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: ● ● ● ○ ○


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)


The best manga of 2016? Review of Daisy

For Japan, the 2010s were marked by a historic event at the beginning of the decade: the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, and the ensuing nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. It’s somewhat surprising that there haven’t been many more manga on this topic, although I bet a lot of manga critics are going to interpret pretty much any manga published afterwards as somehow inspired by the triple disaster, just as they did with the Hiroshima nuclear bombing. Apart from 1F, the other big ‘3.11’ manga is Daisy, created in 2012 but not published in German until 2016 (and not yet available in English as far as I know).

Daisy (デイジー ~3.11女子高生たちの選択~ / Daisy – 3.11 Joshikōseitachi no Sentaku)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Reiko Momochi; based on a novel by Teruhiro Kobayashi, Darai Kusanagi, and Tomoji Nobuta
Publisher: Egmont (originally Kōdansha)
Year: 2016 (originally 2013)
Number of volumes: 1
Pages: ~340
Price: € 14
Website: https://www.egmont-manga.de/buch/daisy-aus-fukushima/ (German), https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=87087 (Baka-Updates)
ISBN: 978-3-7704-9162-9

On the one hand, Daisy – full title in German: Daisy aus Fukushima (“Daisy from Fukushima”) – is a typical shōjo manga about a group of friends in their last year of high school: Ayaka, Moe, Mayu, and narrator Fumi play in a band, fall in love with boys, worry about which career to pursue after graduation, quarrel and reconcile again. On the other hand, they live in Fukushima-shi (Fukushima City), and after that fateful 11th March their lives are affected in many ways.

Even though Fukushima-shi is well outside of the evacuation zone, radioactivity has become a constant threat. It keeps guests from staying at Ayaka’s parents’ hotel, it deters customers from buying rice from Mayu’s father’s farm, and it makes Moe abandon her home town. Before the disaster, Fumi’s plan had been to go away to Tokyo to university, but now she wonders if leaving Fukushima at this time would make her a traitor.

It’s quite a feat of this manga to make this peculiar feeling palpable; these effects of the disaster that are much more subtle than radiation poisoning; this creeping fear of an invisible danger that is so unlike the blind panic of people running from a tidal wave. Daisy is similar to 1F in this regard: they both don’t show how the tsunami hits the coast or how reactors explode, and both focus on characters from outside of the evacuation zone – the main difference, of course, being that the ones in Daisy are fictional.

Reiko Momochi, who is perhaps best known for her similarly serious shōjo manga series Confidential Confessions (Mondai teiki sakuhinshū), provides solid artwork in which particularly character close-ups excel with discreet shading lines and screen tones.

When talking about the manga of the 2010s, Daisy is definitely one to rank among the most representative of this decade.

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○


Akira Code 7 Alert

Akira Code 7 Alert is an unofficial animated short film by Richard Nyst that went online on YouTube two weeks ago. I hesitate to call it a ‘fan film’ because it looks so professional. The interesting thing about it is that it focuses on characters from the Akira manga that didn’t make it into the anime: the caretaker robots, also known as ‘Security Balls’, which the military employs for riot control. (They are quite relevant though if one reads Akira as a cyberpunk manga, as I have argued elsewhere.) In animation, they are reminiscent of the Tachikoma in the Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex anime series. Or maybe the other way round: you can see that Masamune Shirow most likely got the inspiration for the Fuchikoma in his Ghost in the Shell manga from Katsuhiro Ōtomo’s Akira manga.

Disclosure: I’m credited as “Japanese script advisor” in the film.


The best manga of 2016? Review of Wolf Girl & Black Prince

Now that the Reiwa era has begun, some people are compiling lists of the best manga from the Heisei era, even though 1989–2019 seems like a ridiculously long time to do so, and comparisons to the previous Shōwa era (1926–1989) are difficult due to their different lengths. However, towards the end of this year, lots of people are going to wonder what the best manga of the 2010s were, and then it will come in handy that we’ve taken an in-depth look at manga from the middle of this decade (technically speaking its 7th year) in this series of blogposts.

Wolf Girl & Black Prince (オオカミ少女と黒王子 / Ōkami shōjo to kuro ōji) vol. 11
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Ayuko Hatta
Publisher: Kazé (originally Shūeisha)
Year: 2016 (originally 2011)
Number of volumes: 16
Pages: ~175
Price: € 7
Website: https://www.kaze-online.de/Programm/Manga/Wolf-Girl-Black-Prince-Band-11.html (German), https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=66333 (Baka-Updates)
ISBN: 978-2-88921-667-3

Even people who usually don’t read romance/shōjo stories seem to like this manga (and/or its anime adaptation). For some reason, though, apparently it has never been published in English. In 2016, the final two volumes came out in Japan, but in Germany, that year saw the publication of vols. 6-11, which is why I’ll deal with vol. 11 here.

Previously in Wolf Girl & Black Prince: in order to remain popular among her friends, 17-year old Erika pretends that her attractive classmate Kyōya is her boyfriend. She secretly begs him to play along so that her friends don’t find out that they’re not actually dating. He agrees to act as if they were a couple, but in private he is mean to her. In the end, however, they fall in love with each other and begin an actual relationship.

And that is the plot of about the first three volumes. The series could have ended there, but like with so many other long-running manga, the cash cow wasn’t dry yet. In the case of Wolf Girl & Black Prince, 13 more volumes followed which tell us of the romantic life of Erika and Kyōya, and of course their large cast of friends. In this eleventh volume, for instance, the first chapter is about Erika falling ill and Kyōya reluctantly caring for her, while the second and third chapters deal with romantic rivals (a co-worker at Erika’s job and a classmate who gets closer to Kyōya).

That isn’t to say that these ‘middle volumes’ are entirely without appeal. There are still moments in which Erika and Kyōya come across as compelling characters – she continues to be slightly selfish but also masochistic, he remains cool and distant. What really sets Wolf Girl & Black Prince apart from many other shōjo manga is its relatively mature content. For instance, the characters talk almost openly about sex (and also sometimes explicitly use that word), though sexual acts are never depicted.

One could probably say a lot about this manga from a gender perspective. The way in which Kyōya (“I’m going to steal your virginity!”) treats Erika, and the way in which Erika lets herself be treated by him, makes it clear that we’re not exactly reading a feminist manifesto here.

Another thing worth mentioning is that most volumes (at least in this Kazé edition) contain bonus stories. These can be spin-off stories from the main one, or unrelated one-shots. In the case of vol. 11, it’s a 38-page one-shot high school love story. On the flipside, though, this means that you only get 130 pages of the main story.

The artwork is of an extremely high quality and, in accordance with the humorous tone of this manga, is full of charming cartoonish characters. Too bad the story has lost its drive long ago and seems to go nowhere. Otherwise Wolf Girl & Black Prince would have indeed been one of the best manga of 2016.

Rating: ● ● ●