Tuesday, December 16, 2003


This is a slightly modified version of an email I wrote describing two more manga I've read, both by Shiriagari Kotobuki: A*su (I'm actually not sure how to romanize the title; the Japanese title consists of the characters for "a" and "su," and between them a large round circle of the kind that Japanese use to "blank out" a character) and Hinshi no Esseisuto, which means Dying Essayist or Essayist on the Verge of Death. These two are the best manga I've read: A*su in particular is one of the best comics of any sort that I've ever read.

A*su has essentially no action, nor is it about relationships; nor is it a comedy, though there are moments of dark humor. Instead, it is a psychological portrait of a mentally ill young woman, seen through her own eyes.

The book's protagonist and narrator (who is always drawn naked, but never tittilatingly so) is searching for friends, and the book consists of brief episodes from her quest. But she is schizophrenic, and the stories follow the twisted logic of her own mind, without distinguishing between reality, her delusions, and allegory. Though she is desperately lonely, the bizarre behavior that her illness gives rise to dooms her quest to failure: in one episode, for example, she tries to make friends by telling a stranger in a convenience store that the shampoo may be poisoned. But she is portrayed with such compassion, though without sentimentality, that I couldn't help empathizing with her in her hopeless situation.

The art is unlike any other manga I've seen (apart from Hinshi no Esseisuto), or any comic at all, for that matter. It's economical but very expressive, and far more flexible stylistically than most manga. Backgrounds and layouts are also simple: the most common layout is four wide panels of equal size, stacked vertically. On some pages, the art is overlaid with childlike scribbles spilling over the panel borders, representing the protagonist's perceptions. Unfortunately I don't own a scanner, and I don't know of any online samples of the book's interior art, but here's a link to a blurry picture of the book's cover, found by Joe Kuth.

Hinshi no Esseisuto is a series of short, essay-like (but fictional) chapters revolving around the themes of death and dying, narrated by a dying man in a hospital. Some of the chapters deal with the narrator's own life; most of these have an element of the uncanny or fantastic. Some deal with other patients: a man who meticulously plans his own deathbed scene, and a woman who obsessively scrutinizes her dreams to find out whether she will live or die, for example. Some are openly fantastic parables or fables. One of these takes place in a country where a fatal disease is rampant which can be transmitted merely by looking into another person's eyes, so nobody ever looks at another person's face; a man on his deathbed, who has never seen another face, asks to see his wife's face. The basic theme is that of the transience and value of life. It's a familiar theme, of course, but Shiriagari gives it a vividness and immediacy I've rarely encountered: I found rereading some of the chapters in preparation for this reply to be emotionally wrenching.

The ISBN for A*su is 4-921181-39-X, and that for Hinshi no Esseisuto is 4-921181-44-6. Both are published (I think) by Soft Magic.

Actually, these two books are atypical of Shiriagari's output, from what I gather: most of his works are comedies, and the one other serious work of his that I own is done in a completely different style from A*su and Hinshi no Esseisuto.

If what I've written about these, or any other, manga, piques your interest, I will try to post or link to info on ordering Japanese-language manga soon.

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