Artifacts from Japan, part 5: Morning #43, 2018

Two years ago I already introduced another original Japanese manga magazine here, Weekly Young Jump, but I don’t want to give the impression that all manga magazines in Japan are like that. So here’s a look at a magazine that is also filed under seinen (i.e. targeted towards young adult men), but much more mature.

Language: Japanese
Authors: various
Publisher: Kōdansha
Pages: 400
Price: ¥370 ($3.30 / €2.85)
Website: http://morning.moae.jp/ (Japanese)

Morning (or “Weekly Morning” according to Wikipedia, but the word “Morning” is not on the cover as far as I have seen) is not quite as widely read as Young Jump, but its circulation (well over 100,000 copies per issue) is still huge compared to Western comic magazines. In the past, Morning has run famous manga series such as Gon, Planetes, Space Brothers, and Vagabond.

The copy of the issue at hand (dated October 11, but actually published two weeks earlier) has the same dimensions as Young Jump and the same printing quality (or lack thereof), but already on the outside, the content is quite different: instead of an erotic photograph, there’s a cover image that actually refers to one of the manga inside – グラゼニ / Gurazeni by Yūji Moritaka and Keiji Adachi, a baseball series that seems to be relatively popular in Japan. Inside there is very little editorial content apart from a 4-page interview with Moritaka and film director Hitoshi Ōne.

Which brings us to the manga in this issue. There are roughly 20 chapters of 18 pages on average, and these are the more noteworthy ones apart from Gurazeni:

A particularly striking page from Toshiya Higashimoto's <em>Theseus no fune</em>.

A particularly striking page from Toshiya Higashimoto’s Theseus no fune.

As you can perhaps see from these short descriptions, most of the manga in Morning are set in the real world rather than some fantasy or science fiction setting. Considering Morning and Young Jump alone, the vast variety of manga within the seinen demographic becomes palpable – a variety hardly represented by the few of these titles that have been published in the West.

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The best manga of 2016? Review of My Love Story and 1F

The publication history of My Love Story (and to some extent also that of 1F, see below) demonstrates the difficulties of determining the best manga of the year through the aggregation of year-end best-of lists: in 2016, the first volumes of My Love Story came out in Germany, while in the US volumes 7-10 were published, and in Japan the series ended with the final three volumes, 11-13. Thus, even though My Love Story was being published in all three countries in 2016, in that year it attracted some media attention in Germany only, while in the US and Japan the hype had already died down. More and more it becomes clear in this series of blogposts that when we’re looking at the year 2016 in manga history (from a Western perspective), we’re actually dealing with more of a 5-7 year window. For today, let’s start at the beginning with the first volume of My Love Story.

My Love Story!! (俺物語!! / Ore monogatari) vol. 1
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Authors: Kazune Kawahara (story), Aruko (art)
Publisher: Panini (originally Shūeisha)
Year: 2016 (originally 2011)
Number of volumes: 13
Pages: ~175
Price: € 7
Website: https://www.paninishop.de/serie/my-love-story-ore-monogatari (German)
ISBN: 978-3-95798-904-8

The story revolves around Takeo, a high school student who is not only unusually tall and strong, but also honest, kind, brave, and naive. When he meets Yamato, he thinks at first that she’s only interested in his good-looking friend, Sunakawa. But it turns out Yamato has fallen in love with Takeo, she becomes his first girlfriend, and so His Love Story begins.

A lot of people file this manga under shōjo, but if it is a shōjo manga, it’s an exceptional one due to its protagonist – as the title suggests, a male character is at the center of this story. I’d be hard pressed to name another shōjo manga in which a male protagonist dominates the story as much as Takeo (except perhaps for those that veer towards the boys’ love genre).

And what a character Takeo is. It’s refreshing to have a truly unique protagonist who defies all manga stereotypes. Just seeing Takeo’s face is a delight, as artist Aruko endlessly varies her style with new combinations of different kinds of outlines, hatching, and screentones when drawing him.

