Review, Jirō Taniguchi memorial edition: The Millennium Forest

One of the last manga Jirō Taniguchi had been working on before he died (on this day, three years ago) was The Millennium Forest. Designed to span 5 volumes, the small fragment that he was able to complete has been published posthumously.

The Millennium Forest (光年の森 / Kōnen no mori, lit. “light-year forest”; German title: Im Jahrtausendwald)
Language: German (originally Japanese)
Author: Jirō Taniguchi
Publisher: Carlsen (originally Rue de Sèvres / Shōgakukan)
Year: 2018 (originally 2017)
Number of volumes: 1

Pages: 78 (comic: 43)
Price: € 20
Website: https://www.carlsen.de/hardcover/im-jahrtausendwald/96224 (German); https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=152591
ISBN: 978-3-551-72810-4

The publisher(s) clearly intended this book to be more than just another manga. Almost half of the pages are editorial texts, layouts, sketches and other preparatory drawings, and obituaries. Whether this 20 € book (albeit in full colour and hardcover) is a cynical rip-off or a dignified tribute to Taniguchi is a matter of debate. It may be tempting to extrapolate from the information given in the afterword and the bonus material and imagine what a manga series The Millennium Forest might have become. But let’s look at what it is.

The protagonist is 10-year old Wataru. One summer, he leaves Tokyo to live with his grandparents in a remote village situated in mountainous woodland. The story is set in an unspecified past – if we take Wataru for Taniguchi’s alter ego, the year would be 1958 – but it could just as well take place in the present day. After all, relocating from town to country or vice versa is a timelessly popular topic in Japanese fiction. At first, Wataru doesn’t get on with his schoolmates. When wandering in the woods one day he walks into them, and they dare him to climb a tall tree. To everyone’s surprise, including his own, he manages to climb higher than any of the local kids before. The kids are impressed, they make friends with Wataru, and he makes peace with living in the countryside.

That’s one way to summarise this little story. Another would be to speak of the forest as the actual protagonist, or at least as a character in its own right; a forest which mysteriously appears out of the ground as a result of an earthquake, and which is populated by fantastic creatures that only vaguely resemble birds, rabbits, and maybe serows. One could also mention that Wataru possesses the gift of speaking with trees and animals. And that that the tree he climbs saves him from falling down by catching him with a twine.

Are these supernatural elements really necessary? Of course it could be argued that this was meant to be a much longer story which would have placed more emphasis on the fantasy aspects and integrated them more tightly into the seemingly mundane setting, and ultimately conveyed an environmentalist message through them. But as it is, The Millennium Forest would have been a simpler and perhaps stronger story without any supernatural bits. The most powerful of Taniguchi’s manga had always been the firmly realistic, semi-autobiographical ones, such as The Walking Man or Chichi no koyomi.

But we haven’t even talked about the art yet. Over 40 oversized pages (22,5 × 28 cm) painted in watercolour are quite a treat. Taniguchi’s impressive skill in this medium shows in all the subtle modulations, particularly on characters’ faces. At the same time, distinct outlines retain the clarity that is evident in all of Taniguchi’s art. As for the landscape format of the book – the afterword emphasises the difficulties of launching such a product in the Japanese book market – it doesn’t do much for me; a square or regular portrait format would probably have worked just as well. If anything, it obscures the reading order of the panels on some pages, but that might also be due to the flipping by the German publisher.

Recommended if you can check it out from your local library, or for those who wish to complete their collection of Taniguchi’s manga (although there always seems to be ‘new’ material by Taniguchi getting translated).

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○


Book chapter on Akira and Ghost in the Shell (the anime) published

The Routledge Companion to Cyberpunk Culture, edited by Anna McFarlane, Graham J. Murphy, and Lars Schmeink, has been published last month. This book contains a chapter co-authored by Lars Schmeink and myself, titled “Akira and Ghost in the Shell (Case Study)”, on pp. 162-168. Rather than discussing the manga, this short text focusses on the theatrical anime versions (Ōtomo 1988, Oshii 1995) and their relation to cyberpunk. (For Akira the manga and cyberpunk, see my earlier journal article in Arts.)

