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Thursday, July 12, 2007

Alive -- I love the surge in comics reading that has happened in North America as a result of the manga revolution, but I have to admit that few multi-volume series have personally engaged me as a reader over the long haul. Probably the longest I stuck by a particular series was Battle Royale. I loved the first volume of Battle Royale, and bought maybe the first eight or nine volumes. But I loved the concept enough to want to see the film (both the manga and the movie were inspired by an original novel, I believe), and when a friend sent me the movie on DVD, I was thrilled. I enjoyed the hell out of the (demented and wild) movie, but it compromised my ability to be patient through the eventual 14 or 15 volumes of the manga series (I "knew how it ended," basically), and I dropped the title from my pull list. Bad critic; bad, bad.

My taste in manga seems to run more to short stories and single volumes. If you were to ask me what the most essential manga in my graphic novel library is, I'd immediately say the works of Yoshihiro Tatsumi collected by Drawn and Quarterly, The Push Man and Other Stories and Abandon the Old in Tokyo. Those aren't generally the manga I see teenagers gobbling down in the stacks at my local bookstores, but Tatsumi and I are both older than they are. I bet eventually some of them will see the same depth and power in his stuff that I do, weaned as they have been on an international and cosmopolitan worldview of comics (something I am glad, indeed, to have lived long enough to see come to pass).

Alive is a new series written by Tadashi Kawashima with art by Adachitoka; it's published by Del Ray Manga, and it reminded me a bit of Battle Royale: Both series feature likable teenage protagonists revolting against an insane, deadly set of circumstances. Alive is more humanistic in its approach, though. It takes less glee in the gore, and therefore the violence it does contain seems somehow more consequential.

There's the usual teasing sexuality, one panty shot being oddly intersected with a moment of horrific despair, and another moment in which a sister flashes her brother, to apparently bring him out of a funk (and apparently it works). I don't know that I'll ever fully understand the differences in our two cultures, not that I am casting aspersions one way or the other. I just thought it was worth noting -- the feeling of not quite being in a world you understand is inherent in even the most pedestrian of manga, and I'm not altogether certain that isn't one of its appeals, if not one of its greatest strengths.

The world (not just Japan, that's clearly spelled out) has been caught up in the grip of what some believe is a "suicide virus" (the term is in big bold letters on the back cover, so, this is not a spoiler), causing some people to just suddenly off themselves for no apparent reason. The strangeness of this turn of events is brilliantly captured in the extended sequence depicting the first suicide we see. The tone of the scene is both sublime and horrible at the same time, wondrously captured through words and pictures.

Another sequence stands out in my mind as one of the best in the book, and its one that takes full advantage of manga's ability to parse out a single moment over the course of many pages. The protagonist, Taisuke, attempts a rooftop rescue of a beautiful young girl as his actions are contrasted with his older sister witnessing a separate suicide attempt. It's a brilliantly-paced sequence that had me in a completely arrested state of suspense.

There are a couple of genuinely eerie scenes depicting the apparent initiation into the suicidal state of mind that is enveloping the world's peoples, moments that force you to stop reading as time stops for the characters involved.

Alive is pulpy stuff, with the feel of a story that is meant for serialization. I'm okay with that, though. It's off to a compelling start, and I want to read the rest of the story. Then I'll find out if there's a movie.

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