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Saturday, September 17, 2016

A FEW CAVILS ABOUT LITTLE, BIG

I recently reread John Crowley's masterwork of fantasy Little, Big, and was forced to the realization that it isn't perfect. The first part, set at Edgewood, is wonderful, and the ending is wonderful in a different way. But the middle part, dealing mainly with Auberon and Sylvie, while still very good, left me dissatisfied.

For one thing, Edgewood is an enchanted place, and New York City isn't, even though some magic takes place there. For another, the adult Auberon is less likable and less interesting than Smoky. And these weaknesses allowed me to notice other weaknesses that I might not have noticed had the fundamentals been stronger. The trope that the women of the Drinkwater clan understand the truth intuitively, while the men can't get it no matter how hard they try to understand it rationally, didn't bother me with Smoky or with John Drinkwater, but got a bit annoying when it was repeated with Auberon. (Ariel Hawksquill is an exception, but she's depicted as a "masculine" woman: rationalistic, aggressive, and power-hungry.) It really won't do to have a major character who's a demagogue with a huge popular following, and be as vague about his message and appeal as Crowley is with Eigenblick. And Fred Savage is, alas, a Magic Negro. (And he turns into a tree, which is really problematic and uncomfortable.)

But don't let any of this stop you from reading Little, Big, if you haven't already.

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Saturday, July 02, 2016

ANIMATION CORNER: BELLADONNA OF SADNESS [KANASHIMI NO BERADONA]

A long time ago, I raved about the Japanese animated feature Belladonna of Sadness [Kanashimi no Beradona]. (Note that the Youtube video of Belladonna linked to in that post has been taken down.) At the time, it wasn't available in the U.S. Soon it will be (only on Blu-Ray, unfortunately). In my last post I highly praised the Puella Magi Madoka Magica movie, and I stand by what I said there. But Belladonna is in a whole different class. It's one of the best animated features I've seen, perhaps the best. It's nothing like any anime you're likely to have seen, and is essential viewing for anyone interested in animation as an art.

It's also definitely not for kids. It's subject matter is unlikely to interest children, and there are a few sex scenes, including a harrowing rape. (The sex is depicted symbolically, if I remember correctly, but it's clear what's going on.)

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Friday, April 08, 2016

THE PUELLA MAGI MADOKA MAGICA MOVIE

I recently had occasion to watch the Puella Magi Madoka Magica movie in Japanese without subtitles.[1] I had already watched it with subtitles, so I could broadly understand what was happening, but I could only understand snatches of the dialogue. Therefore I was compelled to focus on the visuals. From that perspective, the movie is one of the most amazing works of animation I've ever seen: a seemingly endless flow of inventive, surprising, frequently surreal, often dazzling images. The TV series was already known for its original and startling visuals, but the movie takes a huge leap beyond the series.

The movie seems to be out of print in the U.S., but it's still available (with subtitles) on Amazon, and no doubt elsewhere, under the title Puella Magi Madoka Magica the Movie - Rebellion.

[1] Technically, it's the third movie, but the first two "movies" are compilations of the TV series.

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Monday, September 22, 2014

 MANGA CORNER: SUPERCONDUCTING BRAIN PARATAXIS [CHOUDENNOU PARATAKUSHISU] BY SHINTARO KAGO

Superconducting Brain Parataxis* combines two of Kago' characteristic themes: treating humans as machines, and breaking down the body's integrity. It's a collection of linked short stories, set in a futuristic world in which human DNA is used to produce giant naked women's bodies, or parts of bodies, which are "ridden" by normal-sized humans and used as organic machines. (At least this is what appears to be happening; the reality is a bit different.) Despite this bizarre premise, it was serialized in the mainstream shounen magazine Weekly Young Jump. Correspondingly, there is no explicit sex or scatology, and the gore is toned down. It also takes a more standard approach to storytelling than most of his other work: its world building is semi-plausible, and there are characters you can sympathize with. In fact, to a large extent it reads like mainstream SF, if you pretend that the "fleshbots" are regular robots. There are even moments of poignancy, as in the first story, in which a scientist persuades one of the giants to escape, but this brings her (the giant) only suffering.

Superconducting Brain Parataxis is not the best of Kago's tankoubons that I've read (that would be New Banji Kaichou), but it's better than either of the ones I've reviewed. It's also much less offensive than many of Kago's other works. It's out of print, but if you get a chance to buy it I'd recommend it.

Superconducting Brain Parataxis was published by Shueisha in the YJ line. It's 194 pages long, and its list price is 1200 yen. It's ISBN is 978-4087826722. Here's its amazon.co.jp page.

*"Parataxis" has two meanings, but the one relevant here is: "the psychological state or repository of attitudes, ideas, and experiences accumulated during personality development that are not effectively assimilated or integrated into the growing mass and residue of the other attitudes, ideas, and experiences of an individual's personality."