The Routledge Companion to Cyberpunk Culture contains many more chapters of which some deal with comics and anime and might be of interest to readers of this weblog. Follow the link to the publisher’s website for a table of contents. While the printed book is a bit on the pricey side, consider recommending it to your library for acquisition, borrowing it via interlibrary loan, or purchasing the e-book version.


The best comics of 2019: a meta list

[UPDATE: added 8 more lists – AiPT, Broken Frontier, ComFor (German), Comic.de (German, multiple mentions only), Comicgate (German, unranked), Diamond via The Beat (comics + GNs), Tor Online (German). Arrows next to entries indicate that their rank went up or down compared to the previous version.]

Once more I compiled a little ‘master list’ out of some best-of-2019 lists on the Internet. Each title was assigned between 1 and 30 points, depending on either its rank, or on the number of titles in an unranked list (full explanation here).

THE TOP 25 COMICS OF 2019:

  1. House of X / Powers of X by Jonathan Hickman, Pepe Larraz and R.B. Silva (207 points)
  2. Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell (171) ⇩
  3. Die by Kieron Gillen and Stephanie Hans (120) ⇧
  4. Rusty Brown by Chris Ware (110)
  5. The Immortal Hulk by Al Ewing and Joe Bennett (106) ⇧
  6. They Called Us Enemy by George Takei et al. (102) ⇩
  7. Clyde Fans by Seth ⇩, tied with
    Daredevil by Chip Zdarsky and Marco Checchetto ⇧ (95)
  8. Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen by Matt Fraction and Steve Lieber (92) ⇩
  9. The Hard Tomorrow by Eleanor Davis (88) ⇩
  10. Mister Miracle by Tom King and Mitch Gerads (87) ⇧
  11. Spider-Man: Life Story by Chip Zdarsky and Mark Bagley ⇧, tied with
    The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard ⇧ (82)
  12. These Savage Shores by Ram V and Sumit Kumar (79) ⇧
  13. Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass by Mariko Tamaki and Steve Pugh (75) ⇩
  14. When I Arrived at the Castle by Emily Carroll (74) ⇧
  15. Witch Hat Atelier by Kamome Shirahama (70) ⇩
  16. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and Renée Nault (66) ⇧
  17. Hot Comb by Ebony Flowers (61) ⇩
  18. DCeased by Tom Taylor and Trevor Hairsine (60) ⇧
  19. Bitter Root by David Walker, Chuck Brown and Sanford Greene (59) ⇩
  20. Good Talk by Mira Jacob ⇩, tied with
    George Herriman’s Krazy Kat. The Complete Color Sundays 1935–1944 ⇧ (57)
  21. Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba by Koyoharu Gotōge ⇩, tied with
    Sabrina by Nick Drnaso ⇧ (55)

Given the usual dominance of Anglo-American list sources, it is almost a pleasant surprise to see as many as two manga within the top 25. As for European comics… Alice Oseman is British, does that count? [Update: Oseman’s Heartstopper dropped out of the top 25 to 28th place. It’s still the highest-ranking European comic.]

The following lists were evaluated: A.V. Club, Adventures in Poor Taste, Book Riot, Broken Frontier, CBC, Chicago Public Library, ComFor (German), Comic.de (German, multiple mentions only), Comicgate (German, unranked), Comickunst (German), Diamond via The Beat (comics + GNs), Entertainment Weekly, Forbes, GameSpot, Goodreads, Gosh (adult, kids), The Guardian (Rachel Cooke, James Smart), io9, Kono Manga ga Sugoi! via Anime News Network, Oricon Top-Selling Manga in Japan by Series via Anime News Network, Paste, Publishers Weekly Critics Poll, Readings, School Library Journal, Spiegel Online (German), SyFy Wire (Best New Comic Books, Fangrrl), Tagesspiegel (German), Tor Online (German), What Culture, YALSA.


Multivariate statistics: how to measure similarity between comics (or anything, really) based on several characteristics

In recent blogposts about stylometry (e.g. here), I skipped a bit of maths that, in hindsight, might be worth talking about. As it turns out, it’s actually both highly useful and easy to understand.

