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

Bye Bye Kitty

Title: Bye Bye Kitty: Between Heaven and Hell in Contemporary Japanese Art
Editor: David Elliott
Additional Essay By: Tetsuya Ozaki (小崎 哲哉)
Publisher: Japan Society Gallery and Yale University Press
Publication Year: 2011
Pages: 125

I’m glad someone finally said it: Japan is not all cute, all the time. Japan produces many cute things (I’ll admit it, pokémon are pretty cute), and Japanese cuteness is fairly visible in America, where there are vast subcultures of people who idolize it. Part of the reason why Japanese cuteness has spread to North America, Europe, and other countries in Asia is because cuteness appeals to people outside Japan, after all. (And it’s not like mainstream American media doesn’t produce its fair share of appeals-to-men-in-their-thirties cuteness on its own.) I think there is still an oddly pervasive idea, however, that everything that comes out of Japan is either Hokusai or Hello Kitty. I therefore want to hug David Elliott, whomever he may be, for putting together the Japan Society’s Bye Bye Kitty exhibition and catalog. The artwork is spectacular, and the essay by Elliott that opens the catalog strikes a powerful blow against the assumption that all contemporary Japanese art features huge anime eyes.

Elliott begins with a five-paragraph introduction to postwar Japan, from Douglas MacArthur to double-digit GNP growth to post-bubble malaise. He then moves on to Murakami Takashi’s cultural theory of kawaii, namely, that the Japanese nation is some sort of puer aeternus stuck in a neverland of cuteness and consumption. And then Elliott laughs and states the obvious:

Many artists, however, … have produced work that indicates a more complicated, adult view of life, melding traditional viewpoints with perceptions of present and future in radical and sometimes unsettling combinations. This hybridity … has created a fertile seedbed in which the struggle between extremes of heaven and hell, fantasy and nightmare, ideal and real take place. There is no room for Kitty’s blankness here.

In other words, Japanese artists deal with the same concerns as Western artists, and they do so as adults, intelligently processing cultural and political history and anxieties through creative and technically sophisticated artworks. Elliott identifies three major themes in the work of the artists represented in this exhibition: critical memory (how we deal with the legacy of the immediate past), threatened nature (how we deal with our fears concerning the immediate future), and the unquiet dream (how we deal with our selves). As a whole, the essay is beautifully worded, beautifully illustrated, and well worth the price of the entire book.

Elliott’s essay is followed by a short piece by Tetsuya Ozaki, the former editor of ART iT, a gorgeous bilingual magazine devoted to the contemporary Japanese art scene (if you happen to be in Japan, you can easily find back issues on Amazon.co.jp or at major bookstores like Kinokuniya). In this essay, Ozaki makes the connection between “a system that doesn’t make people happy” and the current “floating generation” of suicides, hikikomori, and otaku. He demonstrates how young Japanese artists are resisting “the kawaii phenomenon” as a means of escape and argues for a broader understanding of Japanese artists as adults both reacting to and transcending their cultural environment. Accompanying this essay are timelines demonstrating, for example, the discursive space of Shōwa Japan and landmarks in postwar Japanese art.

And then there is the art itself. The catalog showcases the work of sixteen artists, all in their twenties through forties, and all showing large and colorful pieces in this exhibition. In my opinion, the primary keyword for these pieces is detail. Yamaguchi Akira, for example, has two pen and watercolor paintings on the theme of Narita Airport in which the roofs (even those of the planes) are lifted to reveal a minutely detailed Edo-esque fantasy of Meiji bureaucrats rubbing shoulders with women in kimono excusing themselves after bumping into Caucasian tourists fumbling with their cell phones. Another of Yamaguchi’s paintings, The Nine Aspects, is a picture scroll reading from right to left and illustrating the nine stages of decay of a horse after its top-knotted master discards its corpse by the wayside. Except the horse is also a motocycle, and the architecture is half Edo and half Shōwa nostalgia. Time is also compressed in the huge pen-and-ink illustrations of Ikeda Manabu, which depict hulking architectural monstrosities so finely detailed that a magnifying glass is necessary to catch all the small touches, like the bomber planes flying in formation below the golden-ceilinged temple caught up in the branches of an enormous dying cherry tree. Finally, there is Aida Makoto (of Harakiri School Girls fame) whose acrylic painting Ash Color Mountains confronts the viewer with towering piles of dead salarymen, each individually detailed, which somehow makes the spectacle even more disturbing.

