Manga review, Halloween 2022 edition: Chainsaw Man

detail of p. 45 from Tatsuki Fujimoto's Chainsaw Man vol. 1

Winner of Shōgakukan and Harvey awards, highest-ranking manga in our 2020 and 2021 best-comics-of-the-year lists… But does it live up to the hype?

Chainsaw Man (チェンソーマン Chensō man) vol. 1
Language: German (originally Japanese)
Author: Tatsuki Fujimoto
Publisher: Egmont (originally Shūeisha)
Year: 2020 (
originally published 2018)
Total number of volumes: 12
so far in Japan
Pages: ~190
Price: € 7
Website:
https://www.egmont-manga.de/series/Chainsaw%20Man (German publisher), https://www.mangaupdates.com/series/ylx5wzn/ (Baka-Updates)
ISBN: 978-3-7704-2847-2

The world of Chainsaw Man is similar to our own, except for the constant threat of so-called ‘devils’ – demons in various hideous shapes who seek to enslave or outright kill humans. Thankfully, the Japanese government has installed a devil-hunting task force to protect its citizens. The newest among those devil hunters is Denji, a teenager who himself has fused his body with a devil, which allows him to transform his head into a chainsaw and to grow chainsaw blades from his arms.

So far, so weird. But protagonist Denji has a backstory that endears him to the reader: having inherited his father’s debts to the yakuza, he was destitute before joining the devil hunters. All the money he earned went straight to the mob, and he could barely feed himself and his pet devil dog. It’s not as powerful a poverty narrative as e.g. Hideo Azuma’s Shissō Nikki (Disappearance Diary), but it seems to work well, as pretty much every reviewer on the Internet ends up rooting for Denji.

Unfortunately, as in so many other manga of this type, this origin story is quickly told and done away with, and then it’s monster slaying time. Denji continues to be an interesting and relatable character though, being driven by much more basic needs and desires than his co-workers who have more noble (or enigmatic) motives. The action scenes are also enhanced by Tatsuki Fujimoto’s drawing style. Some people have called the artwork crude, but it’s actually often quite elaborate on closer inspection. Fujimoto deliberately uses coarse-grained screentone effects to diversify the tonality of his artwork, and his sound effects are a masterclass in typographic design.

As for the design of the ‘devils’, however – they look more silly than terrifying. What is it with the Japanese and their rather ridiculous monsters, one is tempted to ask? Kiseijū, Evangelion, Naru Taru… Perhaps the look of those creatures fits the overall wackiness of Chainsaw Man, but that doesn’t mean you have to like it.

detail of p. 117 from Tatsuki Fujimoto's Chainsaw Man vol. 1

Scariest moment: there is a simple but effective sort of ‘jump scare’ when the devil hunters open a door to reveal a ‘fiend’ (a human body possessed and grotesquely altered by a devil).

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○

Find the previous Halloween blogposts here: 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015.


Griselda Pollock’s feminism – in comics?

Between her two major books on feminist art history, Old Mistresses (1981, co-authored by Rozsika Parker) and Vision and Difference (1987), Griselda Pollock published an article titled “Women, Art, and Ideology: Questions for Feminist Art Historians”¹. In part a summary of the former book, it outlines Pollock’s notion of a feminist art history (or should that rather be “feminism in art history”?). The problem with previous feminist art historians, according to Pollock’s essay, is that they only tried to amend the canon of art history by adding female artists that had been omitted before. Pollock calls this an “unthreatening and additive feminism”. Instead, she argues, “a central task for feminist art historians is […] to critique art history itself”, because art history (as well as its object of study, art) is a system that “actively constructs and secures the patriarchal definitions for the category Woman”.

How, then, is a feminist art history possible at all? “The important questions” need to be asked: “how and why an art object or text was made, for whom was it made, for what purpose was it made, within what constraints and possibilites was it produced and initially used?” The importance of such questions to any art historical analysis seems self-evident today, and in fact they were already being asked back then – Marxist art history and the social history of art were a big thing. But they didn’t satisfy Pollock, who says that Marxist thinking about art, which treats “art as a reflection of the society that produced it”, has some severe shortcomings: it “oversimplifies the processes whereby an art product […] represents social processes that are themselves enormously complicated, mobile, and opaque”; it “condemns women effectively to a homogenenous, gender-defined category” and “effaces the specificity and heterogeneity of women’s artistic production”; it places works of art in ideological categories when in fact “ideologies are often fractured and contradictory”, etc.

