Aug 31 2009

Odd Manga

Joe McCulloch


Cover of Travel
by Yuichi Yokoyama (PictureBox, 2008)


Manga inevitably seems a bit strange to American readers, even if they’ve read a lot of comics. Those hundreds of small colorful paperbacks stacked at your favorite big-box bookstore are the beneficiaries of more than half a century of evolution in Japan, where comics flourish as a popular medium. As such, manga reflects not only the mores and attitudes of a culture very different from ours but also a manner of publication unfamiliar in English-speaking environs. Some manga highlights these differences better than others; below are seven points of departure.

Apocalypse Zero by Takayuki Yamaguchi

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more typical-looking Japanese comic than shōnen manga: stories, often of fantastic adventures, targeted approximately at junior high school–age boys and sometimes spanning dozens of volumes. Some broadly resemble American superhero comics, with the use of stylized costumes and strange powers, and presume the reader’s familiarity with well-established genre conventions. There is a common emphasis on youthful dreams and anxieties, which are laced into the overarching action-filled plot.

But certain shōnen manga push the boundaries of acceptable content for their target demographic (according to standards quite different from those known to North American action-comics readers). As a result, you occasionally get something like this wonder in eleven volumes—only six of which were ever translated to English—concerning the adventures of a costumed boy fighter set loose in a world so dense with allusions to earlier manga that the uninitiated reader might feel lost in a surreal world. And that’s even before the introduction of supervillains who literalize boyish anxieties, such as a gargantuan, bare-breasted woman who rips characters’ faces off with her smooches, and a devilish old man who brandishes his sexual apparatus as a weapon. The result is a postapocalyptic fight comic ostensibly appropriate for twelve-year olds but sealed in plastic and dotted with “Explicit Content” warnings for North American audiences.

Offered by Kazuo Koike and Ryoichi Ikegami

Not all Japanese adventure comics are aimed at kids, however. Seinen manga are targeted at adult men, though they’re often serialized in the same manner as youth manga—printed in large anthologies at a weekly, semimonthly, or monthly pace. This steady production encourages an improvised feel that is very different from American graphic novels and irregularly published comic books. And few manga seem more open to anything than this two-volume marvel about a young track star’s journey, which begins after he’s kidnapped by outlaw bikers hired by Adolf Hitler’s granddaughter, who promptly reveals that the lad was conceived with the frozen sperm of Gilgamesh.

Writer Koike—best known for the beloved swordsman drama Lone Wolf and Cub—changes the story’s focus every few chapters, tearing through all the spicy scenarios he can think of, including hypnosis-powered, blood-drinking sex, political intrigue involving a small mummy, a desert quest for a lost city of treasure, ancient humans and their underground rocket ship, and the impromptu purchase of a nudist colony. The violence and sexuality are explicit but aren’t intended as pornography; they’re meant to be sensational. Ikegami’s supremely solemn artwork acts as the perfect complement to Koike’s mayhem, a genre-resistant “mature readers” tale hell-bent on providing something novel simply for the sake of happy distraction.

Bringing Home the Sushi: An Inside Look at Japanese Business Through Japanese Comics edited by Laura K. Silverman

Manga for adults isn’t limited to the adventurous and erotic realms or to the “literary” approach favored by many Western cartoonists hoping for broad appeal. Silverman’s anthology compiles comics intended for salarymen and office ladies, who like to read stories set in a recognizable (if sometimes romanticized) world. Some of the collected works may seem reminiscent of US newspaper comics set in the workplace, such as Dilbert. Yet the mass appeal of manga assures longer, more detailed takes on the subject matter: Section Chief Shima seeks to ingratiate himself at a new Kyoto office; flustered Hikono learns the secrets to selling cars from a savvy female superior; harried Yasuhiro struggles to relate to his father, whom he’s never respected. It’s a relaxed, undemanding strain of human-interest comics, the product of a mass medium allowed to age with its readers.

Short Cuts by Usamaru Furuya

This project is primarily a collection of gag comics. Its one- to four-page sections are longer than the four panels allotted to newspaper strips, but there’s a similar build to a joke at the end. What makes it odd is the specialized nature of the content: These little tales concern kogals, flashily dressed, conspicuously consuming high school girls who provoked a media frenzy in Japan in the late ’90s for their unconventional style (and for the fact that some engaged in prostitution to finance their trendy fashion). Furuya is an exceedingly restless and chameleonic artist, schooled in fine art yet with an “underground” approach that bucks the status quo. The result is two volumes of skewed observations—ranging from surreal jokes to mostly ironic sentimentality—about a recurring cast of young women as they navigate a landscape of weird lust and pop-culture grotesquerie. It’s a critique less of teenage girls than of the media-culture overload surrounding them.

Comics Underground Japan edited by Kevin Quigley

This anthology is one of the best collections of Japanese underground comics. Culled from the pages of the seminal alternative magazine Garo, the stories range from the super-polished, impossibly savage social satire of Suehiro Maruo’s “Planet of the Jap” to the gleefully ugly sensibility of Takashi Nemoto’s “Future Sperm Brazil” to grotesque horror, kitty-cartoon metaphysics, and an ironic evocation of girls’-comics conventions. Few of the works in this syllabus include the familiar visual stereotypes of saucer eyes and spiky hair—though both Yamaguchi’s and Furuya’s works use the style as a starting point—but this volume showcases the range of effects possible from the basic iconography of manga, in a connoisseur’s tour of rarely seen possibilities.

Travel by Yuichi Yokoyama

It may be a by-product of the still-formidable mass appeal of manga, but “art” comics aren’t much more prevalent in Japan than they are in the far smaller English-language comics field. Yokayama’s book was published in France before it was released in the author’s home country, and its self-contained style probably seems more familiar to Western readers than a lot of manga does. Rather ironic, since Yokoyama’s art is unlike anything else—anywhere. This account of a two-hundred-page wordless train ride charges every possible sight and gesture with action-comics aplomb taken to near-abstract levels, whereby a man smoking a cigarette becomes a nigh-apocalyptic occasion.

Yokoyama insists that his method is intended to divorce the human element from his work and to express new ideas though sequences built as if by a nonhuman consciousness, but the reader might be excused for wondering whether it’s all really a commentary on the vivid movement of action manga—the fights and sights and speeding activity—expanded to depict everything in the whole mundane world as animated through comic-book excitement.

Apollo’s Song by Osamu Tezuka

It all began with Tezuka, the man who rebuilt manga from the wreckage of World War II, melding cinematographic principles and Disney-inspired designs to the base stuff of comics. He was enormously prolific and often eccentric and determined to take manga anywhere he saw fit. This book collects a 1970 serial, the story of an angry young man, tossed between worlds by electroshock therapy and the intervention of the Goddess of Love, who’s damned to love and lose, over and over again. Though dramatic, it’s more than a drama. It’s another shōnen manga, designed to provide some semblance of sexual education to its young readers.

A wartime maneuver is dotted with chitchat about male anatomy, a jungle adventure whisks us into a secret pasture where the animal kingdom procreates, and a dystopian future is posited, inhabited by an emotionless queen who demands to know the ways of love. It’s jumpy, funny, eye-rolling, and bizarrely moving all at once. The nature of Tezuka’s reputation—and the market sense that dictates that older manga sells better to “literary” comics readers in North America—caused this curiosity for kids to be molded and polished into an upscale paperback, making it look like a fancy novelistic work by a master. And Tezuka is a master, but some of these Western releases can’t help but make the odd even odder.

Joe McCulloch blogs on comics at joglikescomics.blogspot.com. His essays and reviews have appeared in the Comics Journal and Comics Comics.

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