From Five to Nine

From Five to Nine 1

Title: From Five to Nine
Japanese Title: 5時から9時まで (Goji kara kuji made)
Author: Aihara Miki (相原 実貴)
Publication Year: 2010 (ongoing)
Publisher: Shōgakukan
Pages (per volume): 190

From Five to Nine is the current project of Aihara Miki, whose manga Hot Gimmick and Honey Hunt have been published in English translation by Viz Media. Like Aihara’s earlier titles, From Five to Nine is a drama-filled exposé of the love lives of gorgeous young people going about their business in the trendy districts on the southwest side of Tokyo. From Five to Nine is serialized in Monthly Cheese!, an unfortunately named magazine that serves as a bridge between a shōjo readership of tweens captivated by stories of pure love and a josei readership of young women interested in the more physical aspects of romantic relationships. In accordance with the magazine’s house style, all of the characters in the manga are well dressed and ridiculously attractive, emotional and sexual tensions always run high, and chapters end on cliffhangers more often than not. In other words, From Five to Nine is highly entertaining, addictive reading. It’s designed to be.

What I think is interesting about this manga is the way it explores the conflicts between different gender roles and expectations of femininity through the love affairs of its main protagonist.

Sakuraba Junko, the leading lady, teaches during the evenings at an English language conversation school (Eikaiwa gakkō). Because of her friendly professionalism and almost native fluency, she’s considered to be one of the top instructors at her workplace, and her dream is to save up enough money to study abroad in America. Since Junko has passed through her early twenties without having settled down with a man, her grandmother has started to set her up on dates with potential marriage partners through a somewhat formalized process known as miai. To appease her grandmother, Junko spends her twenty-seventh birthday out on a miai date with a Buddhist monk named Hoshikawa Takane, who graduated from Tokyo University with a major in Indian philosophy. Junko is put off by what she sees as Hoshikawa’s snobbishness; but, thinking that their date is a one-time thing and that she’ll never see him again, Junko ends up sleeping with him on a lark. For Hoshikawa, however, that one night is the beginning of TRUE LOVE FOREVER.

Because this is a manga by Aihara Miki, Junko is fated to be the unfortunate object of nonconsensual manly persuasion concerning a relationship that she doesn’t particularly care for. Immediately after Junko gets back from her one night stand with Hoshikawa, she realizes that the deadline to move out of her apartment, whose building is slated for renewal, is fast approaching. When she goes to her grandmother for help, her grandmother suggests that she take temporary residence (geshuku) in a temple with connections to the family. Unfortunately, this temple is headed by Hoshikawa, who now wants to make Junko his temple wife (tera no yome). Being a temple wife is a full-time job, and a marriage to Hoshikawa would require Junko to give up her position at the English conversation school where she currently works, as well as her dream to study abroad. Essentially, if she were to marry Hoshikawa, Junko would have to give up the pleasures of her existence as an independent urbanite and spend her days cooking, cleaning, dressing herself in traditional clothing, setting out flower arrangements, and entertaining guests. Needless to say, she wants none of this. Hoshikawa won’t give up on her so easily, however, and he takes to stalking her, abducting her, and harassing her at both at home and at her workplace. One particularly unpleasant stunt Hoshikawa pulls is to lock Junko up in a small guesthouse separated from the main temple compound by an ornamental garden. In order to escape, Junko agrees to marry Hoshikawa; and, to keep him fooled regarding her true intentions, she makes a show of waking up early to devote herself to cleaning, all the while scheming of ways to get away from the temple.

Meanwhile, her college friend Mishima Satoshi, who has been assigned to his company’s branch office in America, shows up at Junko’s school in order to brush up on his English. Mishima has feelings for Junko and harbors a secret desire to take her to America with him; but, as Junko becomes more aware of Mishima’s intentions and her own reciprocal feelings for him, she surprises herself by becoming conflicted over leaving Hoshikawa and the life he’s offering her. Junko has also attracted the interest of one of her younger pupils, a wealthy student at an elite high school who cross dresses so effectively that only a small handful of his friends know that he’s actually male. This student, Satonaka Yuki, dislikes both Hoshikawa and Mishima and wants Junko to be able to stand on her own two feet outside of relationships with creepy stalker monks and alcoholic playboy salarymen.

This is high melodrama, of course, but what is interesting about Junko’s love life is how aptly it represents the push and pull between traditional and contemporary women’s roles. Should Junko give into social and sexual pressure and relinquish her independence and her dreams, or should she take advantage of a potential romantic partner’s kindness in order to break free of the constraints of living in Japan? Is it possible for her to somehow fend for herself without a social and economic safety net? Because of the romantic drama, the reader is able to experience the emotional attraction and anxiety of all of these possibilities. For example, when Hoshikawa does something ridiculous in order to (sometimes literally) lock Junko into a traditional gender role, the denial of agency that Junko suffers is viscerally upsetting to the reader. As it gradually becomes clear that Hoshikawa genuinely cares for Junko, however, it also becomes clear that Junko’s spirited resistance might be able change the way he sees the responsibilities and aspirations of the women of his generation. In this way, Hoshikawa serves as a representative of a society that is still primarily dominated by phallocentric interests. He’s scary, and his behavior is obviously psychologically unhealthy, but he can be persuaded to change by a woman smart enough and tough enough to take him on, even if she’s coming from a position of relative disadvantage. The sort of “he can change” mentality Junko comes to embrace is presented as being just as dangerous in the fictional world of the manga as it is in real life, but the alternative – “he will never change” – would be a bleak prognosis on the sort of patriarchal mentality Hoshikawa represents. The possibility that Hoshikawa can change himself as he learns that women are people too (gasp!) is an element of social optimism that serves as an emollient to the seemingly misogynistic sexual drama of the manga.

Two other female employees at Junko’s workplace, Yamabuchi Momoe and Mōri Masako, act as counterpoints to Junko’s situation by providing different attitudes towards employment, love, and marriage.

Along with Junko, Momoe is one of the most professional and sought after instructors at the conversation school, but she has a reputation for being standoffish and emotionally chilly. Although she’s all business in the office, she secretly loves yaoi manga. When Arthur Lange, a blond-haired foreign instructor from Britain, discovers Momoe’s hidden interests, he uses the threat of revealing her identity as a fujoshi to her boss to blackmail her into a relationship. Although Momoe enjoys fantasies of attractive, foreign-looking men being sexually aggressive and emotionally manipulative, the enactment of her fantasy is much more unpleasant in real life than it is in the pages of yaoi manga. Momoe is older than Arthur, but she has never had any romantic experience, and she constantly second-guesses her reactions to his teasing and bullying. She therefore often finds herself in the position of wondering how a woman her age should behave towards men, even though she wants nothing to do with them.

Masako, a receptionist at the English conversation school where Junko and Momoe teach, is a recent college graduate who, more than anything, wants to settle down with a boyfriend and become a housewife. Her coworkers tease her by calling her “Zexy,” a nickname taken from the title of a wedding and bridal magazine. Since Masako is attractive and intelligent, her standards for a partner are high, and she can’t find anyone her own age who meets them. Unfortunately, having cultivated an attitude of flirtatious approachability, she finds herself the constant target of unwanted male attention, especially in the form of sexual harassment from middle-aged men.