In the writer’s preface, an interesting anecdote is related regarding Takeo’s appearance: her magazine editor thought Takeo was ugly and put a slogan on the magazine cover to that effect, but the authors intended Takeo to look ‘manly’ and by all means attractive (though not quite as pretty as his ikemen friend Sunakawa). A misunderstanding that is almost medium specific – if the story was told not in comic form but as a live-action film, for instance, it would be easier for most people to assess the attractiveness of this character (and indeed, apparently there was a live-action adaptation of My Love Story in 2015).

If My Love Story has one flaw, it’s some instances of lazy storytelling when something unlikely happens to advance the story. In vol. 1 it’s a girder inexplicably falling on Yamato (will Takeo come to the rescue? Read it to find out!); in a later volume, a bird rips Yamato’s brooch off her shirt… There’s actually one more annoying flaw in the manga: the authors’ columns already give away that Yamato and Sunakawa are kind-hearted characters too, thus destroying any air of mystery that might have surrounded them. That being said, My Love Story is a remarkable comic and one of the best manga of 2016 (if you will).

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○

 

1F (いちえふ / Ichi efu) vol. 1
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Kazuto Tatsuta
Publisher: Carlsen (originally Kōdansha)
Year: 2016 (originally 2013)
Number of volumes: 3
Pages: ~185
Price: € 13
Website: https://www.carlsen.de/softcover/reaktor-1f-ein-bericht-aus-fukushima-1/74017 (German)
ISBN: 978-3-551-76107-1

1F (full German title: “Reaktor 1F – Ein Bericht aus Fukushima”; English spelling: Ichi-F) got a lot of press, but not in the context of 2016 year-end reviews – in the US, it was published only last year. As can be expected from a manga about the Fukushima nuclear disaster, people deemed it “moving” and “important”, but not explicitly good. Is 1F any good? Could it even be the best manga of 2016?

First of all, it’s worth restating what other reviewers already have noted: this isn’t a manga about the nuclear disaster per se. Don’t expect to see any giant waves or reactor explosions (though there are one or two flashback panels that show an explosion): this is the autobiographical story of Tatsuta coming to the Fukushima Daiichi power plant long after ‘3.11’ to work there as a ‘cleanup’ worker, i.e. to help in the tedious process of decommissioning the radioactively contaminated power plant.

There are two interesting aspects to Tatsuta’s story: one is the business side of the cleanup work, the shady companies at the bottom end of a subcontracting chain who exploit the mostly unskilled labourers coming from different parts of Japan (Tatsuta himself is from Tokyo, not from the Tōhoku area) for different reasons. The other, more fascinating aspect is the actual work in the highly radioactive power plant, even though Tatsuta’s job there consists of only janitorial tasks at first. The depictions of layers of protective gear, radiation measurement devices, meticulous security procedures all help to visualise the invisible, yet potentially lethal, threat of radioactivity.

Tatsuta’s art style lends itself well to this task of visualisation, as he relies mostly on clear outlines with little or no shading, and occasionally interrupts the comic narrative with diagrams such as floor plans. The flip side of the coin is that human figures aren’t as convincingly drawn; all the characters have a somewhat mischievous expression on their face.

Another flaw of 1F is that the story jumps back and forth in time, which is perhaps due to the haphazard creation history of this manga. It looks like the chronological order of events in the first volume would be: chapter 3, chapter 6, chapters  4-5, prologue, chapters 1-2. Still, overall 1F is a rare gem of an exciting non-fictional manga about science and technology.