My one complaint about the Bye Bye Kitty catalog is that, with dimensions of about a foot squared, it really can’t do justice to all of the amazing detail of the exhibition’s artwork, the majority of which is at least as tall as I am. Therefore, if you can possibly get to New York to see the show itself before it closes on June 12, you should go! It’s one thing to see something like Ash Color Mountains while flipping through the pages of a catalog; it’s another thing entirely to walk into a room with no expectations and suddenly find that there it is all around you. The work of Ikeda Manabu especially must be seen to be believed, and the more installation-focused work of artists such as Shioyasu Tomoko and Chiharu Shiota should really be experienced in person. There is not a single boring artist in the exhibition, so it’s definitely worth traveling to visit. The best work of so many unique and high-profile Japanese artists doesn’t come together like this very often, so catch it while you can – or at least consider ordering a copy of the catalog.

Anime Explosion!

anime-explosion

Title: Anime Explosion! The What? Why? & Wow! of Japanese Animation
Author: Patrick Drazen
Publication Year: 2003
Publisher: Stone Bridge Press
Pages: 369

When I got Anime Explosion! in the mail from Amazon, I was so excited. I had seen it on a friend’s bookshelf, and, silly cover illustration aside, it seemed like a fairly serious reference source on anime. Instead of merely listing one anime series after another, its chapters are structured around broad themes (portrayals of nature, anti-war messages, etc.), with chapters devoted to single works or directors at the end of the book. The chapters are filled with well-selected and well-formatted illustrations accompanied by captions that do not merely repeat what is in the text, and there are numerous footnotes, which are also well-formatted and easy to read. The bibliography at the end of the book references such serious scholarly works as Professor William LaFleur’s Liquid Life: Abortion and Buddhism in Japan as well as numerous creator interviews from the pages of the long defunct but still fondly remembered anime magazine Animerica. The book hits all the big bases, like Japanese folklore in anime, nudity in anime, the Pokémon phenomenon, Studio Ghibli, and even one of my personal favorite series, Revolutionary Girl Utena. What’s not to like?

The fact that Anime Explosion! is one of the more boring books I’ve ever read is not to like, actually. And you’ll have to believe me when I say that, during my six years in higher education, I have read some pretty boring books. During my two years in higher higher education, I have also read some pretty terrible student papers, and so I think I can put my finger on what I dislike about Anime Explosion! – it’s the plot summary. Pages and pages of it. All written in singularly uncreative and unevocative prose. Judging from the level of the language, I would say that, despite the occasional frank discussions of sex and sexuality, the target audience for this book is currently enrolled in middle school. The book also assumes that the reader knows nothing about Japan, which I suppose is fair; but, to those of us who have studied the country, the cultural clichés referenced over and over again come off as a little stale. There also isn’t much interpretation involved, and the little that does exist is tepid and sophomoric.

I hesitate to say this, as Drazen acknowledges this problem in both his introduction and his conclusion, but Anime Explosion! is also a bit dated. The individual works covered in the book are, for the most part, classics, and no amount of time is going to change that. In that sense, Drazen has done an excellent job of creating a reference work that will transcend the whims of an extremely capricious field. On the other hand, for having been published in 2003, this book feels like a relic from the mid-nineties. The internet? What is this strange thing? The Japanese bubble economy collapsed? Oh my god! Also, to me, a presumably serious scholar, many of the seventies and eighties era texts Drazen references (like Kitteridge Cherry’s Womansword: What Japanese Words Say About Women) can no longer be taken seriously. Also, for those fans curious about such recent phenomena as moe and hikikomori, there is nothing to be found.

