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Tuesday, March 30, 2004

NOBODY DOES IT BETTER? (A FEW THOUGHTS ON SUPERHEROES)

As I mentioned in a previous post, while I have no aesthetic interest in contemporary superhero comics, I do find myself fascinated by the "industry." In particular, the fact that the medium of comics is commercially dominated by a genre which is virtually nonexistent outside that genre is a mystery which intrigues me. Nor am I the only one intrigued by it, apparently: there's been a good deal of related discussion in the comics blogosphere in recent weeks. And so, via The Hurting, a column by Paul O'Brien on why fans of superhero comics generally don't read other genres of comics. Most of what O'Brien says I agree with. However, at one point he says that comics "do superheroes better, and more, than pretty much anyone else." "More," unquestionably; but better? This is a commonplace, of course, and forty years ago, or even twenty years ago, it may well have been true. But it's not true today, at least if we're speaking in terms of popular appeal. The essence of superheroes, the thing that gives them what appeal to the general public they have, is people in colorful costumes performing extraordinary feats. And movies today, with their sophisticated special effects and CG effects, can present such feats far more effectively than comics. (Some superhero fans may argue in reply that a fight scene drawn by an artist like Kirby actually has more impact than a fight acted out by live actors. In the first place, obviously, few if any of today's artists are of Kirby's caliber. But even if they were, it probably wouldn't make much difference. People made similar arguments about silent vs. sound movies, and radio drama vs. TV, and it didn't help: the majority will always go for the more literal medium.)

Hence the absence of "spill-over" from successful superhero movies to superhero comics. This has been blamed upon the fact that continuing superhero comic titles provide no jumping-in points for new readers, but I think this is only part of the reason. To the general public that watched the Spiderman or X-Men movies, the facts that the character was originally a comic and that comics are the "home" of superheroes are neither here nor there. They didn't go to those movies because they were interested in superheroes per se, or in those particular characters: they went because they wanted to see exciting action. And on that level comics are a poor second to movies.

This isn't to say that superhero comics don't offer anything that superhero movies don't. They do: they offer elaborate multi-hero universes, endless soap-operatic plotlines, and continuity stretching back decades, which movies can't match. But these features have no intrinsic link to superheroes: it's historical contingency which explains why superhero comics came to display these features, rather than, say, funny-animal comics. I'd go so far as to say that it is these features, rather than superheroes per se, which are the real attraction of superhero comics for their current readers. To back up this assertion, or even to make it plausible, would take another and longer post. But as a small piece of supporting evidence, I'll point to the persistent failure of comics like Batman Adventures, which are intended to be general reader-friendly, and so steer clear of these features, in the direct sales market.

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INITIAL D MANGA

If you're looking for a translated manga that doesn't look "like manga," you may want to check this out. Actually, it doesn't look like any other comic I've seen, manga or no. The artist is Shuichi Shigeno: his stiff figures and odd-looking faces give me the impression that he's self-taught, but have their own charm. I like the idea that a manga with a style as idiosyncratic as this can be a huge bestseller in Japan.

Tokyopop, which publishes the U.S. edition, has taken a lot of flak for Americanizing the characters' names (which doesn't bother me all that much), and for altering the plot, which does bother me. In any case, what I've seen of the story (I've only read vol. 6, which I checked out of the library) didn't interest me that much. I'm not recommending you buy this; but if you're interested in manga's stylistic range, you should at least look at it.

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Monday, March 29, 2004

MORE LIVE-ACTION OSHII

I recently saw two more live-action films by Mamoru Oshii: Stray Dog: Kerberos Panzer Cops and The Red Spectacles. (In the U.S., these films are packaged in a boxed set along with Talking Head.) Of the three films, Stray Dog is the most nearly conventional. It begins like an straightforward action film, with a former member of an elite anti-crime police unit that was violently suppressed by the government coming to Taiwan to search for his former superior. But the plot soon slows to a crawl in favor of long sequences showing the protagonist and his superior's ex-girlfriend walking or driving through Taiwan's streets or countryside. The film is stylized, reminding me of Wong Kar-wai (not that I've watched much Wong Kar-wai). But it remains within the bounds of orthodox narrative filmmaking, except for two "action" scenes near the end that cross over into parody.