Junko’s English conversation school is thus a microcosm of Japanese society staffed by different women with different expectations, goals, and challenges concerning their futures. Although the manga focuses on its three main female characters, the male characters are also allowed enough interiority for the reader to see them working, talking to each other, and thinking about their own dreams and romantic problems. All of these characters work at cross purposes because of the artificial drama created by the manga artist, but their attitudes and emotional conflicts ring true to real social expectations and gender roles.

From Five to Nine is a fascinating exploration of contemporary Japan with enough intersecting plot lines, character development, and thematic subtlety to keep even the most demanding readers engaged. The obi bands around the manga covers tout the series as “a Tokyo version of Sex and the City,” and that should be recommendation enough for anyone seeking a fast-paced, hormone-fueled examination of gender roles in the twenty-first century.

From Five to Nine 2

Thermae Romae

Thermae Romae

Title: Thermae Romae
Japanese Title: テルマエ・ロマエ(Terumae Romae)
Artist: Yamazaki Mari (ヤマザキ マリ)
Translation: Stephen Paul
Publication Year: 2012 (America); 2009-2010 (Japan)
Publisher: Yen Press
Pages: 372

This manga is fantastic.

There’s a drawing of a naked man on the cover (you can see his penis under the removable acetate), and there’s a chapter about Roman and Japanese phallus worship. There’s also a chapter about the Bar Kokhba revolt that’s sympathetic to the Romans. The manga tacitly acknowledges Roman homosexuality (Emperor Hadrian is an important character) and Roman slavery (Emperor Hadrian thinks it’s funny that his pet crocodiles have bitten his slaves). All of this is in the background, however; and, if you can get around it, you will love this manga. It’s like reading a super-awesome issue of National Geographic, except with time travel.

Thermae Romae is about Lucius Modestus, a Roman architect living in the first half of the second century who specializes in designing baths and balnea, or bath houses. At the beginning of the story, he sees his own time as possessing an inferior bathing culture and wants to return Rome to the glory days of bathing, but his designs are considered old-fashioned and unmarketable. While taking a breather in a public bath house after being fired from his job at an architectural firm, Lucius slips and is sucked through a water vent into a sentō, or public bath, in twenty-first century Japan. Lucius thinks the Japanese are just slaves from one of the lands that Rome has conquered (he calls them “flat-faces”), and the Japanese think Lucius is just another clueless foreigner (they call him “gaijin-san”), and thankfully no gaping time-travel-related holes open in time and space. Lucius is taught the joys of contemporary Japanese baths; and, after being sucked through another hot water vent, he returns to Rome to share his own adaptations of certain aspects of this culture, which prove popular with his fellow romans.

Although the story gradually develops over the course of the manga, it remains largely episodic. In each chapter, Lucius encounters a problem, is transported to contemporary Japan, learns about Japanese bathing culture, returns to Rome, and implements his own versions of what he saw in Japan to the amazement and delight of everyone involved.

Through these episodes, the reader gets to visit various parts of the city of Rome, as well as locations such as Emperor Hadrian’s mansion in Tibur, Trastevere (a small city on the banks of the Tiber River), and the Roman province of Judea. Also on offer are the hot springs of the Tōhoku region, including monkey hot springs and therapeutic hot springs for convalescents. In his accidental journeys to Japan, Lucius also finds himself in the bathroom of a private residence, a corporate showroom for bathtubs, and even an aquarium that uses the water from a natural hot spring to create a habitat for crocodiles and banana trees.

If exploring contemporary Japan and ancient Rome is half the fun of this manga, the other half is watching Lucius in action. Lucius, earnest to a fault, is a classic straight man who is very serious about everything and responds to every situation he finds himself in with utmost sincerity. Although his upright personality isn’t directly exploited for laughs, it occasionally leads to humorous situations, such as when Lucius takes off his clothes in inappropriate places (for science!) in modern Japan. Mostly, however, Lucius’s personality allows him to act naturally in situations that would otherwise be extremely awkward or uncomfortable. He’s a sympathetic character, and his intelligence and curiosity allow the reader to see and experience more than would be possible if Lucius were a more cynical or self-conscious person.

At first glance there seems to be an undercurrent of “everything in Japan is the best thing ever” running throughout the manga, but I don’t think the artist ever takes the story seriously enough for her celebration of Japanese bath culture to come off as jingoistic. Through Lucius, who is by turns clueless and comically sincere, Yamazaki pokes fun at both ancient Rome and contemporary Japan. The Romans thought they were the most civilized people in the world, but their culture is capable of improvement through outside influences; and, while Japan has a fantastic bathing culture, it’s not flawless either. If Emperor Hadrian trying to recreate the scenery of the Egypt in his private estate is a bit silly, so too is a Japanese zoo that grows bananas. Whether it’s foreign live-in caregivers for elderly people in Japan or Lucius’s frustrated wife leaving him for another man after he runs off to spend three years in Judea, the manga always treats its subject with gentle good humor.

Yamazaki’s art isn’t hyper-detailed, but it is pleasantly realistic. Although she uses screen tone, most of the texture in her drawing, such as the roughness of cloth or the movement of water or the blush on freshly bathed skin, is conveyed by pen strokes. She slightly abbreviates both line and texture in about half of her panels to give the page a clean and open feel and to draw attention to the more visually dense panels. There are always several pages in each chapter that display nothing more than talking heads, but Yamazaki is capable of conveying such a wide and deep range of emotion with facial expressions and body language that these pages never become oppressive or boring.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise for me in Thermae Romae were the two-page essays at the end of each chapter. These essays, which are always accompanied by a handful of captioned images, offer the reader a few more details about the cultural and historical elements of the preceding chapter. Yamazaki supplements factual information with her experiences travelling through Europe and Japan and anecdotes about famous figures of the ancient world, and her essays are entertaining without ever becoming too personal or pedantic.

Yen Press has done a beautiful job with Thermae Romae. Although the book is a bit too large to comfortably read in the bath, the extra size is worth the better print quality. It’s also worth mentioning that Stephen Paul’s translation is superb. When I read the manga in Japanese earlier this year, I wondered how certain aspects of the text (such as the Tōhoku dialect spoken by a handful of secondary characters) could be handled in translation, and I think the translator and editorial staff did a wonderful job; the language in Thermae Romae is beautifully smooth with no awkward translatorese or corny attempts to reproduce dialect.

Thermae Romae is fantastic. I’m so happy this manga finally made it to America.

JManga

JManga Splash Page

This review was going to be about the manga Aoi Hana (translated as “Sweet Blue Flowers”) and how much I love it and its author, Shimura Takako (who also wrote Hōrō Musuko, released by Fantagraphics as Wandering Son). I was delighted when JManga announced that it would make Aoi Hana available in translation, and I visited the website immediately to see how the translation and presentation looked.

I have had trouble with JManga in the past, but that was about a year ago, and I figured that the site would have fixed most of its problems since then. Alas, I was horribly mistaken. Instead of talking about Aoi Hana, then, I’d like to talk about my experience of using JManga.

