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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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Sunday, March 24, 2013

MANGA ROUNDUP

Recently, I was up in Chicago, and I bought some manga at Sanseidoh in Arlington Heights. I haven't had time to read any of them yet, but I thought I'd share some of my impressions upon looking at them. These aren't the only manga I bought, but I'll put these up to start with.

Swan vol. 11 by Kyoko Ariyoshi: Swan, a classic shoujo manga from the 1970s about a Japanese girl who becomes an internationally recognized ballerina, was published in the U.S. by CMX, but despite good reviews it never caught on. When CMX shut down it was left unfinished, and it seems unlikely to be rescued. In Japan, however, it remains popular, with two editions in print, of which this is one. Because this edition groups the series into only fourteen volumes, this volume doesn't correspond to CMX's volume 11. Instead, its first half contains most of what was in CMX's vol. 15 (the last volume it published), while its second half carries on from the end of that volume, for 149 more pages. Looking through this volume, there doesn't seem to be a lot of dancing, which is too bad, because those are the best parts. Swan vol. 11 is published by Akita Bunko and costs 562 yen. Its ISBN is 9784253171670, and its amazon.co.jp page is here. If you want to pick up where CMX left off, make sure you buy this edition of vol. 11; the other Japanese edition groups the series into fewer volumes than this one, so that edition's volume 11 will be later on in the story.

Incidentally, in the Japanese original Masumi and Leon work not with the fictional choreographers Bilanovsky and Bronstein, but with the real and renowned choreographers George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, and the dance they work on with Robbins in not "Morning of a Satyr" but "Afternoon of a Faun." The Japanese guest dancer, as well, is not Yuko Kamimori but Youko Morishita, a real and internationally known ballerina.

Subete no Jidai o Tsuujite no Satsujinjutsu [Murder Methods of All Eras] by Shintaro Kago: This is Kago's latest tankouban, having come out late last year. The jacket proclaims it to be a collection of horror stories. You might ask how that differs from Kago's usual stuff. Based on looking through the volume, the answer seems to be "not much," although there may be more emphasis on violence and less on sex than usual. At any rate, Kago hasn't lost his obsession with adolescent girls, although there are male victims as well. Subete no Jidai o Tsuujite no Satsujinjutsu is published by Kubo Shoten and costs 1200 yen. Its ISBN is 9784765930284, and its amazon.co.jp page is here.

Hataki vol. 2 by Eiji Nonaka: Hataki is an animal which is described on the cover as a "very pretty and very very mysterious pet." Actually, it's pretty ugly and looks something like a pig's head with short legs. I bought this on a whim, because it's by the guy who did Cromartie High School (with his art style unaltered) and because I was curious about the pig-thing. Looking at it, I can't even tell whether it's a comedy or not, although at one point there's an invasion of anthropomorphic pig paratroopers. I guess it wasn't that popular in Japan, since it was published in 2009 and is already out of print. Hataki vol. 2 is published by Kodansha under the Evening [Ibuningu] label, and costs 533 yen. Its ISBN is 9784063522570, and its amazon.co.jp page is here. Or if you want to start with the first volume, its amazon.,co.jp page is here, although it's also out of print.

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Friday, October 19, 2012

IS KASUGA A PERVERT? A NOTE ON FLOWERS OF EVIL

In the manga Flowers of Evil by Shuzo Oshimi, the protagonist Kasuga is repeatedly told by his classmate Nakamura that he's a pervert. Kasuga insists that he isn't, even though he had impulsively stolen the gym clothes of the girl he loves. Who is right? The end of volume two may provide an indication. But earlier in that volume there's a very revealing clue, though only those who read Japanese can pick it up.

The bottom panel on page 82 depicts a bookshelf in Kasuga's room. For several of the books on it, enough of the spine is showing that we can determine the title and/or author. Most of these are unexceptionable books for an intelligent, literature-loving high schooler to own.* But the book in the most prominent position, adjacent to Kasuga's dialogue balloon, is Kachikujin Yapuu, also known as Yapoo the Human Cattle.

Yapoo the Human Cattle, by Shozo Numa, is a "classic" Japanese novel of male masochism. It's about an aristocratic German woman and her Japanese fiance, who fall into the hands of a future interstellar empire in which descendants of East Asians are regarded as subhuman and permanently treated as animals or in even more degrading ways. In the course of the book the Japanese man is reduced to the status of an animal, and his fiancee comes to think of him as an animal. (In fact the book is even more extreme than this description makes it sound, but I think I've said enough to make my point, and I don't want to turn reader's stomachs unnecessarily.) This sounds like something you would find in the darkest corners of the internet, but a number of Japanese critics and writers have taken it seriously as literature. (For an example, see here.) It's been repeated multiple times since it was first published in 1956, and is still in print.

