Perhaps the lack of willingness of some people to comply to lockdown regulations is related to the lack of shocking imagery in the media. Hardly any images of people suffering from Covid-19 are shown in the news, which makes the threat posed by this disease appear abstract and remote. Which brings us to this month’s topic.
Susan Sontag’s last book to be published in her lifetime, Regarding the Pain of Others (2003) is a long essay, or short monograph, of about 120 pages. Its topic is mainly war photography, but also other photographic depictions of human suffering, and their effects on recipients. She even briefly mentions comics once (p. 100 in the Farrar, Straus and Giroux edition): “As everyone has observed, there is a mounting level of acceptable violence and sadism in mass culture: films, television, comics, computer games.”
Yeah, right. More interesting are Sontag’s observations of the difference between photographed and hand-drawn violence, her example being Francisco Goya’s series of etchings, Los desastres de la guerra (p. 47):
That the atrocities perpetrated by the French soldiers in Spain didn’t happen exactly as pictured – say, that the victim didn’t look just so, that it didn’t happen next to a tree – hardly disqualifies The Disasters of War. Goya’s images are a synthesis. They claim: things like this happened. In contrast, a single photograph or filmstrip claims to represent exactly what was before the camera’s lens. A photograph is supposed not to evoke but to show. That is why photographs, unlike handmade images, can count as evidence.
This difference, however, does not diminish the potential of handmade pictures “to awaken, shock, wound the viewer” (p. 44). At another point in the book, Sontag refers to a treatise on painting by Leonardo da Vinci (pp. 75-76):
Leonardo is suggesting that the artist’s gaze be, literally, pitiless. The image should appall, and in that terribilità lies a challenging kind of beauty. That a gory battlescape could be beautiful – in the sublime or awesome or tragic register of the beautiful – is a commonplace about images of war made by artists. The idea does not sit well when applied to images taken by cameras: to find beauty in war photographs seems heartless. But the landscape of devastation is still a landscape. There is beauty in ruins.
Sontag traces this ambiguous perception back to Antiquity (pp. 96-97):
Plato’s Socrates describes how our reason may be overwhelmed by an unworthy desire, which drives the self to become angry with a part of its nature. […] Plato appears to take for granted that we also have an appetite for sights of degradation and pain and mutilation.
It would now be all too obvious to turn to depictions of war and violence in non-fictional comics, e.g. those by Joe Sacco or Keiji Nakazawa, and see if the effects described by Sontag with regard to photography can be found there too. But wouldn’t it be more interesting to examine fictional depictions of war and violence? These are largely absent from Sontag’s text (except for Jeff Wall’s Dead Troops Talk, which, however, is based on a real conflict), and while they probably lack the power to incite viewers to anti-war activism, some of the other effects should hold true regardless.
Consider the beginning of Masamune Shirow’s Appleseed from 1985. Set in a post-World War IV (see Jason Thompson’s review at https://www.animenewsnetwork.com/house-of-1000-manga/2011-07-21) future, the 2nd and 3rd page form a lovely double-page spread of a war-ravaged cityscape. One cannot help but be reminded of Katsuhiro Ōtomo’s spectacular renderings of Neo Tokyo after the cataclysm in the middle of Akira (which was probably published too late to have been an inspiration for Shirow). Both creators have a fondness – and talent – for drawing both buildings and their destruction. Add to this a few carefully placed vehicles (another forte of both Shirow and Ōtomo) and you get “beauty in ruins” indeed.
Note, however, the corpse hanging out of the tank in the foreground. His firearm lying on the ground before him, we can imagine that he was shot just as he was about to climb out of his tank which maybe had got stuck in a chasm, and also one of its chains had come off. This soldier is only a tiny figure, but it shows that the conflict that presumably caused the destruction of the city is a recent – perhaps still ongoing – and deadly one. As the only human figure in this panel, the reader might empathise with him, but there is no blood or wound visible on him, and we don’t get to see his face. This body isn’t exactly an appalling sight; it hardly disturbs the beauty of the ruins.
A few pages later (p. 34 in the German edition by Feest) we get to see quite a different depiction of a dying soldier. The protagonists, Deunan and Briareos, defend themselves against an attack by mercenary-type combatants. Deunan shoots one of them with an automatic rifle. The force of the hail of bullets is so strong that it not only kills her opponent but also chips off pieces from the surrounding walls. In panel 3, his body gets folded up by the impact so that we don’t see how badly he gets wounded, but in panel 4, black blotches rise from his chest, up to the level of his head, so that it looks like he is bleeding from his mouth, which is wide open as if in a silent scream. The last panel shows him lying on his back, his speech bubble containing only a sort of open-centre asterisk that may signify his last breath.
