Review, Jirō Taniguchi memorial edition: Furari

One of Jirō Taniguchi’s († February 11, 2017) last manga to be published in translation during his lifetime, Furari has been called (even by the mangaka himself) ‘The Walking Man in Edo’. But is Furari really a masterpiece on the same level as Aruku hito?

Furari (ふらり, lit. “aimlessly”; German title: Der Kartograph)
Language: German (originally Japanese)
Author: Jirō Taniguchi
Publisher: Carlsen (originally Kōdansha)
Year: 2013 (originally 2011)
Number of volumes: 1

Pages: 201
Price: € 16
Website: https://www.carlsen.de/softcover/der-kartograph/978-3-551-75102-7 (German); https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=60670
ISBN: 978-3-551-75102-7

Some similarities can’t be denied, as both manga are about flaneurs, men walking around and exploring their urban surroundings. One difference is the protagonist’s motivation: while the nameless Aruku hito has just moved to a new home and wants to get to know the neighbourhood, Tadataka Inō, the protagonist of Furari, is a pensioner who has taken up pedometry – measuring distances by walking with a constant step length – as a hobby. (Only at the end of the manga does he officially become a surveyor; thus the German title, “The Cartographer”, is a bit misleading.) Also, Furari is a lot wordier than Aruku hito with many thought balloons, as Taniguchi must have felt it necessary to have his main character explain more things to the reader, as it were, and bridge the 200-year gap.

The biggest difference, however, is that Furari is really about something else. In 7 out of the 15 episodes, Inō has dreams/daydreams/visions in which he transforms into an animal (or a tree in one instance) and sees Edo from its point of view, e.g. from the river as a turtle, or from above as a dragonfly. And also some of the other episodes feature such a change of perspective on the town- and landscape, e.g. on a boat trip on the river: “when I’m on water for once, I realise that things come into view that you can’t see from onshore.” Thus I’d argue that Furari is at least as much a meditation on geography itself as it is a portrayal of historical Edo.

This is all quite fascinating, but there is one aspect in which Furari might be inferior to such Taniguchi classics as Aruku hito, Harukana machi e, or Chichi no koyomi: in these, the main character is pretty much a ‘nobody’, or an ‘anybody’, a ‘man without qualities’ from the contemporary real world with whom readers (particularly from Japan) can easily identify. Inō and the things he sees and does, in contrast, feel very distant to the reader, and thus the experience of reading Furari is more detached.

That being said, Furari is a must-read for any Taniguchi enthusiast, especially for those with an interest in historical Japan. Too bad the German publisher Carlsen once more overpriced what is essentially a regular tankōbon.

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○


The best manga of 2016? Review of Yuru Camp

Although the first two volumes were already published in 2015 and 2016 in Japan, Western publishers once again came late to the party and only began translating Yuru Camp when it was adapted into an anime series.

panel from vol. 2

Yuru Camp (ゆるキャン△ / yurukyan△; international title: Laid-Back Camp) vols. 1-2
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Afro
Publisher: Manga Cult (originally Houbunsha)
Year: 2020 (originally 2015-16)
Number of volumes: 11 so far in Japan
Pages per volume: 175
Price per volume: € 10
Website: https://www.cross-cult.de/titel/laid-back-camp-1.html (German publisher), https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=121961 (Baka-Updates)
ISBN: 9783964333094, 9783964333223

Most other reviews mention how unusual the subject matter of this manga – camping – is, that the Japanese truly have a comic for everything, that it is enjoyable even if you don’t like camping, and that it is also an educational manga that gives detailed and practical information on the topic of camping. All of this may be true, but it’s worth noting that the kind of camping that we get to see here isn’t everyone’s idea of camping. First of all, it’s camping without hiking. Rin takes her moped to go camping, Nadeshiko lets her older sister drive her in the car, and on one occasion, Chiaki, Aoi and Nadeshiko take the train and then have to walk for 4 km, only to find out later that they could have taken a bus.

It’s also camping without wilderness, despite what the blurb might say (“A time off in the wilderness”, the German back cover says). Our protagonist high school girls always put their tents up at official campsites, and these campsites usually come with amenities such as firewood, lots of rules, and sometimes pricey fees. Nature does feature in the form of scenic landscapes viewed from the campsite, but in essence, this kind of camping is, as the title says, rather yuru (緩 – loose, relaxed) and consists essentially of outdoor cooking – various recipes are provided – and sleeping in a tent.