The Red Spectacles is another kettle of fish. Though ostensibly a sequel to Stray Dog, it's completely different in both style and tone. It begins even more conventionally, with a bloody shootout. After the credits, the film immediately shifts to black and white, but for a while it still seems like a straightforward action film. Soon, however, Oshii pushes the stylization of both plot and acting to the point of parody and way beyond. Combined with the storyline's incomprehensibility, the result is like nothing so much as one of Raul Ruiz's more opaque films. (Like Ruiz's Life Is a Dream, a similarly incomprehensible "thriller," The Red Spectacles contains several scenes set in a movie theater. In this case, the theater's screen shows only a static close-up of the upper part of a woman's face, no matter what is playing on the theater's soundtrack.)

There is no evident connection between either of these films and Talking Head. There may be a peripheral connection, but I'd have to watch Talking Head again to say. As with Talking Head, a single viewing isn't enough to judge these films, though if pressed I'd say that The Red Spectacles struck me as the most successful (but I like Ruiz).

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Sunday, March 28, 2004

THE MANGA CORNER: I'M GONNA BE AN ANGEL!

The second disk of the I'm Gonna Be an Angel! anime just came out, so to commemorate the occasion, I thought I'd post a review of the I'm Gonna Be an Angel! manga which I wrote for the AnimeonDVD Manga Forum. This is not only the first manga review I wrote (I've edited it a bit), but the first manga I ever read in the original language. Unlike other manga I've discussed here, this one won't expand anyone's view of manga; in fact, it would fit comfortably into the current lines of most American manga publishers. But you may find the review of interest anyway.

Tenshi ni narumon'!
Manga: Tetsuya Ohno
Original plan (gen'an): Nishikiori Hiroshi
Kadokawa Comics, 2 vols
vol. 1: ISBN 4-04-713295-0, 540 yen
vol. 2: ISBN 4-04-713310-8, 560 yen

The basic set-up of the Tenshi ni narumon'! manga is the same as that of the anime, which is being released here under the title "I'm Gonna Be an Angel!" For those who haven't seen the anime, a brief precis: Yuusuke, a high school (?) student who lives by himself because his parents have been transferred, on his way to school one day falls off his bike and lands on top of a naked girl with a halo floating above her head, inadvertently kissing her. Instead of punching him, the girl, whose name is Noelle, joyfully greets him as her "groom," instantly falling in love with him. Yuusuke is at first intrigued, but this turns to dismay when Noelle appears in his school as a transfer student, publicly embraces him, and keeps following him around. To make things worse, when Yuusuke gets home he finds that Noelle's "family" has moved into his house. This consists of various supernatural beings, including a witch, an invisible girl, and a Frankenstein's monster look-alike (the "father"); and they all take Yuusuke's "engagement" very seriously.

Noelle has a good heart, but is very naive (a less charitable way of putting it would be "thick as a brick"). When she finds a letter Yuusuke wrote to the girl he really loves, calling her his "angel," she jumps to the conclusion that Yuusuke loves real angels, and determines to become an angel for Yuusuke--hence the title--despite having no idea of how to accomplish this. Though Yuusuke is initially quite annoyed by Noelle's devotion, he gradually comes to feel an affection for her. But there are others who are interested in Noelle, though their connection to her isn't clear at first: a mysterious young man named Michael, who keeps showing up around Noelle; a sinister figure named Dispel, who keeps a young woman named Silkie in chains and who seeks to prevent Noelle from becoming an angel; and Dispel's minion, the cat-girl Miruru. Following a pattern common in anime, the first volume is episodic, with much of it given over to the stories of characters who are minor to the series as a whole; the second half is more intense, as the plot gathers steam, with several characters turning out to be more, or less, than what they first appeared to be.

Most of the people who would be interested in this manga, though, will probably have seen the anime, at least what's been released in the U.S. So how does the manga compare with the anime? Plot-wise, they aren't too dissimilar, at least up to episode nine of the anime, which is as far as I've seen. The manga completely lacks the monster-of-the-week aspect of the anime; and Noelle's family is much less of a presence in the manga than in the anime. But so far, the major events of the anime correspond to those of the manga.

In terms of tone, though, the manga and anime are quite different. The anime often feels like a cartoon for young children, though there are also aspects that would go over their heads. The manga, in contrast, seems aimed straightforwardly at the adolescent male audience that reads series like "Oh! My Goddess" and "Video Girl Ai." This isn't necessarily to the manga's advantage: the schizophrenic nature of the anime is part of its charm. Noelle's character is also toned down a great deal in the manga compared to the anime. Her extreme naivete and ignorance are a lot less in evidence, as is her hyper-cuteness.

