Exhibition review: Manga – Reading the Flow, Zürich, 10.9.2021-30.1.2022

A very special manga exhibition is about to close soon: curated by none other than Japanese Studies professor Jaqueline Berndt, it may well be the most scholarly sound manga exhibition yet.

exhibition poster with art by Christina Plaka

The special exhibition space at Museum Rietberg is basically one large room, divided into five partitions for this show. The first of these contains a reading area with a selection of manga tankōbon in both German and Japanese for visitors to peruse. The second section, titled “Panels – Pictorial Storytelling”, takes a closer look at how manga are made, in terms of both craftsmanship and layout. To this end, a manga has been purpose-made and is displayed in various stages of completion, including a video of the manga being drawn. The short manga in question was made by German mangaka Christina Plaka and is a present-day reimagining of the Japanese fable of the Poetry Contest of the Twelve Animals, which is shown in the exhibition as a 17th century picture scroll (in reproduction – apparently, the original scroll from the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin had been shown in another Japan-themed exhibition at Museum Rietberg which has already ended in December).

exhibition view: Poetry Contest of the Twelve Animals scroll and Tanuki vs. Zodiac 12 manga pages

The following section, “Genres”, contains more pages of Plaka’s manga, but this time each double page is drawn in a different style that corresponds to the major manga demographics – seinen, shōnen and shōjo (setting aside the question of whether “genre” is the adequate term here). The fourth section is called “Studio” and invites visitors to continue Plaka’s manga story by drawing their own little yonkoma manga. Finally, there’s the “Genji” section which presents three different Japanese manga on the same topic – the 11th-century Tale of Genji – by means of enlarged reproduced pages with accompanying texts in German and English. These manga are Asakiyumemishi by Waki Yamato (1980), Ōzukami Genji monogatari Maro, n? by Yoshihiro Koizumi (2002), and Ii ne! Hikaru Genji-kun by est em (2015).

exhibition view: Genji manga

For the most part, the exhibition works fine and dandy. There are just a few points at which it perhaps oversimplifies things, or which for other reasons are not as convincing as they could have been. For instance, large parts of the exhibition rely on Christina Plaka’s Tanuki vs. Zodiac 12, i.e. a German manga, to explain things about Japanese comics. Of course, Plaka is an accomplished mangaka, and it would have been much more complicated to collaborate with a Japanese mangaka, translate the resulting manga, etc. But no matter how closely Plaka’s manga imitates Japanese manga, it can never fully replace the ‘real thing’. And when people come to the museum to learn something about how the Japanese make comics, they probably want to do so by looking at comics created by Japanese people.

Another somewhat problematic thing – not only about this but also some other manga shows in the past, e.g. Hokusai × Manga in Hamburg, or the more recent Rimpa feat. Manga in Munich – is how contemporary manga are forcibly connected to historical Japanese arts and culture, as in this case the Twelve Animals fable and the Tale of Genji. This carries the danger of perpetuating the myth that modern-day manga are direct descendants from such older Japanese arts. It may also give a false impression when manga as a whole are represented only by manga set in or otherwise concerned with Japanese history, when in fact there are only relatively few of those compared to present-day, futuristic or fantasy settings.

Lastly, the identification of manga as a necessarily participatory fan culture, as claimed by the “Studio” section, is a bit exaggerated. There is nothing wrong with including such an activity section where visitors can draw their own manga in an exhibition, but the accompanying text goes too far when it suggests that manga fandom with its fan art and fan fiction is not only an integral part but even “at the heart of manga culture” in Japan. While that is a common view, it is actually perfectly fine to regard the published manga independently from their readers (and vice versa). Also, not every single one of the millions of manga readers can be considered a ‘fan’, let alone one who creates fan art or fan fiction.

Speaking of the exhibition texts, it is a pity that no proper exhibition catalogue has been published, but at least the texts from the wall placards are collected in a free leaflet (both in German and English). It is available for download here: https://rietberg.ch/files/ausstellungen/2021/Manga/MuseumRietberg_Manga_Handout_EN.pdf

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○

Book review: Rémi Lopez, The Impact of Akira

Rémi Lopez: The Impact of Akira. A Manga [R]evolution. Translated by Jennifer Ligas. Toulouse: Third Éditions, 2020. 192 pages. ISBN: 2377842801. Print: $ 29.95, ebook: $ 13.99
https://www.thirdeditions.com/en/ebooks/360-the-impact-of-akira-a-manga-revolution-ebook.html

When I first heard that there was going to be a book about Katsuhiro Ōtomo’s Akira, I was very excited and could hardly wait to read it – naturally, given that I had spent years studying this manga (and still am). Did it live up to my expectations? Find out in my review in the current issue of Asian Studies: https://revije.ff.uni-lj.si/as/article/view/10358

If my criticisms of this book seem overly harsh, bear in mind that I only tried to assess its value for a scholarly audience (for which it wasn’t even written). For other readers, it might still be an enjoyable book.

