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 Anime Machine

Title: The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation
Author: Thomas Lamarre
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press
Publication Year: 2009
Pages: 385

If Susan Napier’s Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle is an entry-level textbook on Japanese animation for undergraduates, Thomas Lamarre’s The Anime Machine is an entry-level textbook on Japanese animation for graduate students. The prerequisite for being able to fully appreciate this study is a firm foundation in philosophy, psychoanalysis, and cinema theory. Lamarre plays hard and fast with specialist terminology, and he doesn’t wait for the reader to catch up. Nevertheless, The Anime Machine is a brilliant text that will hopefully revolutionize the study of animation, Japanese or otherwise.

Lamarre’s essential argument in The Anime Machine is that, in order to understand Japanese animation, one needs to understand what animation is and how it works before starting to talk about its cultural and social aspects. His main point seems to be that Japanese animation is characterized by non-Cartesian perspectivism, which is a fancy way of saying that it’s “flat,” or that it lacks the illusion of depth. This feature of “limited animation” is engendered by the limited budgets of many animation studios in Japan, whose personnel have nevertheless managed to turn financial constraints into an art form. Lamarre is not shy about embracing a strongly auteuristic view of animation, identifying the work helmed by directors like Miyazaki Hayao and Anno Hideaki as conscientious statements of personal worldview through the use of the various idiosyncrasies of limited animation.

The first work that Lamarre examines in depth is Studio Ghibli’s Laputa: Castle in the Sky. After explaining the technology used to create layers, or “planes,” in traditional cel animation, Lamarre argues that Miyazaki subverts conventions used to depict depth (and also speed and movement) in order to present his audience with a more humanistic view of history and the environment. He then moves to the work of Studio Gainax, specifically Nadia of the Blue Waters and Neon Genesis Evangelion, to emphasize his point while also discussing affective character design and the implications of limited character animation. The text then turns to otaku theory via a summary of the work of Azuma Hiroki and finds its summarizing points in the confluence of girl, machine, audience, and “the cinematic apparatus” in the animated series based on CLAMP’s hyper-popular manga Chobits.

I am oversimplifying a great deal. Lamarre’s chapters are incredibly wide ranging in their themes and contents. One issue he carries through his entire discussion is that of the relationship between female characters and technological ideals in anime. An astute reader will notice that, although he blatantly contradicts himself at certain points over the course of the book, his observations are extremely interesting and almost completely removed from the clichéd repetitions of the vast majority of scholarship on the subject. In fact, without clearly delineating (and thus limiting the scope of) each topic, Lamarre manages to hit most of the major issues in the academic discussion of Japanese animation.

I like this book. I like it a lot. I had the opportunity to read it with a group of extremely intelligent undergraduates while taking a class on Japanese animation this past spring, however, and my impression was that the undergraduates hated it, aggressively and venomously. One person, an advanced student of philosophy, insisted that Thomas Lamarre is French and that this book is a translation, which is to say that Lamarre is a deliberately opaque writer and that the language of The Anime Machine is needlessly difficult to follow. Another person, a student of film theory and a practicing filmmaker, constructed an entire visual presentation arguing that Lamarre’s claims of non-Cartesianism, at least as they relate to Laputa, are completely unfounded.

I would have to agree that Lamarre’s language and system of references are quite dense. For example, when Lamarre argues in his introduction that the technology used to create animation influences the type of animation that is created, he phrases his statements in sentences like this:

The animetic interval (already implicit in the layering of images prior to the animation stand) became the site of a rationalization, instrumentalization, or technologization of the multiplanar image, allowing animators to harness or channel the force of the moving image in distinctly animetic ways.

It becomes increasingly clear what Lamarre means by such terms as “animetic interval,” and “multiplanar image” as the reader progresses through the book, but the use of phrases like “cinematic apparatus” (a technically appropriate but somewhat misleading way of referring to the function of the “camera” in animation) can be confusing and alienating to readers not wholly familiar with recent avant-garde film theory (this would include myself). Moreover, anyone with anything less than a sterling classical education is going to find him or herself repeatedly returning to Wikipedia to clarify the meaning of the Carteisan subject and Heidegger’s views on High Humanism.

Despite this, I have read worse writers than Lamarre, and I didn’t find The Anime Machine particularly challenging as far as academic studies go. I am writing this review because I recently ran into a friend of mine who had gone to this year’s Otakon and found herself attending a panel on “Anime in Academia.” She said that one of the panelists had highly recommended Lamarre’s book to a room full of teenage fans, and the two of us had a bit of a laugh. This is not to say that The Anime Machine isn’t full of insights and wonderful ideas and solutions and problems and great leads on further research, but rather that a casual, nonacademic fan might find it extremely frustrating. So I therefore give this book a million gold stars and thumbs up and non-rotten tomatoes, but also a very serious caveat emptor warning for non-academics.

As long as I’m writing about academic studies of anime and manga, I would like to link to an excellent series of posts (which begins here) about desire, love, and rape in the classic manga The Rose of Versailles that credits the intelligence of its reader and makes interesting observations without becoming entangled in the morass of academic jargon. If you’re looking for good essays about Japanese popular culture, The Lobster Dance is a great place to start.

xxxHOLiC

Title: xxxHOLiC (ホリック)
Artist: CLAMP (クランプ)
Publication Year: 2003 (Volume 1) – 2009 (Volume 16)
Publisher: 講談社 (Kōdansha)
Pages: 180 (per volume)

As embarrassing as this is to admit, I have been reading manga for a very long time. I started reading manga as a freshman in high school in 1998, back when Japanese comics were published in America as forty-page, A5-sized, left-to-right-reading comic books. A lot of things have changed in both American manga publishing and in my own personal tastes in manga since then, but two things have stayed the same. The works of CLAMP have always been popular, and I have always loved them.

