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1.9 It’s Got Wings...
Hello, once again, and welcome to the ninth installment of CBGalaxy’s weekly column on manga, International Geographic. We’ve got reviews on tap taking a look at new manga like SWEAT AND HONEY, A PERFECT DAY FOR LOVE LETTERS, FULL METAL ALCHEMIST, and SCRAPPED PRINCESS as well as a departure for our BEYOND THE BACK COVER section where we take a look at an anime series called HAIBANE RENMEI.
Before we get going this week, I wanted to make a little space to respond to a few comments made by fellow CBGalaxy contributor Joe Rice in last week’s installment of his column, MAKE BELIEVE WAR. In an otherwise well-intentioned piece on the “salvation” of comix, Joe wrote...
“Go to any bookstore in the country and you'll no doubt see lots of kids sitting reading in the manga section. Kids love manga. It's huge among kids, girls, grown women, and now gay men have something to read other than Wonder Woman or the X-Men. That's wonderful and I don't want to discredit that. Neither do I want to say that there are no quality works in the medium. Lone Wolf and Cub, Nausicaa, Akira ...there's just as much amazing manga as there is amazing comix. And just as much awful crap. Dawson's Creek written and drawn by Japanese people is still a shitty teen soap opera.
That isn't the point, though. The point is nobody's buying it. They're reading it, they're loving it, but they're not paying for it. Barnes and Noble can afford to have kids not pay for product. Comic shops can't. Internet punditry seems to say that to be a good comic shop, you must stock up on your manga. From experience, research, and interviews, I can tell you, that's bad business. Nobody buys it.”
Rather than attack Joe personally (who is a dedicated writer and a nice fellow to boot), I’d like to offer my own experiences as a retailer and critic to perhaps flesh out his “experience, research, and interviews” with another perspective.
“Go to any bookstore in the country and you'll no doubt see lots of kids sitting reading in the manga section. Kids love manga. It's huge among kids, girls, grown women, and now gay men have something to read other than Wonder Woman or the X-Men.”
Better yet, come to Atomik Pop!, where I work, and see kids sitting on the floor reading in the manga section. We’re across the street from a high school and every day we invite the kids over during their lunch period with three rules to follow: No food or drinks that you didn’t buy from us. Don’t touch yourself or anyone else. Find something to read and sit down.
Of the roughly 15 to 30 kids that amble over on a daily basis, maybe five become hardcore customers. Maybe five more buy a book once a month when they can afford it. The fact is, it’s business. They buy stuff. Manga, anime merchandise, anime rentals, Pocky, Hello Kitty products, drinks, all equaling money in our register and (most importantly) the first and best chance to have these kids equate Atomik Pop! with pleasant thoughts of manga and social relaxation long into their college years and beyond.
So kids, you want to read manga at my shop instead of Barnes & Borders? Bring it on.
“That's wonderful and I don't want to discredit that. Neither do I want to say that there are no quality works in the medium. Lone Wolf and Cub, Nausicaa, Akira ...there's just as much amazing manga as there is amazing comix. And just as much awful crap. Dawson's Creek written and drawn by Japanese people is still a shitty teen soap opera.”
I’ve never watched an episode of Dawson’s Creek so I can’t tell anyone if KARE KANO is really any better or worse, though I have my own suspicions. As onerous as the thought may be to Joe and others, the reason that DAWSON’S CREEK and KARE KANO are both successful is that teens like teen soap operas. They identify with them and inarguably they identify with them more than superhero comics and, yes, even more than GHOST WORLD. While I am not a teen anymore, I recognize their right (just like everyone else) to buy and support material that appeals to them rather than me. I recognize it to the point that I am even willing to concede that just because it is a teen soap opera doesn’t have to mean that it is shitty.
“That isn't the point, though. The point is nobody's buying it. They're reading it, they're loving it, but they're not paying for it. Barnes and Noble can afford to have kids not pay for product. Comic shops can't.”
Now, seriously, do we really think that giant corporate run book-chains are stocking manga because they are losing money on it? I have my own notions of why and how, as the manager of a single-owner store, that I can order and sell manga (and comics for that matter) more effectively than ANY bookchain store but we sure as hell don’t stock it because it loses us money and I don’t reckon that they are either. Manga represents an easy 65% of our graphic novel business week in and week out which brings us to Joe and I’s final point.
