Katsuhiro Otomo, Akira

Akira, Vol. 1Akira, Vol. 1 by Katsuhiro Otomo

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The 1980s—the latest, the last golden age. The length and breadth of our politics, our pop culture, even our high culture, was laid down in that decade. Everyone now is either trying to overthrow it or recapture it or some incoherent combination of both, but we are all oriented toward it.

Comics has a privileged relation to the 1980s as well: traditional historicization aside, it is comics’s true golden age. The top Goodreads review of Katsuhiro Otomo’s epochal cyberpunk manga Akira puts the work in precisely that context:

The importance of ‘Akira’ is difficult to express, but it certainly rivals US contemporaries ‘Watchmen’ and ‘The Dark Knight Returns’, and it ran far longer than either title, giving it an epic scope and grandeur that exceeds both of those seminal works. If it was a decision between: Katsuhiro Otomo, ‘Domu’ and ‘Akira’; Frank Miller, ‘Batman: Year One’ and ‘Batman: The Dark Knight Returns’; or Alan Moore, ‘V for Vendetta’ and ‘Watchmen’; I’d say that Otomo created the best and most influential works of the 1980’s. That ignores some huge titles, like ‘Love and Rockets’ and ‘Maus’ and ‘Raw’ and ‘Weirdo’ and ‘Yummy Fur’ and ‘The Incal’ and ‘Les Cites Obscures’, etc… but I’ll stand by it, with all due respect.

With all due respect, as a matter of literary judgement, I simply can’t rate Akira over Watchmen or Maus or (what I’ve read of) Love and Rockets or Les Cités obscures, nor even over The Dark Knight Returns, though I concede the latter may only be my own nostalgia talking. Over The Incal‘s oppressive metaphysics, though, certainly—and over anything (save the aforementioned Mausterpiece) in the miserable R. Crumb-Chester Brown line. And, while I claim to be no manga maven, I also can’t rate it over the shōjo and josei works only that have only recently been translated, some of which preceded it and all of which are literate in a way it can only dream of being: The Heart of Thomas, Claudine, Helter Skelter.

The two crucial points being made in the quotation above, though, are that 1.) the comic-book 1980s was a decade of miracles, one when, as they used to say, “BAM! POW! comics grew up!”; and that 2.) Akira was perhaps more influential than any other work of the period—not necessarily better but more influential—on how we think and how we see, even if only as a part of the broader cyberpunk movement.

First, what is Akira‘s role in comics’ maturation process, this 2000-some page epic about eternal, evolutionary, revolutionary youth? For one thing, like Frank Miller’s own manga- and BD-inflected work of the same period—the oft-neglected Ronin is the key text here—it signals the breakdown of the international barriers: Otomo brings both a drawing style and a storytelling ethic from the west. Gone is the cuteness and the address to the audience of even some of the mature work of Tezuka; they are replaced by an immersive style of impossibly detailed drawing—a world unto itself. The characters are concerned only with one another and with their conflict rather than with us; as one critic incisively observes, Otomo’s characters look at each other.

Just as Alan Moore and Frank Miller eliminated the Stan Lee editorial voice avuncularly conscripting the reader into the fan club in favor of wordless pages or narrative captions that drop us directly into the characters’ stream of consciousness, Otomo provides only action and dialogue in a self-contained fictional cosmos. If many landmark ’80s comics have a postmodern political attitude—irreverent toward all authority, all metanarratives—many of their formal innovations ought to be classed by contrast as neo-modernist: they raise the fourth wall to seal themselves off as bounded art objects, recursive and complex—incitements to the apophenic insomnia Joyce wished to induce in the critic.

So mighty is Otomo’s storytelling craft that it paradoxically consumes attention even as it commands it, which neither Miller nor Moore, neither Jodorowsky nor Peeters, would be willing to do. In other words, you are never tempted to linger, but only to speed on. It is only a very slight exaggeration to say that one of Akira‘s six 400-page chapters can be read in the same time that it takes to read one of the 32-page chapters of Watchmen: about an hour. This reflects Otomo’s absolute mastery of layout and composition; he never puts an obstacle athwart the onrush of your eye across his collapsing cityscapes. Language does not get much in the way either: vast swaths of pages, all violent action, go by with no more demanding words than onomatopoeiac sound effects, grunts and profanities from the characters, and the heroes and villains crying one another’s names.

