The Walking Man

Title: The Walking Man
Japanese Title: 歩くひと (Aruku hito)
Artist: Taniguchi Jirō (谷口ジロー)
Publication Year: 2004 (England); 1992 (Japan)
Publisher: Fanfare / Ponent Mon
Pages: 155

Taniguchi Jirō is a popular manga artist that I’m always surprised more people don’t know about. His beautifully detailed, hyper-realistic artwork is simply amazing. The other day I stumbled across his one-volume manga The Walking Man in an independent bookstore, and the cover was so gorgeous that I went ahead and paid the import price for the book. It was worth it. As soon as I got home and finished reading it, I immediately read it again. That’s how wonderful and immersive the art is.

The Walking Man doesn’t tell a story, necessarily; it merely depicts a series of walks taken by its middle-aged protagonist. Each eight-page chapter has a broad theme, like taking the trash out at night or finding a shortcut through a narrow alley. The reader follows the protagonist on his walks, which are laid out in a beautiful use of paneling with a minimum of text and sound effects. The rich visual detail and minimalist storytelling make the reader almost feel as if he or she is actually walking along through the small-town Japanese cityscape inhabited by the protagonist. As a result, flipping through this manga is a thoroughly engaging experience.

For manga fans who might appreciate more conventional dramatic storytelling (and slightly less cartoonish character designs), Taniguchi’s later, two-volume A Distant Neighborhood (1999) is also a compelling read. Although the subject matter is quite different, readers who enjoy nostalgic slice-of-life manga featuring normal people moving through detailed visual depictions of Japanese cities might also consider checking out Kōno Fuyumi’s Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms (2003), which follows several generations of Hiroshima survivors in a story that is touching but never overly political. Perhaps illustrations of everyday life such as those contained in the work of Taniguchi and Kōno don’t have the immediate, flashy appeal of more mainstream series, but there’s a lot to enjoy and appreciate in these manga, and I think every anyone who reads Japanese literature should at least give them a chance.

Shojo Manga! Girl Power!

Title: Shojo Manga! Girl Power!: Girls’ Comics from Japan
Editor: Masami Toku
Publication Year: 2005
Publisher: Flume Press
Pages: 80

Judging from its front and back cover, you might expect this catalog to contain big, glossy reproductions of artwork gleaned from shōjo manga, like watercolor cover illustrations or the artistic two page spreads that are a defining characteristic of the genre. Aside from six color pages in the middle of the volume, however, there are relatively few images, and majority of the book is printed in black and white.

What this volume does contain are thirteen essays, each three pages long, on the phenomenon of shōjo manga, manga in general, and the impact of Japanese comics on America, followed by page-long profiles of twenty-three manga artists. The essays mainly repeat the same outdated information and stereotypes about manga (and gender) that you can find anywhere. Typical of these short essays is the misleading and essentially meaningless line, “The popularity of the genre [of boys’ love] is reflective of the fact that in Japan, male love, loyalty, and companionship are considered of the highest virtue (Toku).” A few of the essays are well worth reading, however. One of them is Yoko Nagakubo’s essay “Yaoi Novels and Shojo Manga,” which contains the most reasonable explanation concerning gender identification in boys’ love manga that I have ever come across. Another is Frederick Schodt’s “A Different View,” which seeks to correct some of the most widespread American misconceptions about the Japanese manga industry (and which seems surprisingly prescient in light of the current crisis facing the American manga industry).

The main selling point of the book are the artist profiles. These profiles list two or three major works of each creator and briefly cover his or her thematic preoccupations. Each profile is accompanied by one or two small, black-and-white (but still gorgeous) illustrations that demonstrate the artist’s style. Most of these artists are still relatively unknown in America, as only a small handful of them have been translated into English. (And, even if their works have been translated, as is the case with Ikeda Ryōko of Rose of Versailles fame, they are almost impossible to find.) They include Watanabe Masako, Maki Miyako, Mizuno Hideko, Satonaka Machiko, and on and on.

In other words, this exhibition catalog might not be the most beautiful or academically rigorous book ever published, but it serves as an extremely useful field guide to the history of shōjo manga through its creators. It’s also an excellent reading guide, highlighting a manageable number titles as well as the reasons why they are important and enjoyable. I’m definitely taking this book along with me the next time I visit Japan.

Most major university libraries own a copy of this 2005 exhibition catalog; but, since there have recently been several copies floating around the internet (on Amazon and eBay), I thought I’d snag one for myself before they disappear. If you’re interested, I would encourage you to do the same!

