Monday, March 28, 2005


After I posted my little rant on Y: The Last Man vol. 1, I didn't intend to think about the series ever again (unless perchance I got some feedback on it, which hasn't happened). But since then, I've read an advance copy of Bambi and Her Pink Gun vol. 1, which also is pulpy and violent and has an unlikeable protagonist and thin characterizations in general. And yet I enjoyed Bambi (which I'll be reviewing eventually) a lot. So I tried to figure out just what had irked me so about Y.

Here's what I came up with: Y's plot is pure trash, but the emotional tone is all wrong for trash. The characters are all dour (as distinct from grieving), and they keep making speeches (when they aren't trading one-liners). All this gives the impression that something real and important is going on. At the same time, the characters, setting and plot are too flimsy to justify this serious tone. As with Daredevil #56, it's basically a question of honesty: the work pretends to a seriousness, and an emotional realism, that it doesn't possess.

Also, Y seems to exist primarily to show off Vaughan's cleverness. This is something I dislike in much of Moore's Image and post-Image work, and in Morrison's work as well; but at least Moore and Morrison really are clever. Vaughan isn't, at least judging from this volume.

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Thursday, March 24, 2005


Christopher Butcher recently posted a bunch of reviews of some lesser-known translated manga. He likes IWGP vol. 1 more than I did (though his complaints about the ending are met in vol. 2, which I received a review copy of and should be reviewing soon), but shares my unimpressed reaction to Worst vol. 1. I also agree with him that Doubt!! vol. 1 is very good, though I saw it as more purely comedic. I haven't read most of the other manga he talks about, but his reviews are still fun to read. An incidental remark of Chris's spotlights what I think is one of the principal differences between manga and current "mainstream" American comics (though he may not have intended it as such): "There's a very, very high degree of craft present in commercial Japanese comics and so even something 'boringly' drawn ... is still strong, consistent work."

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Today's manga is Monokage ni ashibyoushi (the official English title is "Stepping in My Shelter"; a literal translation would be "beating time with my foot from in hiding"), a four-volume series by Shungicu Uchida, who is very popular in Japan both as a manga creator and a novelist. I wrote a little about Uchida in general here (Mar. 9), and reviewed her manga Minami's Girlfriend here (Mar. 23). While Minami was about a girl who had shrunk to a few inches high, Stepping, like nearly all of Uchida's other works that I've seen (as far as I can tell) has no fantasy elements. It's a realistic story of a high school girl, based to some extent (as far as I can tell from Uchida's somewhat rambling afterwords) on the author's own adolescence.

Midori, the protagonist, is not a delinquent or obviously "in trouble," but she is clearly not happy. As the series begins, her parents are dead and she is living with her older brother and his wife. The wife openly dislikes Midori, who reciprocates the sentiment. The brother defends Midori against his wife, but Midori is emotionally distant from him too. Early in the series Midori acquires a boyfriend, whom she sleeps with: not out of passion, though, but in order to be close to another person. She has no interests and no plans for the future; the only time she's happy is when she's lying down alone in the school's sickroom.

There is not a lot of plot in the series, though there is some; rather, it straightforwardly depicts Midori's life over a number of months, a life that is largely undramatic. Nothing really good happens to Midori; and while she endures some traumatic events, there is no climactic disaster. By the end of the series she has apparently matured somewhat, but again there is no big dramatic event signalling this.

The subject matter, and the tone of the writing, are not too dissimilar from Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes, and Adrian Tomine, who have reputations for being "cold" and "depressing." I don't know if or where the series was originally serialized, but presumably it was published as a commercial proposition; yet Uchida does nothing to "cute it up." But the emotional impression left by Stepping is quite different from that of these creators' works in general, mainly because of the art. These three artists tend to view their characters coolly and analytically, and this is reflected in the visual depictions of these characters. But Uchida makes Midori's eyes large and liquid, and engage the reader's sympathy, even though they are usually blank of expression. Nor is Uchida's line cold and clinical like those of Ware, Clowes, and Tomine.

I said Midori's eyes are large, and they are large compared to Western comics. But they aren't as exaggeratedly large as the typical shoujo heroine's. Nor does Uchida use the symbolism, or complicated panel breakdowns, characteristic of shoujo. Her visual storytelling, like her writing, is plain and straightforward.

I talked about the series when I first bought it, over a year ago (Jan. 28), and quoted the English text from the cover of vol. 4. (Each volume has such a text on the cover, though there is no English inside.) Not having read the series, I surmised that it was a "ladies' sex comic," but I was wrong. There is a lot of nudity, and a number of sex scenes, but none of this is erotic. It's just part of Midori's life, and a not very satisfactory part at that.

Stepping in My Shelter isn't for everyone, as the description above should make clear. Midori isn't an immediately likeable character, and some aspects of her are still opaque to me after a first reading; if you're looking for the next Fruits Basket or Hot Gimmick, you won't find it here. (Not to denigrate either of those series.) But for unvarnished realism about an adolescent girl's life, I've rarely seen it bettered.