Another reason why I am pleased with this little review article is that it marks my first foray into a journal from the field of Japanese Studies or Asian Studies. I have always been bemoaning a certain divide, or at least a lack of communication, between manga scholars from Japanese Studies and comics scholars from other disciplines (like myself). Publishing in journals (or speaking at conferences) of the ‘other party’ might be small contributions to improving this situation.

A review copy of the ebook version was provided by Third Éditions.


Paper “Art History, Japanese Popular Culture and the Tokyo 2020 Olympics” published

It already feels good to get a PhD thesis completed and submitted, and defended. But the icing on the cake was to receive the ‘August-Grisebach-Preis’ of the Institute of European Art History at Heidelberg University for one of the two best dissertations of the year! Along with the award came the honour of giving a speech at the semester opening of the Institute in October. Usually such a speech would be a summary of the thesis, but I thought it would be more interesting for both the audience and me if I talked about a different topic (that still is loosely related to that of my thesis).

When I received the news in early August, I was engrossed in the Olympics, and I felt that as an expert on Japanese pop culture, I might have an interesting thing or two to say about the manifold ways in which manga, anime etc. were present at that event. At the same time, I wanted to make some statements about the place of (Japanese) pop culture in (European) Art History, and discipline-specific approaches to it. Perhaps that was a bit of a tall order for a twenty-minute talk, but I’m still happy with the way it turned out, so I decided to translate it into English, add some footnotes and publish it on Humanities Commons: https://hcommons.org/deposits/item/hc:43623

(This also marks the first time that I deposited something on Humanities Commons. So far, I’m very pleased with it.)

Here’s the abstract:

Spectators of the 2020/21 Olympic Games were frequently confronted with references to Japanese popular culture, particularly at the opening and closing ceremonies. However, these references to anime, manga, video games and other visual media were often so subtle that they were easy to miss unless pointed out and explained by television commentators. Art historians should not shy away from engaging with such objects and images.


The best comics of 2021: a meta list

Still looking for a last-minute Christmas present? How about a comic? Here’s what the Internet recommends. As always, whenever a title made a best-comics-of-2021 list, it received between 1 and 30 points depending on its rank or on the number of titles on such a list (full explanation here). Added up, this results in…

THE TOP 25 COMICS OF 2021:

  1. Monsters by Barry Windsor-Smith (189 points)
  2. The Secret to Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel (169)
  3. Far Sector by N. K. Jemisin and Jamal Campbell (160)
  4. Wake by Rebecca Hall (135)
  5. Minharot (a.k.a. Tunnels) by Rutu Modan (128)
  6. The Many Deaths of Laila Starr by Ram V and Filipe Andrade (124)
  7. Run by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, L. Fury and Nate Powell (122)
  8. The Good Asian by Pornsak Pichetshote, Alexandre Tefenkgi and Lee Loughridge (116)
  9. The Girl from the Sea by Molly Knox Ostertag (99)
  10. Stone Fruit by Lee Lai (98)
  11. Chroniques de jeunesse (a.k.a. Factory Summers) by Guy Delisle (92)
  12. Gidarim (a.k.a. The Waiting) by Keum Suk Gendry-Kim (81)
  13. Nightwing by Tom Taylor and Bruno Redondo (80)
  14. Nubia by L. L. McKinney and Robyn Smith (77)
  15. In by Will McPhail (76)
  16. La bête (a.k.a. Marsupilami: The Beast) by Zidrou and Frank Pé (74)
  17. Crisis Zone by Simon Hanselmann (72)
  18. The Department of Truth by James Tynion IV and Martin Simmonds (70)
  19. Cyclopedia Exotica by Aminder Dhaliwal, tied with
    Lore Olympus by Rachel Smythe (67)
  20. Himawari House by Harmony Becker (63)
  21. Cheer Up by Crystal Frasier and Val Wise (61)
  22. Discipline by Dash Shaw (59)
  23. I Never Promised You A Rose Garden by Mannie Murphy (57)
  24. Chainsaw Man by Tatsuki Fujimoto, tied with
    Squad by Maggie Tokuda-Hall and Lisa Sterle (54)

Just outside of the top 25 we have the highest ranked (non-British) European comic, Les cahiers d’Esther (a.k.a. Esther’s Notebooks) by Riad Sattouf. However, some lists that I like to include each year (e.g. all the German lists) have not been published yet, so expect some changes to the ranking above.