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○


Article “Has Akira Always Been a Cyberpunk Comic?” published

Earlier this year I gave a talk at MSU Comics Forum, and now a journal article based on that talk has already been published:

Has Akira Always Been a Cyberpunk Comic?
Arts 7(3), https://doi.org/10.3390/arts7030032

Here’s the abstract again:

Between the late 1980s and early 1990s, interest in the cyberpunk genre peaked in the Western world, perhaps most evidently when Terminator 2: Judgment Day became the highest-grossing film of 1991. It has been argued that the translation of Katsuhiro Ōtomo’s manga Akira into several European languages at just that time (into English beginning in 1988, into French, Italian, and Spanish beginning in 1990, and into German beginning in 1991) was no coincidence. In hindsight, cyberpunk tropes are easily identified in Akira to the extent that it is nowadays widely regarded as a classic cyberpunk comic. But has this always been the case? When Akira was first published in America and Europe, did readers see it as part of a wave of cyberpunk fiction? Did they draw the connections to previous works of the cyberpunk genre across different media that today seem obvious? In this paper, magazine reviews of Akira in English and German from the time when it first came out in these languages will be analysed in order to gauge the past readers’ genre awareness. The attribution of the cyberpunk label to Akira competed with others such as the post-apocalyptic, or science fiction in general. Alternatively, Akira was sometimes regarded as an exceptional, novel work that transcended genre boundaries. In contrast, reviewers of the Akira anime adaptation, which was released at roughly the same time as the manga in the West (1989 in Germany and the United States), more readily drew comparisons to other cyberpunk films such as Blade Runner.

Read the article online for free at http://www.mdpi.com/2076-0752/7/3/32.

Fun fact: this is my 10th publication (not counting reviews, translations, and articles related to my library ‘day job’)! Find them all here: https://www.bibsonomy.org/cv/user/iglesia


The best manga of 2016? Review of Yotsuba&! and Kimi ni todoke

2016? Yes, that’s right, we’re still not finished with that year. This time we’re going to look at some ‘problematic’ middle volumes of long-running manga series: how come first volumes and, on rare occasions, final volumes get all the media attention while all the volumes in between get none? If I remember correctly, Kiyohiko Azuma’s Yotsuba&! vol. 13 was included on only one best-of-2016 list and consequently didn’t make the master list, while Karuho Shiina’s Kimi ni todoke volumes 23 and 24 were not nominated at all but ranked among the best-selling shōjo manga of 2015 in Japan. Wouldn’t it be possible for a manga series to start out strong and then get even better in the course of the series, as its creator ‘finds his/her groove’?

Of course, this kind of progress is a rare thing. Most manga series are on a more or less steady downward slope, their creators eventually running out of ideas but still milking the proverbial cow until the readers’ loyalty is exhausted and the series cancelled. Another reason for ignoring middle volumes is that reviews of them work differently regarding their purpose as reading recommendations; typically, potential readers want to know whether the first volume is worth reading, and when they read it they make up their own minds about proceeding to the next volume. Still, some middle volumes stand out from the rest, some are good jumping-on points, and some are nothing special but keep up the high quality of a series and are simply better than most other manga volumes of the year, and consequently deserve a spot on a best-of list. So let’s talk more about middle volumes.

Yotsuba&! (よつばと!) vol. 13
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Kiyohiko Azuma
Publisher: Tokyopop (originally Kadokawa)
Year: 2016 (originally 2015)
Number of volumes: 13 so far
Pages: ~220
Price: € 6.50
Website: http://www.tokyopop.de/manga/tokyopop-manga/shojo/yotsuba/1836/yotsuba-band-13 (German)
ISBN: 978-3-8420-2916-3

Previously in Yotsuba&!: Yotsuba is a five year old girl living with her single father.

Some people say each Yotsuba&! chapter is self-contained and they can be read in any order, but then you would lose track of the ever-growing cast (the neighbours’ daughters, their respective friends, and so on) and not get the references to earlier episodes, such as the camping trip in the previous volume.