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Saturday, June 28, 2014

FINALLY, SOME ANSWERS: BILLY BAT VOL. 14

The latest volume of Billy Bat begins with an excerpt from one of Kevin Yamagata's Billy Bat stories. A text box at the end announces that the story has ended without revealing the answers to several questions, one of which relates to the plot of the real-life Billy Bat. This got me worried that Billy Bat itself would end with this volume, leaving its mysteries unresolved. In hopes of reassuring myself I flipped to the end of the book (a bad habit of mine which has several times resulted in spoiling myself), where I saw that the title of the last chapter was "Last Scene," which didn't reassure me. Unable to stand the uncertainty, I went to the net (another bad habit), where a comment on a review on amazon.co.jp stated that volume 14 wasn't the last volume. And it isn't.

More importantly, this is the volume that finally explains the plot so far. There are still mysteries left, including the ultimate origin of the Bat. But we learn the relationship between the two Bats, the purposes of their manipulations, why there is a drawing of the Bat on the Moon, and why the fate of the world is at stake. And the answers aren't letdowns.

Aside from this, volume 14, along with the previous volume, reveals a lot about one of the principal bad guys, whose shadowy presence in the first eleven volumes I had noted in my overview of those volumes. And his story is unexpectedly moving, especially the last page of volume 14.

Considering volumes 12-14 overall, I'll admit that volume 12 was a little slow, but the other two volumes are back up to speed. In my overview of volumes 1-11, I wrote that "if Urasawa and Nagasaki can maintain the level of the first eleven volumes until the end, [Billy Bat] may well turn out to be Urasawa's best work." The more recent volumes have only strengthened this opinion.

You can follow the links in the overview referred to above to see my reviews of the first eight volumes as they appeared.

Billy Bat is written and drawn by Naoki Urasawa, with Takashi Nagasaki assisting on the story. It's published by Koudansha in Japan, in their Morning line. Volume 12 costs 648 yen, while volumes 13 and 14 cost 619 yen. (At least, those are the prices on the books themselves; I just noticed that amazon.co.jp lists higher prices.) Their ISBN numbers are: Vol. 12: 978-4-06-387230-9

Vol. 13: 978-4-06-387272-9

Vol. 14: 978-4-06-388326-8.

Here's the amazon.co.jp page for Billy Bat volume 14, follow the links there to get to the pages for the previous volumes.

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Monday, August 19, 2013

CHICAGO SANSEIDOH CLOSING SALE

I was up in Chicago last week and on Thursday I visited the Sanseidoh Japanese-language bookstore in Arlington Heights, one of my regular stops. The store was having a closing sale, with most items 80% off (unfortunately, not including manga magazines), and a lot of manga tankoubons on sale for one dollar per volume. Around half the stock was already gone, and naturally the popular stuff went first; but there was still some worthwhile stuff left.

On September 1st, the store will close. It will be replaced by a Kinokuniya -- another Japanese-language bookstore chain -- but not immediately; the cashier said maybe in October.

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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

MANGA CORNER: BILLY BAT VOLS. 1-11

Billy Bat is Naoki Urasawa's most recent, and still ongoing, series (with Takashi Nagasaki assisting with the story). Unlike Monster, 20th Century Boys and Pluto, Urasawa's most ambitious completed series, Billy Bat has not been licensed in the U.S. But the eleven volumes published in Japan so far already show it to be a major work on a par with those series. If Urasawa and Nagasaki can maintain the level of the first eleven volumes until the end, it may well turn out to be Urasawa's best work.

(I've tried to avoid spoilers, as much as is compatible with giving a picture of the series as a whole; but if you want to come to the series with a completely fresh mind, you should stop reading here.)

Billy Bat's labyrinthine plot revolves around a pair of supernatural bats, one of whom is said to be "white" and the other "black" even thought they are identical in appearance. These bats have been manipulating human history by influencing people's actions for at least two millenia, and there are hints that they have been doing so for much longer. They have appeared before a number of well-known historical figures, some of whom we meet in the series, and a number of cartoonists. Nearly everything else about the bats is mysterious so far. (Since we rarely see both bats at once, and since there are generally no indications of which one we are seeing, I will refer to both bats indiscriminately as "the Bat.")

Among the cartoonists the Bat has spoken to is Kevin Yamagata, Billy Bat's main protagonist so far. When the series opens in 1949, Kevin, a Japanese-American, is writing and drawing a successful comic he has created called "Billy Bat," starring an anthropomorphic bat of the same name. Yamagata's character was unconsciously inspired by a drawing of the Bat, but once he becomes aware of the Bat during a trip to Japan, it begins appearing before him. It plants story ideas in his subconscious, which he feels compelled to draw, and which turn out to predict the future. Eventually, it starts giving him orders outright. Because of his connection with the Bat, Kevin becomes the object of unwelcome attention from at least two groups of conspirators hoping to manipulate the Bat.