The artistic styles of the manga and anime also differ quite a bit. The animation of the anime is some of the most imaginative I've seen in anime, reminscent of some of the wilder 1930s Warners cartoons. In contrast, the art for the manga is pretty conventional. Which is not to say it's bad -- while it's not spectacular, it's expressive, and does a good job of telling the story. Backgrounds are generally very simple, when they're present at all; the elaborate and imaginative depictions of the interior of Yuusuke's transformed house present in the anime are absent from the manga.

Judging by what I've seen of the anime so far, the manga seems to move at a much brisker pace (not surprisingly, since the anime is twenty-six episodes long but the manga is only two volumes). In fact, the first volume of the manga feels rushed. The characters of Yuusuke and Noelle especially suffer from this. They aren't given enough time to develop, and ultimately don't transcend their templates: Noelle as the girl who's not too bright but has a heart of gold, and Yuusuke as the typical male protagonist of a magical-guest series (though with less interest in sex than the norm). Several of the secondary characters are quite interesting, though, particularly in the second volume.

Despite the reservations above, I recommend this. While it's not a groundbreaking manga, and people are unlikely to fall in love with the manga the way some (such as myself) have with the anime, it's enjoyable in its own right, with an intriguing plot and a satisfying resolution. And those who were intrigued by the idea of the anime but can't take the hyper-cuteness, or find the anime Noelle just too annoying, may want to give the manga a try. And at only two volumes, it's short and sweet.

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Friday, March 26, 2004

FOR GOD'S SAKE, PUT DC COMICS OUT OF ITS MISERY ALREADY

I have virtually no aesthetic interest in "mainstream" comic books, but I'll admit to a certain detached fascination with the industry. (Not entirely detached, since alternative comics are still dependent for their survival upon the direct sales market, which is dependent upon superheroes.) So I found this analysis of DC's month-to-month sales over the past year (via The Hurting interesting in a gruesome sort of way. Only four of DC's titles have regular circulations of over 50,000? That's beyond pathetic. (I realize that ICV2's figures, used here, are open to question, but even if they were 20% too low, it would make little difference to the big picture.) If I were DC's publisher, I'd be lying awake nights terrified that my corporate bosses at AOL-Time-Warner would one day ask themselves: "We're a billion-dollar corporation. Why are we wasting our time and resources on chickenshit like this?"

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Thursday, March 25, 2004

MUSIC OF THE GOTHIC ERA

In the days when it was possible to check LPs out of libraries, one of my favorite records was Music of the Gothic Era by the Early Music Consort of London, directed by David Munrow. After I'd moved away from the library that owned it, I looked for it in record bins when I got the chance, but with no luck. I also listened to other recordings of medieval music, including The Art of Courtly Love, another recording by Munrow and the Early Music Consort of London covering a somewhat later period (iirc), and critical favorites The Anonymous Four. But none of these did it for me the way Music of the Gothic Era did.

When I was in the Bay Area last month, I went to Amoeba Records in Berkeley, and they had Music of the Gothic Era on CD (a German import). I'd bought a bunch of other CDs too, so it took me a while to get around to listening to it, but the other day I did, and it was just as gorgeous as I'd remembered it being.

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Tuesday, March 23, 2004

THE MANGA CORNER: MINAMI'S GIRLFRIEND

I've mentioned Minami kun no koibito ("Minami's Girlfriend") by Shungicu Uchida before, and now I've finally read it. Minami, the protagonist, is an ordinary high school boy whose girlfriend, Chiyomi, has inexplicably shrunk to a few inches in height. Because Chiyomi can't stand the thought of having to take a medical examination, she insists that Minami keep her condition secret from everyone, including her parents, and she lives secretly inside a doll house in Minami's room. The single-volume manga portrays their everyday life together.

From the subject matter and a superficial scan of the art, I had expected this to be a light-hearted romp, but that's not the case at all. Chiyomi desperately wants her old body back. She's completely dependent upon Minami and, although she doesn't seem to mind this per se, she is unhappy at having to impose upon him. Also, they can't have sex; their substitute is for Minami to masturbate while looking at Chiyomi. For his part, Minami can't help thinking of Chiyomi as a pet or toy, though he tries not to and feels guilty when he does.

Ultimately, the book is quite sad. Chiyomi is a type of girl frequently found in manga and anime: cheerful, optimistic, good-hearted, devoted (if she's in love) but not too bright. Usually, these girls triumph in the end over all obstacles. Minami suggests that in real life, things don't work out so well. The relationship between Minami and Chiyomi is also a metaphor for male-female relationships in general, a point underlined when another girl tells Minami that her boyfriend treats her like a toy. From the book's afterward, and from a brief essay found in a collection of Uchida's essays called Yarare onna no iikata, we learn that she wrote the final chapters of Minami in the aftermath of having broken off relations with her family, in which she had been sexually abused, and this experience influenced the course of the manga.