This 13th volume is remarkable due to several unusual things:

  • There’s one episode that isn’t primarily humoristic in tone, as Yotsuba wakes up at night, doesn’t find her father sleeping next to her and wanders around scared in the dark and slightly creepy house.
  • Yotsuba’s grandmother is introduced, the only character (besides Yotsuba’s father’s friend Yanda) who isn’t overly friendly to her. It’s Yotsuba’s father’s mother, of course, as Yotsuba’s biological ancestry remains a mystery.
  • In the last episode, Yotsuba and her father have a make-believe swordfight, but the imaginary weapons are visualised for the readers to see.
  • A seemingly insignificant scene is referenced much later: in the beginning of the volume, a little bird hops towards Yotsuba on the street as if to greet her, and several chapters later, Yotsuba sees it again when she is with her grandmother who teaches her bird names.
  • The vignettes at the end of each chapter sometimes add twists to the respective episode, as in the first one of this volume: in the beginning of the chapter, Yotsuba gives a stick from her camping trip to the neighbors’ girl Asagi who doesn’t know what to do with it, but in the closing vignette, she has hung it on the wall as a decorative sort of key holder.

Overall, this is an above-average volume in an above-average series. On this level, the release of every new volume should be given attention.

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○

Kimi ni todoke (君に届け) vol. 24
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Karuho Shiina
Publisher: Tokyopop (originally Shūeisha)
Year: 2016 (originally 2015)
Number of volumes: 27 so far in Germany, 29 in Japan (ends with vol. 30 in March)
Pages: ~175
Price: € 6.95
Website: http://www.tokyopop.de/manga/tokyopop-manga/shojo/nah-bei-dir-kimi-ni-todoke/1523/nah-bei-dir-kimi-ni-todoke-band-24 (German)
ISBN: 978-3-8420-2325-3

Previously in Kimi ni todoke: Sawako and her best friends Yano and Yoshida have at last found boyfriends, but as they enter their final year of high school, the threat of separation due to different university and career choices looms over all of them.

The last two volumes focused on Yano and Yoshida, but in vol. 24 we’re more or less back on track as the actual protagonist Sawako is once more at the center of the story. Sawako realises she wants to go away for university, but she is afraid of admitting that to her boyfriend. And that is, basically, what happens in this volume.

When re-reading the entire series up to this volume, I was surprised how fast-paced the first 2-3 volumes seem, and how glacial the pace has become now. As noted before, Karuho Shiina largely avoids the danger of repetition inherent in a ‘talking heads’ type of story by employing ever-changing page layouts. On the other hand, sometimes the character proportions are still slightly off, and I can’t help but feel that a little sloppiness has crept into the art. As strong as the manga series is overall, at this point it has been manoeuvred into somewhat of a trough, and it remains to be seen if it rebounds for the final six volumes.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○


Review, Jirō Taniguchi memorial edition: Ice Age Chronicle of the Earth

Jirō Taniguchi passed away on this day last year. Here’s another review of one of his lesser-known manga which was published already 30 years ago in Japan but only last year in Germany.

Ice Age Chronicle of the Earth (地球氷解事紀 / Chikyū hyōkai jiki)
Language: German (originally Japanese)
Author: Jirō Taniguchi
Publisher: Schreiber & Leser (originally Futabasha)
Year: 2017 (original run 1987-91)
Number of volumes: 2
Volumes reviewed: 1
Pages: 270
Price: € 16,95
Website: https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=44314
ISBN: 978-3-946337-05-8

For readers who only know Taniguchi from his later works such as A Distant Neighborhood, it may come as a suprise that not long before that he created a straightforward science fiction (or ‘science fantasy’) manga. Chronicle is set in a future in which Earth is gripped by a new ice age. Takeru is the young manager of an arctic mining outpost, and when the climate suddenly gets even harsher and the mining facility is about to break down, and all aircraft to and from the mine have either crashed or been ambushed by pirates, he decides to lead a small team on ground vehicles south to seek help.

Near the end of this first volume there is some supernatural mumbo-jumbo about an ancient prophecy and aliens that are revered as gods by the native tribesmen, but until then, Chronicle is almost pure ‘hard science fiction’ with impressive, detailed depictions of the mine, machinery, and vehicles. Considering the time it was serialised, it’s impossible not to compare this manga to Katsuhiro Ōtomo’s Akira (1982-90). Like Ōtomo, Taniguchi placed relatively cartoonish figures – sometimes almost caricatures – on minutely drawn backgrounds, and occasionally he zoomed in on his characters to portray them in marvelous naturalistic detail.