The characters are accordingly not personalities-in-the-round but archetypes for the conveyance of story energy. The emotion of the book comes not from our devotion, necessarily, to any one figure, but rather our absorption of the affects they convey. When the hero confesses to his antagonist at the climax, “All I wanted to be was your friend,” we are moved less by the particulars of their relation than by our own knowledge of how that feels. The narrative vortex spins around these affects, not the characters who embody them.

Such anti-literacy—very much against the Anglo-American “spirit of 1986,” which saw comics strive for and often attain the density of the 20th-century novel—bears upon Akira‘s theme of energy washing away all hierarchies. I called Akira “cyberpunk” above, as everyone does, but why? There are barely any computers in the book, no hackers, no consensual hallucinations, no sojourns in the data stream. In fact, as with much ’80s pop culture, it recapitulates the fantasies and anxieties of the 1950s: military testing, nuclear explosions. Tokyo is destroyed on no less than four occasions in the course of the narrative—the final time by American bombs.

Far more in evidence is the punk sensibility. Akira is about a group of teenagers in a post-apocalyptic Neo-Tokyo who are drawn into a top-secret government conspiracy rooted in Japan’s attempt to train psychic children as super-soldiers. This has unleashed forces beyond any one agency’s control. The work as a whole dramatizes our small cast of characters in confrontation with the social and psychological transformations brought about by the vast psychic abilities of the titular Akira and of the novel’s overall anti-hero, Tetsuo.

What allies Akira to cyberpunk is its dominant attitude of political cynicism, a refusal of allegiance to state and society. In the book, the state collapses under the assault of forces it cannot tame or rationalize, and power is whatever can be won by rival gangs in the jungle of the city. While other cyberpunk texts place more stress on the role of the corporation in such a decomposed postmodern polity, Akira nevertheless gives us the basic lineaments of what has perhaps excessively been called neoliberalism.

Otomo’s metaphysics, too, uphold energy against the institutions. At the climax of the final chapter, one of the uncannily aged psychic children who haunt the text explains to one of its protagonists that the most powerful psychics, Akira and Tetsuo, are only channeling and expressing a kind of universal life force:

MIYAKO: Say rather, it is the world of the spirit…freed from the shackles of the flesh.

[…]

MIYAKO: Life in all its countless evolutions. Do you not think evolution too vast and grand…to be mere environmental adaptation?

[…]

MIYAKO: Akira may have wanted to alter the course of human evolution…

KANEDA: What for?! Isn’t evolution programmed?!

MIYAKO: Cannot the human spirit choose its own currents?

KANEDA: You mean humanity wanted to evolve again?

MIYAKO: The results…are for your children to see.

The line about escaping the prison of the flesh evokes cyberpunk’s gnostic motif as well as its glam-despair over the neoliberal dystopia. The book’s message is that energy, passing through youth, transforms society whether anyone likes it or not. In that case, the appurtenances of literature, or of a more formalist—in the sense of defamiliarizing—approach to comics storytelling à la Alan Moore, could only get in the way, like the old lumbering Cold War nation-state with its secrets and bureaucracies.

RCO038_1473743664
From Marvel Comics’s colorized version of Akira, issue #38, via readcomiconline.to

After the world-spirit strips off the flesh of our anti-hero and his nation—and there is much Cronenbergian body horror in Akira too: evolution figured grotesquely as bulbous, venous carcinogenesis—there is a chance to rebuild. As the punkest theorists of the high theory era warned, deterritorialization will be accompanied by reterritorialization. Though our surviving heroes leave the letter “A” for their sign, it stands for Akira—power—not anarchy. They throw the Americans out of Japan, reconstitute the sovereign nation, and ride through a cityscape restoring itself around them in one of the best endings of a graphic novel I can remember, its implicit nationalism aside.

Akira cannot exactly be read—only withstood. A work singularly obsessed with the ruins of modernity is one of the popular monuments of an age we have lost or are losing; it showed us images that allow us to see the present already under the sign of apocalypse. That it is the Futurist manifesto of comics modernism makes it an object all the more fascinating in our fallen present.