On the other hand, the kind of camping undertaken by Rin and the others is peculiar because it’s off-season camping, meaning that the story takes place in late fall and winter and it’s always cold. This gives the author the opportunity to offer tips on how to protect against cold weather, while at the same time not having to have the protagonists interact with many other characters, as they are almost the only campers on their campsites at that time of the year.

page detail from vol. 1

And of course, our main characters are probably not the first kind of person that comes into one’s mind when thinking of campers. A sort of explanation is hinted at in the story: at Rin’s high school, there are two different clubs, the mountaineering club and the “outdoor club”. Perhaps all the boys at that school who are interested in camping have joined the former? In any case, with Yuru Camp, we’re deep in the sub-genre within the slice-of-life genre known as “Cute Girls Doing Cute Things”, which is closely related to (or, as some say, identical with) the concept of moe.

Reading such a kind of manga is always a bit of a guilty pleasure, at least for heterosexual male readers. Not that it is sexually exploitative or anything – despite several onsen bathing scenes, there is no explicit nudity – , but such para-erotic appeal is of course precisely the essence of moe. Then again, the manga abstains, perhaps mercifully, from any yuri elements whatsoever (although there would be plenty of opportunities for homoerotic scenes, e.g when there are two girls sleeping in the same tent etc.).

Some who have reviewed the first volume only have expressed doubts regarding the single-mindedness of the characters and the manga as a whole: would Yuru Camp remain interesting over several volumes? It does, by virtue of a carefully crafted story. Basically there are two parallel stories, that of the outdoor club, and that of Rin who prefers to go camping alone. But through the characters of Nadeshiko who is a club member but also befriends Rin, and Ena, a schoolmate who isn’t interested in camping but encourages Rin to befriend Nadeshiko, the stories are interwoven and feel like one big story.

Interestingly, the artwork of the scenery isn’t that spectacular. There is a lot of almost crude cross-hatching, and an overuse of an obtrusive parallel hatching effect that shrouds many backgrounds (and quite a few foreground objects as well), perhaps to indicate that it gets dark early during off-season. The figures, in contrast, are elaborately rendered and exhibit versatile facial expressions.

All in all, Yuru Camp is definitely one of the strongest manga series still running. However, it’s a shame that both the German and the American publisher decided to put such a hefty price tag on it. A Yuru Camp volume is perhaps worth it, but only just.

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○


The best comics of 2020: a meta list

[UPDATE: added 10 more lists – A.V. Club, Broken Frontier, ComFor, Comic.de, Comicgate, DoomRocket, Herald, IGN, SyFy Wire, WhatCulture. Arrows next to entries indicate that their rank went up or down compared to the previous version.]

Some people seem reluctant this year to look back at the past twelve months. From a comics perspective, however, it seems to have been a strong year, with no shortage of titles to fill all the ranks of those year-end best-of lists. As always, I put together a ‘master list’ out of all of those charts I found online (in English or German). Each title was assigned between 1 and 30 points, depending on either its rank or, in unranked lists, the number of titles (full explanation here).

THE TOP 25 COMICS OF 2020:

  1. Dragon Hoops by Gene Luen Yang (149 points)
  2. Superman Smashes the Klan by Gene Luen Yang (129) ⇧
  3. The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist by Adrian Tomine (125)
  4. Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen by Matt Fraction and Steve Lieber (124) ⇧
  5. Blue in Green by Ram V et al. (115) ⇧
  6. Paying the Land by Joe Sacco (104) ⇩
  7. Far Sector by N. K. Jemisin (103) ⇧
  8. Dracula, Motherf**ker by Alex de Campi and Erica Henderson (95) ⇩
  9. Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio by Derf Backderf (92) ⇩
  10. Pulp by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips (87) ⇧
  11. A Map to the Sun by Sloane Leong (86) ⇧
  12. The Immortal Hulk by Al Ewing and Joe Bennett (82) ⇩
  13. John Constantine: Hellblazer by Simon Spurrier, Aaron Campbell and Matias Bergara (78)
  14. Daredevil by Chip Zdarsky and Marco Checchetto (68) ⇧
  15. Wendy, Master of Art by Walter Scott (65) ⇩
  16. You Brought Me The Ocean by Alex Sánchez and Julie Maroh (59) ⇧
  17. The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen ⇩, tied with
    The Times I Knew I Was Gay by Eleanor Crewes ⇩ (57)
  18. Chainsaw Man by Tatsuki Fujimoto (56) ⇩
  19. Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba by Koyoharu Gotōge (55) ⇩
  20. Bowie by Michael Allred, Seve Horton and Laura Allred (51) ⇧
  21. We Only Find Them When They’re Dead by Al Ewing and Simone Di Meo (50) ⇧
  22. The Impending Blindness of Billie Scott by Zoe Thorogood (49) ⇧
  23. Big Black: Stand at Attica by Frank “Big Black” Smith, Jared Reinmuth and Ameziane ⇩, tied with
    Heartstopper by Alice Oseman ⇩ and
    Spy × Family by Tatsuya Endō ⇩ (48)

