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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

BOOK CORNER: HOPE BY DENNIS PHILLIPS

To tell the truth, I haven't come across much new literary fiction that I've enjoyed recently. And this applies to the more adventurous stuff as well as to "mainstream" works. (I'd enjoyed Nazi Literature in the Americas, but gave up on The Savage Detectives around page two hundred.) However, I did enjoy Hope. Initially, it alternates between two stories: that of a contemporary poet marooned on a desert island, and that of a thirteenth-century monk. But fortunately it's not one of those books where the present and past stories are mysteriously connected, and the hero in the present has to solve a bunch of puzzles to find out what the connection is. There is a connection between the two stories, but it's not mysterious, and we find out what it is soon enough. As the novel continues, we realize that its main subject is the poet's obsession with two events which took place before the novel began: his married lover left him with no explanation, and his friend deserted him. In the second half of the book, both stories swerve in unexpected directions.

But it wasn't the book's plot which attracted me to it: it was the prose. It's not that the prose is particularly ornate. In fact, it's more its clarity that attracted me. But rather than try to explain further, I'll provide a couple of samples and let you decide. Here's the first paragraph of Chapter 1:

"Father Benedictus walks the concrete floors of his domain. It is a sunny morning on a hilltop and the view is of the sea, but the sea is mountains and the mountains have valleys and the valleys are filled with sacramental fog. It is the first sunny morning after weeks of rain. Father Benedictus commands a vista that oversees the fog and the sheer peaks that emerge from it. It is 1293."

And the first paragraph of Chapter 2 (the start of the present-day story):

"Behind me the palms are buzzing in the breeze. It's the twenty-eighth day of a spring that never seems to end. I'm on an island. I don't remember the year. I can hear the birds but I don't remember their names. Sometimes I can almost make out what they're saying. A year ago or two or ten I was left here. They might have killed me. Instead they didn't. I am less than fifty years old."

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Monday, July 21, 2008

MANGA CORNER: SHINTARO KAGO'S LATEST

Shintaro Kago is a creator of ero-guro (erotic-grotesque) manga who stands out both for such brilliant experimental stories as "Abstraction," "Multiplication," and "The Memories of Others," and for his creativity, in other stories, in finding ways to gross his readers out. There are almost no published English translations of his work, but there's an ongoing series of scanlations hosted on Same Hat! Same Hat! and also a repository of scanlations, most of which have not appeared on Same Hat, here (via Journalista). The three stories mentioned above can be found on Same Hat! and the first two in the second location as well. Note that all of these scanlations are NSFW. In fact, Kago and NSFW go together like a horse and carriage.

I recently purchased Kago's latest book, a collection entitled Ana, Moji, Ketsueki Nado Ga Arawareru Manga [Manga in Which Holes, Characters, Blood and so on Appear]. (There are NSFW scans of the cover and an interior two-page spread here (via Same Hat! via MangaBlog iirc)). Since the Kago scanlations on Same Hat! have attracted a fair amount of interest, I thought people might be interested in descriptions of the stories in his new book, even though none of them are as experimental as the three stories named above (but they aren't as disgusting as the Kago's grossest stories, either, with one exception).

The stories are divided into four groups, each group followed by a two-page "photomanga" (more on these later). The first group consists of take-offs on Japanese celebrities, although they're funny even if you don't know anything about the celebrities. In "Batoru RoAiyaru" [Battle RoAiyale] (the "Ai" in the Japanese title is written in kanji, in contrast to the rest of the title which is written in katakana), a parody of you-know-what, a bunch of celebrities named "Ai" battle to the death for the title of "Number 1 Ai-chan." Each fights with a tool or symbol of her occupation or profession: for instance, the ping-pong champion kills her opponents with deadly serves, while the best-selling novelist buries her opponent under a pile of her novels. Those of the contestants whom I looked up in Google are all real.

"Horie-kun to Horiemon" [Horie-kun and Horiemon] stars the flamboyant businessman Takafumi Horie, who is depicted here as a buffoon, and revolves around his failed attempt to buy a Japanese baseball team. In real life "Horiemon" is Horie's nickname as well as the name of a racehorse he owns, but in this story Horiemon is a Doraemon-like cartoon horse who uses "merger glue" to merge two teams together, creating an empty slot for Horie to fill with a team of his own. This story is actually G-rated until the final page, the only one of Kago's stories I've seen about which that could be said.

"Joshi Ana no Ana" [Woman Announcers' Holes] depicts a group of manga artists discussing why female announcers marry athletes but not manga artists. Eventually one proposes a theory akin to Dan Clowes' notorious piece on sports, which segues into a bizarre fantasy in which "wild" (and naked) female announcers are captured and trained to use pens instead of baseball bats to masturbate with.

