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

The Inugami Clan

The Inugami Clan

Title: The Inugami Clan
Japanese Title: 犬神家の一族 (Inugamike no ichizoku)
Author: Yokomizo Seishi (横溝 正史)
Translator: Yumiko Yamazaki
Publication Year: 2003 (America); 1951 (Japan)
Publisher: Stone Bridge Press
Pages: 309

Reading The Inugami Clan reminded me of sitting in my local public library as a kid in the early nineties and reading crime novels with yellowed pages and crappy covers that were always on the verge of falling off.

This novel is pure pulp. The sentences are short and declarative. The chapters are only a few pages long and always end with cliffhangers. The murders are fantastically improbable. The beautiful young female victim is always fainting. The ugly older women are pure evil. The men regularly walk around with assault weapons. The sexuality on display isn’t overt, but it’s always kinky. Someone gets murdered every five chapters. Even the paper Stone Bridge Press used for its publication of this translation has a deliciously pulpy smell. The pulp dial on this book goes up to eleven.

In other words, The Inugami Clan is both ridiculous and ridiculously entertaining.

The primary point-of-view character of the novel is Detective Kindaichi Kōsuke, an eccentric private investigator of strange appearance and stranger personal habits. (“Physically, he is a stammering, inconsequential fellow with nothing to recommend him, but his remarkable faculty for reasoning and deduction has been attested to,” the narrator says.) Because of the detective’s fame, he has been summoned to the Nasu Lake region (in Tochigi prefecture) by Wakabayashi Toyoichirō, a lawyer associated with the estate of the recently deceased Inugami Sahei, a local silk magnate. Before the lawyer arrives in Kindaich’s hotel room, however, the detective witnesses a beautiful woman going down with a sinking boat on the lake beside the hotel. This woman is Nonomiya Tamayo, who stands to inherit the entire Inugami fortune. Even though Tamayo is saved, Kindaichi returns to the hotel to find Wakabayashi dead from ingesting a poison that had been applied to the filter of one of his cigarettes. Someone is obviously out for blood, and it’s up to Kindaichi to figure out what’s going on before anyone else is killed.

Not that Kindaichi succeeds, of course. The detective’s “razor-sharp deduction skills” are no match for a long-held grudge, and the novel has plenty of time for an additional assortment of gruesome deaths. The Inugami family motto is “yoki koto kiku,” an expression that means “tidings of good fortune” but is also synonymous with the words “axe, koto, chrysanthemum” ( 斧・琴・菊 ), which is as good a set-up as any for a series of themed murders. The “axe” murder happens early on, and the reader is given the pleasure of anticipating what the “koto” and “chrysanthemum” murders will look like. It would be a shame if Kindaichi were to solve the case before the killer could complete the set, right?

Instead of pulling a “just add Sherlock” instant deduction, Kindaichi spends most of his time accompanying the family’s other lawyer, Furudate Kyōzō, to various formal meetings of the Inugami clan, which are full of drama.

It turns out that Inugami Sahei was a bit of an asshole. The man had three consorts who all lived with him, and each of these consorts bore him a daughter, each of whom in turn bore a son. Since none of these consorts was Sahei’s official wife, none of these grandsons is his official heir; and, in his will, Sahei leaves his entire fortune to Nonomiya Tamayo, provided that Tamayo marries one of his grandsons. Tamayo is the granddaughter of Nonomiya Daini, the head priest of Nasu Shrine, who took in Sahei when he was young and starving. Sahei had a very close relationship with Daini, and he had an even closer relationship with Daini’s wife, and he apparently loved Tamayo as if she were his own granddaughter. Sahei also had an (even more) illegitimate son with a much younger woman named Aonuma Kikuno (who apparently looked just like Tamayo); and, if Tamayo for some reason won’t marry one of Sahei’s other sons, then the majority of the fortune goes to this son, a man named Aonuma Shizukuma. Since both Aonuma Shizukuma and Inugami Kiyo, the oldest of Sahei’s grandsons, had problems with repatriation after the war ended, however, there are plenty of opportunities for confused identities.

As things stand, everyone has a motive to kill everyone else. It’s almost as if Sahei were trying to punish his three daughters for something – but for what? It quickly turns out that the Inugami clan is about as dysfunctional as families get, and there are plenty of family secrets for Kindaichi to uncover before he can figure out who’s trying to kill off everyone associated with Sahei’s will.