What a year for Gene Luen Yang, whose comics take the top two spots! As always, manga are sadly underrepresented, but at least we have three manga in the top 25 with Chainsaw Man, Spy × Family, and of course the ubiquitous Demon Slayer. The latter is also one of four recurring comics along with Jimmy Olsen, The Immortal Hulk, and Daredevil, all of which already charted in 2019. The highest-ranking German comic, not shown above, would be Freaks by Frank Schmolke on rank 30.

The following lists were evaluated: The A.V. Club, The Beat (top 10 only), Book Riot, Broken Frontier, CBC, Chicago Public Library, ComFor (German), Comic.de (German; multiple mentions only), Comicgate (German), Comickunst (German), DoomRocket, Forbes, GeekCast (top 30 only), Goodreads, Gosh (adults, kids), The Guardian, The Herald, IGN (ongoing / limited), io9, Kono manga ga sugoi via Anime News Network, NPR, Nerdist, Oricon Top-Selling Manga in Japan by Series via Anime News Network, Publishers Weekly Critics Poll, SyFy Wire, Tagesspiegel (German), Tor Online (German), The Washington Post, WhatCulture, YALSA.


Article on animal liberation in comics published

The latest issue of Closure. Kieler e-Journal für Comicforschung contains a special section on “Eco-comics” to which I contributed one of its four articles. According to the issue introduction,

Martin de la Iglesia’s »Formal Characteristics of Animal Liberation in Comics«, which closes the special section, shares with the preceding articles a concern with the comics form. Particularly, de la Iglesia investigates if comics associate the specific scenario of animal liberation with a formal correlative – and if the comics form is geared towards a presentation of »animal communication and perception« (91) at all. And indeed: some commonalities emerge from the analysis of open cages, sudden flight, and abject suffering in Animal Man, Daredevil, We3, and Pride of Baghdad. In its detailed close readings and search for an overarching graphic rhetoric of liberation, the article pays particular attention to the ›expressive‹ potential of comics devices and the degree to which observers alternately share and are distanced from animal minds.

Read my article “Formal Characteristics of Animal Liberation in Comics” for free in HTML or PDF.


Homi K. Bhabha’s mimicry – in comics?

Homi K. Bhabha’s 1984 journal article “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse” is often cited, even though (or perhaps because?) it is a rather opaque, difficult text. In it, he outlines the concept of mimicry, “one of the most elusive and effective strategies of colonial power and knowledge.” Mimicry is a kind of “colonial imitation”: colonised subjects imitating the manners of their colonisers. One of the few examples given by Bhabha, quoting a 19th century text, is the “mimic representation of the British Constitution” in British colonies with its “fancied importance of speakers and maces, and all the paraphernalia and ceremonies of the imperial legislature”. Another is the adoption of the Christian faith and rites.

Mimicry is thus similar to two other postcolonial concepts, transculturation and the contact zone, both of which I have written about elsewhere. Fernando Ortiz’s transculturation is a general framework of cultural exchange, whereas Mary Louise Pratt’s contact zone, developed after Bhabha’s article, focuses on those instances of cultural exchange that take place “in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power”. This is also true for mimicry, but in contrast to transculturation and the contact zone, which both stress reciprocity, mimicry only takes in to account one direction of acculturation: from the colonising culture to the colonised.

At first glance, the act of mimicry seems to be something rather objectionable, as if it was fake – a poorly understood but not truly internalised behaviour, worn like a fancy dress which conceals, or is at odds with, the true nature of the colonised. Bhabha’s point, however, is a different one. It is the ambivalence of being “almost the same, but not quite” that “poses an immanent threat” to, “disrupts” and has a “profound and disturbing effect” on colonial authority so that “mimicry is at once resemblance and menace”. At least part of the subversive power of mimicry is due to its effect to point to the colonisers’ hypocrisy when the colonised are e.g. granted a parliament but no actual political participation, or baptism but no equality as Christian brethren.

Is mimicry actually a “strategy”? If so, who actively employs it, the colonisers or the colonised? And why would they want to do it? Bhabha implies that mimicry is voluntarily performed by the colonised as well as encouraged by the colonisers, both parties seeking to benefit from it while being unaware of its drawbacks. If we follow Ortiz, transculturation is inevitable when two cultures meet, which would thus include the process of mimicry in the case of colonial encounters.