The next group of stories have nothing in common that I can see, except that they may be parodies. In "Shiro no Joukei" [this could mean either "white scene" or "innocent nature"] a young man stops a young woman from committing suicide. It turns out that she is wearing a chastity belt beneath which her excreta are festering, while he is wearing a similar device which turns into a rotating drill whenever he gets an erection. Neither of these can be removed. It would seem that they're made for each other, but there's a catch. The style here is a bit different from Kago's usual style, so this might be a parody of some other manga. If not, it's pretty pointless.

"Man'in Densha" [Crowded Train] can be summed up in one word: yuck. It begins innocuously enough, with a woman being caught trying to ride a train without a ticket. But it soon becomes a sort of literalized metaphor equating riding a train with raping that woman. That's not very clear, I know. But it's one of those things which are clear when you see them, but very difficult to describe. Also, the details are just too disgusting. That said, the story is ingenious.

"Soushiko no Yoru" [Soushiko's Night] has to be a parody, because otherwise it makes no sense. Soushiko, a schoolgirl, is drawn like a shoujo heroine, with huge, glistening eyes, but she sure doesn't behave like one. It's Christmas Eve, and while waiting for Santa to fall into the trap her father has built, Soushiko terrorizes her family. Her hyperactive antics include peeing on her father; forcing her mother to cut a cake which contains living organs inside (a la Eraserhead) and making her eat a spoonful of the bloody stuff; and proclaiming that her younger brother is really her child by Santa.

The stories in the next section are the most formally experimental in the book. Because most of them are built around abstract ideas, they're difficult to summarize. They all belong to Kago's long-running "eki mae" ("in front of the station") series, which apparently ran in a single magazine. They don't take place in front of a station, and in fact I have no idea what the series' title signifies. In "Eki Mae Ankoku" [Darkness in Front of the Station] people start painting everything black, even the pages of newspapers and books -- but the protagonist's husband explains that it's better that way, since you can imagine what the newspaper originally said. As the story progresses, more and more of the surroundings are blacked out, until ultimately all we see is white bodies against a black void. Along the way, Kago makes fun of Japan's censoring of images of genitals.

In "Eki Mae Hanbun" [Half in Front of the Station] two kidnappers whose victim's father can only pay half the ransom announce they will only return half the victim. They then argue whether she should be cut in half vertically or horizontally, which leads to a discussion of "halfness" in general. The theme of "halfness" carries over to Kago's visual storytelling: not only are most panels symmetrically designed, but most depictions of faces display only half the face, with the other half hidden behind a panel border or something else. Again, it's hard to describe, but it's more ingenious than this description makes it sound.

In "Eki Mae Gesa" [Aberration in Front of the Station], a man complains that everything is uneven or slipping out of place, from the dimensions of rooms and the legs of tables, to men's penises as they're about to enter their partners. As the story progresses, the graphic elements on the page begin slipping out of place: first the panels "slip away" from the regular grid, then the contents of the panels are displaced from the panel borders and the dialogue is displaced from the balloons.

"Eki Mae Ichiji" [A Character in Front of the Station] is the best story in the book. It's also virtually untranslateable into English, because it's dependent upon the characteristics of the Japanese writing system. (It's from this story that the two-page spread mentioned in my second paragraph is taken.) It's built around the Oubapo-like constraint that every balloon and every sign contains only one character. This is possible because most Japanese characters are individually meaningful. Not only this, but in some panels or sequences of panels, every character has a common visual component (technically known as a radical). As a further gimmick, writing a character upon someone's skin controls their actions: for example, a man writes the letter "S" upon his unfaithful wife's chest, causing her to jump off a building; but she returns and writes "M" upon his chest, converting herself to a sadist and him to her masochist victim.

The book's final section is "Kago Shintaro Koten" [Shintaro Kago Classics]. This turns out to mean, not classic works by Kago, but classics (loosely defined) with a Kago twist. The first of these is "Dragon Buster." While the protagonist, and drawing style, do bear a resemblance to a certain very popular fighting strip, this is mainly a parody of sword and sorcery type comics: grateful villagers reward the protagonist for slaying a dragon by giving him three naked women, but it turns out that all three have medical conditions which prevent him from having sex with them. A pretty insubstantial story.

The next story, "Shin Nippon Mukashibanashi Zenshuu" [New Complete Japanese Folktales], begins as a parody of the Japanese folk legend "Momotaro," in which Momotaro has no wish to be a hero and eats the animals that in the original story form his retinue. But it goes on to parody a number of folktales and legends, including Cinderella and the Tower of Babel, which here is built inside a woman's womb (don't ask).