I am basing what I’m writing on my experiences of accessing JManga during the past eight days (November 26 – December 3) using a laptop running Windows 7 and equipped with a 13.1″ screen. My main browser is Firefox, but I tried using Opera and Internet Explorer as well. All three browsers are the most recent releases and running fully updated versions of Java and Flash. I experienced the most problems with Opera and the fewest problems with Firefox. (For the record, the JManga site did not work on the Safari browser installed on my iPad at all, and JManga has no app compatible with Apple devices.)

First, let’s look at a preview of Aoi Hana

JManga Preview Page

Well, that’s informative.

I tried to access previews of five other titles but could only find a working preview for one of them.

I suppose I came to the site knowing that I wanted to buy this manga, so I went ahead and bought it.

These are some samples of how the manga appears in full-screen mode on my laptop…

JManga 1

JManga 2

JManga 3

JManga 4

As you can see from the above images, unless you’re reading the manga on a huge screen, it’s almost impossible to read the text.

The image quality in general isn’t that sharp to begin with. Here’s a sample from Hatarake Kentauros, which is offered by JManga under the title “Working Kentauros”…

Working Kentauros

Even though this manga uses a different font, and even though the panels are larger and the text is less dense, it’s still difficult to read.

It’s possible to zoom in onto the page and drag the image around your screen. If you do this, however, before too long your screen will freeze into something like this…

JManga Frozen Screen

…and you’ll have to restart your browser (and possibly your computer) to get your browser to work again.

If you need a break from reading the tiny, blurry, headache-inducing text on JManga and leave the reader open but untouched for more than sixty seconds, you’re in for a surprise when you come back and try to turn the page…

JManga Loading Screen

…and you’ll have to restart your browser to get JManga to start working again. Since the reader has no bookmarking function, you’ll also need to flip through all of the pages you already read from the beginning to get to where you left off.

Even if you don’t step away from the reader, sometimes you’ll get the loading screen between one chapter and another, or even randomly as you try to turn the page in the middle of a chapter. Even with a lightning fast internet connection and a secure network, making it through even a short book on JManga required me to restart my browser several times.

Reading manga on JManga is not impossible, but it’s not easy, either.

So, is it worth it?

On JManga, manga are purchased with points. As of today (December 3), Aoi Hana cost 499 points. Unfortunately, the minimum amount of points you can purchase is 1000 (which costs $10.00). What this means is that, if you only want to buy one volume of Aoi Hana, it’s going to cost you $10.00. If you do buy this volume and have 501 points left over, you can use your points for another manga, which seems fine until you realize that the next manga you want to read costs either 599 or 899 points.

What this model should be paying for are added incentives. Unfortunately, the JManga site itself is poorly organized, and it’s difficult to find what you’re looking for unless you already know where to find it…

JManga Search Results

The site design is brash and busy and filled with pop-up ads: Read this manga!!! Check out this article!! Have you subscribed to our weekly newsletter?!?!?!

One especially annoying pop-up…

JManga Pop-Up

…persistently urged me to “update your info” so that my account on JManga looks like a profile on Myspace.

In conclusion, browsing JManga and using the site to buy and read manga is a thoroughly annoying and disappointing experience. This makes no sense to me, as many of the titles available on the site can easily be found on scanlation websites (a scanlation of Aoi Hana is the second result of a Google search for the title) that offer high quality images for free without the necessity of restarting your browser every five minutes. The people who buy manga on JManga are thus choosing to spend money to support the site instead of simply finding and reading scanlations for free. I don’t think anyone, no matter how young or internet-saavy, wants to come off as an entitled fan, but the experience of using JManga almost makes it feel as if people who choose to use the site are being punished in some way.

I have no problem with the concept of digital manga. I love reading translated manga on my iPad through the Viz Manga app, the Yen Press app, and the Digital Manga Publishing app. I’ve also had good experiences with the Sublime Manga site, whether reading manga on the site’s browser-based reader or downloading manga as a PDF document. Even the experience of reading manga on a Kindle has improved as titles are reformatted and updated to accommodate larger screens with higher resolutions. I love the Shonen Jump Alpha and Yen Plus magazines, and I loved Viz’s Sig IKKI site back when it was still updating. Digital manga is a wonderful advance in publishing that helps to support the translation and release of manga in America while giving titles such as Aoi Hana a chance in the American market.

JManga has updated its site and user policies according to reader feedback in the past, and I hope it will continue to evolve and improve in the future. Although the site doesn’t currently meet the standards set by other digital publishing platforms, it features some great titles. Still, I think both these manga and their readers deserve better treatment.

Hatarake Kentauros

Title: はたらけ、ケンタウロス!(Hatarake, kentaurosu!)
Artist: est em (えすとえむ)
Year Published: 2011
Publisher: Libre Shuppan
Pages: 160

Hatarake Kentauros is a one-shot manga by the BL author est em that contains eight stories and a kaki-oroshi (a short afterward section created especially for the tankōbon publication). The subjects of these stories are centaurs trying to make a living in contemporary Japan. The first four stories are about a salaryman centaur named Kentarō, the challenges he faces at work and while commuting, and his relationship with his human co-worker. The fifth story is about a centaur who wants to apprentice at a soba shop but can’t fit into the kitchen and is assigned delivery work instead. The sixth story is about a centaur craftsman who makes shoes even though he can never wear them, and the seventh story is about a centaur model who becomes depressed because his lower half is always replaced with human legs in Photoshop. The eighth story is about a young centaur graduate who is nervous about moving to Tokyo and beginning work at his first job.

The world created by est em in Hatarake Kentauros is largely homosocial; and, although nothing is ever expressly stated, the reader is encouraged to think of the male protagonists of the stories as gay. The salaryman Kentarō misses a day of work due to a cold and is visited by his male coworker, who prepares noodles while making observations on Kentarō’s kitchen, which was built to accommodate a centaur. The apprentice soba chef ends up bonding with an attractive apprentice ramen chef, and the two decide to open a portable street stall together. The centaur shoemaker rescues the son of his employer from an arranged marriage, and the two grow old together while operating their own business in a different city. The bonds between these male characters are gentle and subtle but no less powerful for not including overtly romantic or sexual elements.

What I like about the stories in Hatarake Kentauros is that they avoid a facile allegorical application of social justice by disallowing a one-on-one correspondence between “centaur” and “gay.” Although they’re just as “human” as anyone else, the centaurs created by est em are most definitely “other.” They’re too large to fit into crowded elevators. There are special lanes for them on the streets because they can’t ride in cars. They need to eat large quantities of food, and they have separate toilets. Centaurs aren’t just different from humans in terms of the shapes and sizes of their bodies; they also live for hundreds of years and take almost fifty years to mature into adults. It is therefore difficult to map categories of real-world otherness, such as gender, race, ethnicity, and nationality, onto est em’s centaurs. The reader is thus able to understand the characters in Hatarake Kentauros not just as platonic symbols but also as individuals.

