Archive for September, 2011
Author: Osamu Tezuka
Artist: Osamu Tezuka
What’s he done? Astro Boy, Black Jack, Kimba the White Lion, Dororo, and many others
Volume published: 1971–1978 (Japan), 2006 (U.S.)
Genre: SF / drama / philosophical
Premise: Phoenix is Osamu Tezuka’s masterwork, several thousand pages of manga that explore the human condition. Volume 6 is a self-contained story that explores the old “Not If You Were The Last Person On Earth” chestnut.
Show x Show: It’s The Twilight Zone meets Survivor
Length: This volume stands alone
Is there a plot? Oh boy, yeah. The story keeps driving forward–one of Tezuka’s strengths–but remains easy to follow. This is partly thanks to the small cast.
How’s the art? Classic Tezuka, with a minimum of his trademark goofy comedy. Characters rarely jump through panel borders or otherwise break the fourth wall.
Does the art quality vary from chapter to chapter? Nope.
Is it philosophical? Very much so. This is the story of ordinary people forced to make very hard choices, and living with the consequences.
Moreover, it’s not preachy. Characters espouse different philosophies, and others reject or debate, but I never felt that Tezuka was telling me which one was right or wrong.
Can I show it to my Mom? As the characters struggle to survive, there’s a lot of nudity and, well, incest. If your Mom’s cool with that, go for it. It’s certainly good proof that manga is art.
Can I show it to my kid brother? Nah. It’s too heady, really.
Can I show it to a non-manga fan? Yes, though it may be a tough sell, considering Tezuka’s cartoony style. It’s perfect for an intellectual comic fan.
While all of Tsutomu Nihei’s manga BLAME! was released in English, a few volumes have grown rare and expensive. As in, they cost a minimum of US $60 wherever I’ve looked.
So I’ve read every volume that I could buy for a reasonable price, meaning I had to skip volumes 4 and 6. Fortunately, it’s a slow-moving story, so I hoped I was skipping less-important volumes.
Judging by the ending, I was wrong.
Author: Tsutomu Nihei
Artist: Tsutomu Nihei
What’s he done? Biomega, NSE, and NOiSE
Published: 1998–2003 (Japan), 2005–2007 (America)
Genre: SF / action / thriller / dystopia
Premise: In a completely enclosed dystopian world where humans are under constant attack from biomechanical horrors, one man journeys through the superstructure in search of a human with the fabled Net Terminal gene.
Who thought it up? This is Tsutomu Nihei through and through
Show x Show: It’s The Matrix meets Mad Max
Length: 10 volumes, complete
Is there a plot? Yes, but it’s quite slow. This is mostly an action story, so many chapters are purely face-offs between Killy (our protagonist) and various random biomechanical thugs. The back-story is dripped out in occasional, one-off conversations, so if you’re not paying attention, you’ll get lost quickly.
That said, I had to skip a few volumes, so that certainly didn’t help my comprehension.
Moreover, Killy wields a pistol that causes massive damage with each blast. This is good and bad. In several fights, I was just waiting for Killy to pull it out. In others, the opponents either block his weapon or can regenerate, which creates interesting tension as Killy tries to bring his weapon to bear.
Are there any other characters? Killy meets Cibo, a woman scientist, who helps him by hacking into various computer systems. Cibo adds a layer of interest primarily through Killy’s protectiveness of her. There’s no romance here — BLAME!’s world is thoroughly asexual — but they show clear signs of caring for each other’s safety.
How’s the action? A bit confusing at times, but overall, exciting and always a little different. By the end of the series, most of the villains are just there to be defeated by Killy, but that’s intentional; he’s slogging his way through the final bad guys.
How’s the art? Weird, but intentionally so. All the biomechanical bad guys are Giger-esque, gross parodies of the human form.
Does it feel real? This is one thing I love about Nihei; his architectural background is clearly shown in his detailed artwork. Every location feels real. He also has a good feel for human proportion, though in this series, characters can stretch during action a bit more than in, say, Biomega.
Can I show it to my Mom? I wouldn’t. There’s too much violence (zombies with their heads blown off, weird mutants, etc.).
Can I show it to my kid brother? Pre-teen? It’s pretty violent (thus the ”Mature Content” sticker). Teen? Sure.
Can I show it to a non-manga fan? This is actually a pretty good candidate. It doesn’t have underage nudity or uncomfortable sexual situations, and it doesn’t use specifically Japanese language elements (honorifics, sailor fuku, etc.).
