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1.1 A Very Good Place to Start
Greetings and welcome to the inaugural edition of International Geographic. I am your host, Rob Vollmar, and from now until the end of time, it is my intention to use this space to review a variety of manga and anime, as well as comment upon the industries and markets that produce and consume them. If the end of time comes before I’m done talking, somebody give me a discrete hand-signal, would ya?
I’S Vol 1 by Masakazu Katsura - Viz Media/Shonen Jump Advanced, $7.99
This is one of the first titles released in Viz’s new Shonen Jump Advanced line that presumably seeks to take advantage of the brand without the restrictions on content associated with the magazine. I’S (like a group of people with names beginning with the letter ‘I’) is the story of a young high school kid and his crush on a shy but pretty girl who, incidentally, posed provocatively for a teen magazine over the summer. While it is predictably packed with lots of bra and panty shots, the story has a charming quality as the protagonist struggles to overcome his objectification of the girl so that he can talk to her and, thus win her heart. The illustration quality is polished and sharp if somewhat lacking in innovation. All told, if this doesn’t take any wrong turns by introducing a sinister adult sexuality to the proceedings, it could enjoy crossover success with female audiences in the US like Katsura’s VIDEO GIRL AI.
BLUE SPRING Vol 1 by Taiyo Matsumoto - Viz Media/Editor’s Choice, $9.99
This is a collection of shorter pieces by manga enigma Taiyo Matsumoto. Matsumoto is something of a Japanese Paul Pope, incorporating American and European influences into his work (which is way more naughty over there than it is over here) with dynamic results. These stories, restricted in length by the short story form, seem to have a more cohesive emotional punch to them than the longer Matsumoto works BLACK AND WHITE and NO 5. The opening piece, “If You’re Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands,” is a chilling glimpse into the lives of teens with no hope of escaping an escalating cycle of violence, captured with a simple perfection in the central conceit of the story. This is some of the most rendered drawing I’ve seen yet from Matsumoto and will not fail to impress even the harshest of manga critics. Ooh, and mahjong manga to boot!
CROMARTIE HIGH SCHOOL Vol 1 by Eiji Nonaka, ADV Manga, $10.95
While many manga flirt with being humorous, it is the rare series that truly makes it all the way to funny. Now available among these elect-few is Eiji Nonaka’s truly bizarre CROMARTIE HIGH SCHOOL. Mixing post-modern absurdism with a formalist’s penchant for restriction, the result is something of a FLAMING CARROT-style manga for wannabe badasses everywhere. The art is deliberately sparse which might lead some to miss Nonaka’s gifts for staging and delivery. I will admit to having bought this just because a Freddie Mercury (circa the Hot Space era) look-alike appears prominently but, after having read it, I understand that that was always part of the intended demographic.
SWAN Vol 1 by Ariyoshi Kyoko, DC/CMX , $9.95
One of the things I dig most about manga is the many forms of expository manga it offers; expository in the sense that, in addition to whatever story line common to many manga it is telling, a portion of the narrative is given over to some other subject. Variations on this idea common to manga include cooking, poker, mahjong, fishing, golf, and a holy host of others. Hell, an argument could be made that LONE WOLF & CUB is largely an expository study of the Edo Period framed by a familiar if masterfully executed redemption through revenge story.
SWAN is one of those tip of the mountain of manga books that exemplifies everything that comics is not, marrying a solid story with some of the most beautifully stylized shoujo storytelling I’ve ever seen. More impressively, Kyoko’s command over her page really brings the expository material alive, making it seem important to folks, much like myself, who don’t know or care anything about ballet. Anyone who still thinks that shoujo means “Can’t draw” in Japanese should definitely give this a look before they close their mind to debate.
Beyond the Back Cover
SAIKANO VOL 1-4 by Shin Takahashi, Viz Media/Editor’s Choice, $9.95/ea
Another famous Takahashi, Rumiko, is associated with belonging to an independent tradition among female manga-ka that sees them abandoning many of the more stylized components of shoujo in order to create manga that appeals to readers of any gender. While the success of Rumiko Takahashi would be difficult task for anyone to surpass, artists like Yuu Watase and the CLAMP studio have extended this tradition into the present by notching up big sales figures with these dedicated cross-over audiences.