In view of the way Oshimi calls attention to Kasuga's ownership of Yapoo the Human Cattle, my answer to the question posed in the title of this post is "Yes, he probably is."

*The author of the book to the right of the photograph is the French novelist J. K. Huysmans, not J. K. Rowling.

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Friday, September 07, 2012

MANGA CORNER: I AM THE BEATLES [BOKU WA BIITORUZU] BY TETSUO FUJII AND KAIJI KAWAGUCHI, VOLS. 1 & 2

At a panel at this year's Comic-Con, Carlo Santos named I Am the Beatles as the never-licensed manga he'd most like to see published in the U.S.* I happen to have read the first volume and part of the second, so I thought I would write up my impressions. Note that this review is mostly from memory, so there may be inaccuracies.

The Fab Four are the top Beatles tribute band in Japan, and have been invited to compete for the Beatles tribute band world championship. Makoto, the band's "Paul," has even greater ambitions for the Fab Four: he dreams of the band writing its own "Beatles" songs and becoming the 21st century's Beatles. Before the world championship, though, Rei, the band's "John," stuns the rest of the band by announcing that he's quitting. While he and Makoto are fighting about this, Makoto and Shou, the band's "George," are mysteriously transported back to 1961, a year before the Beatles' recording debut.

Makoto and Shou have to make a living, but there's obviously no demand for a Beatles' tribute band in 1961. So Makoto comes up with the idea of recreating the Fab Four and playing Beatles songs, but presenting them as their own original songs, since nobody in Japan has heard them. In effect, they would become the Beatles, only Japanese. This might seem like a crappy thing to do to your idols, but Makoto has a justification, or at least a rationalization: when the Beatles discover that the songs they were going to write have already been written, they'll have to write new songs, thus doubling the number of Beatles songs in the world.

Despite this tantalizing premise, I quit reading partway through the second volume. Near the start of the series, the manager of a club for Beatles tribute bands remarks that the Fab Four are unusual in being young, since most Beatles tribute bands are middle-aged. And the primary audience for the series seems to be people like the members of those other tribute bands: nostalgiac middle-aged men who fantasize about being the Beatles. I like the Beatles, but I don't dream of being them. Nor am I excited by the thought of playing instruments exactly the same as the ones the early Beatles played, as Makoto and Shou are and as the reader is supposed to be. Still, the art is good and so is the writing so far, despite my reservations. If I have time, I might pick it up again one day.

The series, which finished recently, is ten volumes long, and is published by Koudansha in Japan in their Morning KC line. Here's the amazon.co.jp page of the first volume, and you can follow the links from there to find the others. As you'll see, the series has mixed reviews on amazon.co.jp, but some of the bad reviews are by Beatles fans outraged at what Makoto and Shou are doing to the Beatles. If I thought that the authors endorsed Makoto and Shou's actions, I'd agree with their criticisms, but I don't think so, based upon a spoiler for later volumes I happened to come across.

*In the article I've linked to, the title is translated as "We Are the Beatles," and elsewhere I've seen it translated both ways.

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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

MANGA CORNER: THREE BY SHINTARO KAGO

About a month ago, having decided that Shintaro Kago is seriously underrated, I ordered from Sanseidoh, the Japanese bookstore in Arlington Heights, almost all the Kago manga amazon.co.jp carried which I didn't already own. Three of them have come in so far, all recent, including two that came out this year. A few days ago I picked them up. I've looked at them, but haven't read much yet, so these aren't reviews.

Antlion vs Barabara Girl, the oldest of the three, was published in 2009 and contains stories published between 2006 and 2008. In Fraction, the "Shintaro Kago" character said that he needed to write more mainstream manga. Though that was a fictional character, the stories here apparently were published in mainstream magazines: slightly over half appeared in Young Jump and the rest in Horror M, which I've never heard of but I'm guessing is also a mainstream magazine.

To what extent did this affect the stories' content? I didn't spot any explicit sex or scatology and there's little nudity. Compared to other mainstream manga, however, these stories are still very bloody and grotesque; and looking at them, I don't get the sense that they're watered down.

