Sunday, July 09, 2006


At long last, here's Plastic Girl (Purasuchikku gaaru) by Usamaru Furuya.

In both content and format, Plastic Girl is unlike almost all manga published in the U.S. Format-wise, it's similar to the Robot anthology: like that book, it's large-size and full-color. As far as content goes, however, I know of nothing to compare it to, not even the other works of Furuya's that I've read.

Plastic Girl consists of twenty-three strange, dreamlike, at times surreal chapters, each two pages long. Each chapter stands independently, except for the last few. But they all have the same narrator and protagonist, a young girl on the cusp of adolescence. All of the chapters take place inside the narrator's head; none of them are "real." But aside from that, they can't be summed up in a single theme.

A number of them reflect her confusion about her identity. In one, she turns into a monster; in another, into a doll, who is disassembled and reassembled wrongly. Some chapters depict her alienation from her parents. And some are just weird. In one, she pretends to be dead, and when a "careless angel" approaches her, she catches it and dissects it. Going to school the next day, she ties its floating body to her backpack by its entrails, and the other girls at school soon have their own dissected angels.

The writing, while often cryptic, is haunting and ultimately poignant. But it's the art that strikes one immediately, and is most innovative. Furuya takes a different approach in almost every chapter. Some look like they were painted on canvas or cloth and then photographed. Others are painted or drawn on paper, wood, or tile. One, while painted, is made to resemble two stained glass windows. One is like a series of traditional Chinese paintings. One is a series of delicate black and white drawings. (There's a sample page from Plastic Girl in the book Manga: Masters of the Art by Timothy R. Lehmann.)

When I hear the words "painted comics," the first thought that springs to mind is "horribly pretentious." But that's not true here at all. Most painted or mixed-media comics look like they were made by artists imitating something they only half-understood. Furuya has clearly mastered the techniques he uses, and knows exactly what he's doing.

Plastic Girl is short: only forty-eight pages, including the title and copyright pages. And it's expensive for this length, costing two thousand yen (about twenty bucks; the paper is of good quality, but not glossy, which actually works better with Furuya's art). But if you care at all about comics as an artistic medium, it's absolutely worth it. If it were translated and published here, I'm convinced that the Comics Journal crowd would be blown away.

There's a widespread perception among said crowd that manga is fine for popular storytelling, but lacks works that advance comics as an art form. This is false. Certainly the vast majority of manga aim at popularity, as is true of comics everywhere. It's even possible that the ratio of popular to "art" manga is greater than the ratio of popular to "art" American comics, though one can't conclude anything from the skewed sample of manga that have been published in the U.S., or even from those imported by Japanese bookstores here. But the best "art" manga are a match for the best comics of any origin that have been published here. (I only add those last two words because I'm basically unfamiliar with Eurocomics.)

Plastic Girl is published by Kawade Shobo Shinsha, and its ISBN is 4-309-26424-7.

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