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Riyoko Ikeda, Claudine

ClaudineClaudine by Riyoko Ikeda

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This 2018 English translation of Riyoko Ikeda’s 1978 shōjo manga about the brief life and tragic loves of the eponymous protagonist is being hailed, to quote Wikipedia, as “one of the earliest manga to feature a transgender protagonist.” While I’m sure this is literally true, it might be a bit misleading. The word “transgender,” while it was coined in 1965, was not to my knowledge in popular or common use in English at the time of the short graphic novel’s creation, and the then-more-common word “transsexual” is supplied in the book’s English-language dialogue (I am not aware of the nuances of corresponding Japanese terms). Further complicating matters, even “transsexual” is anachronistic for the book since Ikeda’s setting is early 20th-century France and her narrator a psychologist of the period: at this time, concepts like “inversion” might have been used by the sexual scientist to describe Claudine’s dilemma.

I emphasize all of this history at the outset because this slim, sturdy paperback edition of Claudine from Seven Seas Entertainment is a beautiful one, but it lacks much in the way of contextualization—contrast the informative introduction supplied by the translator to the recent translation of another shōjo masterpiece, The Heart of Thomas. Readers coming to Claudine for the first time and expecting a text in line with contemporary thinking on gender, a positive transgender representation, will certainly be disappointed. The book is too good, qua comics, though, to be simply hurled across the room in frustration.

claudine2This impassioned and operatic tragedy is structured by the three amorous involvements, and the three corresponding encounters with the psychologist narrator, of a young aristocratic woman named Claudine. Claudine begins at the age of eight to identify as a man, despite her mother’s objection and her society’s rejection. In adolescence, Claudine falls in love with the family’s hapless maid, Maura, a relationship doomed because of its cross-class as well as cross-gender nature. Later, Claudine becomes attached to the high- school librarian as well as to the librarian’s romantic vision of literature that is incarnated in this very book’s very emotional texture. Claudine’s final, fated love is for a dancer at university (a girl encountered twice earlier in the novel), and the severance of this relationship brings Claudine to a crisis. For despite Claudine’s insistence on an innate male identity, French society does not permit her to live as a man; consequently, her lovers tend to terminate their affairs by insisting that, to quote the librarian, “But, Claudine. You’re a girl…”

There is still more plot than I have recounted in this 100-page book, including the suggestion that Claudine has inherited “inversion” from the aristocratic family’s beloved patriarch. This hint that, like the psychologist’s concluding narration (“With her imperfect ‘body,’ Claudine nevertheless gave her everything and dared to love a woman”) and the book’s climax in self-slaughter, will not endear some contemporary readers to this supposedly pathbreaking but also sensationalistic and potentially exploitative story full of “queer tragedy” stereotypes.

On the other hand, Ikeda’s romantic narrative invites such sympathy, and her art style is moreover so beautiful—a dazzling performance full of architectural splendor and decorative verve: Ikeda stipples and she hatches; she puts patterns in the flowers and the cobbles and the sconces; flames and flora dance fatally across the pages—that Claudine has to be hailed as a fine graphic novel, a superb example of comics. It should be seen in its multiple historical contexts, and queried as to its ideological character, yes, but also appreciated as a work of art we are lucky to have in a quality translation and edition.

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Moto Hagio, The Heart of Thomas

The Heart of ThomasThe Heart of Thomas by Moto Hagio

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Consider two articles published within the last week. In one, Marie Doezema explains the role played by the philosophers of 1968, who tutored several generations of intellectuals (including my own), in legitimizing pedophilia in late-twentieth-century France:

After May 1968, French intellectuals would challenge the state’s authority to protect minors from sexual abuse. In one prominent example, on January 26, 1977, Le Monde, a French newspaper, published a petition signed by the era’s most prominent intellectuals—including Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Gilles Deleuze, Roland Barthes, Philippe Sollers, André Glucksmann and Louis Aragon—in defense of three men on trial for engaging in sexual acts with minors. “French law recognizes in 13- and 14-year-olds a capacity for discernment that it can judge and punish,” the petition stated, “But it rejects such a capacity when the child’s emotional and sexual life is concerned.” Furthermore, the signatories argued, children and adolescents have the right to a sexual life: “If a 13-year-old girl has the right to take the pill, what is it for?”

Meanwhile, Katie Herzog observes that an opposite but also repellent phenomenon transpired in late-twentieth-century America, the Satanic panic, a broad and largely baseless outbreak of social paranoia over widespread ritual child abuse, fueled by religious fundamentalism and pop-psychology:

In total, the recovered memories and satanic ritual abuse phenomenon lasted for about 15 years. At the time, Talmadge says, questioning the dominant narrative was akin to heresy. It didn’t matter that there was no evidence backing up these claims; everyone believed, and those who didn’t largely kept quiet.