Are there any traces of the phenomenon of mimicry to be found in comics, or specifically in manga? Of course, Japan has never been a colony; quite the contrary: for decades, Japan ruled over colonial territories such as Korea and Taiwan, and one could also regard the Japanese settlement of the island of Hokkaidō as a kind of colonisation. Then again, there were times when the relations between the United States and Japan resembled something not unlike a subtle form of colonisation: in the 1850s, the U.S. Navy forcefully “opened” Japan. Unsurprisingly, the first embassy to be established in Japan was the American. From the Meiji period onward, Japan turned to several Western powers, including the U.S., as models for the reform of many aspects of society – e.g. baseball was introduced in Japan at that time. In 1939, Friedrich Sieburg summed up this trend of industrialisation, modernisation, and, ultimately, Westernisation, in his book Die Stählerne Blume: “Whatever its [Japan’s] world politics are going to be, it will always depend on contact with the ‘West’ – and by that, one can by all means understand ‘America’.” (On the other hand, Sieburg also wrote that this modernisation process was what enabled Japan to resist being colonised.) At that time, the Japanese economy relied heavily on oil imported from the United States. Then, of course, after WWII, Japan was under American occupation for almost seven years. (As I show in the aforementioned paper, some of these events, especially the latter, have had a lasting impact on the image of Japan in the Western world which amounts to a kind of Orientalism.) In addition to these influences, throughout the 20th century, the same American cultural influence – some call it ‘cultural imperialism’ – had been at work in Japan as everywhere else in the world. Again, this is not to say that Japan has ever been an American colony, but these look like historical circumstances from which some form of mimicry might well have emerged.

Japanese mimicking Americans? Baseball players in Hiroshima, 1937. Photograph by Dietrich Seckel.

Besides, if the concept of mimicry was only applicable to colonies in the strict political or legal sense, its usefulness would be rather limited. The popularity of Bhabha’s concept, which is invoked in all kinds of contexts, suggests otherwise. Perhaps Bhabha intended to describe a specific historical situation, but as with any methodological concept, I’d like to find out whether it is universally applicable.

So what about manga? Are manga mimicry? It is generally believed that foreigners working in Japan, such as the Englishman Charles Wirgman (1832-1891) and the Frenchman Georges Bigot (1860-1927), have significantly contributed to their formation. ‘Modern’-looking manga with speech bubbles reached maturity in the 1930s, most likely influenced by imported and translated American comic strips such as the wildly popular Bringing Up Father by George McManus.

Our example for today, however, shall be a later manga: the classic Devilman by Gō Nagai from 1972. Looking at its page layouts, we recognise a level of sophistication on par with contemporaneous European and American comics. Instead of earlier layouts in which the usual page was merely a stack of strips with strictly rectangular panels, Nagai uses a vast variety of layouts with different panel shapes, bleeds, splashes, and overlapping speech balloons and sound effects.

P. 180 from Devilman. Note the 2nd panel, an isosceles trapezoid – a device already used by Osamu Tezuka before, e.g. in Dororo.

However, to explain the formal properties of Devilman with Western influences would be unnecessary and far-fetched. By the year 1972, 25 years had passed since Osamu Tezuka’s Shin Takarajima (New Treasure Island) revolutionised long-form manga – a lot of time for manga to evolve, with each new wave of mangaka building on the accomplishments of the previous one and adding their own innovations. Occasionally, mangaka would turn to Western comics for inspiration, but by and large, manga was (and still is) a self-contained, autonomous system.

Thus, if there is mimicry in Devilman, it is not to be found in its form, but perhaps in its content. In the early 1970s, Japanese attitudes towards the United States were ambiguous: on the one hand, resistance to the American-Japanese Security Treaty coincided with opposition against the Vietnam War to erupt in massive anti-American student protests. On the other hand, American pop- and counter-culture continued to be popular among young Japanese. Which brings us to the most famous scene in Devilman: the “Sabbath”.

P. 179 from Devilman, part of a double-page spread.

In what must be the longest superhero origin story ever, by pages 178-179, Ryo has led his friend Akira to a secret party where people are indulging in frantic dancing, drinking and drug-taking. There is a band playing, which includes two dark-skinned musicians, surely meant to be African Americans. The line-up consists of two electric guitars, drums, electric organ, and an upright bass; there doesn’t seem to be a vocalist. As for the genre of music they are playing, we can only speculate (disregarding the soundtrack of the Devilman anime adaptations, which differ from the manga in the depiction of the band), but this line-up, and the intense, fierce way of playing their instruments, perhaps points to some kind of jazz rock. This genre was quite popular in 70s Japan and spawned several notable Japanese musicians, but for them, America was still the epicentre and point of reference of their music. They aspired to tour the United States and play with American musicians; Ryō Kawasaki even emigrated to New York in 1973.