Does the art quality vary from chapter to chapter? Nope. But then, this is Nihei’s fourth manga series, so he’s got that down.
Availability: All but volumes 4 and 6 are readily available used from sites like Amazon.com.
Red Snow is actually a bit tough to write about, because it touches on experiences so alien to my own.
It’s about rural life in pre-industrial Japan. In this small town, life is the same as it’s always been. But new people are born and raised, and they each strike a little flame.
As a short story collection, Red Snow can’t be summed up; it’s a series of glances into small-town life. Most of the stories strikes a non-judgmental stance: this is simply how people lived, rightly or wrongly.
The one primary exception is the first story, focused on a young boy who’s observing a girl about his own age. She’s the daughter of a prostitute, and is treated poorly by the adults of the village. The children, of course, copy the adults. Worse, there’s nothing she can do about it, and she seems destined to follow her mother’s path. It’s touching and sad.
As with so many Japanese stories, one of Red Snow’s strongest themes is relationship to community. What you do privately is nobody’s concern, but letting that affect the community is a sin.
This intertwines with another theme: sex. It seems everyone is cheating on everyone else. And, again, that’s seen as fine as long as there’s no chance anyone will find out about it. Both sexes engage in this, too.
In fact, the title of the book stems from a story in which a girl loses her virginity. During a snowstorm, she waits inside a large log for her boyfriend to find her. Freud would have a field day.
Symbolism runs rampant in Red Snow, particularly in the more abstract stories about nature and intertwining relationships. It’s a refreshing change from the soap opera tone of the other stories.
Several tales include elements of Japanese superstition, and this is another area in which the book is so alien. Kappa and other strange creatures are woven into the story, with no attempt made to separate them from village life. At first, I felt jarred by this, then I realized that it was realistic: that’s exactly how these villagers related to kappa. As normal.
Perhaps that is Red Snow‘s greatest strength: it makes this alien world of pre-modern rural Japan real and relatable.
Artist/Writer: Susumu Katsumata
Published in: 1970′s-1980′s (Japan), 2009 (America)
American Publisher: D+Q
Genres: Slice-of-life, drama, adolescence
How obvious are the themes? Fairly subtle. This is a collection of short stories originally published separately over years, so the themes aren’t as clear as they could be.
How’s the art? Very 1970′s.
Can I show it to my Mom? Depending on how open-minded she is. There’s a fair amount of sex, implied or shown. At least none of it’s explicit.
Can I show it to my kid brother? Well, there is all that sex.
Can I show it to a non-manga fan? Definitely, though be aware that this is a gekiga title. It looks, well, very 1970′s.
Does it have any memorable moments? Quite a few, especially those dealing with small monsters and abstract representations of sex. I’m not kidding.
I’m implying that Red Snow is all about sex, which is unfair. It’s just a major theme.
This is the first in a series of articles in which I’ll be analyzing Hayao Miyazaki’s manga Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind. I plan to analyze the intersection of storytelling and art in this work, looking at how the art tells the story.
The nature of this analysis requires that I show a number of images from the original manga. I’ve no wish to impinge on copyright here, or to tick off Viz. I have contacted Viz several times through their Twitter account, requesting contact for permission to use these images. I’ve received no response. I will happily negotiate with Viz on this, if they’d just talk to me.
I’m using the 1995 Viz edition. As such, be aware that the art is flopped. Also, I number panels starting with the upper-left corner, and continuing to the right, then down, since that’s the normal reading order of this edition.
We begin on page 6 with two panels of ballistic movement, as a figure flying on a glider heads straight towards the reader. At the risk of sounding precious, I can’t help but wonder if this is a callback to the opening pages of Osamu Tezuka’s seminal New Treasure Island, which was famous for its ballistic opening pages.
Either way, this is a visually arresting image, and an interesting way to start. No dialogue, no explosions: just a peaceful image of a glider in the sky.
We then see the glider flying over a giant petrified helmet or head, clearly something not found in the real world. The glider casts a dark shadow on the head, drawing our attention to it. Note how the lack of background in the second panel keeps our attention from being distracted by it. Also note the glider’s shadow in panel three, sitting in almost the exact center of the page. This head is clearly what we’re supposed to focus on.
The head is covered in vegetation, which the final panel of the page shows to be a weird jungle unlike anything we’d see in reality. So, the first page has clearly established a fantasy or science fictional setting. The figure disembarks and heads into the jungle, a rifle slung over the figure’s shoulders.