If this makes it sound like the manga is a strident tract, it's not. Uchida writes with a light touch, which makes the pain and unhappiness even more devastating. Minami himself is a likable character who honestly tries to do the right thing, without being a saint. The manga is nearly all from his perspective, and Uchida does a very good job of writing a convincing teenage boy. Compared to Minami, Chiyomi is a bit too stereotypical to ring true.

The art is looser than the average manga, but expressive. The storytelling is fluent and straightforward, with none of the extravagances of a typical shoujo manga. (A digression: I've seen complaints that reviewers of comics typically focus on the writing, saying little about the art. I agree, and I know I commit this sin myself. I do so for a couple of reasons. I lack the vocabulary to discuss art or visual storytelling--this latter vocabulary scarcely exists, in fact, aside from terms borrowed from film, but that's a matter for another post. And even if I had the vocabulary, people wouldn't know what I was talking about without illustrations; but I lack a scanner, and realistically few if any of my readers will be able to examine the manga itself.)

In summary, this is a very good manga, and if it were published here, it would outclass at least ninety percent of alternative comics. I'm looking forward to reading more works by Uchida.

The edition I have is a revised edition, but I don't know how the revision differs from the original (though I gather from the essay mentioned above that the ending is the same). It's published by Bunshun Bunko, the ISBN is 4-16-726706-3, and the price is 590 yen. If you have access to a Japanese used bookstore, though, it's worth checking there, as it's a popular book; remember to check the fiction section as well as the manga section.

Incidentally, this book bears out what I said a couple weeks ago about not being scared of kanji without furigana. The Japanese-language manga I read immediately before this one was vol. 3 of Fruits Basket. Even though Fruits Basket has furigana throughout, whereas Minami doesn't, Minami was much easier to read than Fruits Basket. The main difficulty in reading Japanese is not attaching meanings to words, provided you have a good dictionary and character dictionary; it's understanding how the words fit together in a sentence. What makes this difficult is primarily the fondness of Japanese writers, including manga writers, for long, complex sentences with several relative clauses. (Specific features of the Japanese language and Japanese writing make such sentences particularly difficult to decipher.) And for whatever reason, perhaps because the characters in Minami are less introspective, such sentences are much less common in Minami than in Fruits Basket.

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Saturday, March 20, 2004

RUSSIAN ARK AND TALKING HEAD

I recently saw a pair of unusual films on DVD, both of which stretch our normal idea of what a movie is in different ways. Russian Ark, directed by Alexander Sokurov, is basically a single, 86-minute tracking shot with no cuts or editing, tracking through the rooms of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, the former Winter Palace of the tsars, in the course of which we see scenes from the Palace's three-hundred year history. This is supposedly the first feature film to consist of a single shot, and Sokurov didn't make things easy on himself, employing approximately two thousand actors and extras, most in elaborate costumes. Listening to the commentary by one of the producers, I learned that the production was even more of a feat, and more precarious, than was apparent from watching the film. They only had one day to shoot, because the Museum wouldn't close for more than one day. There were three false starts before the take which became the movie, but because the batteries were running low, the fourth take would have to be the final take: had something gone wrong during that take, there would have been no movie. Whether there is much more to the movie than a brilliant stunt, combined with a travelogue of the Hermitage, I'm still not sure even after three viewings.

Talking Head is a live-action movie directed by Mamoru Oshii, who of course directed Ghost in the Shell; but it has nothing in common with that anime, or with his earlier live-action film Avalon. It begins fairly normally: a "migrant anime director" who specializes in rescuing troubled projects, and is known for being able to complete any film on time and in a style indistinguishable from the original director's, is hired to finish the anime project "Talking Head." In this case, the director has disappeared without leaving a script, a scenario, or any record of his intentions, except that the film was to be a radical break from his style up to that point. But very soon, we start seeing examples of flagrantly non-naturalistic acting, and even more flagrantly non-realistic sets. Most of the "offices" in which the film takes place are sets with only one wall constructed on a visible wooden stage, with doors that lead nowhere, though the characters behave as if they're in a real office; and an ostensibly speeding car is in fact an obviously stationary car placed on the same wooden stage. And when the members of the former director's staff, when interviewed in order to get a clue as to what his intentions were, begin delivering lectures on film theory, it's clear that Oshii is aiming for something closer to Godard's films of the past two decades than to any film that most of the potential audience for this film would have ever seen. After having watched it only once, I'm more inclined to classify it as an interesting experiment rather than a realized work of art; but I'd need to watch it again to reach a definite conclusion. And I do want to watch it again, unlike most films I see.