The examples used here are going to be the same as in the aforementioned post, i.e. 2 scenes from Katsuhiro Ōtomo’s Akira (vol. 5, p. 16 ff, which we’ll call A1, and vol. 3, p. 125 ff, which we’ll call A2) and 2 manga chapters from the October 11, 2018 issue of Morning magazine, Miko Yasu’s Hakozume (M1) and Rito Asami’s Ichikei no karasu (M2).

1 variable

Let’s say you want to compare these 4 comics based on 1 variable, e.g. the frequency of the hiragana character で de. (Which is not the most realistic stylometric indicator, but it will make more and more sense with an increasing number of variables.) Nothing easier than that. First, here are the numbers of で de per 100 hiragana for each text:

  • A1: 8
  • A2: 3
  • M1: 6
  • M2: 7

By simply subtracting the numbers from each other, we get the difference between any pair of manga and thus their similarity. Ranked from smallest difference to largest, these would be:

  • A1/M2: 1
  • M1/M2: 1
  • A1/M1: 2
  • A2/M1: 3
  • A2/M2: 4
  • A1/A2: 5

So the two Morning manga and one of the Akira scenes can be said to be similar, while the other Akira scene is the odd one out.

2 variables

With 2 variables, it gets more interesting. Let’s assume you decide that the similarity of these manga is best based on their use of the hiragana で de and い i. The frequencies for the latter are:

  • A1: 7
  • A2: 8
  • M1: 3
  • M2: 2

On a side note, at this point it might be a good idea to think about normalisation: are the numbers of the two variables comparable, so that a difference of e.g. “2” carries the same weight for both characteristics? In our example, this is not a problem because we’re dealing with two hiragana frequencies measured on the same scale, but if your two variables are e.g. the total number of kana characters per chapter and the shoe size of the author, the former will probably have much more impact on the similarity scores than the latter, because the range of numbers is wider – unless you adjust the scale of the variables. Except if this different impact was precisely what you wanted.

Anyway, now we have 4 pairs of values, (8/7), (3/8), (6/3) and (7/2), which we could plot on a x and y axis, like this:

To calculate the distance between any two of these points (i.e. the similarity of two manga), you’ll probably want to use Pythagoras and his a² + b² = c² formula, a.k.a. the Euclidean distance, with ‘a’ and ‘b’ representing the horizontal and vertical distances and ‘c’ being the diagonal line we’re looking for. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it might suprise you that in actual statistics and stylometrics, there are several other ways of measuring this distance. However, we’re going to stick with good old Pythagoras here.

The distance between A1 (で de: 8 / い i: 7) and A2 (3/8), for instance, would be the square root of the sum of (8-3)² and (7-8)², which is approximately 5.1. All distances, ranked from lowest to highest, would be (rounded to one decimal):

  • M1/M2: 1.4
  • A1/M1: 4.5
  • A1/A2: 5.1
  • A1/M2: 5.1
  • A2/M1: 5.8
  • A2/M2: 7.2

Now the two Akira excerpts appear to be more similar than before when the similarity was only based on the frequency of で de, and the similarity between the two Morning manga is greater than that between the first Akira excerpt and either of the two Morning manga.

3 variables

Just as you imagine two points in 2-dimensional space forming two corners of a right-angled triangle (see above), in 3-dimensional space you have to image a rectangular cuboid – a ‘box’ (see the illustration on Wikipedia). Apparently, how to calculate the distance between the two opposite corner points of a cuboid is something you learn in high school, but I couldn’t remember and had to look it up. The formula for distance ‘d’ is: d² = a² + b² + c².

As our third variable, we’re going to use the frequency of the hiragana し shi. In the following list, the number of し shi per 100 hiragana is added as the third coordinate to each manga:

  • A1 (8/7/7)
  • A2 (3/8/1)
  • M1 (6/3/1)
  • M2 (7/2/5)

For instance, the distance between A1 and A2 is the square root of: (8-3)² + (7-8)² + (7-1)², i.e. roughly 7.9. Here are all the distances:

  • M1/M2: 4.2
  • A1/M2: 5.5
  • A2/M1: 5.8
  • A1/M1: 7.5
  • A1/A2: 7.9
  • A2/M2: 8.2

As we can see, the main difference between this similarity ranking and the previous one is that the similarity between the two Akira scenes has become smaller.