“Internet punditry seems to say that to be a good comic shop, you must stock up on your manga. From experience, research, and interviews, I can tell you, that's bad business. Nobody buys it.”
I would agree with that if only we could amend it to say. “Internet punditry seems to say that to be a good comic[s] shop, you must stock up on your manga even if you know very little about it and can’t see the value in hiring someone who does.” From my experience, I can also tell you that it is bad business because if you don’t possess the product knowledge to adequately sell something, you are placing a lot of faith in free market economics to keep you afloat.
People do buy manga but, by and large, they won’t buy much of it from someone who knows dramatically less about it than they do unless you give them a job selling it to your clientele. It’s not an accident that I can tell you every work on our racks by Ken Akamatsu (whether I love or loathe his work personally) and I wasn’t born knowing the difference between shoujo and shonen manga. I learned because it was important to our business and, in the process, gained a new interest and, eventually, a field of critical expertise. If this makes me more qualified and, ultimately, more prepared to sell manga than the folks that Joe is talking to or, even, the folks at the local BOOK WAREHOUSE, well, I think that is just right fine.
To sum up, I don’t dispute for a moment that the scenario Joe describes is accurate in 90 out of 100 comic book stores. But, IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THAT WAY. It’s a choice that those 90 stores have made, for ill or for well, and I respect everyone’s ability to know what is right for their store. But, if servicing a growing clientele made up of “kids, girls, grown women, and now gay men” sounds more lucrative to some than fighting over market shares of the shrinking Direct Market audience that 90% percent of comics stores are already servicing to the best of their ability, it does to me too.
SWEAT AND HONEY by Mari Okazaki (also includes a story by Motoaki Hiratsuka)- TokyoPop Manga, $9.99, Rated OT (16+)
SWEAT AND HONEY is the first release in TokyoPop’s new Passion Fruit line, described on the back cover of this volume as “an innovative, edgy line of manga which reflects the emotional condition of humanity in its moment of creation and procreation.” Having finished SWEAT AND HONEY, a collection of shorts by Mari Okazaki, I can verify that the content is edgy in that is choked full of nudity and sexual themes, that many of the characters express emotions (especially conflicted sexual desire), and that, gratefully, little to no procreation takes place.
Where SWEAT AND HONEY falls flat is in its promise for innovation. Okazaki’s stories, rife with faux-incest and bisexuality themes, just seem to be trying too hard to be provocative, investing little effort into developing characters beyond deciding whether they like being on top or on bottom and then having them repeat that fact outloud seven or eight hundred times through the course of the piece before changing their mind in the last panel. Taa-daa. Dynamic character development.
Okazaki’s art is functional, even mildly stylish at times, but her presentation of sex (not to mention the “emotional condition of humanity” etc etc) is graceless by any standard. In contrast to erotic works by Erika Sakurazawa, the stories of SWEAT AND HONEY seem designed to appeal to the visual and narrative fancies of men (and not very smart ones at that) rather than women, resulting in something more vulgar than erotic. I’m not closed to the idea that the PASSION FRUIT experiment may yet yield some critically substantive work, but this, ain’t it.
A PERFECT DAY FOR LOVE LETTERS Vol 1 by George Asakura- Del Rey/Kodansha/Ballantine, $10.95, Rated OT (16+)
George Asakura is an enigma. She shares her pen name with the civilian identity of one of the (ficitonal) members of the Gatchaman team (Condor Joe if you must know) and, if my pan-cultural visio-translator is working right, draws the endpiece as if he were in fact the one responsible for drawing the manga. That, or George Asakura is a man and the Del Rey biographers are very confused. I am little shaken myself either way but, as ever, I endure. I endure.
A PERFECT DAY FOR LOVE LETTERS is a series of short pieces that share a common plot device in...you guessed it, love letters! Man or not, Asakura has a charming rendering style, often reminding me of Dan DeCarlo with its plump lines and clean, almost retro aesthetic. This likeable quality spills over on to the mostly light romance stories, giving them a pep that makes them enjoyable if not groundbreaking.