The main difference between the two is their storytelling: Taniguchi seems to have aimed for a conventional adventure story, but threadbare plot devices such as a shaman’s prophecy fail to create much suspense. Perhaps the unorthodox, erratic plot structures of Taniguchi’s later masterpieces such as Chichi no koyomi or The Walking Man were his true forte. Strictly visually, however, Chronicle may well be Taniguchi’s most accomplished work.

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○


Upcoming talk: Has Akira always been a cyberpunk comic?

In less than a month, I’m going to participate in a panel on cyberpunk comics at Michigan State University Comics Forum. Here’s the abstract for my paper, which is closely connected to my PhD research:

Between the late 1980s and early 1990s, interest in the cyberpunk genre peaked in the Western world, perhaps most evidently when Terminator 2: Judgment Day became the highest-grossing film of 1991. It has been argued that the translation of Katsuhiro Ōtomo’s manga Akira into several European languages at just that time (from 1988 in English, from 1991 in French, German, Italian and Spanish) was no coincidence. In hindsight, cyberpunk tropes are easily identified in Akira to the extent that it is nowadays widely regarded as a classic cyberpunk comic. But has this always been the case? When Akira was first published in America and Europe, did readers see it as part of a wave of cyberpunk fiction? Did they draw the connections to previous works of the cyberpunk genre across different media that today seem obvious? In this paper, magazine reviews of Akira in English and German from the time when it first came out in these languages are analysed in order to gauge the past readers’ genre awareness. The attribution of the cyberpunk label to Akira competed with others such as the post-apocalyptic, or science fiction in general. Alternatively, Akira was sometimes regarded as an exceptional, novel work that transcended genre boundaries. In contrast, reviewers of the Akira anime adaptation, which was released at roughly the same time as the manga in the West (1989 in Germany and the United States), more readily drew comparisons to other cyberpunk films such as Blade Runner.


Manga reviews, Halloween 2017 edition: Scary Lessons, Doubt, Naru Taru

Halloween is around the corner again, and that means reviews of recent and classic horror manga here at The 650-Cent Plague. Today’s three titles show once more how diverse this genre is, and that there are manifold (maybe even medium-specific?) ways for comics to elicit fear from their readers.

Scary Lessons (絶叫学級 / zekkyō gakkyū, lit. “Screaming Lessons”)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Emi Ishikawa
Publisher: Tokyopop (originally Shūeisha)
Years: 2009-2017 (original run 2008-2015)
Number of volumes: 20
Volumes reviewed: 1
Pages per volume: ~190
Price per volume: € 6.50
Website: http://www.tokyopop.de/manga/tokyopop-manga/shojo/scary-lessons/ (German publisher), https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=35025 (MangaUpdates)
ISBN: 978-3-86719-846-2

A horror manga for the shōjo demographic, can this possibly work? Well, it sure did scare the bejesus out of me – this is definitely the most frightening manga of the ones I’ve reviewed so far. Each chapter is a self-contained episode with a different cast of characters, only loosely held together by a framing narrative with a Crypt-Keeper-like narrator. All stories mostly take place at school (hence the “Lessons” part of the title) and have middle-school girl protagonists who are concerned with the usual things: boys, clothes, mobile phones, puppies, classmates… Each protagonist wants something, but when she gets it, it goes terribly wrong. In the first episode, for instance, a girl desperately wants a handheld gaming console, finds an abandoned one on the street and keeps it, but it turns out to be cursed and the game on it seems to affect people in the real world, even causing their death.

While death and violence do occur in this manga, they aren’t depicted that explicitly. In another episode, a girl is hit in the face by glass shards, but only her body from the chin down is shown in that panel. Still, I’m not sure if this manga is suitable reading material for readers of the same age as the middle school protagonists.