So the overall tendency of Pollock’s feminist art history is: specificity, particularity, complexity and heterogeneity instead of generalisation and categorisation. Clearly, such a kind of art history is a radical shift away from scholarship as it is traditionally understood. It is perhaps best summed up in Pollock’s demand that “the relations between women, art, and ideology have to be studied as a set of varying and unpredictable relationships.” However, when Pollock’s essay provides some examples of what such an analysis might look like (taken from Old Mistresses), they don’t seem quite so radical after all. Sofonisba Anguissola’s 1561 Self Portrait With Spinet and Attendant is interpreted as a display of the artist’s aristocratic class position which allowed her to become a professional painter, unlike women of lower classes. Johann Zoffany’s 1772 The Academicians of the Royal Academy, in which the only two female Academy members are not part of the group in the room but represented as portrait paintings on the wall, shows how the system of the art academy actively constructed “distinct identities for the artist who was a man – the artist, and the artist who was a woman – the woman artist.” The late 18th-century family portraits by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun show how the ideal of the woman at that time had changed to that of “the happy mother, the woman fulfilled by childbearing and childrearing.”

Thus, in contrast to ‘mainstream’ art history, Pollock’s vantage point is always the (female) artist’s biography. Let’s see where this approach takes us when applied to a random comic.

The last comic by a female author that I read was Moe Yukimaru’s Suisai (more on that manga in a later post) vol. 1. What can we find out about this mangaka? Born in 1986, Yukimaru worked as an assistant to Nana Haruta (on another shōjo manga, Love Berrish) before debuting as a mangaka in 2006. Most of her manga were published in the shōjo magazine Ribon. Suisai started in 2015, i.e. when Yukimaru was 28 or 29. According to e.g. her Japanese Wikipedia page, her dream for the future is to become a “mangaka and charismatic housewife at the same time”. However, we don’t know when and under which circumstances she said that.

Yukimaru also has a weblog, yukimarublog.jugem.jp. She hasn’t posted for a while and her latest blogposts are about her current manga, Hatsukoi Retake, and transitioning from print to digital-first publishing. But her earlier posts from around the time when she was working on Suisai are quite interesting. In one of them, from late 2014, she apologises for “not having a particularly stylish lifestyle to blog about” and not being one of those “bloggers who write about highly feminine content with fashionable images every day”. Apart from promoting her manga work, though, there is quite a lot of cat content, food pics, and even a post about Yukimaru doing her fingernails.

So the image that we can perceive of Yukimaru is that of a ‘highly feminine’ artist who is firmly associated with the shōjo manga segment. Interestingly, Suisai doesn’t quite reflect this image. Although often labeled ‘romance’, this first volume at least is not so much of a girl-meets-boy story (there is something of that, too) but more of a ‘girl-meets-flute’ story of a high school student who enters her school’s brass band. It is a music manga first and foremost. Other music manga, e.g. Naoshi Arakawa’s Shigatsu wa kimi no uso / Your Lie in April, have been published in shо̄nen magazines. Granted, that one had both a male protagonist and a male author, but the point is that demographic categorisations such as shо̄jo or shо̄nen are often quite artificial, and that Suisai isn’t a particularly ‘girly’ manga.

Taking a closer look at Suisai, however, we find some interesting points being raised in terms of gender. Right at the beginning, we learn that the protagonist, Urara, had been a successful track-and-field athlete in middle school. But now in high school, she wants to “try something new” instead of a sports club – so that she can spend more time wearing the “cute” sailor uniform of her new school. “After quitting the [track-and-field] club, I have grown my hair long just for that”, she says, which prompts her classmate to say: “So there is an actual girl hidden in you after all.”

In the following course of the story, there are several scenes in which Urara’s energetic and bold nature is seen as undesirable and un-girly, and her lack of “cuteness” is pointed out. Thus we could read this coming-of-age story as the story of Urara moving on not only from middle to high school, but also from a sports to a music club, leaving her boyish childhood behind and becoming a woman. As Griselda Pollock would perhaps say, Urara succumbs to the allure of this artificially created category of Woman; a category created both by the fictional society in the manga and real society, including Moe Yukimaru, her publisher, and her readers.