UPDATE: and indeed, now that the ‘German votes’ are counted, a classic BD character has entered the list on #16. Further down the list we find the highest-ranking German comic, Lucky Luke: Zarter Schmelz by Ralf König, on #39. Apart from Chainsaw Man, two other notable manga last year were Dai Dark by Q Hayashida (#30) and, once again, Kimetsu no yaiba a.k.a. Demon Slayer by Koyoharu Gotōge (#36).

The following lists were evaluated: The Beat, Book Riot, Broken Frontier, CBC, Chicago Public Library, ComFor (German – part 1, part 2), Comicgate (German), Comickunst (German), DoomRocket, Forbes, GamesRadar+, Goodreads, Gosh (adult, kids), The Guardian (combined Rachel Cooke’s and James Smart’s articles), GWW, The Herald, IGN, The Irish Times, Kono manga ga sugoi via Anime News Network, Looper, Lotusland Comics, The Mary Sue, Nerdist, The New York Times, NPR, Oricon Top-Selling Manga in Japan by Series via Anime News Network, Polygon, Publishers Weekly, Screen Rant, Tagesspiegel (German), Variety, The Washington Post, YALSA.


Are we at vol. 9 already? Review of Moon Knight (2021) #1-3

What do you get when you (re-) launch a comic book series with a relatively obscure title character and an even more obscure creative team? Anything but an ongoing series. At least, an early cancellation would be the usual course of things. However, issue #8 has already been solicited for February (with MacKay and Cappuccio still on board as well), so it looks like we’re in for the long run after all. Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, a certain Disney+ series starring Oscar Isaac is scheduled for next year…

Language: English
Authors: Jed MacKay (writer), Alessandro Cappuccio (artist), Rachelle Rosenberg (colourist)
Publisher: Marvel
Cover dates: September – November 2021 (= on-sale dates: July – September 2021)
Pages per issue: 20 [EDIT: #1 is an oversized issue with 30 comic pages]
Price per issue: $3.99 [EDIT: $4.99 for #1]
Website: https://marvel.fandom.com/wiki/Moon_Knight_Vol_9
(embarassingly, these fandom.com links are probably stabler than the marvel.com ones)

Previously in Moon Knight: a succession of rather short-lived reboots culminated in the enjoyable Bemis/Burrows run of 2017-18. Admittedly there was also the Age of Khonshu story arc in Avengers after that, which I didn’t bother reading. But it looks like the status quo hasn’t changed much.

Moon Knight’s devotion to his god Khonshu has waned somewhat, but he still considers himself the “Fist of Khonshu” and goes about his usual street-level superhero business, protecting the innocent in his neighbourhood from (minor) supernatural threats. Then, however, he is challenged by a more devout doppelganger – a classic superhero trope – who reminds him that, like most people, Khonshu has more than one “Fist”. Naturally, fighting ensues.

Wedged in between this two-Fisted tale is a sort of self-contained story in issue #2 in which Moon Knight fights some throwaway supervillain, but it is implied that a more powerful enemy, whose identity hasn’t yet been revealed, is pulling the strings. Interspersed with these events are scenes of dialogue between Moon Knight and his psychotherapist (yet another one, Andrea Sterman, who despite her youthful appearance apparently goes all the way back to 1990). We’ve seen this technique before, of course, but such dialogue is always a convenient way to recap Moon Knight’s biography, especially at the start of a new series.