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Friday, March 19, 2004

RAIJIN GOES ON HIATUS

For those who haven't yet heard the news, Raijin magazine will be going on hiatus, along with its associated line of GNs, Gutsoon. This Newsarama thread has details and discussion (via The Hurting; if permalinks don't work, it's under Tuesday, March 16, 2004). I think that Althalus and Alex Scott, on that thread, have the best takes on the subject, and that Raijin's fall was a matter of poor marketing decisions, rather than a sign of a broader manga collapse.

Personally, Raijin's fall makes very little difference to me: the only one of its series which interested me at all was "Guardian Angel Getten," and while the first GN of that series was kind of sweet, I'd decided against buying the second volume. Still, Raijin did add a bit of diversity to an American manga scene which is still lacking in this quality; and to the extent that its fall makes other publishers more reluctant to publish series intended for adults, or oddball-type series such as "Bow Wow Wata," it's unfortunate.

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Tuesday, March 16, 2004

A FAVORITE LINE

One of my favorite lines in any comic is a caption in Jimmy Corrigan by Chris Ware, in a two-page spread recapitulating the story up to that point: "Meanwhile one hundred years ago..." (about a quarter of the way through the book; unfortunately, there are no page numbers).

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Monday, March 15, 2004

MANGA CORNER: AZUMANGA RECYCLE

If you're a fan of Azumanga Daioh, and also a fan of Tenchi, Pretty Sammy, or Battle Athletes Daiundokai (known in the U.S. as either Battle Athletes or Battle Athletes Victory), then Azumanga Risaikuru by Kiyohiko Azuma might be just the manga for you. (Or maybe not, since I haven't read it yet.) It's a collection of short humor strips ranging in length from four panels to fifteen pages, but mostly two to five pages, featuring the series mentioned above. The strips seem to have been produced mainly to accompany laserdiscs, games, and such. Azuma's art here is in the style of the respective series, rather than of Azumanga Daioh, but the humor in at least some of the strips does seem to be somewhat Azumanga Daioh-ish. And there's really not much more I can say about it until I read it. But I do want to mention the "original" character Azuma created for these strips, Oyaji Ryo-oh-ki. (If you don't know what an oyaji is, read Short Cuts vol. 1, particularly the translator's notes for Cut-46).

One unusual thing about this book is that some of the strips read from left to right, rather than from right to left as do all the other Japanese-language manga I've seen.

The ISBN is 4-8402-1861-7, and the price 850 yen. The publisher is Mediaworks, though the name of the "line" is Dengeki Comics Ex.

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Sunday, March 14, 2004

"THE SILENT INTERMEDIARY: THOUGHTS ON TRANSLATION"

An interesting article by Joan Tate, a literary translator (via Language Hat). Since I began trying to read Japanese, I've been thinking quite a bit about translation, and I hope to record some of my thoughts here someday. But for now this article will have to do.

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Friday, March 12, 2004

STACY

The other day I mentioned that the manga creator Shungicu Uchida had acted in the film Stacy, among others. This mention prompted me to watch the film again, and I can definitely say that it is one of the most bizarre films I've ever seen.

The premise of the film, directed by Naoyuki Tomomatsu and based upon a novel by Kenji Otsuki, is that all over the world 15 to 17-year-old girls are dying and returning to life as cannibalistic zombies, known as "Stacies" for some reason. Shortly before dying, the girls enter a state of "Near Death Happiness" in which they joyfully accept everything, including their imminent deaths. The only way to destroy a "Stacy" is to chop it into little pieces (since larger pieces remain "alive"), a process known as "repeat killing." Families are encouraged to repeat kill their own daughters once they've become Stacies, but for those who don't have the guts, or the opportunity, to do so, there is an official agency known as the "Romero Repeat Kill Troops." (There are a lot of in-jokes for zombie aficianados in the film.) Much of the film's plot revolves around two poor schlubs who join the RRK. One of them is assigned to guard a mad-scientist type doctor (played by Yasutaka Tsutsui, whom Patrick Macias describes in the liner notes as "the father of Japanese metafiction," in a ludicrously over-the-top performance) who performs grisly experiments on captured Stacies, as well as to dispose of the "waste" tissue, which is sometimes still twitching. The other, only marginally more fortunate, is requisitioned by their squad's female captain (Shungicu Uchida) to occupy her bed. (As he exits with the captain, one of the senior troopers remarks: "I hope he doesn't commit suicide like the last one.") Eventually, the first one (I think) goes insane and releases the captured Stacies. There's also a competing, illegal, "repeat kill" squad, made up of three teenage girls who are trying to make enough money to pay the pop star they idolize to "repeat kill" them once they become Stacies. In the climax of the movie's action (which is not the same as the climax of the movie as a whole), the two competing squads and the released Stacies all come together.