This is the decisive difference between Japanese comics in 1972 and Japanese jazz rock in 1972: the former has become something completely domestic, while the latter is essentially still something American. Perhaps the entire band in Devilman is meant to be from the U.S. and merely visiting Japan, but then the act of mimicry could be located in the Japanese audience attending the gathering – some of them even wearing typical hippie clothes such as fringed vests. In the spirit of Bhabha, Nagai’s depiction of such mimicry is delightfully ambiguous: unknowingly and in combination with drugs, alcohol and promiscuity, the dancers enter a state of mind that allows demons to possess them, thus bringing about the Black Sabbath. Nagai’s America – as well as the whole Devilman manga – is cool and hip, and at the same time twisted and evil.

As ever so often, Bhabha’s mimicry turns out not to be a radically new concept for something that couldn’t be described otherwise. However, when we look at transculturation processes through the lens of mimicry, we might reach a deeper understanding of them.

Index to all “[theory] – in comics?” posts on this weblog


Manga review, Halloween 2020 edition: Suicide Club

Another classic horror manga, though not quite as old as last year’s

Suicide Club (German: Der Selbstmordclub, Japanese: 自殺サークル jisatsu saakuru, lit. “suicide circle”)
Language: German (originally Japanese)
Author: Usamaru Furuya
Publisher: Schreiber & Leser / Shodoku (originally Ohta)
Year: 2006 (original run 2002)
Number of volumes: 1
Pages: 170
Price: € 9
Website: https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=3439
ISBN: 978-3-937102-53-5

Loosely based on the eponymous film by Sion Sono, Suicide Club is about Saya, a high schooler who clearly has some severe mental issues which drive her into self-harm and prostitution. She feels out of touch with herself, and also withdraws from her best friend Kyōko from whose perspective the story is told. Then Saya meets the enigmatic schoolgirl Mitsuko and joins her cult in which disaffected misfits gather. Mitsuko’s control over her acolytes is absolute, and they eagerly do her bidding – up to, ultimately, collective suicide. But the story of Saya, Kyōko and Mitsuko doesn’t end there…

Furuya comes from a fine art and alternative manga background, and one can see traces of this in his drawing style, a certain deliberate crudeness and starkness. At the same time, the figures with their clear, thin outlines and little shading and the smooth page layouts with their almost always rectangular panels make for quite a matter-of-factly visual storytelling.

This art style complements the plot nicely. It is a horror story that almost entirely abstains from supernatural elements. Most events can be explained psychologically. For instance, Mitsuko’s seemingly hypnotic power over her devotees might be due to their unstable minds, and to the fact that she is the first one to listen to their troubles.

Of course, one could read Suicide Club as more than ‘just’ an entertaining horror manga. The social commentary is there: after all, suicide was and still is a major issue in Japan, the country with the highest suicide rate in the world. Likewise, the issue of child prostitution is pointed out precisely by the offhand way in which it is depicted. But the social criticism (if one can call it that) of Suicide Club appears almost as detached as its characters – it’s not the engaged Confidential Confessions type that wants to offer help to readers who might find themselves in similar situations.

Scariest moment: the first time we get to see Mitsuko. There is something creepy about her face, and you immediately get the feeling that it’s going to haunt you (as it does Kyōko).

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○

Find the previous Halloween blogposts here: 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015.


PhD thesis “The Early Reception of Manga in the West” submitted!

These are three copies of the thesis, mind you. It doesn’t span three volumes!

After many long years in which there seemed to be hardly any progress at all, my dissertation about English and German manga translations in the late 1980s and early 90s is now completed. Last week I submitted it to Heidelberg University.

When I started this weblog in 2012, I had thought it was going to be a ‘watch a PhD thesis grow’ type of journal, but I quickly abandoned that idea and blogged about all kinds of other things instead. So even if my journey towards a PhD is slowly but surely coming to its end, The 650-Cent Plague isn’t going away. Regular readers might have noticed that the posting frequency has recently slowed down from two posts per month to one. Nevertheless, I still enjoy writing these blogposts and I’m already looking forward to the next instalments of the regular series, such as the horror manga review for Halloween, the year-end best-of list in December, the Women’s History Month theory post in March, and the Warren Ellis politics post on May 1.

Plus, if and when my PhD thesis gets turned into a book, rest assured that you’ll read about it here.