At its core, Hatarake Kentauros is about the stories of individuals. It’s not about social justice or about men in love with other men. est em’s Equus (released at the same time as Hatarake Kentauros), on the other hand, is much more raw. In my opinion, it’s also more artistic. Some of the book’s stories have almost no dialog, and the impressionistic yet forceful lines with which the centaurs of Equus are drawn emphasize their muscularity and masculinity. These centaurs are sexy – especially when they’re having sex with each other. The stories of Equus do not limit themselves to contemporary Japan but look back to other times and places in which centaurs lived freely in the wilderness apart from human habitation or were inherited from father to son like slaves. Equus makes a clear connection between otherness, sexiness, sexualization, and discrimination, and it’s not afraid to hit the reader where it hurts.

I could write much more about Equus and Hatarake Kentauros, but, to make a long story short, these two manga are brilliant, genius-level works. If you can read Japanese – and even if you can’t read Japanese – it’s absolutely worth the ridiculous shipping rates of Amazon.co.jp to import these two books from Japan.

ETA: Hatarake Kentauros will also be available via JManga starting on Thursday, April 19.

Bunny Drop

Title: Bunny Drop
Japanese Title: うさぎドロップ (Usagi doroppu)
Artist: Unita Yumi (宇仁田 ゆみ)
Serialization: 2005-2011 (Japan)
Japanese Publisher: Shōgakukan
American Publisher: Yen Press
Pages (per volume): 200

This review contains mild spoilers for the completed series.

Towards the end of October I presented a conference paper about Sailor Moon and Magic Knight Rayearth. My argument was that the “male gaze” should not be taken for granted in the study of such manga, and that an awareness of an active “female gaze” can change the way we understand contemporary Japanese popular culture. For example, while the male gaze sees infantilized sex objects in Sailor Moon, the female gazes sees icons of feminist empowerment. While a male gaze sees an undifferentiated slurry of popular “magical girl” tropes in Magic Knight Rayearth, a female gaze sees misogynistic narrative cycles being forcibly broken by the tragic end of the series. At the end of my presentation, I received a question that caught me off guard: Feminist empowerment in the realm of fantasy manga is all well and good, but what effect do these manga have on the real world?

Many feminist bloggers, journalists, and scholars of popular media have chronicled the negative impact popular media has on girls and young women. In Cinderella Ate My Daughter, for instance, Peggy Orenstein (the author of Schoolgirls) connects the rising rates of depression and eating disorders in pre-adolescent girls with stories marketed to girls and the associated conflation of self-objectification with a perceived sense of empowerment. If emotional investment in media and the resulting internalization of its underlying ideology can have a negative impact on the real lives of girls and the women they become, wouldn’t it also stand to reason that a positive impact might also be possible? Isn’t that why feminists fight for “strong female characters” and alternative literary, cinematic, and historical canons?

It seems to me that the real issue at stake here is not whether manga affects the psychology of its younger readers (which it most undoubtedly does), but whether it has the same capacity for social commentary and the same effectiveness as a catalyst for social change as “real” literature. It’s difficult (but far from impossible) to argue that a glam-and-glitter “monster of the week” story such as that which characterizes the opening volumes of the Sailor Moon manga is literature, especially when compared to massive, era-defining novels such as The Right Stuff and Freedom. That being said, I believe that manga does have the same power that literature does to allow its readers to experience social and political issues from different perspectives on both a visceral and an intellectual level.

This is quite a long preface for Unita Yumi’s nine-volume series Bunny Drop, which is one of the most striking and memorable manga I’ve read over the past three years. Bunny Drop is about Daikichi, a single man in his thirties, and Rin, the six-year-old girl he adopts. The first four volumes in the series chronicle Daikichi’s deepening bond with Rin as he deals with the challenges of raising her; and, in the last five volumes, the focus of the story shifts to Rin as a first-year student in high school as she learns to negotiate the challenges of the adult world, such as how to handle her emotions towards her mother and towards Daikichi. Although this is a “slice of life” manga, it’s about as far from moe (the male-directed aesthetic and narrative mode of many slice of life stories such as K-On! and Sunshine Sketch) as you can get. Without being too adorable (or, at the other end of the spectrum, too cynical), Bunny Drop depicts the trails and rewards of raising a child – although the narrative tension of the series comes mainly from the trails.

The manga opens with the funeral of Daikichi’s grandfather and the introduction of a strange and sullen six-year-old girl lurking around his house. The child, Rin, is purported to be the grandfather’s love child, and no one in the family wants to take her in. While complaining about the expense and trouble of taking care of a kid, Daikaichi’s relatives squabble over who has to put up Rin until they can find an institution to take her off their hands. When Daikichi suggests that his mom adopt the child, she angrily retorts that he has no idea what sacrifices she had to make for the sake of him and his sister. Having observed that Rin’s silence is a result of her shyness and sensitivity as opposed to some mental deficiency and increasingly frustrated by the selfishness of his family, Daikichi suddenly proclaims that he will take Rin home with him. The open panel depicting Daikichi standing handsome in a black suit as Rin runs to him makes it seem as if everything will work out for the pair; but, on the last page of the first chapter, a decidedly un-cool Daikichi is woken by a sleepy-faced little creature proclaiming, “Hey, hey, Mister [ojisan], I’m hungry!” Daikichi comically snaps that he’s not an ojisan (a term literally meaning “uncle” that is used to address a middle-aged man) yet, and that such an expression would better suit Rin, who is technically his aunt. Along with this light humor, however, comes Daikichi’s sinking realization that he can no longer back out of the responsibilities with which his spur-of-the-moment decision has saddled him.

Although Bunny Drop maintains a fairly light tone throughout the first four volumes, as the first chapter of the series demonstrates, it deals with some heavy issues. Daikichi’s frustration with having to glue name tags on every tiny piece of Rin’s first grade math set is amusing, of course, but it also illustrates all of the nonsense Japanese parents have to deal with when their children start school (which is part of the reason why mothers drop out of the work force and limit themselves to only one child). Daikichi’s panic over the lack of suitable daycare options in the area surrounding his suburban neighborhood is presented as laughable, but his mildly exaggerated reactions attest to a very real sense of unease concerning the lack of choices available to parents in Japan. Over the course of the Rin’s childhood, Daikichi makes friends with other parents, such as a working father, a working mother, a stay-at-home dad, and a single mother struggling to raise her son while keeping both feet on the corporate ladder. Daikichi, who himself has to request a demotion to a non-overtime position in order to be able to pick up Rin from daycare on time, swaps war stories, survival strategies, and anecdotes of small victories with these other parents.

Meanwhile, despite growing up in a non-traditional family, Rin develops into a capable and emotionally mature young woman. The fifth volume jumps to Rin as a teenager, and the reader is invited to understand her story not only from Daikichi’s perspective but also from her own. Rin has matriculated into the same high school as Kōki, her childhood friend from daycare. Although Rin has done fine in a single-parent household, Kōki, who has been raised by a single mother, has had problems. These problems, which involve dating a much older woman while still in middle school, are alluded to in terms of their lingering effect on Rin and Daikichi, who have become like a second family for Kōki. In the later volumes of Bunny Drop, Rin (and, by extension, Daikichi) must deal with Kōki’s ex-girlfriend, an ambitious college girl on her own who isn’t interested in long-term relationships. Meanwhile, Rin becomes curious about the mother who abandoned her, eventually meeting her and learning that she was a single mother who often left Rin with Daikichi’s grandfather, for whom she worked as a housekeeper, in order to pursue her dream of becoming a manga artist. Rin herself has already begun to think about her own future and is strongly considering applying to a college within commuting distance so that she will be able to stay home and take care of Daikichi as he ages.