We’ll realize shortly that the figure is Nausicaä, but note that there’s nothing feminine about her here, and indeed with the rifle she looks more masculine than feminine. While this page has established the otherwordliness of its setting, it has said very little about this character. We don’t even know if this is the protagonist.
Pages 7 and 8 show Nausicaä wandering in the jungle, carefully selecting specimens. One panel shows her with a pad of paper and what looks like a pipette, and in another she taps a spore into a glass test tube. These are clearly scientific instruments, implying that Nausicaä is peaceful scientist. Despite her rifle, her overall attitude is gentle and non-invasive.
Page 8 reveals an Ohmu shell. Note the use of shading in panel three: the nearly black shadows ringing the top of the panel, then the dark figure of Nausicaä to highlight her position in front of the white Ohmu shell. Contrast that with the lower-left panel, in which her figure is almost completely lost relative to the shell. Panel three describes scale; panel four describes the Ohmu itself in almost obsessive detail: we see the highly insectoid nature of the creature. This mimics real life; we see vague shapes before we see detail.
In page 9, Nausicaä busies herself with the Ohmu shell, inspecting it and carving out one of the eye shells. Page 10 gives us the lovely spore “snow storm.”
The forest is consistently portrayed as a gentle thing in these pages. Miyazaki consistently uses soft, rounded lines for the forest’s flora; there’s not a single straight line in the forest. Everything appears to move slowly, and Nausicaä is able to move through the environment without danger.
So, Miyazaki must use an internal monologue to establish the dangers of the forest. After she removes one of the Ohmu’s eye shells, she muses to herself, “But humans can’t walk here unmasked for even five minutes, or our lungs would decay. A forest of death….”
This establishes one of the major themes of the story: the problems of co-existence among different creatures. This environment, which to an Ohmu “must seem a warm and comforting place,” is lethal to humans.
Then Nausicaä receives her first psychic message. A calm, primarily white panel that shows Nausicaa peacefully buried in the spore “snow” is followed by a primarily black panel, centered on only one of Nausicaä’s eyes. Note the starburst speech balloon, filled with text in a bold, calligraphic font in high contrast to the normal block print of Nausicaä’s monologue. I love this font; it feels alien and formal. Perfect for the Ohmu.
This is followed by another mostly-white panel showing Nausicaä raise the Ohmu eye shell, her expression alert but not panicked. Note her posture: one hand comfortably gripping her rifle, the other carefully raising the ohmu shell. This is a woman who is not easily spooked.
The top of page 11 is split into horizontal bands, which gives the incoming psychic messages a certain telegraphic feeling. This evokes the image of literally a stream of consciousness: a long, linear stream of thoughts.
We see the same message repeated: “He killed us,” which morphs into “We will kill him!” Note how the starburst speech balloons grow softer, and the text itself grows smaller within the balloon, suggesting that the message is growing faint. The fifth panel stands in shocking contrast: strong horizontal lines leading from Nausicaä’s squealed “Aa!”, followed by a positively sketchy image of Nausicaä’s face, then a bold, all-capital “KILL!”
That fifth panel reminds me of apocalyptic images of people obliterated by nuclear strikes. It makes an impression as though Nausicaä is being overwhelmed and obliterated by the force of the message.
Miyazaki uses a neat trick here to take maximum and efficient advantage of panel size. Because the fifth panel is so small, the word “KILL!” seems huge, despite only taking up little absolute space on the page.
Nausicaä hears a sound, a ”siren shell,” which distracts her from her psychic reverie. She races through the forest to get a vantage point, climbing up inside the skull of a god warrior to look out through its empty eye socket. We then see a forest littered with at least three god warrior bodies, and an enraged Ohmu. She fires what we assume is another siren shell, sees and hears an answer, and runs back to her air craft.
Miyazaki spends a full page–seven panels–on Nausicaä getting onto her craft, launching it, and flying towards the fleeing figure. From a pacing perspective, this draws out the action and adds tension, reminding us of all the little everyday actions that we must perform to use technology. Hollywood scenes of characters leaping into cars cut around the reality of opening the car door, climbing inside, turning the key, switching on the headlights, putting the car in gear, etc.
Nausicaä signals to the lone figure to go “up wind.” Her attempt to rescue him is significant in itself. Nausicaä’s already established as a woman who respects nature, and has just observed someone angering a huge forest creature. Many would say that the interloper deserves the Ohmu’s wrath. She attempts to save him.