Chi-squared: which characteristics do really matter?

In our little stylometric experiments, we compared different manga in terms of their hiragana frequencies. While we were able to say how similar or different the comics are to each other, it’s hard to tell in what way precisely they are different, i.e. which hiragana differed vastly in quantity and which were more or less the same. Intuitively, we ought to be able to answer this by looking at how much the hiragana counts differ from the average, but it would be good to have a more exact measure of what it means to differ “vastly” or to be “more or less” the same. If we could identify those hiragana in which the manga are hardly any different, we could ignore them in future experiments, which would be a relief since we’re otherwise stuck with as many as ~50 hiragana to keep track of.

Enter chi-squared (also called chi-square, or χ²), which is perhaps the most widespread of several statistical tests for this purpose. I first learned about it during my Master’s, but either I forgot about it or I had never really understood it in the first place. But now that I’ve looked it up again, I found it’s actually quite simple: the idea is to not only calculate the difference between the actual (observed) and the “average” (expected) value, but to square the result and then divide it by the expected value. The squaring has the effect to make large differences stand out more, while the division makes different chi-squared values comparable.

So, the formula would be:

(observed – expected)² / expected

[You might have seen this formula with a sum sign at the beginning: when you perform a “chi-squared test”, you take the sum of all calculated values and look it up in a table to determine whether your experiment is random or not (see below). In our case, it definitely isn’t.]

Let’s take the hiragana で de as an example. In our first 100-character sample from Katsuhiro Ōtomo’s Akira (A1), で de occurred 8 times (see the chart here). In the second Akira sample (A2), it is found 3 times. In the two manga samples from Morning magazine, Miko Yasu’s Hakozume (M1) and Rito Asami’s Ichikei no karasu (M2), で de is found 6 and 7 times, respectively. Overall, there are 24 で de in those four manga samples. The sum of all hiragana in these manga samples is 435 (so it turns out I took slightly more than 100 hiragana for each sample; don’t ask me why), which means that on average, で de should occur with a frequency of 24/435 = 0.0552. In other words, roughly every 19th hiragana in any of the four manga should be a で de. For the first of the two Akira samples, A1, which consists of 112 hiragana in total, the expected value for で de is 112 * 0.0552 = 6.18, i.e. we expect to find 6 or 7 で de in A1.

There actually are 8 で de in A1. That’s a difference of 8 – 6.18 = 1.82. Squared and divided by the expected value of 6.18, this results in a chi-squared value of 0.536.

Compare this to the frequency of で de in the other Akira sample, A2, where it occurs only 3 times, i.e. much less than one would have thought. Given a hiragana total of 106 for A2, we get an expected value of 106 * 0.0552 = 5.85. Accordingly, chi-squared for で/A2 is (3 – 5.85)² / 5.85 = 1.39.

However, our aim was to compare different hiragana, so let’s also calculate the chi-squared values for し shi, which occurs 7 times in A1, 1 time in A2, and 6 times in the other two manga, so the total for し shi is 14. Chi-squared for し in A1 is (7 – (14/435)*112)² / ((14/435)*112) = 3.199 and chi-squared for し in A2 is (1 – (14/435)*106)² / (14/435)*106 = 1.705.

As you can see, the chi-squared values for し shi are higher than for で de, which means that the former hiragana contributes more to the overall difference between A1 and A2 than the latter. In other words, the usage of で de throughout Akira is close to the average, thus comparatively unremarkable and perhaps not the most relevant stylometric property.

Here’s a chart of the chi-squared values for all 51 hiragana characters that occur in the four manga samples (click to enlarge):

A dialogue excerpt from Hakozume by Miko Yasu which illustrates the above-average frequency of the hiragana character え e. With regard to our little example corpus, か ka and ん n are relatively frequent too.

One can easily see several spikes at the hiragana え e, ん n, と to and ず zu, though more important than the individual values are the sums, which are also high for お o and こ ko. These 6 hiragana alone contribute roughly 70% towards the overall sum of chi-squares! If our corpus was of a sufficient size (which it is definitely not), we could focus on these 6 hiragana in further experiments, as difference in hiragana usage among manga would be most likely connected to them.

In contrast, hiragana like び bi, く ku and に ni, with chi-square values close to zero, seem to have very little explanatory power over stylometric differences; their usage differs hardly among the four manga in question.