The issues Bunny Drop tackles are thus the issues the manga’s readership – presumably women in their late teens and early twenties – must confront as they begin to make choices about the directions their lives will take. Is it necessary to get married? What does it mean to have a child? Is it possible to stay at your job even after you marry and have children? If your career is important to you, should you even have children? What preparations do you need to make in order to care for your parents? Child care, elder care, and how young women negotiate their education and careers – these are the themes of Bunny Drop, and the manga explores these themes through a diverse cast of fully developed characters.

The social observation and commentary of Bunny Drop is subtle and doesn’t immediately engage the reader at the same level as the interesting characters and compelling story, but it really jumps out when the manga is compared to other manga with similar premises, such as Azuma Kiyohiko’s Yotsuba&! or Unita’s earlier Yonin-gurashi (which might be translated as “Family of Four”). Both of these manga, which also contain stories involving young children, are highly episodic in nature and display on the lighter side of caring for a child. In the world of these manga, children are always adorable all the time, and the only problems their guardians face are easily resolved within the span of a few pages. Neither the children nor their parents ever get old, and money (or work) is never an issue. Isn’t it wonderful to be a parent, these manga seem to suggest, or even, Isn’t it wonderful to be a child. In contrast, Bunny Drop employs a degree of realism that never allows the reader to escape into a comforting fantasy that will disappear as soon as she closes the manga. The awkward ending of the series, which abandons this level of realism and retreats into romance tropes common to both manga and mainstream literature, might even be read as a critique of fantasies that demand happy endings, or even of a society that demands that its women be wedded to an outdated and increasingly dysfunctional family system.

To answer the question posed at the beginning of this essay, then, I am sure that manga artists do not have the same ability to shape legal and political discourse as do lawyers, judges, politicians, bureaucrats, and the journalists and professors who publish in influential opinion magazines. However, as reading through periodicals like Aera and Chūōkōron (and made-for-export material like Japan Echo and Reimagining Japan) has convinced me, many of the major social issues currently facing Japan, such as a shrinking workforce, a low birthrate, and an aging population, directly concern women and the choices they make in their lives. Despite this, young women in the demographic represented by the readership of manga like Bunny Drop have little access to participation in public realms of political and legal discourse. It is not unreasonable, then, to assume that they will create their own realms of discourse to which they do have access. Becoming a politician takes money and connections, but presumably anyone can become a manga artist, or at least submit a postcard to Feel Young magazine expressing her opinions regarding Bunny Drop.

An individual’s consciousness of social issues is shaped by many realms of discourse, and it makes sense that young women would be more comfortable with realms of discourse from which they do not feel excluded. A manga like Bunny Drop, which examines important issues that pertain directly to its readership, should thus be considered a text worthy of being read and studied and even enjoyed. If Bunny Drop is not serious literature, then it at least performs many of the functions of serious literature through its use of narrative devices similar to those used by serious literature. A pastel-covered graphic narrative like Bunny Drop may not be a catalyst for social change, but it certainly does serve as a mirror in which young women (and men) can scrutinize their lives, the limitations imposed on them, and the choices available to them.

If you haven’t started reading this manga yet, I highly recommend it.

Gate 7

Title: Gate 7
Artist: CLAMP
Publication Year: 2011
Publisher: Shūeisha
Pages: 180 (per volume)

There is a haiku by Bashō that goes something like “even in Kyoto, I miss Kyoto” (Kyō nite mo kyō natsukashi ya hototogisu). I love Kyoto, and I think I know what Bashō was talking about. Kyoto is a special place. The food is delicious, the city is filled with countless shrines and temples, all sorts of interesting historical stories happened in Kyoto, the tea and vegetables grown just outside of Kyoto are amazing, there’s a vibrant nightlife catering to the students who come to the city’s numerous universities, tons of artists and craftsmen make their homes in Kyoto, and the local sake is out of this world.

Almost every grade-school student in Japan gets dragged on a class trip to Kyoto at least once, and even adults make pilgrimages to Kyoto to see the sights (especially during the spring and fall, when the cherry blossoms and maple leaves are at their best). Since Kyoto is only about two hours away from Tokyo by bullet train, the city also has a reputation as a good place to go for romantic getaways and weekend partying. Kyoto is totally awesome, and almost everyone in Japan has been there at least once, so it’s always been surprising to me that there aren’t more manga set there. CLAMP’s new fantasy series Gate 7, however, is like a love song to the ancient capital.

Gate 7’s teenage protagonist, Takamoto Chikahito, is just as much in love with Kyoto as I am, but he has somehow managed to make it almost all the way up to high school without having ever been there. He saves up enough money to make a solo visit to see the sites; but, on his very first trip to a famous Kyoto shrine called Kitano Tenmangū, he is suddenly transported onto a magical battlefield. Chikahito witnesses a beautiful young warrior with an enormous sword defeat a strange creature before passing out. He wakes in a house near the shrine, where he is attended by the child, named Hana, and her two older companions, Sakura and Tachibana. Sakura, a kind-hearted and cheerful young man involved in the world of geisha and maiko, and Tachibana, a serious and sullen college student, discuss how strange it is that Chikahito was able to enter the magical realm. Tachibana then attempts to erase Chikahito’s memory but fails. In the final coup of strangeness, the androgynous Hana kisses Chikahito and tells him that s/he’ll be waiting.

At the beginning of the second chapter (actually the first chapter, as the previous chapter is considered a “prelude”), Chikahito has somehow been transferred to a high school in Kyoto. As soon as he gets off the train that has brought him to the city, he sets off for a famous soba restaurant, where by chance he encounters Hana, who is as happy to see him as s/he is to eat bowl after bowl of noodles. Chikahito is soon dragged into another magical fight with Hana, in which it is revealed that all creatures are affiliated with either light (陽) or darkness (陰). Sakura is affiliated with darkness, Tachibana is affiliated with light, and Hana, for some mysterious reason, can fight using the power of either. By the end of the day, Chikahito finds himself invited to live with the trio in a traditional Kyoto townhouse in the Ura-Shichiken district (the hidden side of the Kami-Shichiken neighborhood around Kitano Tenmangū), an invitation which he ends up accepting, to his own consternation. It turns out that, during their first meeting, Hana had cast a spell on Chikahito that would cause him to return to the Ura-Shichiken.

The second and third chapters of the volume develop this fantasy version of Kyoto a bit further. The reader learns, for example, that major historical figures have been reincarnated in our own time, and that these personages are battling over both the position of head of their respective families and the possession of the legendary familiar spirits called “oni” that are connected to these positions. Chikahito also learns that Hana unique in not being affiliated with light or darkness, and that he is special in the same way. Furthermore, he can see oni, which normal humans cannot. In other words, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes in Kyoto that most people don’t know about, and Chikahito has somehow found himself right in the middle of a conflict spanning hundreds of years and multiple dimensions.

