Nickelodeon

Nickelodeon Blue

Title: Nickelodeon
Japanese Title: ニッケルオデオン (Nikkeruodeon)
Artist: Dowman Sayman (道満 清明)
Publisher: Shōgakukan (小学館)
Publication Dates: 11/2010 – 10/2014
Volumes: 3 (赤・緑・青)

I sometimes feel as if I’ve spent the past ten years of my life trying to find another Azumanga Daioh: a set of girl-centric stories that are weird and funny and touching without being male gazey. I love Azumanga Daioh‘s cute artwork and bizarre situations and perfect ratio of dark to sweet humor. Having read my way across a large swath of its many, many imitators, I’ve come to the conclusion that Azumanga Daioh is one of a kind. But I’ve found something close, yet different – and just as enjoyable.

Dowman Sayman’s Nickelodeon series is, on the surface, nothing like Azumanga Daioh. Each of the manga’s stand-alone stories is exactly eight pages long; and, aside from a few inconsequential crossover references, they have nothing to do with each other. Whereas Azumanga Daioh was all about the daily lives of high school girls, the subject matter of the stories in Nickelodeon ranges from grotesque fantasy to sci-fi spoofs to sarcastic magical realism. Unlike Azumanga Daioh, which has few male characters of note, the cute girls of Nickelodeon are more than adequately balanced by cute boys. What Nickelodeon does have in common with Azumanga Daioh is the tone of its unique style offbeat humor, as well as the artist’s ability to imbue stock characters with unexpected depth and feeling.

At the core of each of the stories in the series is a relationship between people, with “people” being a relative term. These relationships can be friendly, or romantic, or antagonistic, or a mix of all three. Boys are paired with girls, boys are paired with other boys, girls are paired with girls, girls are paired with tigers, boys are paired with flesh-eating demons, high school students are paired with clueless angels, conjoined twins are paired with blind dates, and ghosts of all sexes are all over the place. There are robots, giants, mad scientists, wish-granting devils, zombie princesses, and seemingly normal people with all manner of strange hobbies. The artist is like Scheherazade, spinning a seemingly infinite number of stories out of contemporary pop culture tropes, but all of his stories are refreshingly original.

One of my favorites is the cover story of the “Green” volume (pictured below), “Hickey & Gackey” (Hikkī & Gakkī). The piece opens with a girl named Otowa delivering a set of handouts to her classmate Sengoku-san, who seems to have become a hikikomori some time ago. Sengoku-san lives alone in her house, which has become a gomi-yashiki (trash hoarder’s den). After speaking briefly with Sengoku-san, Otowa promises to come again next week, but Sengoku-san tells her that this is the last time they’ll meet, as the city is sending an enormous garbage disposal unit named “Duskin Hoffman” (Duskin is a Japanese company that makes Swiffer-like cleaning implements) to her house to dispose of her like the rubbish she is. Suddenly, the ground starts shaking, the blades start whirling, the trash starts flying, and Otowa reaches out to Sengoku-san, making a last desperate confession. It’s absurd and ridiculous but somehow manages to punch you right in the feels, and the ending is beautifully open to interpretation.

Nickelodeon was serialized in Shōgakukan’s recently defunct IKKI monthly alternative seinen magazine, and its readers were thus expected to be genre-saavy and open to weirdness. The manga also contains moments of overt sexuality – it’s nothing that could even remotely be considered pornographic, but some of the characters are shown engaging in adult thoughts and behaviors, and there is occasional cartoonish nudity. The humor is for the most part good-natured, and the author emphasizes and plays on the silliness and personality quirks of his characters, not the sizes and shapes of their bodies. However, because male and female humans are portrayed as having nipples (the horror!), I don’t foresee Nickelodeon being licensed in North America. If you can speak a little Japanese, though, it’s fairly easy to read. In fact, I assigned a chapter to my fourth-year Japanese class this past fall, and the students seemed to really enjoy it.

Nickelodeon is almost perfectly bespoke to my own personal tastes, so it may be that I’m biased, but I think the three-volume series represents many of the great pleasures of manga written for an adult audience. Downman Sayman is wonderfully talented, and I’m expecting great things from him in the future. Hopefully one day his work will find its way into English!

The artist has two other two-volume seinen series, The Voynich Hotel (Voinicchi Hoteru) and Paraiso (Para☆Iso), available on Amazon.co.jp, and you can also find him on Twitter. Although he hasn’t updated it in some time, he has an account on Tumblr, which is cute and hilarious (but not entirely safe for work).

Nickelodeon Green

Yotsubato!

Title: よつばと!(Yotsuba to)
Artist: あずまきよひこ (Azuma Kiyohiko)
Publication Year: 2003 (Volume 1) – 2009 (Volume 9)
Publisher: 電撃コミックス (Dengeki Comics)
Pages: 225 (per volume)

Let me get this out of the way first: Yotsubato! has no story. It is not “about” anything. There is no point. It does not go anywhere. The manga could be classified as falling within the genre of comedy, but it doesn’t really try to be funny. The reader never really learns anything about the characters, and the relationships between the characters show almost no development. Nothing important or exciting happens.