Intercut with the action scenes, and seemingly unconnected to them, is the story of Shibukawa (Toshinori Omi, whose understated performance is a linchpin of the movie), who meets and falls in love with Eiko (Natsuki Kato), a girl in a state of "Near Death Happiness," who asks him to promise to repeat kill her.

So far so good; and Tomomatsu milks this scenario for its full share of gruesome effects and black comedy. (We see a commercial for a chainsaw called the "Bruce Campbell Right Hand 2," pitched by a woman wearing a bunny suit.) But it's what happens after the climactic battle between the two repeat kill squads, in the film's final twenty or so minutes (chapters 13 and after on the DVD), that it gets really weird. I won't try to describe what happens in these scenes. I'll just say that despite all the gore, the film winds up being unexpectedly moving, even poetic, while offering a bizarre vision of salvation via teenage girls. There's also a subtextual implication that the girls are dying because they're too good for the world.

I originally planned to begin this post by saying that the film was an extreme example of the idolization/fetishization of the adolescent girl visible in so much of Japanese popular culture. Having finally read Macias's liner notes (my video rental store doesn't distribute liner notes with rentals), I realize that he had anticipated me with this angle, and has some very interesting things to say about it. He also reports that the Tomomatsu, the director, had had an affair with a high school-age porn actress, and stalked her extensively after they broke up.

Stacy is the only zombie film I've seen, but judging from the reviews I've read on the web, it's extremely gory even compared to other zombie films, and I can believe it. None of the gore, however, is as disturbing as a scene in which Eiko encounters a burnt-out Romero squad and smilingly tells them that the girls all love them and they shouldn't feel bad, while one by one they burst into tears.

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Tuesday, March 09, 2004

MANGA CORNER: SHUNGICU UCHIDA

Back in January (Jan. 28, if permalinks still aren't working), I briefly discussed a few manga I'd purchased by Shungicu Uchida, or Shungiku Uchida (the former romanization is irregular, but is apparently the one she prefers), one of which was Minami kun no koibito, about a boy whose girlfriend is only a few inches tall. Since then I've discovered that she's a considerably more important figure than I'd thought.

It started at the SF Kinokuniya, where I bought a few more manga by her. One of these, Watashitachi wa hanshoku shite iru ("We Are Reproducing"), I thought I'd remembered reading about in Frederik L. Schodt's Dreamland Japan. When I got a chance to look it up, it turned out I was right: Uchida is one of about two dozen artists whom Schodt profiles in his book, and that particular manga, which depicts the birth of her own child, won what Schodt calls "a prestigious literary award."

Uchida is also a prose writer, of both fiction and essays. One of her novels, a bestseller, is an autobiographical novel about her sexual abuse at her stepfather's hands entitled Fazaafakkaa ("Father Fucker"). A few days ago I went up to Chicago for a day, and spent much of it in Japanese bookstores. While looking for more novels by Uchida, I discovered that editions of some of her manga (including Minami kun no koibito) were shelved with fiction instead of manga in all three stores I visited, something I didn't observe for any other manga.

Minami kun no koibito was made into a live-action TV series (not an anime, as Schodt erroneously states), which might explain why I've gotten several hits from people searching specifically for that title. Uchida is herself an actor: she was in a TV series based upon another of her works, and in several films, including Visitor Q (directed by Takashi Miike), in which she played the mother, and the zombie film Stacy both of which have been released on DVD in the U.S.

Anyway, Uchida appears to be somewhat of a celebrity in Japan. I now own quite a number of her works, both manga and prose, and I'll report on them as I read them. In the meantime, Schodt's profile of her in Dreamland Japan is four pages long and includes samples of her art.

(Updated to add the info about Visitor Q and to correct an error.)

[Update: I've reviewed Minami kun no koibito above, on Mar. 23).]

APOLOGY

To the regular readers of this blog, if there are any, I apologize for the lack of updates. It's been a combination of lack of energy, a busy past few days, and the conflict (or "contradiction," as a Marxist would say) between actually writing in my blog and doing things, such as reading Japanese, which will give me something to write about. I'll try to do better in the future, though I can't promise anything.