Gate Seven moves quickly through both plot points and battle scenes, but I found it to be a perfect balance between an action-oriented title like Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle and an exposition-oriented title like xxxHolic. Backgrounds, dialog bubbles, and movement between panels are all handled effectively and artistically. The character designs are appealing and seem to be drawn from a wide range of CLAMP styles, such as those on display in series like Legal Drug and Kobato. Veteran readers of CLAMP’s work should find themselves right at home:

Chikahito is appealing as a hapless yet loveable protagonist, much like Hideki from Chobits. Also reminiscent of Chobits is the character Hana, who occupies a strange liminal position between ontological dualities. Is Hana a boy or a girl? Is s/he a child or an adult? Is s/he a person or a pet? Is s/he innocent and weak or completely in command of the situation? Is s/he even remotely human?

There is a lot of magic and mystery contained between the pages of Gate 7, as well as some interesting historical revisionism. The series plays with questions such as: What if Buddhist magic (妙法), as well as the principles underlying Taoist divination and geomancy, were real? What if the Shinto gods were real? What if the major figures of Japanese history were somehow more than human?

The city of Kyoto, with its temples and shrines and traditional houses and narrow alleys and delicious soba restaurants, provides a pitch-perfect backdrop to the story. At the end of the volume is a section called “Wandering Around Kyoto” (ぶらり京めぐり), which provides addresses, websites, and other information about the real locations visited by the characters. Dark Horse has the North American rights to the manga, and I hope they’ll include lots of Kyoto trivia (as well as historical and cultural information) in their own translation notes when they release the first volume this October. Gate 7 is shaping up to be a good story, and it’s interesting just as much for its setting and its take on history as it is for its fights and its handsome male characters.

The Best of Tokyopop

I suppose, at this point, it’s not news to anyone that Tokyopop has shut down its manga publishing operations. At first I couldn’t believe this was really happening, but the website was just taken offline a few days ago (although the Facebook page still remains, oddly). People have been writing touching elegies for the company (and perhaps an even greater number of people have been castigating its president); but, for me, it’s really all about the books Tokyopop published – and getting my hands on the good ones before it’s too late.

Because there are some titles you don’t want to miss. Ships like Ai Yazawa’s Paradise Kiss have already sailed, unfortunately, but there are still some excellent Tokyopop manga available on Amazon. For example:

Castlevania: Curse of Darkness (Kou Sasakura)
A vampire manga based on a video game? Why yes, yes it is. And it’s really good, too. Even for someone who’s never played the games. The story is perfectly paced, and the artwork is gorgeous.

Dramacon (Svetlana Chmakova)
This is a really fun manga for anyone who’s ever been to an anime convention – or for anyone who’s ever been a teenager with an impossible crush and an even more impossible dream.

Eensy Weensy Monster (Masami Tsuda)
This (ridiculously-titled) manga is the perfect light-hearted shōjo romance. The art is clean and pretty, the characters are adorable and develop nicely, and the story ends exactly where it needs to end.

Gerard & Jacques (Fumi Yoshinaga)
Yoshinaga has drawn some crappy boys love manga, but this is not one of them, not by a long shot. Think Ellen Kushner-esque snarky historical drama, except with fewer swords and more sexy funtimes.

Goth (Kendi Oiwa)
Based on an intensely disturbing light novel by Otsuichi, this manga captures the darkness of its source material with artistically sophisticated illustrations. The pictures amp up the shock value exponentially, and that’s saying a lot.

Legal Drug (CLAMP)
This short (and tragically abandoned) series has been eclipsed by CLAMP’s more high-profile titles, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fun, clever, creepily gothic, and full of handsome boys flirting with each other.

Suppli (Mari Okazaki)
Besides Ai Yazawa’s Nana, this is probably the best long-form josei manga in translation that I know of. It’s mature, it’s honest, and it has more drama than you can shake a designer handbag at.

Speaking of josei manga, if you can find anything by Erica Sakurazawa or Mitsukazu Mihara, get it! The short story collections of both artists are unique, quirky, and not likely to be seen again after the last copies vanish from Amazon.

Unfortunately, most of the Tokyopop light novels I’d like to recommend have long since been out of print. Thankfully, there are two happy exceptions, and they are the paperback editions of the second and third books of Fuyumi Ono’s The Twelve Kingdoms series of young adult fantasy novels (their titles are Sea of Wind and The Vast Spread of Seas, respectively). Both of these novels stand on their own as stories, and both are excellent reads with lucid translations and interesting illustrations that add a great deal to the text.

Most of the opinion pieces I have read concerning Tokyopop’s demise either lament the company’s slow slide into irrelevance or reminisce about long-gone gateway series such as Love Hina or Fruits Basket. I’m not a Tokyopop apologist by any means, but I think the publisher was still coming out with quality titles right until the end. Although it’s no longer a question of supporting the company, manga fans should still be able to get their hands on many of these titles at Amazon discounts (as opposed to eBay markups). If they act quickly, that is…

Peepo Choo

Title: Peepo Choo
Japanese Title: ピポチュー (Pipo Chū)
Artist: Felipe Smith (フェリーペ・スミス)
Translator: Felipe Smith
Publication Year: 2010 (America); 2008-2010 (Japan)
Publisher: Vertical
Pages: 250 (per volume)

Peepo Choo was my Christmas present to myself. I had read a number of reviews which stated that, in short, the title is too offensive to exist and will only appeal to the most hardcore of manga fans. I have had my fill of critically favored yet bland and innocuous series like Kiichi and the Magic Books and Natsume’s Book of Friends, so such a negative assessment of Peepo Choo was as good of a recommendation as any.

I’m happy that I gave the series a chance. I read all three books without even noticing the passage of time, and then I went back a few days later and read them all again. Peepo Choo is brilliant. And yes, it is offensive. If you are shocked and appalled by the image of a group of bullies feeding a bloody tampon to a crying girl on the floor of a public restroom, or by the image of a decapitated fat man anally impaled on the gargantuan penis of his murderer, then Peepo Choo is not for you. And that’s okay. However, if you are one of those vile degenerates who has grown weary of shōjo manga and has come to consider a cute cartoon character regurgitating feces (or a stalker jacking off while witnessing a street fight) to be all in good fun, then you are more than capable of appreciating the genius of one of the most creative and entertaining manga released in America during the past year.

Peepo Choo tells the story of Milton, a teenage anime dork from the South Side of Chicago. Milton doesn’t fit in with the gangsta culture of his hometown and dreams about visiting Japan, where everyone loves anime and cosplays all the time and lives the hyper kawaii lifestyle advocated by his favorite animated series, Peepo Choo. Milton habitually skips school to visit a comic book store run by a silent, hulking gorilla of a man named Gill who uses the business as a cover for his true profession, mass murder for hire. The cashier at the store is Jody, a young (and secretly virginal) porn addict who energetically hates comic book geeks and otaku alike. When Milton wins a free trip to Japan through a lottery sponsored by the store, he sets off with Jody and Gill for Tokyo.