Of course, chi-squared can not only be applied to character counts in stylometry, but also to anything else that is countable. For instance, I recently mentioned the 1:1 gender ratio as a potential criterion for corpus building. One possible null hypothesis would be that good (or popular) comics are equally likely to be authored by men or by women. If we look at the 60 people who authored the top 10 comics from each of the last four years’ best-of lists (only counting the first-mentioned author when there are more than 3), we end up with 41 men and 19 women. This distribution isn’t quite the 30:30 we might have expected, but can it still be said to be roughly equal?

To answer this with the help of chi-squared, we calculate the two chi-squared values, one for male authors:

(41 – 30)² / 30 = 4.033

and one for female authors:

(19 – 30)² / 30 = 4.033

Now we add those two numbers together and look up the result in a table like this one. We need to use the first row as we have 1 “degree of freedom” in our essentially binary variable. There, our chi-squared sum of 8.07 lies between the p=0.01 and the p=0.001 column, meaning that the null hypothesis can be rejected with high confidence. In other words, the deviation of our sample from a 30:30 gender ratio is statistically significant. Of course, what exactly this gender bias means and where it comes from is another question.

In case all of this didn’t make any sense to you, there are many online tutorials on chi-squared which perhaps explain it better, among which I recommend this video by Paul Andersen on YouTube.


The best manga of 2016? Review of The Girl From the Other Side

A story involving a fatal ‘curse’ that infects people at the merest touch seems eerily timely in 2020, but its serialisation began in 2015 already, in those blissful days when ‘Corona’ was still nothing but a beer brand. The first tankōbon was published in Japan in 2016 (and also the second), which makes it a legitimate candidate for the best manga of 2016. The English and German translations followed a year later and were duly noticed by readers and critics, resulting in a top 20 spot in the 2017 best-of list.

The Girl From the Other Side: Siúil, a Rún (とつくにの少女 / Totsukuni no shōjo; German title: Siúil, a Rún. Das fremde Mädchen) vol. 1
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Nagabe
Publisher: Tokyopop (originally Mag Garden)
Year: 2017 (originally 2016)
Number of volumes: 9 so far
Pages: 174
Price: € 10
Website: https://www.tokyopop.de/buecher/seinen/siuil-a-run-das-fremde-maedchen/ (German), https://sevenseasentertainment.com/series/the-girl-from-the-other-side-siuil-a-run/ (English)
ISBN: 9783842039780

Shiva is a young girl who lives in the forest with a scary-looking creature. In the Japanese original, she calls him sensei, which becomes “Doktor” (doctor) in German and “Teacher” in English, and while sensei can mean both, he is more likely meant to be a physician than a schoolmaster. Anyway, they live secluded from other people and are shunned because of the ‘curse’ that supposedly turns humans into monstrous ‘Outsiders’. It’s all very mysterious in this first volume and Nagabe reveals background details only slowly, giving ample space to the day-to-day activities of Shiva and Doctor.

This all takes place in a pseudo-historical setting that, typically of manga, eclectically combines elements from the Middle Ages (the soldiers’ armour and weapons) to the 19th century (Doctor’s clothes and his home furnishings).

It is a character constellation that we’ve seen before in manga: just a young girl and her father (or surrogate father). Yumi Unita’s Usagi Drop, Kiyohiko Azuma’s Yotsuba&!, Nagabe’s own Nivawa to Saitō – one could even include Kōji Kumeta’s recent success Kakushigoto with its conspicuously absent mother in this ‘micro genre’. This idea of fatherhood without mother, this ‘asexual reproduction’ as it were, must seem oddly appealing to manga readers.

Another theme here is the Beauty and the Beast motif: only Shiva can see through the horrifying appearance of Doctor and recognise him as a kind person, whereas everybody else only sees him as a monster and is afraid of him. And what a ghastly appearance he has. Doctor’s design is doubtlessly the greatest strength of this manga and one of the most outstanding design achievements in manga of the decade. Obviously inspired by satanic figures with his tail, goat’s ears and horns, he also somewhat resembles a plague doctor due to his bird-like beak and his long dark coat. His lack of a mouth reduces his range of facial expressions, making him look even more hideous. Nagabe exploits this to great effect by contrasting Doctor’s looks with his tenderness towards Shiva, and also by simply juxtaposing his tall and dark figure with the small and light Shiva.

Generally, the art appears dense and dark through the use of hatching, plenty of screentone, and even some white-on-black drawings. Nagabe dramatically punctuates this darkness with some predominantly white figures such as Shiva and the soldiers, Doctor’s shirtsleeves and cravat, or the occasional blank panel background.

If one wants to find a flaw in The Girl From the Other Side, it’s that maybe the writing can’t quite keep up with such impressive artwork; the setting seems somewhat implausible and the story has a bit of a fairytale feeling to it. Also: € 10 for a regular tankōbon?!