Looking back on it now, it seems almost impossible that millions of Americans would blindly believe that satanic cults were stealing away with kids during the night, but this was not the first strange wave to hit the U.S., nor will it be the last. From the Salem witch trials to the Red Scare, moral panics, as they are frequently called, pop up.

In these two episodes from recent history, we see an almost comic fidelity to national stereotypes: the French intelligentsia advocates troublingly amoral libertinage, while the American populace loses its collective head over the threat of witches’ sabbaths and black masses. And both of these stories take on a new relevance today, with the just exposure of sexual abuses, and the potential for this exposure to overreach and become unjust, consuming so much of our cultural attention. Is there any way out of this impasse, any intelligent and humane approach to the complexities of desire, any safe course to chart between the Marquis de Sade and Cotton Mather?

All of these questions came to my mind as I read a brilliant, thought-provoking, and troubling masterpiece of a graphic novel from beyond the borders of the U.S. or France. Moto Hagio’s The Heart of Thomas is a manga that was serialized in the early 1970s and published in an official English translation (by Rachel Matt Thorn) by Fantagraphics in 2013. As a work of shojo manga, it was addressed to an audience of adolescent girls. A complex and melodramatic tale of love in a German boys’ boarding school, The Heart of Thomas is widely credited with beginning the “boys’ love” subgenre of manga, as this Atlantic article explains:

The Heart of Thomas is, in fact, one of the seminal works in the boys’ love subgenre of shojo manga (manga for girls). Boys’ love manga are manga that feature male homosexual romance, written (mostly) by women, (mostly) for women. Today in Japan, the genre is well established and popular…

The Heart of Thomas opens with the suicide of a student named Thomas Werner. He has killed himself due to anguish over his unrequited love for his classmate, the dark-haired prefect and perfect student, Juli; Juli is desired in turn by his roommate Oskar (a clear Wilde analogue), as well as by a host of underclassmen. Complications ensue when a transfer student, Erich, arrives at the school—Erich, it happens, could be Thomas’s twin, and much of the plot depends on suspense over whether or not the tragic missed connection between Juli and a smitten classmate will replay itself.

Along the way—and a long way it is, at a novelistically satisfying 500+ pages—a host of psychological and symbolic complexities present themselves, from Erich’s oedipal attachment to his mother (he wears an engagement ring in her honor) to the cruel abuse Juli has suffered at the sadistic hands of the rebel-atheist upperclassman Siegfried (his Wagnerian name echoing the fascist racism of Juli’s other abuser, his grandmother, who scorns him for his Greek patrimony and dark hair). While the narrative is melodramatic and theatrical, it also manages to be measured in pace, with languid adolescent yearning its dominant affect. Hagio creates a little world, an Occidentalist fantasia of European queerness, and lets her cast wander through it, and through their own psyches, on their own time; the effect is absorbing and mesmerizing.

But what can it all mean? The Heart of Thomas in particular and boys’ love in general has no corollary that I know of in contemporaneous American pop culture, comics or otherwise (and it should be said that American comics of the same period, mainstream or underground, offer nothing to my mind as long or complex as what Hagio accomplishes here). The aforementioned Atlantic article concludes that boys’ love manga allows its young female audience a panoply of potential identification beyond what was customarily allowed girls:

The boys’ love genre, then, freed Hagio and her audience to cross and recross boundaries of identity, sexuality, and gender. The reader can be both sexual aggressor and victim; both self and other; both gay and straight; both male and female. Bodies and character flicker in and out, a sequence of surfaces, tied together less by narrative than by the heightened emotions of melodrama—jealousy, anger, trauma, desire, friendship, and love in the heart of Thomas.

Likewise, James Welker, in a 2006 article for the feminist journal Signs, theorizes thusly:

Nonetheless, through…the deliberate ambiguity of the beautiful boy, the reader is encouraged to see not just a girl but herself within the world of boys’ love and, ultimately, is encouraged to explore homoerotic desire, either as a beautiful boy or as herself, either alone or with others, either as her fantasy or as her reality.