Page 15 treats us to a huge action image, one which deserves some attention.
Panel one is a relatively clean image; Nausicaä on her mehve in almost the exact center of the panel, with huge pieces of the forest scattered in mid-air behind her. The sheer size and variety of the pieces implies some massive, destructive event. Note how the slightly off-center position of the mehve implies the direction of the destruction, as does the relative scarcity of pieces on the right side of the image compared to the left.
The second panel shows an Ohmu, drawn mostly in threatening black, its mandibles literally chewing through the forest. Nausicaä is barely visible in the panel’s lower-left corner, easy to miss, and I think that’s intended: your attention should be on the Ohmu.
Note the order of the panels here. Dramatic theory would tell you to start with the Ohmu, the creature that’s causing this destruction, then show the destruction it caused.
But this is ordered according to Nausicaä’s perception. First she sees exploding trees, then the Ohmu.
In the third panel, Nausicaä strains to hold onto the mehve, her arms locked in a position of physical stress. This is our first evidence of Nausicaä’s physical strength. We know her first as a scientist, then as a humanitarian; now as a figure with significant constitution.
The background of panel three is a horizontal blur, almost undecipherable. We see what may be two Ohmu mandibles behind her, but the background emphasizes speed, both of the debris whipping around Nausicaä and Nausicaä’s own movement as she strains to control her craft.
This introduces another major theme of Nausicaä: humanity’s relationship to technology. Science fiction often revels in its effortless technology, from Kaneda’s motorcycle in Akira to the hardsuits in Bubblegum Crisis. To lapse into poetics, in Nausicaä‘s world, man must physically grapple with and control his technology, which can be as temperamental as a beast.
We continue with a few relatively pedestrian pages of Nausicaä calming the Ohmu using strobe grenades and leading the mysterious interloper to safety. And I’ll end this first entry here, before the article gets unwieldy. Next time: surprising uses of white and black negative space, and fun with Nausicaä’s hairstyle.
For more on this subject, see “At First, I Wanted to be a Manga-ka”: Analyzing the Nausicaa Manga by Kumi Kaoru and Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics.
Artist/Writer: Keiji Nakazawa
Published in: 1973–1985 (Japan), 2004–2010 (America)
American Publisher: Last Gasp
Genres: Shounen, war, documentary
Premise: Gen is a young boy unlucky enough to live in Hiroshima when the atomic bomb drops.
Show x Show: It’s Grave of the Fireflies meets Maus
What’s this volume about? The atomic bomb dropped at the end of the previous volume, so this volume focuses on the weeks immediately thereafter: radiation sickness, piles of corpses, and the fate of those who lived.
How obvious are the themes? Very. This is as clear as the previous volume; it’s very much a shounen title.
How graphic is it? Completely. Nakazawa’s cartoony style keeps it relatively abstract, thankfully, but you will see some unpleasant images here. That’s the point. The aftermath of the atomic bomb was hell.
Is it any less preachy than the first volume? Thankfully, yes. Gen has a lot more to do this time around.
What happens? Gen and his mother struggle to provide for themselves and Gen’s new sister in the rubble of Hiroshima. Gen goes in search of food, and is distracted by a young boy who looks exactly like Gen’s younger brother.
Distracted from food? Yeah, and it does seem odd. Perhaps Gen is a bit delirious, and/or traumatized, but he spends over a day on this side trek with this other kid. While that provides for an interesting diversion, it gets tiresome quickly. We know this kid isn’t his brother.
Is it only about the Japanese? No, and that’s one interesting thing: One of Gen’s neighbors is Korean, and a segment of this volume deals with how terribly the Koreans were treated during this period, being denied even basic medical care.
Can I show it to my Mom? Sure.
Can I show it to my kid brother? It’s probably too intense for him.
Can I show it to a non-manga fan? Yes; in fact I think this might appeal more to non-fans than regular manga readers. The art has an indie comics feel. You’d probably want to start with volume 1, naturally.
Does it have any memorable moments? Several, particularly those dealing with a family that Gen and his relatives live with near the end of the book. Hiroshima survivors faced a lot of rejection, partly due to understandable fears about radiation. Nobody knew if radiation sickness could be transmitted, so few people would spend more than a few minutes with Hiroshima survivors. Unfortunately, the scenes with this family are over-the-top; most of the family members are downright evil.