Toko Tochu no Deai Gashira no Guzen Kiss wa Ariuruka? Experiment [When Two People Collide on the Way to High School, Is It Possible that They Will Accidentally Kiss? Experiment], published in April of this year, mostly contains very short stories. It starts off with a color section containing nineteen twisted single-page -- and frequently single-panel -- gags which originally appeared in VICE magazine. The rest of the book contains twenty four-page stories, most of which appeared in Ax, and six longer stories ranging from seven to sixteen pages. Some of the Ax stories revisit the formal experimentation that first attracted me, and no doubt others, to Kago.

Harem End [Haarem Endo] was published only last month. Thicker than an average tankoubon, the title story itself is almost two hundred pages long. It starts out like the most banal, cliched "harem manga" imaginable, as a new college student finds himself, through a series of improbable plot contrivances, living with five women representing various stereotyped "girlfriend" types: the tsundere, the glasses girl, the silent girl wearing an eye bandage and so on. But after seventeen pages of this the story abruptly turns into a "normal" Kago story. A second plot strand concerns a sinister anime studio. Rounding out the volume are five eight-page stories. The first three of these, at least, appear to be linked.

I picked up some non-Kago boos too, which I'll try to report on soon.

The Kago books' amazon.co.jp pages are here, here and here.

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Sunday, June 03, 2012

MANGA ROUNDUP

One of the original purposes of this blog was to be a source of information about Japanese-language manga. In line with this, each time I've come back from a trip with a bunch of Japanese-language manga, I've planned to post descriptions of them. And each time I never get around to it. This time, I was determined that things would be different. Thus, here are brief descriptions of some of the manga I bought on my most recent trip to Sanseido. These aren't reviews; I even haven't read any of these yet, except for a quick reading of the first chapter of one manga (because otherwise I would have had no idea what it was about). I've included links to the books' amazon.co.jp pages.

Billy Bat vol. 9 by Naoki Urasawa: I haven't glanced at the interior yet, for fear of spoilers. I haven't even removed the shrink-wrap, and I'm doing my best to not look closely at the covers. All I can tell you is that the front cover has a striking image: the artist with the bushy white hair and beard whom I mentioned in my review of the last two volumes is painting a large outline of the Bat in red, which seems to be between the artist and the viewer, as if he was painting on a transparent glass sheet placed between himself and the viewer.

In Wonderland (vol. 1) by Takahiro Yabauchi: This pastoral fantasy manga is another variation of Alice in Wonderland. Its protagonist is a girl named Elise who is not visiting, but lives in Wonderland along with many of Lewis Carroll's characters. Thankfully, there's no attempt to make Wonderland grim and gritty. In fact, this Wonderland is a happier, more peaceful place than the original, in which there was a lot of shouting and people being rude. I bought this mainly because of the artwork, which does have much of the flavor of John Tenniel's original illustrations, though Yabauchi's line, unlike Tenniel's, is thin and fragile. (I put "vol. 1" in parentheses because there's no indication in the volume that the story is not complete, but in fact it continues beyond this volume and as far as I know is still ongoing.)

The Night Has A Thousand Eyes [Yoru wa Sen no Me o Motsu] by Kentaro Ueno: This is a hefty (478 pp.) collection of 4- to 8-page gag stories. It's pretty meta stuff, with Ueno obviously parodying a wide variety of artists, though I'm not familiar enough with manga to recognize more than a few of the artists parodied, and of these the only one I've read is Shiriagari Kotobuki. Also of note is a single-page adaptation of Les Miserables in 175 tiny panels. The stories here all appeared between 1998 and 2003, but the series is still running in Comic Beam.

R - Chuugakusei vol. 1 [R - Middle Schooler] by Yukiko Gotoh: Unlike the previous two manga, it's not easy to tell what kind of manga this is without reading it. But it appears to be a romantic comedy with a rather weird premise. The male protagonist, a second-year middle schooler, is a self-proclaimed "smell fetishist" who is especially turned on by dirty articles that girls have discarded. When he meets a girl who is willing to give him her used sanitary napkin, he's in heaven. Despite the premise, there's no sex in the manga (or at least none that I noticed when I skimmed it) and virtually no nudity. Again, I picked this up mainly for the art: Gotoh has an unusual style, and her used of solid blacks is striking.

Naniwadora Ihon vol. 1 by Takashi Morimoto: Again, it's hard to tell what kind of manga this is without reading it, but it appears to be a drama set in Edo-period Japan about an elegant but ferocious woman and her young daughter. To be honest, I don't remember why I special-ordered this. Maybe I was just in an expansive mood. But it turns out, just like the two previous manga, to have a distinctive style influenced by Edo-period prints, the faces in particular. It won a Tezuka Osamu Cultural Award in 2004.

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