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Rob Vollmar's INTERNATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

1.4 What Condition My Condition Is In

Greetings, International Geographic readers! I’m back from an exciting weekend in Kansas City where I attended the Mo-Kan Conspiracy Comics Convention as a guest along with stellar comics artists like Steve Lightle, Ryan Sook, Chris Samnee, Ande Parks, Anna-Maria Cool, and the incomparable Eddie Campbell. Though the gig was more related to my secret identity of a writer of comics (rather than my other one as writer about comics/manga), my attendance does impact this column as it will be a little shorter than usual due to the compression of time I have to work on it down into just one day. Also, none of these volumes came out last week so that business about reviewing pieces of the metric ton of new manga being released in conjunction with SDCC was obviously wishful thinking. Give me another week and let’s see where we are.

FIRST HITS

GENSHIKEN: The Society for the Study of Modern Visual Culture Vol 1 by Kio Shimoku- Del Rey/Ballantine, 180 pgs, $10.95, recommended OT (16+)

My friend, Zachary Franks has been a long-time source for street-level information about manga, anime, and the Japanese culture and language. After a year in Japan studying, “Tsaku” returned recently to drop some new science on my head about the rise of an influence on a range of visual arts over there called Moe (pronounced Moh-wey). Moe can be seen as the otaku influence on manga, anime, video games etc, hypersexualizing the female characters to the point of an object fetish. According to Tsaku-chan, manga like Ken Akamatsu’s LOVE HINA or even Masakazu Katsura’s I’S (reviewed in an earlier column) are a good example of moe-oriented manga that has made it over to the States. This month’s issue of PROTOCULTURE ADDICTS tells me that “the market for Moe merchandise, including printed media, visual media, and games based upon moe anime and manga characters surpassed 88.8 billion yen (US$ 840.5 million) in sales in 2003” before diplomatically tagging the paragraph with the observation that “unmarried males in their 30s account for the majority of the moe market.”

The GENSHIKEN manga both documents and sentimentalizes this moe culture by examining its influence on a group of high school freshmen boys. This puts it a small group of the rarest and most fascinating of all translated manga, manga about manga! While my favorite of these, EVEN A MONKEY CAN DRAW MANGA, uses satire of the manga culture to fuel the humor that is the key to its more expository elements, GENSHIKEN is designed to explain the otaku as a social phenomena by approaching sympathetically from many different perspectives. For this purpose, GENSHIKEN trades a strong main character for an informative cross-section of flawed ones, each a matrix for identification for some portion of its intended audience.

So though GENSHIKEN is not moe manga itself, its narrative focus is on the phenomena of moe and, more importantly, what its existence says about the successes and failures of ordinary people in assimilating and socializing into the demanding Japanese culture as they grow older. The story itself is surprisingly charming given the occasionally icky behavior that must be rationalized to the audience, but there is a foreboding note to it in that these are young otaku and, as such, represent the beginning of an adult life that for many is bereft of meaning beyond the ritual and often morbidly sexualized appreciation of the creativity of others.

BECK: Mongolian Chop Squad Vol 1 by Harold Sakuishi- Tokyopop, 200 pgs+, $9.95, recommended OT (16+)

BECK is a fairly straightforward manga that combines a young teenage boy’s quest to become more confident (and, of course, win the heart of the girl of his dreams) with a maturation of his music tastes as he becomes a singer for a rock band. As in nearly every variation of music and musician’s manga (ranging from the classical orientation of NODAME CANTIBILE to the J-Pop focus of SENSUAL PHRASE), BECK’S main character, Yukio Tanaka, is started on this path through his friendship with a more self-assured person who teaches him the value of confidence as well as the craft that will help him develop it.

BECK does capture a little of the flavor of being a teenaged rocker but otherwise relies on its ability to be quirky and fresh in order to sell an otherwise old story to the reader. I felt like it was successful at this about half the time and so watching it go through all the familiar paces seemed just a little too familiar. I’m betting if I was a fifteen year old garage rocker that this would all seem a little more believable and so I’ll recommend it to those folks and let the rest of you make up your own minds.

BEYOND THE BACK COVER

MAISON IKKOKU by Rumiko Takahashi, Viz Media

I managed to score one of the original English editions of MAISON IKKOKU that I was lacking at the convention over the weekend. It made for welcome passenger seat reading for the ride home, visiting with one of manga’s finest ensemble casts as rendered by one of its finest practitioners. There is, of course, a Rumiko Takahashi manga for nearly everyone who might seek her out but reading MAISON always feels like coming home to me.

MAISON IKKOKU is the sprawling story of Kyoko Otonashi, a widow who runs an apartment house for her departed husband’s family. The central conflict of the story is the protracted relationship that develops between Kyoko and Yusaku Godai, one of the tenants at Maison Ikkoku. The pace of their courtship is positively glacial but the stories are kept lively by the comedic intrusions of the other renters who meddle in their love life.

There are many things to like about MAISON IKKOKU and more reasons still to consider it a landmark work. Takahashi’s drawing style is rooted deeply in tradition, favoring a cartoonier style than her contemporaries. Her layouts are positively Tezukan with a tendency towards intricate, densely packed pages that show little of the shoujo influence towards decompression and holistic page design. The result, while reading like no comics ever created in the West, is completely accessible as it relies on the rules of interpreting narrative art shared readily in common between the two traditions to tell a subtle story with remarkable grace.

MAISON is also very traditional in the values it glorifies. Kyoko resists the feelings she develops for Yusaku out of respect for her husband and his family. His struggle to win her affections becomes unified with his efforts to enter the adult segment of his society by procuring a good job that will allow him the means to provide for a wife and, someday, a family. Never does Takahashi allow us to believe that Kyoko could dishonor her husband’s memory by marrying someone casually that could not be counted upon to provide for her adequately. Though much of MAISON’s charm comes from its bawdy humor, these stakes are real and threaten to crash the whole house of cards with any poorly considered step taken. In the end, Takahashi seems to say, love is not fragile because of external variables that cannot be predicted but due to the internal ones that we must master in order to be worthy of its gifts.

It is ironic that Rumiko Takahashi’s most undiluted romantic manga shares little in common with the shoujo tradition that would seem most suited for telling a story of this kind. In leaving off the many layers of narrative artifice typical to shoujo romance, she ultimately delivers a story that seems markedly less contrived in contrast and packs a tremendous emotional punch as a result. There are a handful of manga or comics that one can read and say, “Man, I’ve never read anything like that!” MAISON IKKOKU is among the best of them and, as such, comes highly recommended.

-- ROB VOLLMAR

Rob Vollmar is the Eisner-Nominated writer of THE CASTAWAYS and BLUESMAN, both with artist Pablo G. Callejo.


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