So, what aspect of Moon Knight’s character, which is to say, his mental illness, does writer Jed MacKay focus on? Multiple personalities? Delusions of communicating with a god? Sadly, our protagonist’s condition is only shown to us by way of his therapy sessions. None of the intriguing techniques of MacKay’s predecessors to visualise Moon Knight’s twisted view of things are employed here, except for a scene in issue #2 in which we get a glimpse inside Moon Knight’s mind and learn why he’s not a suitable target for mind control.

panel from Moon Knight #2 by Jed MacKay and Alessandro Cappuccio

What makes this Moon Knight still a worthwhile read, then, is not so much the plot, the dialogue, or the narrative technique (which are all on a high level, though not spectacular), but the artwork. Particularly colourist Rachelle Rosenberg’s contribution needs to be mentioned. Areas of pink, purple, green and orange hues are contrasted against each other, reminiscent of Dean White’s palette. Glowing light effects are everywhere, on street lights, the crescent moon, even Moon Knight’s menacing eyes. All of this leaves Moon Knight’s pristine white costume unaffected. When he’s leaping and gliding and falling, his cowl is often left with little or no shading as a large white area, a flowing canvas that once more resembles Batman’s iconic cape.

page detail from Moon Knight #3 by Jed MacKay and Alessandro Cappuccio

60 70 pages into this series, there is little hope left that it will turn into a masterpiece of the proportions of the Lemire/Smallwood Moon Knight run. For those readers who have been following the title character anyway, it is certainly a satisfying read, but it might not be the best introduction to Moon Knight for people yet unfamiliar with him – which, ironically, must have been Marvel’s intention with this relaunch in the light of the upcoming tv show.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○


Manga review, Halloween 2021 edition: Berserk

While usually placed in the ‘dark fantasy’ genre, several people on the Internet rank Berserk among the best horror manga ever. And although there are still quite a few ‘old masters’ of horror manga not covered on this weblog – Kazuo Umezu, Hideshi Hino, Suehiro Maruo – the untimely passing of Kentarō Miura earlier this year makes Berserk a fitting choice for what might be the final installment of this Halloween blogpost series.

Berserk (ベルセルク Beruseruku) “Ultimative Edition” vol. 1
Language: German (originally Japanese)
Author: Kentarō Miura
Publisher: Panini (originally Hakusensha)
Year: 2019 (
episodes in this vol. originally published 1989-1991)
Total number of volumes: 40
individual vols. so far in Japan (this German book is a 2-in-1 volume)
Pages: ~400
Price: € 19
Website: https://paninishop.de/mangas/berserk/
(German publisher), https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=88 (Baka-Updates)
ISBN: 978-3-7416-1210-7

The beginning doesn’t look very auspicious though. There’s our protagonist, Guts, the “Black Swordsman”, who travels around a vaguely European medieval world, killing people with his giant sword (and other weapons) on a quest for revenge. Not much is revealed about who did what to him, which makes his acts of killing appear all the more haphazard.

The quality of draughtsmanship leaves much to be desired, as the proportions of the characters, especially Guts, look awkward and implausible, as do some of the town buildings and castles in the background. With his tiny head on his excessively muscular and slightly elongated body, Guts looks much like other 80s action manga heroes such as Kenshirō from Hokuto no ken / Fist of the North Star (the writer of which, Buronson, incidentally collaborated with Miura on two other manga). One cannot call Miura’s drawings careless or hasty though, as many of them contain an insane amount of detail, which is probably what makes people believe that the artwork is awesome.

Anyway, things get interesting (i.e. horrific) when Guts has his first hallucinatory vision of a monstrous fetus-like creature crawling towards him, with only one eye, just like him. We don’t get to learn what this creature is exactly, but it continues to haunt Guts in each of the three loosely connected stories in this volume.

However, what makes Berserk unmistakably a horror manga is the true nature of Guts’s enemies. Mere humans he slaughters with ease by the dozen (did I mention he’s half blind? That doesn’t bother him at all), but their leaders are demonically possessed supervillains, which makes for some truly creepy transformation scenes. In one of them, a swordsman grows a tentacle arm, which is eerily reminiscent of Tetsuo’s transformation in Katsuhiro Ōtomo’s Akira – it’s hard to say which of the two chapters in question came first, though; both must have been published in 1990.

The overall atmosphere is enhanced by a sense of nihilism that pervades the manga, embodied by the anti-hero Guts. Granted, the people he fights are evil, but he only goes after them because of his personal vendetta, and when Guts protects the innocent, it’s only because their tormentors conveniently happen to be his own targets anyway. At least that’s what he says. But in his conversations with his fairy companion Puck, the more he denies any feelings of pity and compassion, the less we believe him. Thus Berserk turns out to be not nihilistic at all but rather deeply, almost philosophically, concerned with morality – a concern shared with e.g. Gō Nagai’s Devilman, or Hitoshi Iwaaki’s contemporaneous Kiseijū / Parasyte. This allows the readers to enjoy the protagonist’s murderous rampages while resting assured that he’s essentially one of the good guys.