Ōoku

Title: Ōoku: The Inner Chambers
Japanese Title: 大奥 (Ōoku)
Artist: Yoshinaga Fumi (よしながふみ)
Translator: Akemi Wegmüller
Publication Year: 2005-2009 (Japan); 2009 (America)
Publisher: Viz Media
Pages: 215 (per volume)

I have been a huge fan of Fumi Yoshinaga ever since her two-volume series Gerard & Jacques (ジェラールとジャック) was released in translation by the boy’s love manga publisher Blu in 2006. Gerard & Jacques distinguishes itself from the vast body of boys’ love stories by allowing the personalities of its characters to gradually develop and by acknowledging that openly homosexual relationships have not been tolerated in most societies. Mixing homosexuality with heterosexuality, masters with servants, and sex with philosophy, Yoshinaga delivers romance and intrigue on the eve of the French Revolution. Gerard & Jacques is undeniably porn, but it is porn for adults. Antique Bakery (西洋骨董洋菓子店), one of Yoshinaga’s more recent series released in America by Digital Manga Publishing in 2005, eschews both heteronormativity and pornography in favor of character development and an engrossing and surprisingly sophisticated narrative.

Ōoku is an ongoing series that Yoshinaga first stared publishing in 2005. So far, two of the series’ five volumes have been released in America, and Viz Media has put an extraordinary deal of effort into their publication of the title, making sure that the books themselves are as elegant as their subject matter. In Yoshinaga’s historical revision, a plague has struck early seventeenth century Japan, decimating the male population but leaving women untouched. The only members of the Tokugawa ruling family to survive are female, so the position of shōgun is filled by a woman. Her ōoku, or “inner chambers,” are therefore not staffed by women but instead entirely by men. The ostensible purpose of these men is to do household chores like cooking and sewing, but a select few form the shōgun’s harem, as the production of an heir is essential for the continuation of stable rule.

The first volume follows a young man named Yunoshin, who sells himself into the ōoku so that his financially ailing family can survive. His entrance into Edo Castle coincides with the commencement of the reign of the eighth Tokugawa shōgun, Yoshimune. The relationship between Yunoshin, who continues to nurse his love for a childhood friend, and Yoshimune, a mature woman who is more concerned with government than sexual diversion, is complicated, and their story (which is one of friendship rather than of love) comes to a conclusion at the end of the volume. The affair inspires curiosity in the shōgun, however, and she begins to search through historical records to uncover the truth of the strange gender roles at work in the palace. The second volume opens at the time when the plague first struck Edo and details the ascension of the first female shōgun as orchestrated by the shrewd former head of the female ōoku, Lady Kasuga.

A gender-swapping manga like this may seem to invite a fantastic and comical tone. A veteran reader of manga, upon reading such a plot synopsis, may feel like he or she has read numerous titles like this before. I have never read anything like Ōoku, though. Were it not for Fuminaga’s signature style (which, in this particular work, seems to be greatly enhanced by her assistants), I would consider Ōoku more of a graphic novel than a manga. Although well-placed humor occasionally lightens the story, its tone is serious, and its themes are fairly dark. Although there is a bit of sex (as appropriate to the subject matter and not explicitly portrayed), the focus of Ōoku is political and interpersonal intrigue. Human drama also features prominently, and I feel that the characters’ responses to their unfortunate situations are believable and never one-sided or overly dramatic.

The artwork of the manga is lovely, with everything from robes to hairstyles to furniture detailed to an extraordinary degree. One gets the feeling that Yoshinaga (or at least her assistants) put a lot of effort into researching the time period. The translation of the dialog is initially somewhat off-putting, however. It’s a pseudo-Shakespearean mismash of thee’s and thou’s that takes some getting used to, but I was able to settle into it after a few dozen pages. Overall, this is one of the most original and thought-provoking manga that I have read recently. All My Darling Daughters (愛すべき娘たち), a single-volume series of inter-related stories just published this January, is more mainstream in its gender politics but just as engrossing to an adult reader, and I highly recommend it as well.

Dōjinshi (Part Three)

By adding scenarios, suggesting alternate endings, offering different interpretations of characters, and by allowing the reader to view the original work in a different narrative tone or context, dōjinshi challenge the authority of the original works (原作) on which they are based as monolithic entities reflecting the specific and singular vision of an auteur. Instead, they raise the possibility of a plurality of receptions and interpretations, perhaps as many as there are viewers. In other words, the intentions of the director – not to mention those of the producer, the screenwriter, and all the other artists involved in the production of a film – effectively disappear as soon as a work enters the eyes and hands of an audience. In fact, I believe a film (or any text) is interesting to an audience precisely because it is capable of multiple meanings and interpretations.