4 variables

You might have guessed it by now: even though it gets harder to imagine (and even more so to illustrate) a space of more than 3 dimensions, we can apply more or less the same formula regardless of the number of variables. We only need to add a new summand/addend for each new variable. For 4 variables, the distance between two points would be the square root of (a² + b² + c² + d²). These are the distances if we add the hiragana て te (which occurs 7 times per 100 hiragana in A1, 2 times in A2, 6 in M1, 4 in M2) as the 4th dimension:

  • M1/M2: 4.7
  • A1/M2: 6.2
  • A2/M1: 7.1
  • A1/M1: 7.5
  • A2/M2: 8.5
  • A1/A2: 9.3

Note how the changes become smaller now – apart from the last two pairs having swapped places, the similarity ranking is the same as before.

dialogue in Katsuhiro Ōtomo’s Akira (A1, left) vs. dialogue in Miko Yasu’s Hakozume (M1, right)

25 variables

So how about 25 hiragana frequencies? This is more than half of all the different hiragana in our (100-hiragana samples of the) four manga. I added 21 random hiragana (see the graph) to the 4 from the previous section, and these are the resulting distances:

  • A1/M2: 9.7
  • A2/M1: 11.0
  • A1/A2: 12.5
  • M1/M2: 13.0
  • A2/M2: 13.3
  • A1/M1: 14.7

Who would have thought that? Now it looks as if the ‘scientists’ scene from Akira (A1) is similar to Ichikei no karasu (M2), and the ‘insurgent thugs’ scene from Akira (A2) is similar to Hakozume (M1). Which is what we suspected all along. So who knows, maybe we can do away with all this maths stuff after all? However, the usual caveat applies: proper stylometry should really be based on larger samples than 100 characters per text.


Poll: Manga Readership Before 1994 / 1997

I’m conducting a short poll on manga readership outside of Japan (primarily in English-speaking countries) before 1994. If you have read any manga back then, please take a minute (or five, but it probably won’t take longer) to participate: https://forms.gle/UFmaXR35mrBxPE97A

Please note that there is a German version with different reply options; residents of German-speaking countries who have read manga before 1997 are asked to use this one: https://forms.gle/syHfF1Ew1CukdXAy7

The poll closes on December 15, 2019.

Thank you!


Manga review, Halloween 2019 edition: Dororo

Only one manga this time, but it’s a long one…

Hyakkimaru (p. 399)

Dororo (どろろ)
Language: English (translated from Japanese)
Author: Osamu Tezuka
Publisher: Vertical (originally Shōgakukan / Akita Shoten)
Year: 2012 (original run 1967-1969)
Number of volumes: 1
Pages: 844
Price: US-$ 24.95
Website: http://vertical-inc.com/books/dororo.html
ISBN: 978-1-935654-32-2

The character named Dororo is actually only the sidekick of the real protagonist, Hyakkimaru. In medieval Japan, Lord Daigo strikes a deal with 48 demons: in exchange for one body part of his unborn child for each of the demons, Daigo wants the power to become ruler of all of Japan. And indeed, when Daigo’s son Hyakkimaru is born, he has “no arms or legs, nor eyes or ears, but holes in the face where the eyes, nose and mouth should have been” (p. 60). Daigo and his wife abandon Hyakkimaru, but he is found by a doctor who raises him.

The doctor equips Hyakkimaru with artificial limbs that work just as fine as natural ones – if not better, for when teenage Hyakkimaru sets out to leave his foster father to travel the world, the doctor upgrades the prostheses with gimmicks such as hidden blades, acid jets, and explosives. Furthermore, Hyakkimaru has somehow developed the supernatural ability to communicate telepathically – actively and passively across any distance – as well as read people’s minds. And despite having glass eyes, he can ‘sense’ his surroundings and even detect demons that are invisible to other people. One can easily see the ‘Daredevil problem’ at work here – a disability that doesn’t affect the character at all.