While the examples of shoujo emulating shonen values in order to make itself more palatable to a wider audience are available in ready supply in English, the converse is less so. Masakazu Katsura’s VIDEO GIRL AI is one such series, taking a salacious premise and making it so sweet and lacking in guile that the perverts get bored and wander away. OH MY GODDESS seems to have this same appeal as does NO NEED FOR TENCHI.
But in all of those cases, only the narrative content is really altered to attract the other 51% of the audience. In Shin Takahashi’s SAIKANO, we find something very different. Takahashi blends a breathy shoujo approach to page structure and style with content that is extremely dark and often blatantly sexual. The lead is split between a boy, Shuji, and a girl, Chise who are both about to graduate from high school. The first chapter of the series is given over to the development of those two characters and the unlikely relationship between them to the extent that reading it alone would likely convince the reader that it was the introduction to a likeable and fairly mundane romance manga. In the second chapter, the real point of the series is revealed as Japan is plunged into a terminal war with an enemy that is never clearly identified. Chise is transformed by the military into weapon of mass destruction that is Japan’s first, last, and only real line of defense.
Given this premise, Takahashi’s faux-jo approach (that even regularly includes chibi caricature panels) might seem like an impediment -- and to some readers, it may well be. Rather than focusing the series on the action, the bulk of the war and warring takes place “off-stage,” much like Greek theater, leaving us focused on the interior of the characters whose lives are nevertheless overtaken by it. Those scenes that do involve exteriors are composite drawings that blend what I believe are either photographs or tightly referenced drawings of photographs and the sketchy line drawings with a unexpected seamlessness. The juxtaposition of the two makes the technique of visual masking in comics and manga suddenly very noticeable, transforming it into subtle commentary on the schizoid nature of the warring elements in the narrative.
The energy that Takahashi puts into telling the story through the interior of the characters, thus fulfilling the truly fundamental obligation of every shoujo manga, is admirable. At the beginning, when the relationship between the two principal characters is awkward and new, the many spools of internal narrative pondering the nature of love in an uninformed manner appropriate to the characters can get pretty tiring. But as the story progresses by virtue of its fantastic premise into emotional waters less charted, Takahashi finds increasingly substantive material to draw upon in order to justify the space given over to all those pesky words.
Adding to SAIKANO’s sense of gender ambiguity is Takahashi’s decision to make sexual expression a fundamental element of his characters’ interior on display. The progression of the war towards doom off the page is matched evenly by the increasingly explicit sex between the characters as they are crushed one by one by the wake of the ever-widening conflict. In this sense, it is also a coming of age story but coming into a world with no more ages to offer its protagonists, a sentiment echoed in the series haunting subtitle, “The Last Love Song on this Little Planet.” The strong sexual content is balanced two-fold within the overall shoujo aesthetic of the work- first, by hyper-stylizing the depiction of said acts to the point of near self-parody and secondly, by marrying these incidents with the imminent threat of death from the war. The effect is more than a little unsettling and evokes the sense of desperation common to the characters in the story deftly.
Due to its many formalist conventions and unyielding maudlin sensibilities, SAIKANO is definitely not the manga for everyone. The explicit content makes it inappropriate for unsupervised children under the age of sixteen but it would probably bore the shit out of them long before they were led astray by its modern values. The many conflicting structures within the story and art will no doubt polarize avid manga readers, who possess the intuitive sense of tradition at work in every piece of manga. Myself, I am wholly taken in by its idiosyncracies and fascinated by this mirror-universe shoujo that transcends and includes the tradition that it refracts through the masculine worldview of its author.
Thanks for tuning in and we’ll see you in seven.
-- ROB VOLLMAR
Rob Vollmar is the Eisner-Nominated writer of THE CASTAWAYS and BLUESMAN, both with artist Pablo G. Callejo.