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

¹ First published in Woman’s Art Journal Vol. 4, No. 1 (Spring – Summer, 1983), pp. 39–47, https://doi.org/10.2307/1358100; re-published in Women’s Studies Quarterly Vol. 15, No. 1/2, Teaching about Women and the Visual Arts (Spring – Summer, 1987), pp. 2–9, https://www.jstor.org/stable/40004832.


Review, Jirō Taniguchi memorial edition: Tomoji

One of the greatest mangaka of all time passed away five years ago. Today we’re going to look at another of his late works, created after Furari and before The Millennium Forest.

Tomoji (とも路; German title: Ihr Name war Tomoji)
Language: German (originally Japanese)
Authors: Miwako Ogihara & Jirō Taniguchi (writers), Jirō Taniguchi (artist)
Publisher: Carlsen (originally Futabasha)
Year: 2016 (originally 2012)
Number of volumes: 1

Pages: 166
Price: € 17
Website: https://www.carlsen.de/softcover/ihr-name-war-tomoji/978-3-551-76104-0 (German); https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=119718
ISBN: 978-3-551-76104-0

A very short summary of this story would be that it tells the life of Tomoji Uchida (1912-1967), who, together with her husband Fumiaki Itō, founded a Buddhist sect. But that would be misleading. Instead of a hagiography, Taniguchi (together with co-writer Ogihara) does what he is best at: telling a story of ordinary people living ordinary lives. He is able to pull this off by having the story end in 1932, after Tomoji had married Fumiaki but before they became religious leaders.

p. 60 from the French edition

What makes this story interesting nevertheless is that it’s also a portrait of Taishō and early Shōwa era Japan. We see Tomoji as a young girl in the countryside of Yamanashi Prefecture, helping out at her family’s shop, working in the rice paddy, going to school, and later going to town to attend a sewing school. Some dramatic events in Tomoji’s life are also shown – e.g. her father’s death, or how her mother abandons the family – but the only historic one is the Great Kantō earthquake in 1923, which is mainly depicted from Fumiaki’s perspective in Tokyo.

This is actually one of the more unusual aspects of the manga: Tomoji and Fumiaki don’t meet until 1932, but the perspective shifts several times from her to him, and it is strongly implied that they are somehow destined to be together. For instance, on p. 111, Fumiaki in Tokyo looks out of the window; the next panel shows a bird of prey in the sky; the one after that shows Tomoji looking up from her work in the rice paddy near her faraway home village – as if they were both watching the same bird – and then on the next page the sequence is reversed until in the last panel we’re with Fumiaki in Tokyo again. The caption on the page after that reads: “Fumiaki was 18 years old, Tomoji 12. Both were looking at the same sky, but some more years would pass before they met.”

With the knowledge of how Tomoji’s life story continues after the end of the manga, one is tempted to look for other hints in the story, apart from her fateful meeting with Fumiaki, as to how and why she became a religious leader. And indeed there are many little episodes which one can read as examples of young Tomoji’s kindness, compassion, humility, studiousness, piety and spirituality, all of which are probably appropriate prerequisites for a future temple founder. That being said, Tomoji remains a charmingly ‘ordinary’ slice-of-life manga.

colour page from the French edition

Art-wise, Taniguchi is once more at the top of his game, which shows particularly in the many landscape panels and the endless variations of the page layout. Thankfully, the German edition also includes all the watercoloured pages (22 including chapter title images) in colour, and I have already sung Taniguchi’s praises as a watercolour painter before. Then again, the colour pages are probably German publisher Carlsen’s reason to charge the hefty price of € 0.10 per page for this book.

If Tomoji can be considered required reading for Taniguchi enthusiasts, it’s because it bridges two gaps in his oeuvre: as some people have pointed out, it is one of only two of his manga with a female protagonist (the other being Sensei no kaban from 2008, adapted from Hiromi Kawakami’s novel). And, chronologically, Tomoji is another piece in the puzzle that is Taniguchi’s manga history of Japan, as it were, as the time period that it covers fits nicely between the Meiji-era Bocchan no jidai (1987) and Harukana machi e / A Distant Neighborhood (1998), small parts of which are set in WWII.

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○


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.


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.


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.

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