December 2004

Karin L. Kross


Comicbookslut in Japan: Beyond Tokyopop

I'm back.

And I apologise, especially to my long-suffering editor, for my intermittent presence over the last few months. Planning a wedding can have a way of turning into a full-time job, and only now, three weeks after we returned from our honeymoon, have I been able to return my focus to books of any kind, especially comics. The backlog of unread issues mocks me daily. I try to regard it as fodder for future columns.

Our honeymoon was spent in Japan, and the obvious task for any comicbookslut worth her salt was to try and get some honest-to-goodness current manga of the sort not readily available back home. The majority of the books published by Viz, Tokyopop, and the rest are translations of books published some time ago in Japan -- the translation issue creates a lag time; plus, the publishers want to see exactly what comics thrown at the wall have actually stuck there, and which ones would transfer well to the American market. In seeking out the current stuff, my main problem was the language barrier; my spoken Japanese is limited to the essential phrases I crammed from the phrase books, and I can't read it at all. On being confronted with shelves and shelves of brightly-colored manga (an entire floor at one Akihabara bookstore), it was impossible to know what, if anything, was worth looking at, especially with a flimsy-to-nonexistent knowledge of the language.

In the end, my one acquisition came from, of all places, a shop selling American comics in the Shibuya district of Tokyo: Robot Vol. 1 from the Japanese publisher Wani, edited by Range Murata. This A4-sized, gorgeously printed book of full-color comics calls to mind a sort of Japanese version of Taboo, Steve Bissette's ill-fated, artistically stunning periodical from the 1990s, in that it's an eclectic anthology of short pieces by an array of artists. Even with the language barrier firmly in place, the book can be appreciated on the basis of the art alone, which encompasses an enormous range of styles. Some, like Naruco Hanaharu's "Picnic", are in the tradition of Buddha's Osamu Tezuka in their playfulness of line; others, like Mami Itou's "Carogna" -- reminiscent of the Jeunet-Caro film Delicatessen -- have a painterly style and a line similar to that of shojo romance manga. All of the stories have a science-fiction edge to them, some more obviously so than others. It's a fascinating, often very beautiful glimpse into what Japan's comics artists are doing right now. Volume 2 is due to be published in January of 2005.

If anything, Robot served as a helpful reminder that Japanese comics cover a lot more ground than even the vast shelves of the stuff we're seeing in bookstores these days. That the kids these days (especially the girls, much to the bemusement of some arbiters of popular culture) love their manga and anime is no secret: witness the popularity of the Cartoon Network's Japanese offerings (Inu-Yasha, Trigun, and the like), and that Tokyopop got Courtney Love to co-write its new, very popular Princess Ai. Even so, a quick scan of the shelves reveals that a good deal of what's being heavily promoted actually falls into a rather narrow genre range. Shojo and yaoi are often found -- the former describes a style of delicately-drawn romance comics; and the latter an entire romance sub-genre of homoerotic romances, quite popular among women readers. Also popular are the serialized fantasy and science fiction of the likes of Cardcaptor Sakura and Chobits. After enough of this, it's hard not to wonder if there's anything else.

Viz's imprint Cadence Books, happily, has provided readers with an alternative in the form of the Secret Comics Japan anthology. This volume is edited by Chikao Shiratori, former editor of the Japanese avant-garde comics periodical Garo, who notes that some of these artists' works are obscure even in Japan, much less in America. Fans of American comix will instantly feel a kinship with these works: Yoshitomo Yoshimoto's sexually graphic "Jr.," inspired by the Donald Bartheleme story "Me and Mrs. Mandible;" the rough-edged, deliberately raw art of Makoto Aida's "Mutant Hanako," a response to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and Kiriko Hananan's stories of the purgatory of modern dating in "Heartless Bitch" and "Painful Love." There is a willful eccentricity to these works, outright bizarreness in some cases, as in Usumaru Furuya's "Palepoli;" and the result is an anthology that manages to deeply unsettle, even as it provides a refreshing look at a part of the Japanese comics culture not often seen here.

Viz is also re-issuing Hayao Miyazaki's Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind in seven large-format volumes. The Nausicaä movie is deservedly famous; the manga, however, is a vast, richer work, epic in scope. Set in a far-flung, war-ravaged future where most of the planet has been overrun by poisonous plants and strange insects, the story follows the adventures of Nausicaä, a young princess fated to change the marred world in which the last humans live. Trying to sum up the books in any further detail would be a hopeless task; suffice it to say that it's a sprawling cautionary tale of politics and ecology, where few characters are entirely good or evil. It is Miyazaki's masterwork, encompassing themes seen in his later films like Princess Mononoke, and Viz has finally done it justice; the previous "Perfect Edition" was anything but, with its scratchy art reproductions. The new version is printed in a sepia-toned ink similar to the original Japanese version, and it's laid out in right-to-left fashion; it is as close as an English speaker can get to the original without actually reading Japanese.

The Nausicaä second edition comes on the heels of another acclaimed U.S. re-issue: Dark Horse's Lone Wolf and Cub. About this famed gekiga ("drama pictures", as opposed to manga, "involuntary pictures" or cartoons) little more needs to be said; the epic swept the comics awards and garnered almost universal critical acclaim. Dark Horse has chosen to follow up on the success of Lone Wolf and Cub with the English-language premiere of Samurai Executioner, also by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima. This series tells the early life story of Decapitator Asaemon, the shogun's sword-tester, who comes to a bloody end in Volume 5 of Lone Wolf and Cub. Like the Lone Wolf himself, Ogami Itto, Asaemon is a samurai par excellence, with a consummate devotion to duty, a keen mind, and a very sharp sword. Volume 1, "When the Demon Knife Weeps," is available, and the second is scheduled for mid-December. At this early point in the series, it's hard to tell whether it has the same dramatic scope and subtlety of characterization as Lone Wolf and Cub; at this point, it feels like a looser, more scattershot work. Nonetheless, fans of the previous work will welcome Samurai Executioner as another chance to enjoy Koike's writing and Kojima's art.

That Japanese comics should be so diverse as to include ecological fantasy, samurai epics, and modern anomie should be no surprise. Japanese manga artists have known for a long time what we in the West only seemed to discover quite late: that the pictures-with-words form, no matter what the name, is merely a means by which stories may be told, rather than a genre defined on its own. Nonetheless, manga tends to get lumped into one great big heap, even more so than American comic books and graphic novels. It's worth remembering that much of what we see here is only the tip of a very big iceberg indeed, and it's fortunate that we're always able to see a bit more of it as time goes by.

Robot vol. 1 edited by Range Murata

Secret Comics Japan, edited by Hyoe Narita
ISBN: 1569313725
200 Pages

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, vols. 1-7 by Hayao Miyazaki
ISBN: 1591165237

Samurai Executioner, vol. 1 by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima
Dark Horse Comics
ISBN: 1593072074
328 Pages