Fan works like dōjinshi can be used to explore these multiple meanings, building and adding on to the original work, if not openly defying it. Moreover, in breaking down and rebuilding the original text, dōjinshi also raise the possibility of disassembling other conventions, such as those of genre and sexuality. I personally believe that artists use dōjinshi to fill in the gaps created by the original text in a way that will make the text satisfying to them as intelligent adults seeking a more nuanced story and more complicated, three-dimensional characters. In this way, the bathhouse of Spirited Away becomes a brothel, and the relationship between Howl and Sophie comes to have a sexual component. The characters of a children’s movie like Ponyo on a Cliff by the Sea, which are necessarily seen from a child’s perspective, take on adult attributes, like worries relating to parenting. Therefore, I believe that dōjinshi both show appreciation for a film (or television series or novel or video game) and challenge it, augmenting and replacing the elements given by the auteur (or artist or author) with personal and individual interpretations and desires.

This short series of essays has probably raised more questions than it has answered. I would therefore like to give the titles of several books and articles that expand on the topic of dōjinshi and explore it in greater depth. Sharon Kinsella’s Adult Manga: Culture and Power in Contemporary Japanese Society gives an overview of the dōjinshi market and how it functions. Henry Jenkins’s seminal study Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture offers many interesting insights on the value and implications of fan culture in general. Matthew Thorn has a thought-provoking article entitled “Girls and Women Getting Out of Hand: The Pleasure and Politics of Japan’s Amateur Comics Community” in an anthology dealing with Japanese fans of all persuasions called Fanning the Flames: Fans and Consumer Culture in Contemporary Japan. For a more casual reader, Frederik Schodt’s classic Dreamland Japan: Writings on Modern Manga remains invaluable. Perhaps the best reference, however, is the Wikipedia article on dōjinshi, which provides an excellent summary of the major issues related to the art form, lists numerous dōjinshi artists and circles (like CLAMP) who have gone on to become successful professionals, and links to many other online sources, including a lengthy essay on copyright issues.

Finally, for those of you who are interested in getting your hands on actual, authentic dōjinshi, I suggest spending some time browsing on eBay (your search term is “doujinshi”). In fact, I heartily recommend it. Many dōjinshi are beautifully published, beautifully illustrated, and beautifully written; and, in my opinion, their status as one-of-a-kind art objects only adds to their value.

Part One
Part Two

Dōjinshi (Part Two)

I would like to begin by examining two dōjinshi based on Studio Ghibli’s film Spirited Away. The first work, Yuya sōshi (油屋草子), focuses on the romantic relationship between Haku and Chihiro in three short stories. In the first story, Chihiro goes outside on a snowy night to deliver blankets to her parents in the pig barn. She passes out from the effects of the cold wind and is rescued by Haku. The events of the second and third stories take place after the end of the film. In the second story, an older Chihiro follows her baby brother through a familiar tunnel and returns to a world she had forgotten. She and her brother are rescued by Haku, who tells Chihiro that she must not look at him lest she remain in his world forever. After making sure that her brother is able to return home safely, Chihiro turns to look at Haku, thus sealing her fate. The third story, an alternate possibility, involves Haku making a decision of his own to journey to the human world to visit Chihiro. Throughout this dōjinshi, the characters are drawn in the Studio Ghibli house style, and a great deal of care is given to maintaining the tone and worldview of the original film.

In Senya ichiya (千夜一夜), a darker interpretation of Spirited Away is presented to the reader. The artist of this dōjinshi associates Yubaba’s bath house with traditional Japanese hot spring inns, which generally employed or were associated with female entertainers who would attend guests privately after dark. In this dōjinshi, Yubaba arranges for the young serving maid Rin to attend to the private needs of one of the bath house customers, a strange, hoary creature with many tentacles. At the last moment, Haku appears and offers himself in Rin’s place, ordering her to flee as he submits to the god. This dōjinshi thus explores the relationship of the characters before the arrival of Chihiro, as well as the more disturbing implications of a bath house for the gods staffed by people who are effectively slaves to its owner. Although the art of this dōjinshi is clearly influenced by the Studio Ghibli style, it takes on more lush and erotic tones, as is appropriate to its subject matter.