In the end, Berserk is a mixed bag in terms of both writing and art. Horror purists may want to give this manga a pass, but it’s clear to see why so many action/fantasy fans love it.

Scariest moment: when the demonic Count infests one of his henchmen to imbue him with superhuman strength.

Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○

It should be noted that Berserk is one of those long-running manga series of which people say that ‘it gets really good once you get past the first x volumes’, and my verdict, of course, refers only to this first volume.

P.S.: if you read German and are considering getting this Panini edition – don’t. The translation is the worst I’ve ever seen in a manga.

Find the previous Halloween blogposts here: 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015.


Alois Riegl’s group portraiture of Holland – in comics?

On the surface, Alois Riegl’s 1902 book The Group Portraiture of Holland (German full text here) is about a quite specific kind of artwork – Dutch portrait paintings from the 16th and 17th century. However, it also provides some concepts and terms applicable to any group portrait. Among those, the following three oppositional pairs are arguably the most intriguing:

  • subjectivism vs. objectivism: in a subjective mode of depiction, the figures in the portrait present themselves as they would to a spectator present at the same site. They are embedded in the landscape and affected by their surroundings, so that e.g. their outlines may “evaporate”. In the objective mode, in contrast, figures appear in a sort of ideal or neutral view and are detached from their surroundings, resulting e.g. in clear outlines.
  • subordination vs. coordination: in many groups there is a hierarchy, e.g. different ranks in a military unit. When such a hierarchy is clearly visible in a portrait, for instance by gestures, dress, symbolic objects, or placement of figures, Riegl speaks of subordination.
  • symbolism vs. genre*: in 1902 the Symbolist art movement was in full swing, but that’s not what Riegl means by this term. Figures in a group portrait often perform actions and/or hold objects, and when those actions seem believable, i.e. when it looks as if the sitter actually performed that action, the action itself threatens to overshadow the individuality of the figure and the painting is in danger, so to speak, of becoming a genre painting instead of a portrait. Symbolic actions and objects, however, are metonymic signifiers of something else, most often character traits of the respective sitter. A telltale sign by which symbolism and genre can be told apart is how much attention the figure is paying to the action it performs or the object it is holding: if the figure is looking somewhere else (e.g. out of the picture), the action/object is probably symbolic.

Does it make sense to look at comics the same way Riegl looks at paintings? It is not unusual to compare individual comic panels to paintings, and many panels feature three or more figures. It can be argued that such panels sometimes resemble portraits – for instance, superhero comics books often contain a splash panel that introduces the main characters.

Let’s look at two examples from a fairly standard current superhero series, Batman/Superman by Gene Luen Yang and Ivan Reis. In issue #17, our protagonists encounter a supervillain team on a parallel world. This is the panel that introduces the villains:

Panel from Batman/Superman #17 by Gene Luen Yang and Ivan Reis

Is the subjective or objective mode of depiction at work here? On the one hand, all four characters are bathed in the same turquoise light, which suggests subjectivism. On the other hand, the composition ensures that most of the figures is clearly visible, especially their faces, and there is no interaction between them – the Penguin is pointing upwards, but the other three are looking elsewhere – so that each is shown in isolation, as it were.

The composition also emphasises subordination: the foremost figure, and also the one who seems tallest (i.e. who is drawn to the largest vertical extent), is that of Warden Luthor, the leader of the quartet. The quality that definitely allows us to speak of this panel as a portrait, though, is its symbolism. As mentioned before, the only real action of the Penguin pointing to the sky is unrealistic because the others are not able to perceive it. Joker, Warden and Jones appear to be engaged in conversation with Batman and Robin, but their gestures have little to do with that conversation. Instead, the gestures tell us something about those characters: Jones is holding a bauble because that’s the weapon he throws at his opponents, Warden Luthor is depicted adjusting his tie and having a hand in his pocket to show how conceited and overconfident he is, and the Joker is laughing because that’s what he always does.