Let me also get this out of the way: Yotsubato! is one of my favorite manga in the whole wide world.

I have been fond of Azuma Kiyohiko’s four-panel manga Azumanga Daioh ever since the translation was released in America in 2002. I also enjoyed the anime based on said manga. When defunct American manga publisher ADV Manga started releasing translations of Yotsubato!, Azuma’s new project following the completion of Azumanga Daioh, I picked up the first volume immediately. Unfortunately, I found myself disappointed. It wasn’t a fun manga to read. I didn’t get it. The dialog was translated in a way that was supposed to be wacky and zany, but I didn’t think the manga itself was that funny. The art was a little weird, too. A year later, in 2007, I went to Japan to find Yotsubato! featured prominently at almost every major bookstore in Tokyo and Yokohama – most memorably at the Tsutaya in Shibuya, which had an entire wall devoted to Yotsuba paraphernalia. The cover of the Japanese publication of the manga was approximately five hundred times more appealing than the cover of the translation, so I picked up a copy. While reading it on the train home, I fell in love.

Yotsubato! follows the daily life of a five-year-old girl named Yotsuba. Having been orphaned on an island somewhere outside of Japan (the circumstances are never made clear to the reader), Yotsuba has been taken in by a man named Koiwai, who seems to be in his late twenties or early thirties and makes his living as a translator. At the beginning of the first volume of the manga, Yotsuba and her adopted father move into a new house in the suburbs of a city assisted by Koiwai’s friend Jumbo, a florist with a preference for Hawaiian shirts whose name reflects his comically enormous stature. After moving in, Yotsuba and Koiwai (and Jumbo, who visits from time to time) become friends with the family living next door, which consists of a mother, a daughter in college, a daughter in high school, and a daughter a year or two older than Yotsuba (the father of the family never makes an appearance). Although other friends of Koiwai and the next-door neighbors are occasionally introduced, Yotsubato! mainly revolves around this core set of characters and their interactions. The manga moves slowly from day to day. Over the course of nine volumes, its leisurely pace has taken it from the middle of summer to the very beginning of fall.

What I love about this manga is this very slowness. I wouldn’t describe this work as “contemplative,” however; Yotsuba herself is very curious and energetic, and her adopted father is something of a character as well. There is nothing boring about the manga, but its focus on the mundane allows the reader to take a step back from his or her own presumably hectic life and enjoy an endless summer full of daytrip adventures and small discoveries. This is not to say that Yotsubato! somehow resembles something like My Neighbor Totoro. The manga is written from an adult perspective, and the reader is constantly encouraged to identify with the people who surround Yotsuba rather than with the girl herself. The occasional jokes that the manga makes are sophisticated, and the adult speech and relationships are not sanitized or downplayed.

The attention to detail expressed in every aspect of the manga finds its most visible outlet in its gorgeous artwork. As I noticed when I first read the manga in America, it takes Azuma several chapters to settle on his character designs, which are drawn in his unique style. The rest of the visual realm, however, is drawn in an almost photorealistic way, from the tiniest detail of the interior architecture of Yotsuba’s house to the products lining the shelves of a neighborhood convenience store. Aside from the shade of Yotsuba’s unique hair, there is almost no screen tone used in the manga; everything is conveyed in understated ink work, which miraculously never clutters the page or busies the panels. The slightly cartoonish characters provide a pleasing contrast to this sort of detailed background. I feel like the background art in this manga captures the essence of a Japanese suburb far away from Tokyo; so, even while I was reading this manga in Yokohama, it made me feel nostalgic for living in Japan.

I suppose you could say that I enjoy this manga because of its pace, its narrative tone, and its art. I’m not really sure, though, what makes Yotsubato! different from any other “slice of life” manga, but it is different. I have said before that I think manga can be considered literature, but Yotsubato! is not literature. It is a masterwork of an entirely different medium of artistic expression. Really, I think Yotsubato! stands alongside the works of Urasawa Naoki and Asano Inio as an exemplar of what manga is capable of.

Although I am a great believer in translation, I feel that Yotsubato! is much more enjoyable in the original Japanese. Thankfully, even beginning students of Japanese should not find the dialog in the manga to be prohibitively difficult. For those readers who have no Japanese language background, however, a new English translation of the manga is currently being published under the title of “Yotsuba&!” by Yen Press.

I think the following two pages demonstrate the style of the manga. In the middle of a late summer typhoon, Yotsuba runs into the storm to warn her next door neighbors to be careful. In her haste, she forgets her umbrella, so her adopted father runs after her to give it to her. Upon catching up with her, he finds her already drenched, so….