CLAMP is a creative team made up of four women: Ōkawa Nanase, Igarashi Satsuki, Nekoi Tsubaki, and Mokona. They have published popular shōjo stories (meant for girls) like Magic Knight Rayearth and popular shōnen stories (meant for boys) like Chobits, but they have always managed to effectively erase the line dividing the two different demographics. A good example of this might be their popular manga Angelic Layer, which was serialized in the manga magazine Weekely Shōnen Jump (home of such boys’ fare as Dragon Ball, Naruto, One Piece, and Bleach) but which features a young female protagonist who trains and fights her battles with small dolls dressed in ornate and fantastic costumes.

CLAMP therefore has a huge fan base spanning both genders, and what’s not to love about them? They have written stories falling into every conceivable genre, from fantasy to romance to science fiction to mystery to historical fiction to reworkings of classical mythology. Their artwork is not only beautiful and varied but also constantly evolving. They are masters of the art of storytelling, always paying careful attention to plot and pacing and always managing to keep their stories moving forward and full of fresh twists and surprises. They care about their characters and rarely write good guys who are entirely good or bad guys who are entirely bad. Their manga almost never end in simple, easy ways.

I admit that I have met more than a few people who do not care for CLAMP and their particular flavor of manga. I adore the group, however, and their popularity has grown to such an extent that a beautifully illustrated retrospective of their work, All About CLAMP, was published late last year in Japan. A similar book, CLAMP in America (authored by the perennially awesome Shaenon Garitty), is scheduled to be published stateside in May of this year. CLAMP currently has several ongoing manga series, and several of their manga series have recently been adapted into anime. I feel like right now is a good time to be a CLAMP fan, so I would like to introduce my favorite manga written by these supremely talented ladies.

xxxHOLiC (pronounced “holic”) is a story about an irritable yet essentially kind-hearted high school student, Watanuki, whose eyes have the unusual condition of being able to see ghosts. These ghosts cause all manner of trouble for Watanuki, who just wants to live a normal life. When he accidentally stumbles into a magical store run by a wish-granting witch named Yūko, he asks her to cure him. She tells him that she will, eventually, but he first must pay a price equivalent in value to the granting of his wish – he must work part-time in her store every day after school. While doing various odd jobs for Yūko, Watanuki meets all sorts of strange people who want their wishes to be granted, as well as all manner of strange creatures that seem to be friends with Yūko. At school, Watanuki is enthralled by the lovely Himawari-chan and engages in a one-sided rivalry with a boy named Dōmeki, who has the magical power to drive away the ghosts that cause so much trouble for Watanuki (which annoys Watanuki to no end).

This description of the manga sounds like a chiché-filled cross between between the “wish granting with a cost” sub-genre of horror (exemplified by works like the Pet Shop of Horrors manga and the Hell Girl anime) and the “I see dead people” sub-genre of almost everything (ranging from YuYu Hakusho to Ghost Hunt) – but it’s not. I promise. Since the plot of xxxHOLiC is tied to that of its über-popular shōnen sister manga, Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicles, it might also be dismissed as a cheap marketing gimmick – but it’s not. I promise.

The series starts off slowly, drawing the reader into its mysterious world and establishing the personalities of its quirky cast of characters. As the story progresses, however, the reader is led to question certain things that have been taken for granted. In the end, nothing is as it seems. In terms of its narrative structure, xxxHOLiC vaguely resembles something like The X-Files. There are “monster of the week” episodes, but the series as a whole is tied together both by a larger story arc and by a unity of theme running through each individual episode. Unlike The X-Files, however, the shorter story arcs of xxxHOLiC are not easily resolved and are interwoven with each other and the larger story arc, which progress slowly at its own pace. The overall tone of the manga is that of horror and mystery, but there is quite a bit of humor, romance, friendship, and playfulness thrown in as well.

I imagine that I could keep praising the various aspects of this manga (such as the brilliantly rendered character of the witch Yūko, the gradual and multi-layered world building, and the gorgeous artwork, which resembles inter-war era lithographs and goes a long way towards establishing the eerie, dream-like atmosphere of the work) for many more paragraphs. Let it suffice to say, though, that xxxHOLiC is an amazing manga series. I think it is capable of standing its ground against any film or novel. To any manga fan who has been hesitant to read this series because it seems so gimmicky and stereotypical, I encourage you to give it a chance. To any fan of horror, mystery, fantasy, or the gothic who is hesitant to read a manga, I encourage you to give it a chance. In my opinion, xxxHOLiC is one of the most interesting works being published right now in any medium.

I have been reading this manga in Japanese in the beautiful volumes published by Kōdansha. An English translation of the series (which I haven’t read yet, unfortunately) is currently being published in America by Del Rey. I would like to close with a two-page spread depicting the hyakki yagyō (“night parade of one hundred demons”) that will hopefully illustrate the distinctive art style that CLAMP has created for this manga.