A few issues later (#20), the arrival of our protagonists on another parallel world is shown in this double page spread:

Double page from Batman/Superman #20 by Gene Luen Yang and Ivan Reis

Despite the orange reflections of the fire on the figures’ clothes and skin, the subjectivism of this image is doubtful: while the threatening demons are situated next to and behind the heroes, the latter don’t interact with them (nor with each other really) and look towards the picture surface, as if they are posing for us, each on his or her own in empty space.

Again there is a clear subordination, with Superman – normally Batman’s equal, but temporarily the leader here on his home turf in the Metropolis of the “World of Tomorrow” – depicted much more prominently than the others, especially the diminutive figures of Alanna and El Diablo (throwaway sidekicks introduced in #19 who now tag along with Batman and Superman on their inter-dimensional journey).

As for symbolism, this is again the dominant mode in which the figures’ gestures are depicted. Everyone has this mildly concerned look on his or her face and isn’t really interacting with anyone or anything. Even Alanna, who carries El Diablo with her jetpack, isn’t all too focused on her task. With the exception of Superman and his wide-open mouth, one could cut each figure out and stick it on a poster against a neutral background, each character a model of typical superhero stoicism.

Just to show that not all comic panels serve as portraits, here is another panel from earlier in the same issue that features the same five characters (who are wearing cowboy hats now because they’re in yet another parallel world):

Panel from Batman/Superman #20 by Gene Luen Yang and Ivan Reis

Here the figures are very much absorbed in their respective actions – firing grapple guns, swinging a whip, flying to escape the quicksand – and we don’t get a clear view of all of them; poor Alanna in particular is mostly concealed. In this panel, the focus is on what happens, and not so much on who the characters are. This only shows that in typical superhero comics like Batman/Superman, creators purposefully insert panels resembling group portraits only every now and then.

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

* ^ More precisely, Riegl presents a multi-tiered model of the development of Dutch group portraiture in which symbolism and genre are only two of the stages, the other two (sometimes combined into one) being ‘novella’ and ‘drama’. Genre, novella and drama are all in opposition to symbolism and the status of the painting as a portrait.


The best manga of 2016? Review of Savage Season

Granted, the first chapter of this manga came out in Japan at the very end of 2016. Still, the lack of buzz it got abroad is surprising, given that it is written by none other than Mari Okada, anime screenwriting superstar of Anohana (etc. etc.) fame.

Savage Season (荒ぶる季節の乙女どもよ / Araburu kisetsu no otome-domo yo; English title: O Maidens in Your Savage Season) chapter 1
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Authors: Mari OKADA (writer), Nao EMOTO (artist)
Publisher: Tokyopop (originally Kōdansha)
Year: 2020 (originally 2016)
Number of volumes: 8
Pages: 60
Website: https://www.tokyopop.de/buecher/josei/savage-season/ (German publisher), https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=140875 (Baka-Updates)

The world of the five members of an all-female high school Literature club gets turned upside down when they discover sexuality – first in the books they read, then in their own lives. Each has her own issues with sex: Kazusa finds it difficult to accept that she has fallen in love with her male childhood friend Izumi, while Sonezaki feels deeply embarrassed when anyone around her even mentions sex. In later chapters, we learn that Hongo secretly writes erotic novels (which are deemed not realistic enough by her editor, so she starts researching), Sugawara is so attractive that she always has to fend off advances of older men, and Momoko goes on her first date but finds it disappointing.

By volume 3, things get decidedly creepier when two of the girls experience or recount sexual encounters in the wider sense (i.e. there’s no nudity or sexual intercourse depicted or implied) with adult men. But let’s stick to the more innocent beginning of the series. The main selling point of Savage Season is undoubtedly its fresh main topic, female teenage sexuality, which so far has hardly ever been thoroughly explored in manga. In most other romance or romantic comedy manga, if that’s the genre we’re looking at here, sexual intercourse is conspicuously absent (Wolf Girl & Black Prince being a notable exception). Savage Season handles this sensitive topic in a way that has been described as “wholesome”, “sweet and understanding” and “frank” at the same time.

That in itself isn’t what makes Savage Season a good manga though, just as the thorough exploration of the fresh topic of off-season camping alone isn’t what makes Yuru Camp great. Instead, one can think of Savage Season as an ‘enhanced’ high-school romance manga: there are multiple parallel but intertwined love stories, tied together by the school club at which the protagonists meet. This is not unlike e.g. Boyfriend in which the love story is set against the background of school bullying which becomes less and less important as the plot progresses. Except that in Savage Season, the sex angle infuses a healthy dose of realism (and also a source of humour).