While Billy Bat shares this lone-man-vs.-conspiracy aspect with 20th Century Boys and Monster, Kevin is not a heroic figure like Kenji or Tenma. Though the Bat insists that the tasks he assigns Kevin are vital, Kevin just wants to be left alone. In fact, he spends several years (offscreen) in a drunken stupor to avoid seeing the Bat or drawing the Bat's stories. He repeatedly needs to be prodded into action by the Bat or by Smith, an investigator who becomes Kevin's ally. Likewise, rather than being charismatic villains, the apparent leaders of the two conspiracies (if indeed they are the leaders) are shadowy figures with little in the way of characterization so far. In compensation, the characterizations of several secondary characters are among Urasawa's best: perhaps most poignantly, a character whose name would be a gigantic spoiler, but who first appears early in volume four. (When you read it, you'll know who I'm talking about.)

Billy Bat is a narratologist's dream. Both 20th Century Boys and Monster made frequent use of flashbacks, but Billy Bat takes the scrambling of chronology much further, freely leaping both forward and backward across years, decades and even centuries. (The earliest scene shown so far takes place two millenia ago.) The narrative also frequently doubles back upon itself, cutting away in the middle of a scene and returning to it later. The result is that Billy Bat's chronology is fiendishly complex; yet Urasawa's storytelling is so clear that I almost never got lost. At one point Urasawa sets a deliberate trap for his readers, which I didn't realize I'd fallen into until I reread the series.

Urasawa plays another game with his narrative, which I don't recall having seen before. Since the comics that Yamagata and other cartoonists draw under the Bat's influence depict future events accurately, Urasawa can narrate scenes in two ways: in "reality," and as transformed into anthropomorphic comics.

Dirk Deppey, iirc, once called Pluto Urasawa's Watchmen. But when one considers the intricacy of its plot and its density of information and connections, it's Billy Bat that is more like Watchmen. There's hardly a line of dialogue which doesn't advance either its plot or its themes. Even the example of Yamagata's "Billy Bat" comic which opens the series isn't just a hard-boiled detective pastiche, but foreshadows later events. In fact, in order to fully understand and appreciate the early volumes, you have to go back and reread them in light of the later volumes.

Not only does Billy Bat cover several historical periods, it incorporates several genres. The Bat gives it an overall ambience of fantasy, or perhaps horror. But individual sections read like a detective story, a ninja drama, a political thriller, a serial killer thriller, science fiction, and even a Western (the small Western town where they don't cotton to strangers sticking their noses where they don't belong).

Unlike Urasawa's other major series, Billy Bat is structured to a large extent around actual historical events. The Shinoyama case, a notorious mysterious death in post-WWII Japan that has never been solved, plays a major role in the plot. So does another well-known murder case. And the Apollo Moon landing also serves as a touchstone. In fact, one could say that Billy Bat's subject is History itself. And its view of history is decidedly conspiratorial. In addition to the Bat's hidden hand, several Urasawa incorporates several real-life conspiracy theories.

Unlike Urasawa's other major series, much of Billy Bat's action is set in the U.S. And Urasawa's portrayal of the U.S. is far from flattering. Racism, both against African-Americans and Japanese, is prominently displayed. And American cultural imperialism is a major theme of the series. Through a shady (and so far unclear, at least to me) maneuver Kevin loses control of Billy Bat to "Chuck Culkin Enterprises." Culkin Enterprises has made Billy cuter, turned the comic into a children's comic, and erased Kevin's role as creator and original writer-artist from the public memory in favor of Chuck Culkin (who was actually Kevin's assistant). It's also made Billy hugely popular, and turned him into a massively merchandised brand, which is expanding worldwide, including Japan. And it's determined that its Billy Bat should be the only Billy in existence. To that end, it's sent an operative all over the world to destroy all other comics inspired by the Bat. The parallels with Disney and Mickey Mouse are obvious. The political aspect of this is made clear in a scene in which a general tells an executive of Culkin Enterprises that their two organizations, working together, can dominate the world, adding that "the missile and Billy Bat should work together."

Billy Bat is not perfect, of course. Its biggest flaw is that it is occasionally prone to sentimentality, especially in the early volumes, though not to the extent that Monster and Pluto are. There are also some failures of research in the U.S. scenes, which don't affect the overall plot but are still irritating.

Since I wrote the above, the chapters that will make up volume twelve have been serialized in Japan. I've read them, but decided not to make any changes in what I wrote, though there's little or nothing I'd be inclined to change in any case. I will say that I don't see any indication that the series is approaching a conclusion.

Billy Bat is published by Kodansha, in its Morning line. Here's link to the eleventh volume's amazon.co.jp page; you can follow the links on that page to get to the earlier volumes' pages.

Here are the reviews I wrote of the first eight volumes of Billy Bat as they came out: vol. 1, vol. 2, vols. 3 and 4, vol. 5, vol. 6, and vols. 7 and 8.

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