Jody wants pussy (to put it bluntly) and is counting on Milton, who has been assiduously studying Japanese by watching Peepo Choo, to interpret for him. Gill has been hired to take down an ultraviolent yakuza who calls himself Rockstar and sets about doing this by first massacring everyone else who tries to kill the self-styled gangsta Japanese homeboy. While Gill is taking care of business, Jody and Milton come to the unpleasant realization that the “Japanese” Milton has learned from Peepo Choo (“Howdy, sir milk dog! Feet be berry!”) isn’t real Japanese, and that the series was never even popular in Japan. When all hope seems lost, Milton stumbles across a dorky, pug-faced girl named Miki, who recognizes Milton’s Peepo Dance and tries to communicate with him with the bilingual aid of her friend Reiko, the lovely lady who graces the cover of the first volume of the manga. Milton, Miki, and Reiko go to Akihabara while Jody becomes involved in the yakuza war that Gill has created. In both cases, chaos ensues.

One of the most common complaints about Peepo Choo is that the artwork is bad. Some reviewers qualify their opinion by stating that at least the artwork is deliberately bad. Personally, I think Felipe Smith’s artwork is the strongest aspect of the manga. The art isn’t bad; it’s stylized. There is a difference. Smith exaggerates the faces and reactions of his characters to humorous effect, of course, but he also does it to convey emotion. Characters don’t have to tell you how they’re feeling; they show you. As a result, each image contains a wealth of characterization without having to resort to pointless dialog. Smith’s graphic portrayals of his characters are constantly innovative and always spot-on. This is one of my favorites:

An image like this tells the reader everything he or she needs to know about Milton and Jody’s first impressions of Japan without any verbal narration ever having to spell them out. Milton is delighted with the country’s quirkiness, while Jody is confounded and a bit frightened. This sort of graphic style also ensures that the reader never takes the story too seriously, which helps to mitigate its bursts of extreme violence and sexuality.

Speaking of the story, another complaint I have read about the series is that it doesn’t live up to its potential as a narrative. Unlike more conventional manga, not every loose end in Peepo Choo is tied up. The characters do not couple off. The bad guys are not defeated, and no clear-cut good guys ever emerge. Cultural differences are explored, but no one ever really comes to a complete understanding of anyone else. Characters are developed, but not to neat, logical conclusions. At the end of the series, Milton is still a dork, Jody is still a bitter virgin, Miki is still ugly, Rockstar is still an obnoxious gangsta wannabe, and Gill is still an inscrutable violence junkie. (Reiko has a bit of an epiphany, the nature of which feels a bit chiché, but Reiko is awesome, so I will ignore any stereotypes that might apply to her.) Along the way, however, every single character is uniquely appealing. Even the unsympathetic characters (namely Jody and Rockstar) are fun to watch and fun to hate. As a character, Gill especially is a force unto himself and makes the whole series worthwhile, even if the “examination of cultural assumptions and differences” theme occasionally seems a bit too wholesome and contrived.

In my opinion, Peepo Choo is one of the best new manga of 2010. I understand that scenes of frenzied masturbation and disemboweled yakuza aren’t for everyone, though, even if they are accompanied by infinitely creative artwork and thematically multilayered storytelling. I will therefore confess that my other great discovery of the past year was the perennially amazing Igarashi Daisuke’s Children of the Sea, which is also brilliant and beautiful and eerie and disturbing (but on the polar opposite end of the raunchy scale). Along with Peepo Choo, I recommend Children of the Sea to anyone with an interest in Japanese literature who appreciates graphic art and isn’t afraid to be intellectually and emotionally challenged.

Here’s to a fantastic year of Japanese literature and manga in translation! Cheers!

Ayako

Title: Ayako
Japanese Title: 奇子 (Ayako)
Artist: Tezuka Osamu (手塚 治虫)
Translator: Mari Morimoto
Publication Year: 2010 (America); 1973 (Japan)
Publisher: Vertical
Pages: 700

Every once in awhile I will play a game with myself in which I try to imagine the perfect setup for a Gothic novel. Family secrets! Incest! Murder! A madwoman locked in the basement! Sex! Revenge! I was thrilled, then, when I found that Tezuka Osamu’s mid-career manga Ayako hits all of the Gothic genre high points, one after the other. In 1949, a man named Jirō returns to Japan from an American POW camp to find his homeland significantly changed. The political situation in Tokyo is bad, but Jirō’s family situation in rural Japan is even worse, as the powerful Tenge clan has lost most of its holdings in the postwar land ownership restructuring movements. Through a convoluted series of events, Jirō ends up committing murder and has to flee the countryside. Through an equally convoluted series of events, Jirō’s four-year-old sister Ayako, who is made to bear the blame for the family’s misfortunes, is locked in a cellar for more than twenty years before finally being rescued by her older brother Shirō, who has been biding his time while witnessing the slow decay of his family. Ayako escapes her family and flees to Tokyo, where she is reunited with Jirō, whose rise to power reflects Japan’s economic ascent in the sixties. The Gothic elements of Ayako’s family drama are enhanced by the Gothic elements of postwar Japanese history, with its unsavory secrets and shady backroom deals and assassinated activists all swept under the historical carpet.

The whole thing weighs in at exactly seven hundred pages, making it a book to be reckoned with. It is in fact a Book, beautiful and well-published (but probably too big to carry around casually; an e-reader edition would have been awesome, but alas). Perhaps because of the way it has been published, in a tasteful, hardcover, single-volume edition, its ad copy attempts to market it as a Novel, stating, “Ayako looms as a pinnacle of Naturalist literature in Japan with few peers even in prose, the striking heroine a potent emblem of things left unseen by the war.” I read the publicity for the graphic novel, got excited, and had Amazon ship it to me on the day it came out. If people were comparing Ayako to Faulkner and Tolstoy, why shouldn’t I read it immediately? Unfortunately, although Ayako is certainly a major accomplishment in the field of graphic novels, I am going to have to put my foot down and declare that it is not in fact on par with the best of Japanese prose. Far from it. As literature, Ayako is riddled with problems.

Let’s start with the storytelling. The plot is highly improbable from beginning to end, and its developments often don’t make much sense if the reader begins to question them. The ending, which reeks of poetic justice, feels especially heavy handed. If one simply accepts the story as it unfolds, it’s not so far-fetched that it’s ridiculous, but “a pinnacle of Naturalist literature” it is not. The pacing is also highly uneven. I am not referring to the beautiful drawings of city- and country-scapes that Tezuka often inserts under blocks of third-person, scene-setting narration, but rather to certain key plot points that happen way too quickly. This refusal to let the reader slow down and figure out what’s happening is especially bad at the beginning and end of the book. Perhaps this why the plot at these points feels so contrived, or perhaps Tezuka himself wishes to rush across his plot holes. In any case, I didn’t feel that I was in the hands of a professional at the top of his game.

Another thing I expect from the “literary” novels I read is a cast of deep, multi-faceted characters, but the dramatis personae of Ayako are all one-dimensional. The Tenge patriarch and his oldest son Ichirō, for example, do what they do simply because they’re evil people. The two most complex characters, Jirō and Shirō, merely flip between “good” and “bad” like cutout paper puppets. Perhaps the female characters possess a greater depth of personality, but the narrative doesn’t really seem to care about them. Of Ichirō’s second wife, Tezuka says only that she is “so bland and devoid of a role in this tale that she is not worth mentioning.” Why is this woman driven to marry a man who obviously murdered his first wife, and how does she deal with his moodiness, alcoholism, and deranged family? It’s not worth mentioning, I guess. Ayako, who has the potential to be the most interesting character, is the most disappointing. The image of her on the cover of the book says everything you need to know about her. She is young, beautiful, and mysterious, and she very much wants to have sex with you. We see her breasts, butt, thighs, and panties more than we hear her speak. (I am exaggerating, but only a bit.) Of course she is seriously psychologically damaged, but Tezuka doesn’t give this the narrative weight it deserves, choosing instead to have us view her through the eyes of his male characters, who regard her as both pitiful and sexually irresistible. A “striking heroine” and a “potent emblem,” indeed.

