Ravina The Witch?

Title: Ravina The Witch?
Artist: Junko Mizuno (水野 純子)
Translators: C.B. Cebulski, Patrick Macias, and Jason Thompson
Publication Year: 2014 (France); 2017 (United States)
Publisher: Titan Comics
Pages: 48

This guest review is written by Erica Friedman (@OkazuYuri on Twitter).

Imagine if you will, an image of two goats looking at each other. Maybe a younger animal looking up at an older one.

“The younger, cuter one is looking up at the older and wiser one,” your brain immediately fills in for you. You then tell yourself a story about how the older goat is teaching the younger one, or scolding it, or… And in the end, you have created meaning in what is a picture of two animals who are literally just looking at one another for one brief moment.

Ravina is a girl who lives in a garbage heap, raised by crows. She is given a magic wand by a dying old woman. Ravina is captured and brought to the palace of a corrupt king, whom she unmasks as a cheater. She then lives briefly with an older man who wears dresses, and while she stays with him she learns that to use the wand she must be drunk. Ultimately, Ravina is saved from angry villagers by her crow family and returned to her home in the garbage dump.

Ravina The Witch? by Junko Mizuno is the fairytale equivalent of two animals looking at one another. We can be moved deeply by the story and we can find all sorts of meaning in it – whether it is truly there or not. In fact, we’re going to make damn well sure it is by telling ourselves the moral of the story. There is a single moment when Ravina explicitly accepts the man who wears dresses, telling him that if it makes him happy, that’s fine by her. Other than that moment, whether you see Ravina The Witch? as profound tale of acceptance of life’s vagaries or two goats looking at one another, is entirely up to you.

Titan Comics has done a bang-up job with this book. The color palette consists of muted pukey pastels, reminiscent of barfed up blueberry yogurt – entirely suitable for a fairytale that begins and ends in a garbage heap. The cover is highlighted with gold metallic ink, and Mizuno’s illustrations are detailed, intricate, and often framed in black. The combination of these visual elements imbues the book with an atmosphere similar to that of a Russian fairy tale. And, like Russian fairy tales, this story is filled with creatures that are simultaneously cute and disgusting, a lot of drinking, and the kind of ambiguous ending that one expects from Mizuno’s work.

Readers may identify this story as a deconstructed “magical girl” series. Ravina’s magic comes from her wand, but she needs to summon a special power to activate it, and she needs to be drunk to do so. So is she a “witch,” or is she a “heroine”? Or is she a kind of Vasalisa, willing to take risks to achieve morally opaque goals and personal power? You’ll have to decide for yourself, because Mizuno isn’t going to help you with this at all. You may have to re-read the book and then tell yourself another story or two to figure it out.

Ravina The Witch? is an awesome must-get book if you’re a fan of Mizuno’s work or enjoy alternative and deconstructed fairy tales. It will also make a great gift to determine who your real friends are.


Erica Friedman (@OkazuYuri on Twitter) holds a Masters Degree in Library Science and a B.A. in Comparative Literature, and is a full-time researcher for a Fortune 100 company. She has lectured at dozens of conventions and presented at film festivals, notably the San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Film Festival and the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. Erica has written about queer comics for the Japanese literary journal Eureka, Animerica magazine, and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and she has contributed to numerous online magazines such as Forbes, Slate, and Huffington Post. She has written news and reviews of Yuri anime, manga, and related media on her blog Okazu since 2002.

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.

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!

Little Boy

Title: Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subcultures
Editor: Takashi Murakami
Publisher: Japan Society Gallery
Publication Year: 2005
Pages: 300

Little Boy is most definitely the contemporary Japanese art exhibition catalog to end all art exhibition catalogs. It quickly sold out when it was first released, and secondhand copies now sell for ridiculous amounts of money. The Japan Society of New York has finally released a softcover edition, which it sells in its headquarters in New York City. The new edition is just as gorgeous and well put together as the original hardcover version; so, if it’s at all possible for you to acquire one, go for it! Quickly! Do it now! Before you even start reading this review! Yes, it’s that good.

The first one hundred or so pages of this catalog feature full color plates of various artworks, photographs, and screen stills. Through these plates, pop artist extraordinaire Murakami Takashi attempts to demonstrate in images the thesis of his introductory essay “Earth in my Window.” Murakami’s main argument can be summarized in two points. First, the Pacific War, especially the two atomic bombs that ended it, left an indelible scar on the Japanese psyche. Second, the experience of having been defeated in war and thereafter occupied by America has turned multiple generations of Japanese people into perpetual children. The first point is illustrated by plates demonstrating recurring nuclear imagery in films and television serials such as Akira and Neon Genesis Evangelion and various tokusatsu (“special effects”) films released by Tōhō Studios, as well as in the artistic output of artists like Yanobe Kenji and Murakami himself. The second point is easily demonstrable by the overtly cartoonish and childlike work of artists such as Nara Yoshitomo, Ban Chinatsu, and Mr., as well as by the designs of popular and festishized kyara (“characters”) like Hello Kitty. Following these images and explanatory essay is a short manifesto penned by Murakami to support his superflat art movement, which is apparently based on the idea that contemporary Japan needs art that reflects its current cultural status of being awash in meaningless junk.