Even though most of action of the novel is generated by Sahei’s three grandsons, the three older Inugami daughters really steal the show. Inugami Matsuko, the reigning matriarch of the clan, is an especially powerful and compelling character. I can’t write too much about her without giving away the story, but let it suffice to say that she is awesome, and the social conflicts and historical crises that she represents add a layer of depth and thematic richness to the novel that it would otherwise have lacked had she been just another ugly and bitter old woman in a pulp mystery about silly murders.

I read The Inugami Clan while re-reading John Dower’s Embracing Defeat, and I found that Dower’s description of the political confusion and cultural liberation of the immediate postwar period in Japan resonated perfectly with the themes and atmosphere of Yokomizo’s novel. Dower’s chapter “Cultures of Defeat” (especially its sections on “Kasutori Culture” and the “Decadence and Authenticity”) was especially interesting in its discussions of postwar pulp magazines, the sexualization of literature, and the re-emergence of “erotic grotesque nonsense” as a mode of storytelling. As is the case with any good pulp novel, The Inugami Clan has its fair share of plot holes and obvious exaggerations, but an understanding of the book’s historical and cultural background goes a long way toward making these plot holes and exaggerations make sense. If you’re interested in classic Japanese mystery fiction, Sari Kawana’s Murder Most Modern: Detective Fiction & Japanese Culture, which was published back in 2008 by University of Minnesota Press, is an excellent cross-cultural study that’s a lot of fun to read (and, for an academic book, it’s actually fairly affordable). Even without all of the secondary literature, though, The Inugami Clan is a lot of fun to read. The novel is currently out of print, but it’s totally worth the effort to track down a copy.

Warriors of Art

Title: Warriors of Art
Author: Yamaguchi Yumi (山口裕美)
Translator: Arthur Tanaka
Publication Year: 2007 (America)
Pages: 175

Warriors of Art is, simply put, a beautiful, interesting, and exceptionally well-edited introduction to contemporary Japanese artists. The forty artists presented by the book represent a wide range of styles, media, and themes. A large percentage of the artists are internationally renowned and probably somewhat familiar to many Americans, who should be able to identify their styles if not necessarily their names. The book is illustrated with works instantly accessible to the casual reader, and the image quality could not be better. Every image has been reproduced in full color (where applicable) against a white background. At $35 (and deeply discounted on Amazon), Warriors of Art is also available at an affordable price.

The five page general introduction to the collection is promptly followed by a parade of artists appearing in alphabetical order. Each artist has been allotted four pages, the first of which contains a half-page, two column introduction. I have to say that, even though I generally don’t find much use for the text in art books, I genuinely enjoyed reading each of the artist introductions. These introductions put the work of the artist into perspective with biographical details and offer a few extremely apt interpretive comments, referring only to the pieces reproduced within the book. An average of five works follow each artist’s textual introduction, although the number tends of vary from artist to artist.

As for the actual content of the book, I found it extremely disturbing. Sometimes I was mesmerized by a piece, my reaction being something like “!!!!!!!!!.” Sometimes I found myself quickly turning the page because I found myself deeply upset by a particular work. As Yamaguchi says in her introduction to the book, “A glance at the work of the forty artists introduced in the book reveals recurring images of the cute, the grotesque, the erotic, the violent.” I think her description of “recurring images of” might more accurately read “a constant and overwhelming deluge of” images of cuteness and terror, eroticism and subtle (and not so subtle) aggression. In fact, one of the first plates in the book, an anime-style picture by Aida Makoto called The Giant Member Fuji versus King Gidora, depicts a female character from the anime Ultraman crying as she is both disemboweled and sexually violated by a golden hydra of Godzilla fame. Things carry on in much the same vein from there.

Even though Warriors of Art is not for the squeamish or the faint of heart (or the underage), the images are colorful, eye-popping, and deeply engaging. Questions of national identity, sexual identity, and personal identity are tackled again and again by these artists, whose experiments with style, composition, and color yield shocking results. Even a brief look at the works in this book calls the duality of high art and popular culture into question. Certainly, even though the entirety of Warriors of Art can be read less than two hours, I found myself captivated with it for days, returning to it for fresh surprises and new insights.