The series was first published, or first appeared in book form (I'm not sure which) between 1988 and 1991, but the edition I have is from ca. 2002. (I can't find the exact dates of publication). It's a so-called bunko (library) edition, which means that the pages are smaller than those of the average Japanese-language manga paperback; and, as with most of Uchida's works, in the Japanese bookstores I've been to it would be shelved in the literature section, rather than the manga section. Each volume has an afterword by Uchida, written for these new editions, and the fourth volume also has an afterword by the popular Japanese novelist Banana Yoshimoto. The publisher is Kadokawa Shoten, each volume has a list price of 476 yen, and the ISBNs are 4-04-344412-5, 4-04-344413-3, 4-04-344414-1, and 4-04-344415-X.

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Saturday, March 12, 2005


Back in January, I wrote about seeing Jack Wright, Michel Doneda, and Tatsuya Nakatani live, and the great impression it had made on me. Listening to them, I realized for the first time that a work of music could have no overall structure and still be aesthetically valid. (Yes, I came to this realization pretty late, but I'm a "left-brain" person and tend to analyze everything I encounter, so this went against all my preconceptions.) A few days ago, I was watching the last three episodes of the anime FLCL again, and realized that this was the same sort of thing: that there really is no overall design to the series, the directors and animators instead throwing in whatever they felt like at the moment (as listening to the director's commentary -- and it's the real director, not the "director" of the English version -- makes clear), and that the only way to appreciate it is just to take each moment as it comes. If you try to make it all cohere, as with Lain or Boogiepop Phantom (which are also confusing on first viewing, but with patience can be decoded), you'll just get frustrated.

As part of a "Pan-Asian Cinema Series" sponsored by the university here, a local theater showed Millenium Mambo by Hou Hsiao-hsien last night, with admission free. I'd seen it twice before, but I figured I might as well take the opportunity to watch it again on the big screen for free. (And I think it benefited from being seen on a large screen, even though the print quality wasn't ideal.) I'm not saying this movie has no overall structure. In fact, it surely does: as an indication of this, many scenes clearly "reprise" or echo previous scenes. But it would take more viewings, probably several more, for me to grasp this structure. I will say that the movie's focus seems to me to be the moment-to-moment texture of the characters' lives, and of the image and sound itself, more than any structure (let alone plot, which is minimal).

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Thursday, March 03, 2005


Y: The Last Man, written by Brian K. Vaughan and pencilled by Pia Guerra, is a highly acclaimed example of the "New Mainstream" in comics. (For those unfamiliar with this term, it refers to comics which are neither superhero nor "arty," usually in genres which are popular in other media. Such comics, according to proponents of this concept, are what is needed to get the general public reading American-made comics again.) If you follow the American comics scene, you're probably aware of the series's high concept: every male human and mammal on earth has mysteriously died, except for the protagonist and his pet monkey. Looking at the single issues in my comics shop, I was never interested enough to buy one; but when I saw the first trade paperback collection in a local library I figured I might as well check it out.

Well, I didn't loathe it as much as Daredevil #56, but that's about all I can say for it. A whole lot of characters are introduced in this volume, and no reasons are given to care about any of them. And the protagonist, a self-centered jerk, is about the least likable of all (aside from the lunatic-feminist "Amazons"). His motivation throughout most of the book is to go to Australia to find his girlfriend; but this "love" of his is totally unconvincing.

To be sure, a book can get by without likeable characters if it has other virtues to make up for this lack, such as humor and suspense, both of which are also absent here: I wasn't the least bit interested in the various conspiracies Vaughan waves in the reader's face. On the other hand, it would be unfair to criticize Vaughan for not having realistically depicted the emotional and social consequences of half the world's population suddenly dying, when that's clearly the furthest thing from his mind. (Judging by this volume, the main consequence is that there are a lot of chicks with guns running around.)

The dialogue is plastic Hollywoodspeak, and the art is dull. I rarely read "mainstream" superhero books; but seeing the acclaim this and similar books receive makes me wonder if the average comic is so bad that slickly-produced crap like this looks good in comparison.

If you have a yen to read about what would happen if all the world's men suddenly disappeared, instead of Y: The Last Man I'd suggest The Disappearance by Philip Wylie (a prose novel, not a comic), which was recently reissued. Wylie really wasn't a good writer, though The Disappearance was probably his best novel. And some of Wylie's views on gender expressed in the book, which was originally published in 1951, appear retrograde today. (In some respects, though, the book's treatment of gender is surprisingly progressive, especially given Wylie's reputation as an arch-misogynist; but that's another story). But at least Wylie's characters are real people, not posable action figures being maneuvered through a hackneyed thriller plot.

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Tuesday, March 01, 2005


Johanna Carlson has a review up of Kare Kano through vol. 7. She liked the early volumes, but found herself losing interest when the focus shifted away from the main characters' relationship and onto the supporting cast; and I've seen other people express the same reaction. Personally, I like the "side stories," though I agree they don't have the urgency of the early volumes. But my suggestion to Johanna, and those who feel as she does, is to start reading again with vol. 13. Beginning with that volume, the focus returns to the main characters, with the emphasis on Souichiro. And the arc which goes from vol. 13 to vol. 16 is an excellent one, though more serious in tone than the series up to that point. To the best of my memory, jumping from vol. 6 to vol. 13 won't cause any problems in comprehension. It will spoil the outcomes of some of the intervening "side stories," but to be honest those outcomes are fairly predictable anyway.

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