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○


Corpus building, the ELTeC way

Some time ago, I attended a fascinating presentation about ELTeC (European Literary Text Collection), a multilingual corpus of novels. Such a corpus is not a new idea, but the way in which novels are chosen for inclusion in ELTeC is so thoughtful and transparent that Humanities scholars (and perhaps particularly art historians) might learn something from it. Because usually, they (i.e. we) don’t think much about which objects they select for an analysis, much less justify their choices, thus leading to an inaccurate or distorted representation of reality with little scholarly merit.

The ELTeC criteria for inclusion can be seen on the Summary Page that shows the texts included so far:

  • language: the number of texts per language varies, but that is surely going to change; they seem to be capped at 100, and even languages with relatively few speakers such as Slovenian and Hungarian have reached this number already. Thus the project appears to strive for equal representation of all languages considered.
  • male author / female author: some of the numbers show that ELTeC aims at a quota of either 50:50 (English) or 2:1 (German, French). In other cases the ratio of female authors is lower though.
  • short/medium/long: probably based on word counts, the novels are divided into three categories of length. The idea was to represent all lengths equally, but this doesn’t seem to have worked out in all languages: e.g. only 8% of the Slovenian novels are ‘long’.
  • year of first publication: most likely due to copyright restrictions, only novels published in or before 1920 are included in the corpus. The earliest date is 1840, but they plan to extend the corpus to earlier novels eventually. This 1840-1920 period is divided into four 20-year segments, and again the aim is to represent all segments equally – in French, for example, exactly 25 texts are included from each segment.
  • frequent/rare: this criterion concerns the canonicity of the novels, as measured by the number of reprints. Both well-known and less widely known texts should be equally represented, although there doesn’t yet seem to be a strict rule in place how many reprints constitute a “frequent” or “rare” text.

Chart from the ELTeC website showing the distribution of the 100 novels in the English subcorpus.

For Comics Studies, a sampling approach based on these criteria is intriguing. As an example, albeit not actually a scholarly one, let’s look at the titles of the “best manga of 2016” reviews on this weblog, of which there are currently 11. So far, these manga have only been chosen for review because I happened to have been reading them (or meaning to read them) anyway, but what if I wanted to take a more systematic approach?

  • language: of course they are all originally published in Japanese, but the starting point of my blogpost series was to find out which manga were popular according to English and German sources. Who knows, maybe completely different manga would surface when one turns to other parts of the world?
  • male author / female author: the current ratio is 3 male mangaka to 8 female mangaka (including a team of two women). If I wanted to achieve a ratio more like 50:50, the next review should be about a manga authored by a man (spoiler: yes, it’s going to be).
  • short/medium/long: instead of word counts, the number of tankōbon volumes per series should be a feasible measure of length (although my reviews only refer to one individual volume each). Based on the number of volumes published in Japan at the time of reviewing, the 3-quantiles of our current ‘corpus’ would be the following:
    • short: 1-5 volumes
    • medium: 7-13 volumes
    • long: 15-29 volumes

    That’s not terribly helpful though: what if there already is a bias in the current sample? A better way would be to calculate the quantiles from all manga published in 2016. That would be a lot of work, but maybe the picture would change quite a bit due to the consideration of long-running series such as One Piece (83 volumes by 2016), or a higher number of one-shots.

  • time segments: while the manga are supposed to be from a single year, 2016, there is some leeway as sometimes the date of the American or German publication is the one that led to the inclusion of the manga in the “best comics of 2016 meta list”. The most extreme time lag is perhaps that of Goodnight Punpun (not yet reviewed here) which was originally published from 2007-2013; due to its American publication in 2016 it was included in that list (and even ranked within the top 20). As mentioned in an earlier blogpost, this focus on ‘2016’ is not so much about that particular year but more about getting an idea what manga in the 2010s were like. Perhaps it’s not worth the trouble to categorise them into such small time brackets though.
  • frequent/rare: while the number of reprints would not be a suitable indicator for relatively new manga, one could complement the popular manga from the 2016 meta list with lesser-known ones that were ignored by English- and German-language media. I already did that, though not systematically: in fact, 6 out of the 11 manga reviewed were not ‘nominated’ by anyone as best manga of 2016 as far as I could see.

Regardless of the purpose of your corpus, the ELTeC criteria might help you detect biases. There’s no need to follow them religiously and strive for exact equality in all categories, but they are a good starting point for thinking about how you want to select the objects of your study. In other words: if there are e.g. no female authors in your corpus, you’d better be prepared to explain why.