Saturday, January 15, 2011


Reviews of the previous volumes are here, here and here.

I'll try to keep this free of major spoilers: in particular, I'm not giving away the big surprise in volume four. However, it's getting increasingly difficult to avoid spoilers and still say anything meaningful. And on the subject of spoilers, if you haven't read volume four and really don't want to be spoiled, I would suggest you try to avoid even looking at the front cover of volume five, let alone reading it. It probably won't mean much to most people (including me) , but to some it will be a giveaway.

The volume opens with a four-page story, not drawn by Kevin, featuring the "fake," Disneyfied Billy Bat.* As such, it's only partly successful: Urasawa's only concession to a Disney-like art style is the size of characters' eyes. (Also, you can give Billy Bat huge eyes and dress him like Mickey Mouse, but he's still a bat.) This segues into a flashback from 1950, showing how Kevin lost control of his "creation." Here I owe Urasawa an apology. In my review of the first volume, I expressed disbelief that Kevin's publisher would allow him to quit his strip for several months to go to Japan, because I was assuming that the strip would simply not be published during that time. In fact, it was taken over by Kevin's assistant, which led directly to Kevin's losing Billy.

After a quick return to the "present" (1962 or 1963), Urasawa jumps back to 1960, returning to the interracial lovers from the second volume. They are now married and expecting a child, and are driving across the Deep South to Tony, the husband's, new job. On the way, Tony witnesses a lynching, and the trip becomes a nightmare. Tony is terrified at first, but eventually does the right thing, inspired by a Billy Bat comic.

The section featuring these two characters was my least favorite part of the second volume, and the same is true for this volume, although there are a couple of chilling and suspenseful moments.First, the ending is stupid. And I'm not talking about Tony's being inspired by Billy Bat: that I can live with. I'm talking about the resolution of the whole affair, which is a blatant cop-out. Second, I once said that characterization isn't Urasawa's strong point, but the couple here are particularly uninteresting. Third is the lack of historical verisimilitude. It's inconceivable to me that an interracial couple would so blithely drive across the Deep South on country roads in 1960, particularly when the black woman is from the South herself. They even plan to stop for the night in a small town. There are other specific errors which I could cite, but more importantly, my impression is that Urasawa doesn't really understand race relations in the U.S. in 1960 (though I can't document this). This leads to my biggest problem with the whole section: it's a generic melodrama that could have taken place anywhere, with some local color painted on. The black characters the lovers meet in the South are Japanese in blackface.

This section goes on for too long (three chapters out of eight), but it does end, and the second half of the book is much better. It's set in 1963, and it follows the character whom I talked about in my review of the last volume, but didn't name (I'll call him Mr. X, for convenience), and Smith the investigator and Kevin, who are trying to track him down. All the live plot strands are converging on a single place and time, and signs are that this convergence will take place sooner rather than later. Or so I thought, until I read the last few pages of this volume, when Urasawa throws yet another curve ball, sending the story off into another unexpected direction. Now it's anyone's guess how long things will take.

As I said, in general characterization is not Urasawa's strong point, but "Mr. X" is an exception. He may be the most successful character in any of Urasawa's series that I've read. I can't say much about his characterization without spoilers, but even if only his actions in this volume are taken into consideration, it's amazing that Urasawa can make him sympathetic. There's a scene in which he has himself photographed holding a gun. Out of context, the photo is chilling. In context the scene is both ironic and moving.

I highly recommend this volume, despite the weakness of the "Deep South" chapters. Urasawa is a master storyteller, and here he's mostly at the top of his form. After I finished volume four, I considered buying the magazine in which Billy Bat is serialized, to keep up with it. Eventually I decided I couldn't justify the expense, but after finishing this volume I had the same impulse.

Billy Bat is published by Kodansha, and is in the Morning line, which is indicated by the word "Mooningu" in katakana at the top of the spine. Its price is 590 yen, and its ISBN is 978-4-06-372955-9. Here's its Amazon.co.jp page (but keep in mind what I said above about the front cover and spoilers).

*Technically, Billy Bat"s new owner isn't Disney, but he's clearly modelled upon Disney.

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