Thursday, March 04, 2004

THE LAST HURRAH

During my recent flight from Illinois to California, I passed the time by rereading The Last Hurrah by Edwin O'Connor, a novel which had been one of my favorites as a teen. Published in 1956, it's a sentimental portrait of the allegedly vanishing world of Irish Catholic Boston (the city in which it's set is unnamed, but clearly modeled on Boston), using as its vehicle the mayoral re-election campaign of the boss of the city's corrupt political machine, Frank Skeffington, whom one of his opponents describes as "a rascal with a heart as big as Kansas." While it must be nearly forgotten today--even in the 1970s, when I first read it, I doubt that many other people my age were reading it--in its time, its combination of comedy, sentimentality, and the illusion of giving its reader the inside dope on politics made it both a popular and critical success.

Rereading it for the first time in several years, a detail which had never particularly struck me before caught my eye. Skeffington, attacking his chief opponent, a political novice, alludes to "a book I once read by one of the Irish writers. It was about a man who was born at the age of thirty-five with a full set of teeth." (Chapter 11) And the reason why this detail caught my eye is that it seemed to be an allusion to Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds, one of whose characters is similarly born as an adult. While Skeffington is said to have catholic (with a small c) tastes in reading, it's unlikely that he would have read At Swim-Two-Birds; nor does the book seem at first to have much in common with The Last Hurrah. Now that my attention had been drawn, though, I noticed other moments that seemed O'Brien-esque.* One of Skeffington's many suppliants, begging for money ostensibly to buy medicine but actually for alcohol, says of the putative medicine: "Ah costly's not the word Frank not the word at all. It's dear that's what it is. Terrible dear. And suppose a man only wants a bit of it it's still too damn dear if he's a poor man that is." (Ch. 1; punctuation sic) A brief anecdote describes how a 19th-century mayor of the city was kicked to death by a camel. (Ch. 3) The opponent of Skeffington mentioned above has a mania for the latest "scientific" discoveries, including wearing a Dacron cap at all times.

On a more blackly humorous note, another of Skeffington's foes has a confrontation with an Italian politician named Camaratta, and when it threatens to become physical, defends himself by waving a poker and yelling insults. Camaratta leaves, and "for a few seconds after he had gone, Garvey continued to leap and to brandish his weapon; it was as if he were some elderly, gnomelike, mechanical toy which, once set in motion, could not be stilled until it had run down." A little later, Garvey falls asleep and dreams that he is again holding the poker and Camaratta rushes at him: "now he was within striking distance. Garvey swung the poker, there was a loud squunch; the face of Camaratta disappeared, to be replaced, miraculously and immediately, by that of Skeffington. This too came closer; Garvey, yelling his defiance, swung the poker and hit him again and again and again and again. And on the tough little sleeping countenance, the smile grew ever broader; Festus Garvey was having a lovely dream. . . ." (Ch. 11)

More generally, I realized that, like O'Brien (or James Joyce) O'Connor was fascinated by cliches and banality. The book is a virtual catalogue of cliches: most of the characters use cliches at one time or another, and the real distinction is not between those who use cliches and those who don't, but between those who use them consciously and calculatedly, such as Skeffington (and his nephew, who writes and draws an inane but successful comic strip called "Little Simp"), and those more numerous characters who, without realizing it, speak entirely in cliches.

There are other aspects of the book which are even more incompatible with the overall sentimental tone. Skeffington, describing old Irish Catholic Boston to his nephew, idealizes its inhabitants; but those of its inhabitants we actually see are mainly fools or crooks. And when Skeffington is actually defeated, the first thought of the crowd of supporters at election headquarters who supposedly love him is of their own fate once City Hall's teat is withdrawn. Skeffington himself, for all the talk of his great heart, is quite hard-headed in his political calculations. And while we do see a couple examples of his fabled generosity, he appears to rely more upon his ability to bamboozle different audiences into thinking he shares their concerns, something he does consciously and cold-bloodedly.

This misanthropy extends to humanity in general. Nearly all the characters are either stupid, dishonest, or thoroughly unsympathetic. And the exceptions--Skeffington's apolitical nephew, a liberal reformer, a WASP philanthropist--are completely uninteresting as characters.

I'm not claiming that The Last Hurrah is a neglected masterpiece, though it is a good comic novel: ultimately the prevailing sentimentality overwhelms the "dark side" I've described above. But the cultural criticism and misanthropy are, I'm convinced, real; unlike in Wodehouse, say, where the feather-light tone would make such a reading obviously inappropriate.

*In fact, when I checked a copy of At Swim-Two-Birds, the original parallel I'd noticed wasn't as close as I'd remembered it as being, and it may be that O'Connor had not read O'Brien at all. But my broader point still holds.