“To One Who Doesn’t Know Me” makes the best use of the narrative materials at hand, recognizing the limited utility of the “whodunnit” in this kind of story and choosing wisely to spend its dramatic chits on bringing two, otherwise disparate, characters together in a believable and romantic fashion. Other stories like “Flowers Blooming in the Snow” are burdened by a high sentimentalism to plausibility ratio and wear out their welcome just a little faster than even the abbreviated story space can afford. The formulaic quality of the stories (determined by virtue of the shared conceit) narrows Asakura’s range of storytelling possibilities but, by the end of volume one, there are definitely more successes than failures.
While it is entirely possible that content in later volumes of A PERFECT DAY FOR LOVE LETTERS earned the series its OT rating, only one story (“Flowers...”) in this one crosses into questionable territory. Otherwise, I think this series might appeal more to a slightly younger audience (13-16?) than the rating for this particular volume suggests. Librarians would do well, as always, to err on the side of caution and interested parents might scrutinize future volumes before OK’ing it for younger readers.
SCRAPPED PRINCESS Vol 1 by Ichiro Sakaki and Go Yabuki- TokyoPop, 180+ pgs, $9.99, Rated Teen (13+)
This is the manga adaptation of the anime adaptation of a series of fantasy novels written by Ichiro Sakaki. I’m not familiar enough with the two earlier manifestations of ScraPrin to really judge this on the grounds of how well it adapts from either wellspring, leaving me only the manga itself by which to judge. The story itself is cut from familiar enough cloth, centering on the plight of a young girl (the SP in question) who is destined to destroy the world. Even in the realm of manga, these are pretty worn out tropes (essentially retreading the plot of both X 1999 and CERES among a clump of dozens of others) which means it would require either really sharp writing or outstanding art to rescue this from the annals of the mundane.
Unfortunately, Yabuki’s adaptation is either markedly clumsy or the source material is just not that good. The largest portion of the story is taken up by difficult to follow battles, trite restatements of the “themes” of the piece, or overly sappy dialogue designed (I guess) to make someone like the characters better, though the effect it actually had on me was quite the opposite. Yabuki’s rendering over the many and frequent battle scenes is busy enough but lacks the clarity of motion that makes or breaks that kind of thing.
Just by virtue of the fact that this is adapted from a relatively popular anime and is filled with brooding boys and busty girls with magic powers and pointy swords, I have no doubt that SCRAPPED PRINCESS might be enjoyable to some portion of the Adult Swim audience out there. But, for those who have developed definite opinions about what makes good (if light) manga beyond whether or not there is an elf in the story, SCRAPPED PRINCESS is probably going seem just a little too predictable to warrant investigation beyond the first volume.
FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST Vol 1 by Hiromu Arakawa, Viz Media, 180 pgs+, $9.99, Rated Teen
Hey, speaking of manga that is light, enjoyable, and related to a popular anime, here’s FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST! The story, two brothers’ quest to find a philosopher’s stone to restore their bodies, is rooted in the same well-trod corridors of manga plots as Scrapped Princess. The difference in quality between them, however, can be assessed by an examination of Arakawa’s playful but visceral storytelling, unfettered as it is by virtue of being the source material rather than adapting from it.
There is a lot to like about FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST. The story is an equal mix of low comedy and high tragedy, immersed in intelligent, if occasionally distorted, research on the principles and history of alchemy. The over-arching story (the quest for the philosopher’s stone) is moved forward very little in this opening volume but the time is well spent developing the characters through a series of short vignettes. Unlike Scrapped Princess, the more serious action elements of the story adds depth to the characters and gravity to the plot, rather than merely saving both from the awkwardness of the dialogue in their sustained absence. I myself was overcome by a sort of fanboy awe in regards to the transmutation power that Arakawa seamlessly works into the story and enjoyed watching her have the main characters beat the hell out of each other with it. T’is a gift to be simple, I guess.
It’s not often that a blatantly mainstream shonen manga can impress with the energy and sincerity of its delivery but, in the case of FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST, that’s pretty much what happened. I hate to assume that the lack of gratuitous panty shots and heaving bosoms is due to the fact that Arakawa is female but whatever the reason, it made my own pleasure in reading it noticeably less guilty. This is great manga for teens and potentially good fun for anyone who enjoys the show or action-oriented comics or manga. Highly recommended.