Next up is a transcription of a conversation between Okada Toshio and Morikawa Kaichirō (two self-proclaimed experts of “otakuology”) moderated by Murakami. Morikawa in particular states that otaku are characterized by an obsession with things that are dame (absolutely useless), whether it’s collecting antique model kits or falling in love with moe (young and innocent) characters. Okada seems to have a somewhat more optimistic view of otaku, who he thinks are simply resorting to childish things in order to escape a meaningless and unforgiving life. This conversation is superbly illustrated by images of the cultural paraphernalia the two men mention, and it also includes several dozen footnotes explaining their various obscure otaku references.

Following this conversation are two academic essays by Japanese scholars, Sawaragi Noi and Matsui Midori. Sawaragi discusses how the Pacific War has filtered through Japanese pop culture in movies like the Godzilla and Space Battleship Yamato series, and Matsui discusses the subculture of kawaii (“cute”) in postwar Japan, especially in terms of how it is connected to art depicting women and art by women artists like Takano Aya and Mizuno Junko. Following these two essays by Japanese authors are two essays by American authors, Alexandra Munroe and Tom Eccles. Munroe offers a history of otaku subculture from the perspective of a Western observer, and Eccles attempts to situate the superflat movement with the history of Western pop art. All of these essays (as well as everything else in the catalog) are presented in both English and Japanese, with a column of English text on the left and a column of Japanese text on the right. Finally, the “Further Readings” section at the end of the book is an invaluable six-page bibliography of related works in both English and Japanese.

In short, Little Boy is gorgeous, fun, and intelligent. The dual language presentation is unobtrusive for readers of one language but wonderful for readers of both. Murakami’s presentation of Japanese culture itself is both extremely interesting and highly controversial. This catalog is a work of art and an object of culture in and of itself. No matter what your field of interest is, I highly recommend picking up a copy before they’re all gone.

Drop Dead Cute

Title: Drop Dead Cute
Author: Ivan Vartanian
Publication Year: 2005
Publisher: Chronicle Books
Pages: 160

When I first picked up this book several years ago, I was quite disappointed. With a title like “Drop Dead Cute” and references to Murakami Takashi and Nara Yoshitomo in the blurb on the inside cover, I had expected the book to contain more of what I saw as “anime art” (or perhaps “manga art”). In fact, however, the deliciously pink cover image by Takano Aya is as close as this book gets to anime art. The rest of the book isn’t even cute. It’s disturbing, yes, and violent, yes, and all sorts of interesting and creative, but not cute.

Which leads me to wonder, upon closer examination, what exactly the title means by “cute.” To me, “cute” is something that elicits an emotional response along the lines of “Oh my gosh I want to love on it.” The pieces exhibited in Drop Dead Cute aren’t exactly that sort of cute (and, to that effect, I would wager that the emphasis in the title is actually on “drop dead”). The book is filled with animals, however, and plant life. Much of this flora and fauna is anthropomorphic. There are also plenty of young women (and almost no men) and a profusion of soft pastel colors.

Kudo Makiko opens the book with her oil paintings of young girls, perhaps sleeping, perhaps dreaming, who have found themselves in strange landscapes guided only by cats and dogs. Murata Yuko renders animals and landscapes in simple compositions consisting of wide, sweeping brushstrokes. Hosoya Yuiko is represented by pencil drawings of sullen young women that look like the work of a beginning art student, with finger smudges and blank backgrounds. Ban Chinatsu, famous for her collaboration with Murakami Takashi in the New York Japan Society’s “Little Boy” exhibition of 2005, paints huge acrylic canvases filled with baby elephants in pursuit of underpants. Murase Kyoko works in all sorts of media, from traditional oils to white out pen on yellow legal paper, but her naked drowning girls are equally unsettling no matter what her canvas. Tabaimo’s work is, as always, something straight out of a horror movie.

My two favorite artists in this collection are Aoshima Chiho and Takano Aya. Although Aoshima claims that she doesn’t read manga or watch anime, her works closely resemble the anime style, filled as they are with fantastic, wide-eyed girls sporting wild hair of various colors and very little clothing. In her work, these girls are bound, eaten, digested, rotting, free floating, and reborn in amazingly detailed, brightly colored graveyards and Edens. Since the majority of her work is digital, her photo manipulations, which juxtapose her cartoon-like demon girls against ordinary Japanese backdrops, blend seamlessly into the rest of her oeuvre. Takano, whose artwork was used for the cover of this book, does in fact draw manga, or at least sequential art resembling manga, and she is represented in this collection by a short, colorful, manga-esque piece titled “Subterraned,” which I think is by itself worth the price of the entire book. Her artist’s statement, which delves into themes of sci-fi and eroticism, is also quite interesting.

Each of the ten artists is given a three page introduction, with doodles at the top of the pages and text based on interviews at the bottom. Following each introduction are eleven pages showcasing the works of the artist, with one, or occasionally more, pieces per page. The titles of the pieces are given in English, but each artist has also handwritten the original title of the piece next to the English entry. The book begins with a twelve page, well-illustrated introductory essay by Ivan Vartanian and ends with short biographies of all the artists. Everything is full color, and the publication quality is just about as high as it can go.

The artists featured in this book are:

Kudo Makiko
Aoshima Chiho
Murata Yuko
Aoki Ryoko
Hosoya Yuiko
Takano Aya
Ban Chinatsu
Murase Kyoko
Kusama Yayoi
Tabaimo