Another similarity to EC horror comics is the moralising and the gleeful twist ending in most episodes: our heroines eventually become aware of their vices and the mistakes they’ve made and resolve to behave better in the future. But often it’s already too late and they have to pay for what they’ve done.

Due to their self-contained nature, the individual stories are fast-paced and lack subtlety, but otherwise this first volume is a finely crafted manga, though I’m not sure if the suspense can be kept up for the remaining 19 (!) volumes.

Scariest moment in vol. 1: at the end of the fourth episode, when our young protagonist goes home and thinks she’s safe, only to find the killer is already waiting for her there.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○

Doubt
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Yoshiki Tonogai
Publisher: Carlsen (originally Square Enix)
Years: 2010-2011 (original run 2007-2009)
Number of volumes: 4
Volumes reviewed: 1
Pages per volume: ~200
Price per volume: € 7.95
Website: https://www.carlsen.de/serie/doubt/18200 (German publisher), https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=18068 (MangaUpdates)
ISBN: 978-3-551-754431

Protagonist Yū is a high school student who plays a mobile game called “Rabbit Doubt” which is based on “Mafia” a.k.a. “Werewolf” a.k.a. “Murder in Palermo”. In the beginning of the manga, he meets his five fellow players face to face for the first time and becomes friends with them. Then, however, the game turns into deadly reality when they are abducted and one of them murdered.

The plot shifts into more of an escape room / Fermat’s Room kind of setting when the kids explore their prison and are confronted with puzzles such as locked doors and corresponding keys, all the while suspecting that one of them is in fact the abductor rather than a victim. Like with Death Note and other similar manga, the author unfortunately doesn’t have much faith in the initially simple but intriguing premise (in this case, the “Mafia” game) and keeps adding more and more elements, characters and game rules in an attempt to stretch out the story.

Although Doubt (and its sequel, Judge) has found a place in some ‘best horror manga‘ lists, it has more of a mystery / detective thriller vibe to it because Tonogai takes great care to present all facts and details of the setting in great clarity to the readers so that they can guess along with the characters who the killer is. Which is a shame, because the first 50 pages set quite a different, subtle and atmospheric mood, which is then abandoned in favor of a still suspenseful but more ‘economic’ storytelling.

Scariest moment in vol. 1: when a guy believed to be dead suddenly comes alive again.

Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○

Naru Taru (なるたる / narutaru, English title: Shadow Star)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Mohiro Kitō
Publisher: Egmont (originally Kōdansha)
Years: 2001-2006 (original run 1998-2003)
Number of volumes: 12
Volumes reviewed: 1
Pages per volume: ~215
Price per volume: out of print (cover price € 5)
Website: https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=2394
ISBN: 3-89885-148-6

While swimming during her summer vacation, eleven-year-old Shiina finds a cuddly little alien on the bottom of the sea. The alien, Hoshimaru, can’t talk but has supernatural powers such as flying. An E.T.-like friendship begins. But then Shiina meets other children who also have alien companions, some of which are using their powers for sinister purposes.

Naru Taru has a reputation for starting harmlessly and then turning dark, deconstructing various shōnen manga tropes along the way and thwarting readers’ expectations. Some label it a horror manga, but I’ve just finished vol. 2 and at this point it’s more supernatural thriller than horror, although it’s hard to say which direction the story will take. From what I’ve read about the series, things are about to get darker still. Chances are that I won’t find out anytime soon, because the later volumes in particular are hard to find at reasonable prices.

Apart from this genre-wise ambiguous story, what makes this manga stand out is Mohiro Kitō’s art. As in his previous manga, Wings of Vendémiaire, there are many weird design ideas, but the true charm lies in how he depicts his characters and objects: from all angles, employing a real 360° ‘camera’, not shying away from daring foreshortenings.

Scariest moment in vol. 1: when another girl, Akira, quietly slits her wrists with a razor, it’s creepier than all the supernatural fighty-fighty before.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○