Other minor characters are so cartoonish and caricatured that they don’t add much of anything to the story. In fact, one might say they detract from it. Clones of Popeye, Olive Oil, and Dick Tracy don’t really help the story construct itself as “serious literature,” and Tezuka’s brief attempts at humor feel inane and misplaced. On that note, the art quality in Ayako can sometimes be shockingly bad. For example, I don’t think Tezuka was even trying in this panel:

There are many examples that are far worse, but it would be cruel to beat such an ugly dead horse. Furthermore, some scenes that should be highly dramatic, like Jirō murdering one of his subordinates, come off as silly because the artwork is so immature. The cartoon character designs and the rushed artwork are much better, however, than Tezuka’s occasional attempts at realism. Such drawings are, quite honestly, unlovely, and their effect on the flow of the story is akin to someone jumping onto the train tracks. I’m sure that someone at some point will write a paper on Tezuka’s changes in artistic style in Ayako, but I came away with the feeling that his excursions into realism were randomly placed and artistically useless. They strike the reader forcefully – not in the way that an amazing photograph on the cover of a news magazine does, but rather in the way that someone suddenly vomiting in a crowded train does.

Such an awkward analogy brings me to my final point of contention: the translation. Again, the ad copy bills Mari Morimoto as an veteran translator, but I’m afraid that her extensive resume gave her a sense of artistic entitlement that she then used to absolutely no one’s advantage. If you think that this is a mean, nasty thing to say, I encourage you to read a page of Ayako (click on the image for a larger version):

I believe that dialect is something that is much more natural and naturalized in written Japanese than it is in written English. In written English, one needs merely to say of a character that he has a French accent; there is no need to write his every line of dialog as something like, “Je would like zee wat-ere with mon caf-ey.” The translation of Ōoku, which employs a vaguely Shakespearean idiom to give a sense of all the de gozaru period speech patterns going on in the original Japanese, succeeds brilliantly because the touch of dialect is so light. It is suggested to the reader, not shoved into his face and down his throat. The translation of Ayako, however, not only draws unnecessary attention to itself but also robs the Tenge family of any power, dignity, tragedy, or pathos they might have possibly had by making them sound like a Family Guy parody of the Beverly Hillbillies. There are also strange aberrations in the speech of certain characters, like when Jirō suddenly and without warning starts calling people “Guv’nor” in the last quarter of the book. And then there are the occasional lines of dialog that make no sense, such as when a character who otherwise uses unmarked speech says something like, “Boss! Our lads will think you’ve prostrated yourself to the [rival gangster organization]! They’ll be all a-seethe!” They’ll be all a-seethe? Seriously?

Any of these problem areas – narrative structure, pacing, characterization, art, translation – would potentially be a deal-breaker by itself, but together they make Ayako awkward and almost unreadable at times. Ayako is a deeply flawed work, and its flaws are of the type that are simply annoying without adding any depth to the story. I am posting an abbreviated version of this review on Amazon, and I am giving Ayako four out of five stars, because, despite everything, it is an excellent graphic novel. If you come to it expecting a literary masterpiece on par with The Makioka Sisters or The Sound and the Fury, however, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. Ayako is not high literature. It is a comic book: an engaging and thought-provoking comic book that was ahead of its time, but a comic book nonetheless.

I wholeheartedly recommend Ayako to librarians building a manga collection as well as to people who study manga, and I somewhat reservedly recommend it to people who are either Tezuka fans or otherwise used to reading manga published before the nineties. However, Ayako is not for literary types seeking an introduction to manga, and it is not for casual manga fans seeking an introduction to Tezuka. Unless you’re really sure that you want to read Ayako, warts and all, you’re better off trying a Tezuka title like Buddha or Phoenix. Better yet, skip the history lesson and go straight to Urasawa Naoki, who achieves the beauty of art and novelistic scope and density of character that perhaps Tezuka could have aimed for had he not been working on a dozen projects all at once.

In conclusion, I’m happy that Vertical has released Ayako in translation, but I find the ad copy misleading and counter-productive. It’s like talking about some entertaining yet vacuous commercial garbage like the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series and saying, “Look! This is literature! It references mythology!” in an attempt to get people to take young adult fiction seriously. There are plenty of literary manga out there, but Ayako feels like a relatively minor work in the canon, no matter how much money its publisher put into its release. If Vertical insists on producing deluxe editions, I wish they would pick up classics like Rose of Versailles or The Heart of Thomas, which have aged remarkably well. Otherwise, it is my hope that, in their ongoing battle against scanlations, they publish more affordable editions (like digital ones!) that might appeal to poor students such as myself, who sometimes get upset when their shiny new $30 investment isn’t everything it was promised to be.

The Walking Man

Title: The Walking Man
Japanese Title: 歩くひと (Aruku hito)
Artist: Taniguchi Jirō (谷口ジロー)
Publication Year: 2004 (England); 1992 (Japan)
Publisher: Fanfare / Ponent Mon
Pages: 155

Taniguchi Jirō is a popular manga artist that I’m always surprised more people don’t know about. His beautifully detailed, hyper-realistic artwork is simply amazing. The other day I stumbled across his one-volume manga The Walking Man in an independent bookstore, and the cover was so gorgeous that I went ahead and paid the import price for the book. It was worth it. As soon as I got home and finished reading it, I immediately read it again. That’s how wonderful and immersive the art is.

The Walking Man doesn’t tell a story, necessarily; it merely depicts a series of walks taken by its middle-aged protagonist. Each eight-page chapter has a broad theme, like taking the trash out at night or finding a shortcut through a narrow alley. The reader follows the protagonist on his walks, which are laid out in a beautiful use of paneling with a minimum of text and sound effects. The rich visual detail and minimalist storytelling make the reader almost feel as if he or she is actually walking along through the small-town Japanese cityscape inhabited by the protagonist. As a result, flipping through this manga is a thoroughly engaging experience.

For manga fans who might appreciate more conventional dramatic storytelling (and slightly less cartoonish character designs), Taniguchi’s later, two-volume A Distant Neighborhood (1999) is also a compelling read. Although the subject matter is quite different, readers who enjoy nostalgic slice-of-life manga featuring normal people moving through detailed visual depictions of Japanese cities might also consider checking out Kōno Fuyumi’s Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms (2003), which follows several generations of Hiroshima survivors in a story that is touching but never overly political. Perhaps illustrations of everyday life such as those contained in the work of Taniguchi and Kōno don’t have the immediate, flashy appeal of more mainstream series, but there’s a lot to enjoy and appreciate in these manga, and I think every anyone who reads Japanese literature should at least give them a chance.