All that being said, this is a solid book and may prove interesting to younger or more hard-core anime fans. And, to be fair, Drazen’s chapter on “Gay and Pseudo-Gay Themes in Anime” (which Drazen aptly titles “A Very Pure Thing”) is bold, insightful, and well ahead of its time. For those of us interested in how anime stereotypes came to be, chapters like “Shojodo: The Way of the Teenage Girl” are also useful. For older readers looking for thrills and entertainment, however, I would recommend an anime magazine like Otaku USA, which tends to function at a much higher level than Drazen’s well-meaning but regrettably prosaic reference work.

Outlet

outlet

Title: Outlet
Japanese Title: コンセント
Author: Taguchi Randy (田口ランディ)
Translator: Glynne Walley
Publication Year: 2003 (America); 2000 (Japan)
Publisher: Vertical
Pages: 269

First of all, I would like to say that Vertical does not publish crap. If you pick up one of their books, you can rest assured that your money has been well spent. Second, I do not review crap. This is a public forum, and I don’t want any authors or translators sending me nasty e-mails. Also, if the book I’m reading turns out to be crap, I tend to put it down and go do something else with my time. Graduate students are very busy and important, you see.

That being said, Outlet is pretty crappy. I was on an airplane and stupidly didn’t bring anything with me that wasn’t an academic text, besides Outlet, so I ended up reading the novel from cover to cover. Thankfully, my effort was rewarded, as the novel isn’t consistently crappy, and its crappiness is good-hearted and quite amusing. At one point, I had to quickly excuse myself to go to the bathroom so that I could laugh out loud for sixty seconds or so. In the end, I have to say that I recommend this book, perhaps because of its very crappiness. Also, the translation is excellent.

The blurb on the front flap of the book states, “A brisk, bristling story of survivor’s guilt, treacherous sex, and unexpected redemption, Outlet opens the door to a spiritual dimension that is both new and age-old.” Well, I can’t agree with most of that, but at least they got the “sex” part right. There is a lot of sex in this novel. If there is a male character in the book, the protagonist has sex with him. The majority of this sex is a hot, dirty, leaning over the sink in a public restroom, fingers up the anus type of sex, and it goes on for pages. This sex is too smutty to be erotic, and, in all honesty, it made me giggle, flip to the author photograph on the back flap, and giggle some more. Oh, Randy.

Don’t let the sex distract you from the plot, however. Outlet’s protagonist, Yuki Asakura, works as a freelance writer and editor for a business magazine and follows the stock market (and has lots of sex) in her free time. When her brother is found dead in his apartment, however, her life takes a turn for the weird, as she keeps seeing the phantom of her dead brother (with whom she had lots of sex maybe) and smelling the death smell of his apartment at inopportune moments. In order to cure herself of this malady, she goes to her old psychology department advisor from college (with whom she had lots of sex) in order to receive counseling (so that she can continue to have lots of sex). On campus, she runs into an old acquaintance, who introduces her to the concept of shamanism and to her psychiatrist husband (with whom the protagonist has lots of sex). In the end, Yuki learns that she is not crazy but rather a type of shamaness who can tune into the vibrations of the universe and heal people (by – get this – having lots of sex with them). Spoiler alert: an “outlet” is something you plug something else into.

If we can ignore the sex scenes for a moment, this novel has some extremely interesting and informative passages on psychology, neurology, Japanese funerals, shamanism, and what happens to an apartment after someone has died in it. In fact, I think this novel is worth reading for its description of the Okinawan yuta (spirit mediums) alone. Although Taguchi’s thesis that schizophrenic people and hikikomori are merely shamans and shamanesses who have not yet learned to control their powers is somewhat silly, it’s an interesting proposition. Especially if you’re into “Eastern mysticism” like Zen or Daoism – or pot brownies; it really doesn’t matter here.

In any case, Outlet is a trashy yet intellectually engrossing novel, and it has a bright and shiny cover featuring a naked Asian woman. It’s good reading for a plane ride and can double as a good conversation starter if left on your coffee table. I will chalk this book up to another solid editorial decision at Vertical. They have not failed me yet.