An important contribution to the overall quality of this manga is the artwork. Nao Emoto had an entire host of assistants (ten, according to a group picture in vol. 2), and this shows above all in the vast amount and variety of screentone used; e.g. on the very first pages in which the afternoon sun shines into the club room onto the girls’ heads. There are also some brilliant and unusual panel compositions, such as the one in which we see Kazusa’s crouching figure from behind. As for the writing, its quality is harder to assess: due to its uneven structure, it takes some time before e.g. Momoko comes into focus, which makes this character appear “largely undeveloped” at first. Perhaps in later volumes the parallel story arcs will be interwoven more tightly, but will readers have the patience and take the gamble to find out?

At least the first chapter, which is supposed to be the item under review here, should leave readers wanting to find out how things turn out between Kazusa and the boy next door. As most manga, however, Savage Season seems to peter out somewhat after the first volume. In the end, as a contender for the title of ‘best manga of 2016’, Savage Season would have to compete against other romance and rom-com manga such as My Love Story, and maybe it isn’t quite on par.

Then again, as Sonezaki says in volume 3, books help us to define feelings for which we didn’t have a name before, and if we absorb that feeling again, a new one arises. Perhaps there is something of that in Savage Season too. E.g. when Kazusa, also in vol. 3, ponders whether love and sex are separable at all and whether “all those wonderful feelings that exist in the world […] ultimately come down to Ess Ee Ecks”, which in turn informs her conflicted feelings for Izumi – a notion that e.g. Kimi ni todoke only vaguely hints at.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○


Defender

A page from Crying Freeman ch. 7 by Kazuo Koike and Ryōichi Ikegami.

There has been an unusually long silence on this weblog, but for a good reason: two months ago, the evaluation reports for the PhD thesis I had submitted in late August 2020 arrived at long last, and then I had to prepare for my viva voce a.k.a. oral defense a.k.a. disputatio – which I passed on June 30. Hooray! (Or should I say, yatta!)

However, my journey towards a PhD is far from over, as I still need to turn the thesis into a book. I’m already negotiating a deal with a publisher, and when the book is available I’ll make sure to advertise it here. In the meantime, regular blogging (at approximately 1 post per month) will resume shortly, so stay tuned.


Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities – in comics?

First published in 1983, Benedict Anderson’s book Imagined Communities. Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism remains tremendously influential in the Humanities today. In it, the nation is defined as “an imagined political community […]. It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members” (p. 6; all page numbers here refer to the 2016 revised edition by Verso). By using the word “imagined”, Anderson emphasises that national consciousness it not something pre-existing that only needs to be “awakened” – it needs to be actively created.

One of the instruments through which a nation can be created is what Anderson calls “print-capitalism”, a system within which e.g. newspapers forge a community out of their readers (pp. 35-36). This process is aided by “the fatality of human linguistic diversity” as readers felt “connected” to their “fellow-readers” due to their sharing the same “language-field”, regardless of their location on the globe (pp. 43-44). Furthermore, newspapers “brought together, on the same page” a variety of commercial, political and cultural news items of regional or local interest, which instilled in readers the feeling that all these things they read about were connected to each other and to the readers themselves, and thus “created an imagined community” (p. 62).

Language itself can facilitate the formation of nations, particularly when the vernacular language in which people speak and write differs from the official language-of-state, as was the case in the various nations of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the 19th century (p. 78). Then again, rulers can also be “naturalized” and employ an “official nationalism” in order to culturally homogenify their territory and counter popular national movements (p. 86).

Education is another factor that contributed to the creation of imagined communites; for instance, the colonial subjects of the multiethnic Dutch East Indies “knew that from wherever they had come they still had read the same books and done the same sums” (pp. 121-122). Then there is the complex of “Census, Map, Museum” (ch. 10, pp. 163-185) – devices through which colonial rulers categorised their subjects and at the same time inadvertently helped form their national identities.

Thus Anderson discusses various ways to create nations, but the point is that they need someone to create them. Otherwise, the idea of a particular imagined community would fail to catch on and people would not identify with it as their nation. For our example today, we’re going to examine such failed creations of nations in a comic. While this isn’t going to prove Anderson’s theory right or wrong, it will hopefully illustrate some of his ideas.