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Wednesday, March 03, 2004

THE MANGA CORNER: NANJAMONJA HAKASE

A while ago, I remarked that the European clear-line style was about as far from the "typical" manga style as you could get. Well, at the SF Kinokuniya I purchased Nanjamonja Hakase: dokidokihen ("hakase" means "learned man" or "doctor"; "dokidokihen" is not found in my dictionary, but would mean something like "exciting volume" or "exciting collection") by Shinta Cho, which reminds me of Ft. Thunder. Not that there is a single Ft. Thunder style, of course; but Cho's approach to comics storytelling strikes me as similar to those of Ron Rege, Jr., Matt Brinkman and even Brian Chippendale. (But the first of the strips collected in this volume first appeared in 1993, before Ft. Thunder got started; and this is apparently the second collection.)

The book contains one hundred two-page strips, each of which contains sixteen rectangular panels, all the same size and shape (the first of which is always a title panel, and the second of which always contains the same caption). There are two regular characters, a man called Hakase and a large animal with a human-like face called Zooazarashi. These two appear in nearly every panel, and are always shown in extreme long shot, with Hakase's height never more than a third of the panel's height, and usually less. They are constantly travelling from right to left, and are usually shown facing that way; at any rate, they're always shown in profile, except for the last panel of each strip, in which they are shown from behind, exiting the scene. On their travels, they encounter such characters as a whale, a giant clam, a fish with legs, and an ambulatory bed. There are a lot of inanimate objects that turn out to be alive, or more generally, things that transform into other things. The art itself is simple and sketchy, with a line of constant width, eschewing shading or solid blacks completely: of the artists I mentioned above, it most resembles Rege's art, though the "geometric" quality of Rege's art is absent. Here's a page from the publisher's website with a sample strip. It's not clear to me what Cho's aim is with these strips; but if you're into Ft. Thunder-style experimentation, you should definitely check this out, even if you can't read Japanese.

The price is 1000 yen ($14 at Kinokuniya), the ISBN is 4-8340-0661-1, and the publisher is Fukuinkan Shoten (which seems from their webpage to be a children's publisher).

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Monday, March 01, 2004

THE HURTING

Tim O'Neil, in his blog The Hurting, has apparently decided to try and fill Dirk Deppey's shoes while iJournalista! is on hiatus, and is doing a very good job of it too. So I've added his blog to my sidebar (though it was good reading even before).

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PRETTY GIRLS 1000

Pretty Girls 1000 [Puriti Gaaruzu 1000] by Ryo Mizuno, one of the books I bought at the SF Kinokuniya, is not manga per se, but it is cartooning. The title is definitely a misnomer: while it does consist of a large number of drawings of girls (there may well be 1000, though the lack of page numbers makes it difficult to count), they are not pretty. Instead, the face or head of each girl is grotesquely distorted in a different way. Natsue, for instance, where her eyes should be, instead has two mouths from which large tongues protrude. Kino's eyes and nose are replaced by small panda faces. Moemi's head is a single gigantic breast with ears and hair attached. Ayuna's "head" is a wooden post with three oversized pairs of lips attached, and so on. This may sound reminiscent of Basil Wolverton, but (aside from the fact that the art style is quite different), Mizuno's aim doesn't seem to be to gross people out. Instead, it's... well, I don't really know. The obsessive nature of his project, and the attention to detail, suggest a fetishistic interest, but it's hard (though not impossible) to believe that Mizuno is turned on by all of these various deformities. The little paper sleeve around the book's jacket calls it "Yabai! Demo fushigi ni kawaii," which means something like "Awful! Yet strangely cute," and that's sort of my impression as well.

The price is 1,100 yen (Kinokuniya charged $15.40), the ISBN is 4-04-853467-X, and the publisher is Kadokawa Shoten.

TRANSCRIBING JAPANESE NAMES

Japanese names, like Chinese names, have the family name first, and the given name second, and that's how I've been writing them up till now. However, I've been noticing that when the Japanese themselves write Japanese names in romaji (our alphabet), they usually put the given name first and the family name second: not just when writing for the benefit of Westerners, but in publications that are entirely in Japanese. So I'm switching over to this system, beginning with the post above (thus Ryo is the artist's given name, and Mizuno is the family name). If and when I have time, I'll re-edit earlier posts to make them conform to my new policy. Until then, you'll just have to bear in mind that if I talk about, say, Kotobuki Shiriagari, it's the same person whom I earlier referred to as Shiriagari Kotobuki.

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