Many of the dōjinshi based on Howl’s Moving Castle deal with the continuation and outcome of the romantic relationship that develops between Howl and Sophie during the course of the film. These dōjinshi contain many confessions of love and many first kisses. Other dōjinshi emphasize the sexual tension between the two characters, which is notably absent in the film. Since Sophie is a shy girl who turns into an old woman whenever she becomes overly embarrassed or loses her self confidence, dōjinshi artists have speculated that Howl might have some trouble getting her into bed for the first time. These artists turn to scenarios suggestive of rape, which capitalize on the characterization and appeal of Howl as someone who loses control of himself in moments of intense emotion and stress. Other artists merrily suggest that Sophie hides all manner of illicit desires under her seemingly retiring exterior.

Finally, a piece titled Honogurai umi no soko kara (仄暗い海の底から), which is based on Ponyo on a Cliff by the Sea, is an example of what is called a “gag” (ギャグ) dōjinshi, which eschews any sort of sustained narrative in order to make jokes about and poke fun at the original work. This particular dōjinshi is centered around the comic figure of Fujimoto, the scatterbrained wizard who is Ponyo’s “father.” It is drawn in a style that references the Studio Ghibli house style but exaggerates the comedic aspects of the characters and their interactions with one another. These interactions mainly involve the attempts of the awkward and socially inept Fujimoto to act as some sort of father figure to the now human Ponyo, who continues to be as willful and energetic as always. Other jokes lightly suggest sexual undertones completely absent from the original film. One short story interprets the intense private conversation shared between Sōsuke’s mom Lisa and the sea goddess as being about the deliciousness of ham. Fujimoto, seeing the hungry look in the ladies’ eyes, misinterprets their conversation in a humorous way.

Part One
Part Three

Dōjinshi (Part One)

In a short series of essays, I would like to discuss Japanese dōjinshi (hereafter unitalicized) based on the work of Japanese director Miyazaki Hayao. I would also like to examine the relationship between fan works and the concept of auteurship. First I will give a brief explanation of what dōjinshi are and the place they occupy in Japanese subculture. Second, I will provide examples of several dōjinshi based on Spirited Away (千と千尋の神隠し), Howl’s Moving Castle (ハウルの動く城), and Ponyo on a Cliff by the Sea (崖の上のポニョ). Finally, I will explore the hermeneutical relationship between these dōjinshi and the original texts on which they are based, as well as the relationship between auteurs and fan creators.

Dōjinshi (同人誌), a word that might be glossed as “fan works,” or “fan manga,” are self-published, small-scale publications written by fans and for fans of a particular work (be it a movie, a book, a television series, or a video game) or of a particular romantic pairing possible within that work. For example, there are many dōjinshi based on J.K. Rowling’s young adult fantasy series Harry Potter, and many of these Harry Potter dōjinshi focus on a specific romantic couple, such as that formed by Harry’s two friends Ron and Hermione. As in the realm of American fan fiction, many dōjinshi explore the possibility of an alternate outcome of the events in the story of the original work. This leads, for example, to dōjinshi dealing with the formation of a romantic relationship between Harry and Hermione, or perhaps between Harry and his male rival Draco. Unlike American fan fiction, however, the vast majority of Japanese dōjinshi employ both the form and the conventions of manga. In the rare case that fan fiction is published as a dōjinshi, it is often accompanied by illustrations that are either drawn by the writer or by an artist commissioned by the writer.

Since the production of manga is a labor-intensive process, most dōjinshi artists operate within what are called “circles” (サークル), or groups. Although there are a number of “individual (個人) circles” consisting of only one person, most circles are made up of two or more people. The division of labor takes different forms within different circles. In some cases, the work of two or more artists operating separately from each other will appear in the same publication, while in some cases, secondary artists will help the primary artist with things like background detail and the application of screen tone. In many other cases, different teams of artists will publish different dōjinshi under the same circle name. In any case, a dōjinshi is just as likely to be attributed to a circle as it is to be attributed to a specific artist. On the back cover of this dōjinshi, we can see both the circle name and the names of the two artists who contributed to this particular work.

One of the main reasons why artists who create dōjinshi continue to operate within the circle system despite the prevalence of labor-saving digital artistic tools like Photoshop and individual-centered communication networks like deviantART is the continuing popularity of conventions like Comiket (コミケット), short for “comic market,” a three day event held biannually at Tokyo Big Sight. The first Comiket was held in 1975; and, since then, attendance at each event has risen from several thousand to several hundred thousand. Comiket is primarily an event for the purchase and selling of dōjinshi. Since there is a limited amount of space for dealers, many fledgling artists participate in events like Comiket as members of a circle, which gives them a greater chance of acquiring a dealer’s table. Although Comiket is the largest convention of its kind, numerous dōjinshi conventions occur throughout the year all over Japan. A notable example is the Comic City convention in Osaka.