The next story is "Tetsuwan Uran no Shiawase Tokkyuubin" [Mighty Uranium's Happiness Express]. The title parodies Astro Boy, who is known as Tetsuwan Atom [Mighty Atom] in Japanese, and "Tetsuwan Uran" is a humanoid robot with rockets in her feet. But the story as a whole parodies the "magical guest" genre. Tetsuwan Uran, who looks like a Playboy Bunny (or "bunny girl," as the costume is known as in Japan), is determined to make her unwilling host happy. When she first appears, he's watching a porn video, so she brings him fifteen naked women resembling the actress in the video, all brainwashed into being his sex slaves. When this doesn't make him happy, she squashes them one by one with a ten-ton hammer. At the end of the story, she flies away for good, leaving him to try to explain the mound of corpses left in his apartment.

The next story, "Godzilla v.s. [sic] Gaigan" derives its title from the film Chikyuu Kogeki Meirei Gojira tai Gaigan, known in the U.S. as Godzilla vs. Gigan (note that Kago mixes American and Japanese spellings). A war has devastated the Earth, and the only humans left are a small group of naked young women (none of whom, judging by the events in the story, are very bright). A humanoid alien lands on Earth and with the help of her robot Gaigan kills them all, one by one. Gaigan has a "laser scalpel" which can cut through flesh and bone so cleanly that the victim feels no pain, and the story basically depicts Gaigan slicing and dicing (literally, in one case) its victims in various ingenious and grotesque ways. Godzilla never appears in the story, and the Gaigan here has no resemblance to the film's Gaigan, but the film does clarify some obscure points in the story (not that this really matters).

The final full-fledged story, "Taima Senki" (I think this translates as something like "Account of the War against the Demons") is a delirious parody of Japanese masked-superhero stories, in which the villains' plan is to castrate all of Earth's boys and they "convert" humans into their henchmen by repeatedly bashing them on the head with a hammer.

As I mentioned at the top, the book also contains four two-page "photomanga." Not only are these stories made up of photos, they're made up of photos of manga. To be specific, each panel is a photo of a panel or page from one of the manga in the collection, and the conceit is that the "real" 3-D reader can manipulate the 2-D printed drawings. This is hard to describe in words, so I'll give an example. In the first of the photomanga, the first frame is a photograph of a panel from "Battle RoAiyale" depicting the most prominent character, exactly as it appears in the book. In the second frame, a three-dimensional finger "pulls up" this character's shirt, and the original panel is altered so that the character's midriff is exposed. In the third frame, the character's stomach is being sliced open with a exacto knife; and in the fourth frame, she is evidently dead and her entrails are hanging out.

While none of the stories in Ana, Moji are the equal of the three stories mentioned in my first paragraph, they are for the most part funny and ingenious, and Kago's art is very good. If this were my only exposure to Kago, I would definitely be on the lookout for more work by him, though I wouldn't be inspired to rush out and order Kago's other works. Be warned, though: your ability to enjoy the book depends very much on how many scenes of rape and degradation of women you're willing to swallow (though not every story contains such scenes).

Ana, Moji, Ketsueki Nado Ga Arawareru Manga is 210 pp. long and costs 1300 yen. It's published by Kubo Shoten and its ISBN is 978-4-7659-3006-2. An English translation of the book's Amazon.co.jp page is here. (The book's spine has the title and author written in romaji (our alphabet) as well as in Japanese characters, so if a bookstore in the U.S. should have it on the shelves, it shouldn't be too hard to find.)

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Saturday, July 12, 2008

A NOTE ON DRAWN & QUARTERLY'S EDITION OF RED COLORED ELEGY

Drawn & Quarterly's edition of Red Colored Elegy, a Japanese-language edition of which I reviewed here, is finally out. (Note that the D&Q book contains only the title story from the edition I reviewed, not the shorter stories that were also collected there.) Unfortunately, I can't greet this occaion with unalloyed joy, because Drawn & Quarterly did the same thing that they did with their Yoshihiro Tatsumi collections: rearranging the panels on each page so that the page (and the book) reads left-to-right, but not flipping the original panels.* Why do they do this? If they aren't going to publish it unflipped, which they should, I'd much prefer that they just flipped everything. That way the relationships between the panels, and the overall design of each double-page spread, would be preserved. I really don't understand. Drawn & Quarterly is clearly publishing this as a labor of love, so why do they deliberately mutilate it?

To be sure, it's not as disruptive here as in the Tatsumi collections, because most of the panels stretch horizontally across the entire page. And I certainly wouldn't make this a reason to not buy the book. But it is frustrating to have to remind myself, when I look at one of the double-page spreads, that this isn't quite what Hayashi drew.

*In fact, they don't do this every time. When a page contains a panel in which two people are speaking, all the panels on the page are flipped (otherwise the person speaking first would be on the right), and occasionally other panels are flipped.

UPDATE: Tom Devlin, Creative Director at Drawn & Quarterly, responds in the comments below; and Chris Butcher has an intelligent defense of D&Q here.

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