In support of these theses in feminist and queer theory, I note that Hagio draws on the traditions of aestheticism and decadence, especially in the decorative splash pages that introduce each chapter, each reminiscent of Beardsley, Mucha, and the Jugendstil movement. Images of angels and roses abound; when Erich learns his mother has died, he is pictured, Sebastian-wise, with a breast full of arrows.

All this classic queer iconography aside, though, The Heart of Thomas feels like a book of great chastity, a word several other Goodreads users have astutely used—a work almost of asexuality. It is Platonic in the most literal sense as Juli comes to understand his physical attraction toward the base and brutalizing humanist Siegfried as a fall into sexual degradation, while his love for the ethereal beauty of Thomas/Erich is in fact a desire for the good as such. Hence the book’s denouement: he becomes a priest, espoused not to man but to God. In what I take to be an explicit allusion to the Phaedrus, Juli even describes what his abuse by Siegfried has cost him as his wings, and he moreover says that he sees all the children in the school as bearing invisible wings, just like the soul as Socrates describes it to his young disciple in the course of his caution against the consummation of desire between men, between tutor and pupil:

Ten thousand years must elapse before the soul of each one can return to the place from whence she came, for she cannot grow her wings in less; only the soul of a philosopher, guileless and true, or the soul of a lover, who is not devoid of philosophy, may acquire wings in the third of the recurring periods of a thousand years; he is distinguished from the ordinary good man who gains wings in three thousand years:-and they who choose this life three times in succession have wings given them, and go away at the end of three thousand years.

Juli has “the soul of a lover, who is not devoid of philosophy,” i.e., an orientation toward the ideal, and so we can presume that his metaphorical wings are budding again by the novel’s final sequence. The Heart of Thomas is in this way not about desire or gender or sexuality at all, but about eros at its most abstract, even eros at the very threshold of agápē, give or take a stolen kiss in the dark.hagio1

I am not the only critic to come to the conclusion of spiritual asexuality in the case of Thomas, according to Welker, by the way, and he diagnoses us as suffering from “lesbian panic”:

In spite of the connections drawn on the pages of these magazines, the possibility that these narratives might be seen to actually depict homosexuality remains broadly denied. To allow that the narratives might truly be about homosexuality—between these girls-cum- beautiful boys—would be an apparently unthinkable invitation to read the narratives as lesbian.

While I take the point, and also appreciate the rhetorical necessity for a queer-affirmative cultural politics to redeploy the language of pathology against its pathologizing enemies, I also reserve the right to query the secular sacralization of the sexual as such, whether straight or gay or bi, our total commitment to desublimating love into desire in every last circumstance, even when confronted with narratives that plainly have metaphysical or spiritual aims, as Hagio’s narrative does.

The Heart of Thomas, therefore, is one answer to the question with which I began: how to address eros artistically, in all its gender and age complications, without either foreclosing complexity (like American puritans) or promoting exploitation (like French libertines). This masterful piece of fluid comics storytelling, visual beauty, and literary artistry, charts the middle way with consummate intelligence. Hagio’s spiritual flight burns the unseemly out of the book; what could have been disturbing—an adult’s erotic reverie over the entanglement of early adolescence, perhaps as commended by the philosophers of cultural revolution—becomes a hymn about the journey of every soul amid the violence of time, desire, and death. And because these latter inevitabilities are unflinchingly acknowledged in the story, Hagio’s work is as free from puritanism as it is from libertinism. The Heart of Thomas is a book of and about love.