Aside from these conventions, dōjinshi may be acquired year-round at chain stores specializing in used manga (such as Mandarake) and dōjinshi specialty stores, which tend to be located in major urban shopping districts, like Ikebukuro and Akihabara in Tokyo and Den Den Town in Osaka.

Dōjinshi specialty stores like K-Books tend to fall into two divisions, which reflect the preferences of the two main demographic groups of dōjinshi consumers. These two divisions are “meant for boys” (男性向け) and “meant for girls” (女性向け). Dōjinshi meant for boys are typically heavily pornographic in nature, and dōjinshi meant for girls generally focus on homosexual romantic relationships between male characters. This genre of dōjinshi (and, increasingly, mass market manga) is known as “B.L.,” which is an acronym for “boys’ love.” The line dividing “meant for boys” and “meant for girls” is not sharply drawn, however, are there does exist a large category of general audience dōjinshi that does not expressly cater to the conventions of either category.

Part Two
Part Three

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.

Chi’s Sweet Home

Title: チーズスイートホーム (Chi’s Sweet Home)
Artist: こなみかなた (Konami Kanata)
Publication Year: 2004 (Volume 1) – 2009 (Volume 6)
Publisher: 講談社 (Kōdansha)
Pages: 165 (per volume)

Chi’s Sweet Home is not a masterpiece of manga. It will not blow you away with its brilliance and depth. It is, quite simply, cute. Utterly and irredeemably cute.

Chi is a small grey tabby kitten who gets lost after she becomes distracted while out for a walk with her mother. She ends up crying on the grass of a neighborhood park, where she comes face to face with a small boy named Yōhei, who has also gotten lost. After Yōhei’s mother finds him, the pair takes the exhausted kitten home. Chi gradually gets used to her new home with the Yamada family, but she still misses her mother. The Yamada family gradually gets used to life with Chi, but their apartment complex doesn’t allow its residents to keep pets.

Each short, eight-page chapter of the manga focuses on one small episode in the life of Chi and the Yamada family. Chi goes for a walk. Chi goes to the vet. Chi learns that she loves milk. Chi learns how to use the litterbox. Chi climbs the stairs. Chi climbs the window curtains. And so on. These mini-adventures are tied together by the central conflicts of the series, which span several volumes at a time and are developed and resolved in surprising yet satisfying ways. The characters, especially Chi and Yōhei, also develop slowly as they gradually grow older.

Chi’s Sweet Home belongs to a genre that I will call “pet manga.” Some of these manga, such as Shirakawa Kikuno’s Momokan, are obviously targeted at children. Others, such as Konami Kanata’s earlier manga about an old Japanese woman and her old Japanese cat, Fuku-fuku Funyan, and Iwamichi Sakura’s housewife comedy Shiawase neko gohan, are aimed mainly towards adults. Chi’s Sweet Home at first seems to be a children’s manga, with its simple vocabulary and character designs, but it doesn’t strike the reader (at least not this reader) as childish. It’s just unbearably cute. I don’t mean that it’s precious or affected – Chi is unartfully heart-stoppingly adorable.

Within this genre, Konami’s manga seems to have performed fairly well. The chapters of Chi’s Sweet Home have been serialized in Kōdansha’s Weekly Morning magazine, a popular manga periodical aimed at adults (or at least older young adults) and featuring manga that either make an attempt at realism or explore historical fantasies (like Nakamura Hikaru’s popular Sei onii-san, or “Saint Young Men,” which has Jesus and Shakyamuni Buddha living together in a flat in Tokyo). Chi’s Sweet Home picture books and calendars can be found in bookstores alongside the manga, and, in 2008, an animated version produced by Studio Madhouse began airing on TV Tokyo.

What makes Chi’s Sweet Home stand out? (Besides the ridiculous cuteness?) It might be that each volume of the manga is published in full color. It might be the text of the manga, which invents onomatopoeia at will and gives Chi a highly distinctive voice. It might also be that Konami manages to construct an effortlessly believable world that the reader feels as if he or she could easily enter. This world building is strengthened by the extras that are included in the back of each volume, such as apartment floor plans and neighborhood maps. Other extras include interviews with Konami and the step-by-step process that the manga artist undergoes in the creation of each chapter. Overall, Chi’s Sweet Home is a beautifully drawn, beautifully written, and beautifully published manga. And did I mention how cute it is?

Vertical Press has picked up the American license of the property and will begin releasing it in English translation in June of this summer. The original Japanese manga, however, should not pose a problem to anyone with a semester or two of language training. I feel that each individual episode is so well-crafted that even someone with no Japanese background will be able to understand and appreciate the story.

Here’s an example:

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….

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