A pretty grisly scene, if you think about it. Sure, he was only a villain. Granted, Deunan acted in self-defense. And yet, someone’s life was just cut short, and we don’t even know why they were fighting. Deunan isn’t completely cold-blooded (let alone malicious), as the look on her face tells us when she looks back at her target (panel 6). But Shirow’s art aestheticises death so successfully that we don’t think about it in such existential terms. One powerful device is ‘slow motion’ in panels 3 and 4 in which the figure and the surrounding debris seem to be frozen in mid-air. Another is the convincingly imagined circle that the shots have carved out of the walls (although strictly speaking it was the villain’s weapon that caused it, as shown on the previous page), a rendering of a physical effect once more reminiscent of Ōtomo, e.g. in Dōmu (1980-81) – a ‘safe’ kind of violence as it appears to affect only things, not living beings.
Naturally, images of a real-world, present-day war would always be more shocking than those of a science-fiction conflict, even though the former can at the sime time have that “challenging kind of beauty” too. Perhaps the ability of images “to awaken, shock, wound the viewer” depends on two variables: on the one hand, the degree of the relationship of their content to reality, and on the other, the inverse degree of aestheticisation of their form. In itself, the choice of pictorial medium, i.e. whether it is a photograph or a drawn comic, probably doesn’t matter as much. As Sontag says herself, “A narrative seems likely to be more effective than an image” (p. 122), without acknowleding that ‘image’ and ‘narrative’ need not be mutually exclusive.
At the end of the same year in which Western manga readers were treated to the first translated volume of Yoshitoki Ōima’s A Silent Voice, her new series was already launched in Weekly Shōnen Magazine in Japan. The first chapter of To Your Eternity consists of a whopping 80 pages, so it might make sense to review it as if it was a standalone comic.
To Your Eternity (不滅のあなたへ / Fumetsu no anata e) chapter 1
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Yoshitoki Ōima
Publisher: Egmont (originally Kōdansha)
Year: 2018 (originally 2016)
Number of volumes: 12 so far in Japan
Website: https://www.egmont-manga.de/buch-buchreihe/to-your-eternity/ (German publisher), https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=137169 (Baka-Updates)
Another reason for reading the first chapter on its own (besides safely staying in the year 2016) is that the story takes some wild turns in the subsequent chapters, and it is perhaps too soon to make judgements about the coherence of the plot or lack thereof before the series has come to its conclusion. Anyway, in these first 80 pages, the story is quite straightforward, yet far from predictable or unoriginal. It starts with some sort of alien or supernatural life form getting “cast unto the earth”. Stranded in a barren ice desert, it assumes the shape of a dying arctic wolf. The alien/wolf returns to a teenaged boy living all alone who used to keep the ‘old’ wolf as a pet and who now doesn’t notice that this wolf is merely a ‘copy’ of his old one.
At this point we learn that the setting is a pseudo-medieval one. The boy has been left behind by his tribe who went away looking for a better place to settle in a warmer climate. Now, after five years, the boy decides to follow them, in the company of what he believes is his wolf…
Naturally, the transition from a romance manga set in 21st century Japan such as A Silent Voice to the fantasy genre of To Your Eternity is a harsh one. Then again, the life-and-death stakes of a fantasy manga might make for the kind of highly dramatic and emotional story that plays to Ōima’s strengths. However, once more it is the subtler emotional nuances that Ōima conveys so convincingly, e.g. when the boy tries to smile even though he realises things are looking grim – or, conversely, when the facial expressions of the alien/wolf remain inscrutable even though we would expect him to react according to the basic instincts of an animal.
Occasionally we get to see glimpses of Ōima’s artistic genius, as in those incredibly detailed panels where heavy outlines and lots of white space speak for themselves. For these panels to stand out, Ōima counterbalances them with more conventionally drawn (though still finely executed) panels with hatching and screen tone. Despite the fantasy setting which yields lots of animals and exotic clothes, tools and architecture to depict, Ōima doesn’t get lost in details; she has a story to tell and does so efficiently.
Ultimately, comics are a serial medium in more than one way. By virtue of its author, To Your Eternity will always be regarded as a sequel of sorts to A Silent Voice, and these are some huge shoes to fill. But while A Silent Voice might be the more emotionally engaging read due to its more familiar setting, To Your Eternity has the one advantage of feeling delightfully fresh and highly original.
Rating: ● ● ● ● ○
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
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 characteristicsPosted: December 18, 2019
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Only one manga this time, but it’s a long one…
Language: English (translated from Japanese)
Author: Osamu Tezuka
Publisher: Vertical (originally Shōgakukan / Akita Shoten)
Year: 2012 (original run 1967-1969)
Number of volumes: 1
Price: US-$ 24.95
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: ● ● ○ ○ ○
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
Price: € 14
Website: https://www.egmont-manga.de/buch/daisy-aus-fukushima/ (German), https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=87087 (Baka-Updates)
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: ● ● ● ● ○