hagio2

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Kyōko Okazaki, Pink

PinkPink by Kyōko Okazaki

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the first major work of Kyoko Okazaki (I reviewed what is usually considered her masterpiece, Helter Skelter: Fashion Unfriendlyhere). Created in the late 1980s, during Japan’s boom economy, it tells the story of Yumi, a young office worker by day and prostitute by night. She engages in the latter occupation to keep her cute, spectacles-wearing pet crocodile in meat. The energetically-drawn manga details Yumi’s gradual romance with her stepmother’s much younger kept man, a university student and aspiring novelist. Along the way, we meet her little half-sister, as edgy-but-adorable as the crocodile itself, as well as her “wicked” stepmother, a woman consumed with resentment of Yumi. Okazaki’s whiplash tone is difficult to describe, yet it evokes the heroine’s worldview. For Yumi, past and future, regret and anxiety, hardly exist; rather, she seeks to wring the splendor out of each moment. Accordingly, her book expresses a paradoxical aesthetic of innocent cynicism. Seemingly serious matters—Yumi’s abuse at the hands of her johns, for instance, or her climactic beating of her stepmother—are handled very lightly, and even the manga’s concluding tragedy is played as something of a gag. Highly aestheticized lyricism jostles cuteness, both of them abraded against utter vulgarity: “And what’s with dad, getting vamped by a bitch whose pussy lips must be dangling out and flapping?” But there is no obvious satire intended here; in an afterword, Okazaki asserts that “all work is prostitution” and that “all work is love as well.” She further describes Pink as a story of “love and capitalism,” admonishing her readers that “being scared of [love and capitalism], like a kid who can’t swim is scared of a swimming pool, is lame. If you just fearlessly dive in, strangely enough you can swim all right!” Okazaki thus avoids the predictable opposition of love to capitalism (in which I have certainly indulged from time to time), and the even more predictable denunciation of capitalism. Pink ultimately associates manga itself with the capitalist world of universal love/prostitution, when the aspiring novelist is chided by his college classmate/stalker:

pink

The pursuit of love in and as capitalism is the leveling of all culture to the most sensational. And Pink is extremely sensational, the most sensational thing I’ve read since Helter Skelter! Is it worth the price we are paying for it?

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Moyoco Anno, In Clothes Called Fat

In Clothes Called FatIn Clothes Called Fat by Moyoco Anno

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Further beginner’s adventures in manga. In Clothes Called Fat‘s creator, Moyoco Anno, was a protege of Kyoko Okazaki, author of Helter Skelter: Fashion Unfriendly, which I think is brilliant. This book, detailing the weight-loss struggle of an office worker named Noko, agreed with me less—though, again, I was impressed with the total refusal of piety or political correctness in dealing with subject matter that most western artists, male and female, would probably treat with mind-numbing moralism and humorlessness. Anno’s art is more polished but less alive than Okazaki’s, and the narrative is set firmly in the present time and place—which means 1990s Japan—apparently, as the book depicts it, a culture that is brutally, and very directly, judgmental about female appearance. As in Helter Skelter, a somewhat closed-off world of female culture is portrayed, with the men—often quite weak men—on the margins. Noko’s boyfriend is a remarkable study in how a mediocre man empowers himself by subtly dominating a sexual partner he sees as beneath him. Such psychological subtely is lost in the portrayal of the book’s villain, the heroine’s sexual and professional rival, Saito, who seems like an all-too-typical “mean girl,” announcing that she “hate[s] ugly things.” Anno ultimately seems to affirm wearing “clothes called fat” as a valid choice, especially considering the moral and material alternatives displayed, from eating disorders to sexual obsession. Intriguing, but not quite my cup of tea.

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Kyōko Okazaki, Helter Skelter: Fashion Unfriendly

Helter Skelter: Fashion UnfriendlyHelter Skelter: Fashion Unfriendly by Kyōko Okazaki

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Continuing my beginner’s exploration of manga. Kyoko Okazaki’s aptly titled and subtitled Helter Skelter: Fashion Unfriendly is a remarkable narrative. Set in a vaguely science-fictional world of high fashion, wherein supermodel celebrities are owned outright by corporations and constructed head-to-toe by plastic surgeons, the graphic novel details the delirious decline of a model named Liliko. This decline encompasses her assistant, Hada, as well as Hada’s boyfriend, both of whom the “gorgeous monster” Liliko—who is literally decaying as her surgeries wear off—seduces and abandons, together and alone. Liliko corrupts Hada into sabotaging her rivals, which draws the attention of a police investigator, a huge fan of Liliko’s who is also apparently—or perhaps just symbolically—her brother. Liliko’s relationship with her so-called mother, really her corporation-appointed minder/controller, is especially appalling. Helter Skelter was serialized in the 1990s, one of the first major works of josei manga, addressed to an adult female audience. This book marvelously exudes an air of corruption and decay; I love its wild tonal shifts, as well as its just-this-side-of-reality setting. (As with much manga, in my so-far limited experience, the emotion and especially the dialogue is often less than subtle and can take some getting used to, but the high contrast with the more lyrical moments makes the occasional crudity worthwhile, as I am coming to appreciate.) Okazaki punctuates the narrative with the choral conversations of young women, commenting, often cruelly, on the fashion personalities. There is kind of closed circle of female oppression from audience to model to model’s controllers, which perhaps differs from most western feminist narrative and drama, though to be sure there are men off-stage profiting from it all. Okazaki’s art is simple and expressive: when drawing faces and bodies, she often makes very few lines, but they are the right ones, precisely evocative of the desired emotion without being “realistic.” (A note from the editor informs readers that Okazaki was injured in a car accident that prevented her from correcting or adumbrating her art; indeed, this appears to have been her final work.) While Helter Skelter is far wilder, far more aggressive and confrontational, far less well-meant and public-spirited than the emerging global classics of the graphic novel form—I am thinking of such worthy but also NPR-ready works as Fun Home or Persepolis or Epileptic—it deserves a place among them, or perhaps ahead of them, as, in art, the most disturbing and ferociously energetic work gets ahead, because it is willing to leave a mark.