Our example is going to be Sarah (沙流羅 sarura, also known in English as The Legend of Mother Sarah), written by Katsuhiro Ōtomo, drawn by Takumi Nagayasu, and originally published from 1990-2004 – more specifically its first (German) volume. In a war-torn future, the eponymous protagonist gets separated from her four children and sets out on an epic quest to reunite with them. The background of this plot is mainly told in a prologue text: there has been a nuclear war which has left Earth uninhabitable. The survivors fled to space colonies. There, scientists developed a bomb to tilt the earth axis, which would slowly cleanse the planet of radiation and eventually allow it to be settled again. This plan split people into a supporting and an opposing faction who called themselves “Epoch” and “Mother Earth”, respectively. The hostilities between these factions led to terrorism and even civil war. The bomb was launched after all, and even though the terrestrial climate is still somewhat hostile, people started returning to the earth’s surface, where the fighting between Epoch and Mother Earth continues. The bone of contention is no longer the use of the bomb, though, but global domination.

Epoch guards against civilians. Detail of p. 19 from Sarah vol. 1 by Katsuhiro Ōtomo and Takumi Nagayasu.

Can Epoch and Mother Earth be regarded as nations in Anderson’s sense? In the very first scene of the manga, which still is a kind of prologue to the actual story, we already see representations of Epoch: while people are fleeing from a space station which is shattered by explosions, they are watched by armed men with the letter E on their hats, helmets and bandanas. The same E logo is crudely painted on walls inside the space station, indicating that Epoch rules this place. The ordinary people, however, do not sport any Epoch signs. They are no so much protected by the Epoch gunmen as controlled, the latter sifting through the crowd looking for enemies. And when a panic breaks out and everyone tries to board the escape shuttles at once, the Epoch men indiscriminately shoot into the crowd to stop them.

A Mother Earth officer. Panel from Sarah vol. 1, p. 73 by Katsuhiro Ōtomo and Takumi Nagayasu.

Then the action shifts to earth in the present day, i.e. some time after the exodus from the space stations. Sarah, accompanying a travelling merchant, reaches a small settlement adjacent to a gigantic mine. The mine is operated by the Mother Earth military, the soldiers being identifiable by small “ME” (plus a winged globe icon) logos on parts of their uniform. The workers in the mine are prisoners of war from Epoch, more clearly marked by large “E”s on their clothing or bare backs.

Epoch prisoners of war guarded by Mother Earth soldiers. Panel from Sarah vol. 1, p. 36 by Katsuhiro Ōtomo and Takumi Nagayasu.

There is a discernible divide between the soldiers overseeing their high-tech mine, and the local populace who farm the land using few machines and live in primitive-looking brick buildings. It is a science-fiction trope that we know from e.g. Star Wars: the common folk are simply trying to get by while there’s a war raging around them which they have not the slightest stake in (but which some of them, of course, ultimately get caught up in). The only link between them is the character Toki, a young man who comes from a farming family but has joined the military. Unlike his stepsister Lucia, Toki hates Epoch and blames them for devastating the earth. Lucia retorts by reminding him of Mother Earth’s constitution, which says war is bad and that “we shall live in harmony with mother earth and preserve its treasures”. Toki dismisses this as idealism that one cannot live by.

The local ‘neutral’ civilian population. Panel from Sarah vol. 1, p. 31 by Katsuhiro Ōtomo and Takumi Nagayasu.

But when Toki and Lucia discover the secret purpose of the mine, the military wants to see both of them dead. The ensuing brutal raid, in which both a soldier and Toki’s and Lucia’s grandfather are shot, epitomises the divide between military and civilians. (In later volumes, we even see tanks firing into crowds.)

Clearly, nation-building has failed in Sarah. The only ones who identify with the nations of Epoch and Mother Earth are soldiers, whereas the civilians don’t seem to have any national identity whatsoever. With the sole (and only temporary) exception of Toki, the soldiers appear not to belong to the folk who settle at the mine. The military rather seems like an occupying force from a distant country, only there to exploit the natural resources and possibly gone again soon.

This should not come as a surprise, as none of Anderson’s nation-forming devices are visible in this manga: no print-capitalist products (except for a pornographic magazine), no ‘naturalised’ rulers, no education, no maps, no census, no museums. And as in many other science-fiction stories, everyone seems to speak the same mother tongue (despite signs of some racial diversity), so that no separate language communities could form within the overall population.

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