Still, Hyakkimaru is bothered about his condition. “I can’t see, hear, speak, or smell, and lack arms and legs… nothing works” (p. 94). So in order to change that, he becomes a demon slayer, for with each demon he kills he regains a body part. Luckily for him, he only needs half a page (p. 98) of training to become the deadliest swordfighter alive, effortlessly defeating any human opponent (and most non-human ones, for that matter) he encounters. In a way, this is even more boring than shōnen manga nowadays, in which there is at least some development – in One Piece and what have you, the enemies become stronger and stronger, and so does the hero. In Dororo, the hero becomes weaker, if at all.

Thankfully, however, Dororo doesn’t fall into the ‘monster of the week’ trap. There are standalone episodes in which Hyakkimaru and Dororo enter a village where strange things are happening, then they find the demon that’s behind it all, which they then defeat. Most episodes advance an overarching plot though, which eventually reunites Hyakkimaru with his biological parents, and you can bet that this is an awkward meeting.

Despite all this drama and mystery, Dororo is rather light-hearted in tone with lots of visual and textual gags (some of which probably get lost in translation, but the Vertical edition does a good job by providing explanatory footnotes at some points). Published shortly before Kirihito, Dororo is still – expertly – drawn in Tezuka’s idiosyncratic cartoonish style in which all male characters have big legs and no nipples etc., and this style is well suited for a humorous manga. Which isn’t to say that Dororo is kids’ stuff; there is a lot of blood and death shown here.

This is where Dororo excels. It is a no-holds-barred depiction of a grim Japanese ‘Dark Age’ in which samurai mercilessly exploit their peasant serfs and sometimes kill them without a second thought. The peasants are often not much better though: each time Hyakkimaru and Dororo rescue a village from a demon, the villagers chase them away as outcasts and freaks. Rather than giving an accurate account of a historical period, Tezuka gives a powerful reflection about human nature that transcends time and space.

In the end, Dororo is perhaps a typical manga of its time that tries to be many different things and to appeal to many different audiences at once. From the perspective of today, in which we’re used to having our manga genres neatly compartmentalised, such a humor/action/supernatural/drama/history hybrid might be hard to stomach.

Scariest moment: the horror in Dororo is not based on shock but rather on disgust. The countless demons come in all sorts of horrid shapes, some of which are contrasted with disguises as beautiful women. The most hideous of them might be the one in the ‘Bandai’ chapter (pp. 143-176).

Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○

Find the previous Halloween blogposts here: 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015.

Dororo and some demons (p. 549)


Sequential art at the 58th Venice Art Biennale, 2019

There isn’t much on display resembling comics at this year’s Biennale (May 11 – November 24) and no participation of a famous comic artist as in 2017 or 2013. Here’s what caught my eye:

Darren Bader (not to be confused with fantasy illustrator Daren Bader) set up a comic book vending machine at the Arsenale. Somehow I failed to get a comic out of the machine, but there are pictures online that show that there are copies of an actual comic inside.

Also at the Arsenale, an episode of Ian Cheng‘s comic Life After BOB is displayed on large backlit panels. Not the ideal form of presentation, as the lower portions are hard to read. A printed pamphlet version is sold at the Biennale shop at an outrageous price. An interactive video installation based on the titular character is shown at the Giardini.

Many of Igor Grubić‘s photographic tableaux at the Croation pavilion can be considered sequential art. In this example, the accompanying text mentions first the floor tiles and then the step at the entrance, so the photos are best read from top left to bottom right (or clockwise). In others, the photos form a sequence from exterior to interior, or from wide shot to close up.

Anne Kuhn‘s photographic diptych in the pavilion of Mozambique, Seychelles and Kiribati is based on a scene in Marguerite Duras’s novel, The Ravishing of Lol Stein. In an earlier edition of the book, “ravissement” was translated as “rapture”, and Kuhn’s work is a convincing illustration of this state: in one moment, the young woman is standing in a room full of people, and in the next she experiences a rapture that makes her feels as if she is levitating and she becomes oblivious of everyone around her. This diptych is part of Kuhn’s Héroïnes series in which only some works follow this action-to-action transition pattern.

As always, there are those artists who use comics only as a quarry from which they incorporate bits and pieces into their works, but the results are not sequential themselves. One such artist is Christian Marclay whose Scream series is shown at the Arsenale. These prints are composed of wooden planks and manga character close ups. (Another artist working with images from comics is Goo Sung Kyun at the Mozambique/Seychelles/Kiribati pavilion.)