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Inio Asano, Nijigahara Holograph

Nijigahara HolographNijigahara Holograph by Inio Asano

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I promised a fuller review of this back in July, when I was only on my second reading, and here one is after my fourth or so, and after teaching it (to a class that found it rather unsatisfying!).

Asano—a younger mangaka, one sometimes said to represent the “herbivore” generation—here creates a narrative object that, like the holograph of its title, prismatically alters and deepens depending on the angle at which one perceives it; moreover, and again holographically, its smallest moment contains its whole design.

Its concerns are the following: the abuse of women by men; the abuse of children, male and female, by adults, male and female; the abuse of peers by peers—in other words, the granular ubiquity of cruelty throughout society, from a mother’s soul-killing verbal slight to her son (“I’m loved by your father, so it’s no problem for me…but you don’t have anyone, do you? So we’re going to go far away…and start over. When that time comes, you just die, okay?”) to outright rape and murder, acts that recur in a cyclical pattern throughout this relatively brief manga.

This is the story of a girl murdered by her classmates for her warning that a monster will bring the end of the world; it is also the story of a transfer student with a mysterious past and his negotiation of a school ridden with violent predators among students and teachers; it is the story of a kindly teacher who may also be a predator and abuser. Narrated non-linearly in two time frames (“eleven years ago”—when most of the main characters were schoolchildren—and the narrative present), it shows violence repeating itself in patterns no one can seem to arrest or control.

There are characters to identity with: the alienated boy Amihiko, for one, who will remind readers of their own worst school days. There are characters to revile: the sociopath Makoto and the bathetic molester Kimura. There are characters to love or pity: the doomed, kindly Narumi (Makoto’s sister), who loves Amihiko without requite. And there are characters to wonder at, who seem to be sympathetic, but only to a point, the point at which Asano hints that they themselves are monstrous: the failed art student Maki, for instance, and the injured teacher Ms. Sakaki.

But Nijigahara Holograph is also concerned with Japanese mythology—the tale of the Kudan, the unfailingly honest human/bovine hybrid supposedly sacrificed in the vicinity of Nijigahara. And with Taoist philosophy; we hear, in a classroom, the famous parable of the dream of the butterfly in a moment that unravels the text’s mysteries, insofar as they can be unraveled. Nijigahara Holograph is someone’s dream—though the story posits at least two, maybe three, dreamers.

Nijigahara means “rainbow field;” a rainbow is that which is revealed by the prism (Makoto owns the Prism cafe in the manga), and this hints at Asano’s prismatic narrative style. But the word is also close to one meaning “two-children field”—and this is a story, though we do not learn it till the end, of separated twins, and the separated halves of a butterfly pendant. We can track these pendants through the comic to locate ourselves in space and time, just as we can follow Amihiko’s mysterious box, which involves a time-travel paradox that throws the book into deep mystery, as if to say that all is possible in dream, even the simultaneous co-existence of our own past and future selves.

This book will not make sense without at least two readings, though I found three—the last with pencil in hand, making notes—necessary for minimal plot comprehension. Rather like Watchmen before it, Nijigahara Holograph takes advantage of comics’ capacity to turn temporal succession into spatial juxtaposition to create a form of aesthetic complexity that could not be achieved by literature, film, or painting.

