same game everyone else around her seems to be playing, and sometimes far more cruelly and efficiently than she herself plays it. If she doesn’t do this, she’s simply going to have her throat cut all the faster. It’s nothing personal, you see. It’s just business. Read more
What is it about zombies that has suddenly lionized the attention of SF/fantasy/horror types all over again lately? Between Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, World War Z, Zombieland and all of the other material in this vein that’s suddenly boiled out of the sewers and flooded the land, you can’t spit out your window without hitting a reanimated corpse. I suspect it’s got something to do with a renewed sense of doom in the air, which will find some way to manifest in the psyche of the popular culture. If it isn’t Godzilla knocking down high-tension lines, it’s the flesh-eating dead reducing civilization to armed camps of hold-outs.
Note that I am not complaining, merely expressing amusement at the way this stuff comes in waves. If I must choose my undead, I will gladly take Bub from Day of the Dead over the likes of, say, Edward Cullen. At least the zombie has no pretenses towards romance; he just wants to snack on your head and be done with it. That and the tone of the material is entirely different. The overheated romanticism of vampires veers too easily into self-parody. Zombie-pocalypse, on the other hand, is at its core just plain funnier: it’s a great and fertile ground for black humor, satire, parody, absurdism and farce (and you get bonus points if you can tabulate for me how each of those things differ from the other). Read more
John Updike once wrote down a few good rules for reviewing books (or any other media, really), with the first one being “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.” I did my best to keep this rule fixed firmly in my mind — or “engraved on my liver”, as they say in Japan — while reading Akira Arai’s A Caring Man. I had to do this for one simple reason: I kept comparing it, unfairly I suspect, to another book I felt was thematically similar but superior in execution, Ryū Murakami’s Coin Locker Babies. The two even share something of the same plotline: a young man abandoned by his biological mother and with the mindset of an outsider sets in motion a plan to take revenge on the society that failed him.
I know by now, though, that most people are less interested in the question of which book is “better” than they are in whether or not this particular book is any good. It is a good book, up to a point (and I’ll get to that in due time), but I had the shadow of the earlier book hanging over me all the while I read this one, and I would be dishonest if I didn’t cop to that. Babies is the far more artful, experimental, unabashedly “literary” of the two, while Caring Man is the more rigorously plotted, accessible, and upmarket-thriller story. It isn’t a groundbreaker and it won’t live forever, but it wasn’t meant to: it was written to give the reader a good ride. And for the most part it quite aptly provides said ride, but I do have to admit the ways it fumbles its own ball are annoying. Read more