BEYOND THE BACK COVER- Special Anime Edition!!
HAIBANE RENMEI, original story/visual design by Yoshitoshi ABe, animation by Radix, US release Geneon/Pioneer, 13 episodes (available on DVD Vol 1-4 in US)
HAIBANE RENMEI (roughly translated “Charcoal Feather Federation”) is a series from anime visionary Yoshitoshi ABe that debuted in 2002 as the follow-up to his highly acclaimed series LAIN. ABe’s ascension to auteur status is both well-deserved and the rare exception for anime, a medium that requires the participation of dozens and sometimes hundreds of people to produce. From where I’m sitting, this puts ABe into the rarefied company of Osamu Tezuka, Hiyao Miyazaki, Satoshi Kon, and (possibly) Hideaki Anno, despite the fact that he is in his early thirties. After having seen and been duly impressed by two earlier ABe series, LAIN and NIEA UNDER 7, I was excited about HAIBANE before I even knew what it was about. No amount of anticipation, however heightened, could have prepared me for the marvel that was about to unfold.
HAIBANE RENMEI is an allegorical fable that is told in such a manner as to suggest a number of interpretations; some, only slightly less-than -obvious, others sub-textual but no less real. What makes HR unique, as opposed to just masterfully wrought, is the intense evocation of feminine values visible in nearly every facet of its construction. While some anime are derived from shoujo manga, the anime industry is dominated by men at most levels of production and, not surprisingly, the output, however well (in some cases) intentioned, almost always reflects it.
The backdrop to the story, a city surrounded by stone walls that none but the departed may ever see beyond, is almost like a petri dish for Abe’s exploration of the female psyche. He clears the stage for nearly a third of the total story of any male characters and defines the all-female cast in broad but believable archetypes around the main character, Rakka, who is a cypher with no memory of what happened just before the story, for us, began. She is “born” into this closed system as a young teenage Haibane, a humanoid being with small non-functional wings protruding from her back. With the “what” out of the way, it’s thirteen breathtaking episodes before we know “how” and suspect we know “why”.
There is no real violence to be found in HAIBANE RENMEI, though the story never lacks for tension or conflict. One of the more memorable scenes occurs in the first episode when Rakka’s wings sprout from her back. While the wings seem very cutesy in their design, ABe handles their emergence with a haunting gravity that unmistakably evokes the taboo of menses and the development of secondary sexual characteristics in girls. More remarkably, he manages to pull this off while neither sexualizing nor stigmatizing the experience for the audience; a moment of unexpected but very real intimacy.
As the story moves away from its opening, it begins working towards a second, more obvious interpretation that postulates on the fate of suicide victims and those who have died too young to be responsible for the fate of their own souls. There is a syncretic Catholic/Buddhist worldview that makes up the underpinning for this part of the story that is consistent with the Japanese catch-as-catch-can approach to religion and spirituality. The architecture, which, along with the landscape, plays an important role in the richness of the story’s environment, is suggestive of an older European city with cloisters of buildings framing circular courtyards; another reinforcement of the womb-like qualities of the story.
All in all, HAIBANE RENMEI is lush to the eye, rich to the ear (courtesy of a soundtrack from composer Kou Otani that rivals Vince Guaraldi’s work on the PEANUTS cartoons in perfectly capturing the spirit of the piece it supports), and balm for the spirit. The contrast in both spirit and presentation between this work from ABe and that of his contemporaries is as dramatic as the differences between Miyazaki and the rest of the anime community in the mid 1980s. Given a free hand to create according to his own aesthetic, ABe proves with HAIBANE RENMEI that there is nothing intrinsically sexist about anime beyond the expectations of much of the market which consumes it, fostered by the most of the industry that produces it for them. Interested parties should definitely check out the Haibane Renmei website as well as this excellent fan site.
Well, it feels like I’ve made a lot of friends today so my work here is done. Thanks for tuning in and I’ll see y’all in seven.
-- ROB VOLLMAR
Rob Vollmar is the Eisner-Nominated writer of THE CASTAWAYS and BLUESMAN, both with artist Pablo G. Callejo.