According to this painstaking chronology, the story only makes sense if we see it as controlled by the ghost of Arie and Amihiko’s mother; according to this reading by Sarah Horrocks, an aesthetic appreciation in the register of ideology critique (or vice versa), it only makes sense, on the other hand, as a stand-off between Arie and Maki. The book can be read both ways, or neither, or according to still other schemata. Like a dream, it takes the intractable problems of our daily lives—the injuries we suffer and the injuries we inflict—and turns them into mysterious (and mysteriously recognizable) images that admit of multiple interpretations. But unlike a dream, which is (as Ng Suat Tong quotes Raymond Tallis quoting Wittgenstein to remind us) radically private, Nijigahara Holograph is an act of language, of art, which is to say that it, like its characters, reaches out to others, to console and to wound them (all serious relationships seem to involve both consolation and wounding).

Asano’s art is justly celebrated: it combines detailed character drawing with backgrounds created by drawing on digitally manipulated photos, a mixture of the analog and the digital that lends itself well to this manga’s surrealism, its dream-like subjective intensification of objective experience. (I derive my information from this interesting documentary.) His storytelling carefully moves between narrative and montage, modulating its pace in an eerie mix of the rapid with the stilled.

Nijigahara Holograph cannot be read but only re-read; nevertheless, it richly repays re-reading. It is meticulously designed while also feeling heartfelt and unpredictable. The art student Maki is told in the book that her work is technically accomplished, but without emotion; the same cannot be said for Nijigahara Holograph, the craft and passion of which move in tandem, going together like the reunited halves of the butterfly pendant, or two twins long separated.

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Inio Asano, Solanin

SolaninSolanin by Inio Asano

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Essentially a YA or NA (i.e. “new adult”) story of a group of friends attempting to transition from college to adult life while holding on to their ideals and ambitions. While it is often platitudinous (“It’s tough for anyone to live their life,” “And as time passes, your options definitely narrow,” “Life is so difficult,” etc.), the grace of Asano’s storytelling, his ability to conjure character in precise and evocative lines while hastening the reader through the panels, combined with his evidently total unconcern to avoid cliche, make Solanin irresistibly charming. Solanin in all its levity and clarity and earnest energy might work best, oddly, as a companion piece to Asano’s relentlessly bleak and puzzle-like Nijigahara Holograph; the two books share themes—the porosity of identity and gender; the redemption to be found losing oneself in the eternities of art and dreaming—but their moods and generic affiliations could not be more different. While Solanin is not, in general, my cup of tea, I found in it further evidence, after having read the utterly different Nijigahara Holograph, of Asano’s mastery of his medium. And thematically speaking, Solanin should be credited for avoiding the banal antinomianism of so much pop culture, depicting instead the pleasures of discipline and commitment, not to advocate selling out but to counsel the patience needed to achieve anything in art and love: “I wonder if the demon that whispered ‘Why not be free?’ was Freedom itself.”

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Osamu Tezuka, Buddha, vol. 1: Kapilavastu

Buddha, Vol. 1: Kapilavastu (Buddha #1)Buddha, Vol. 1: Kapilavastu by Osamu Tezuka

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I will excuse myself from writing a lengthy review since I am insufficiently grounded in the narrative idiom and traditions of manga. I confess that I find some of the conventions personally off-putting: the cartoonishness of the figures, the shrill and totally unsubtle character interactions, the extreme decompression of the storytelling. My own taste in comics was formed under the influence of Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Dave McKean and others, who emphasized a denser and more layered presentation. On the other hand, some of Tezuka’s devices are brilliant, not least using variously detailed drawings to control the narrative’s pace; swiftly and simply drawn figures speed one through pages at a time until a delicately rendered portrayal of a landscape or animal orders one to pause and pay attention. This first chapter of Tezuka’s eight-volume life of Buddha ends with its hero’s birth, but already its spiritual emphasis on animal life’s equality with that of humans stands out as a beautifully-handled theme. The manga’s anachronism—its ancient India seems to co-exist with contemporary America and all sorts of urban slang and pop-culture references—is brilliant and sets the whole story afloat in a world of its own, where all great fiction takes place. I am fascinated—attracted to and repelled by—Tezuka’s emphasis, in a book ostensibly intended for adults, on extreme puerility, from caricature to scatology to metafictional gags. I admire the wide tonal range this grants the book, but I also think it coarsens the overall mood. Humor per se is not at all a problem; humor that seems addressed to ten-year-old boys may be. But, as I said, my response could represent a cultural misunderstanding on my part, so I will say no more about it.

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