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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: ● ● ●

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Marie-Laure Ryan’s narrative – in comics?

Out of Marie-Laure Ryan’s many narratological works, one of the most cited appears to be “Toward a definition of narrative”, a chapter from The Cambridge Companion to Narrative (ed. David Herman, Cambridge 2007; Ryan’s chapter is on pp. 22–35). Prompted by the “inflation” of the term ‘narrative’ in the wake of the “‘narrative turn in the humanities'”, Ryan begins her text as a review of previous definitions of the concept of narrative, finds them all unsatisfactory and then comes up with her own.

Ryan proposes a “fuzzy-set definition” of narrative. Regardless of how appropriate the term ‘fuzzy set’ is here, the key idea is that this allows for “variable degrees of membership” to the set of narrative texts. In the application of such a definition, it becomes more meaningful to ask questions like “‘is Finnegans Wake more narrative than Little Red Riding Hood?'” rather than binary yes/no questions like “‘is Finnegans Wake a narrative?'”. Such a type of definition makes sense here, as it would for many other concepts, even though it is still met with opposition from many Humanities scholars.

Another feature of Ryan’s definition is that the criteria or conditions it is made of are not of equal value. Instead, they are presented in an order from broadest to narrowest, with each condition presupposing the previous ones, or from most to least necessary. (There are no sufficient conditions in this type of definition.) As these eight conditions are widely available online anyway, I’m going to list them here also, though I recommend reading them in their original context.

  1. Narrative must be about a world populated by individuated existents.
  2. This world must be situated in time and undergo significant transformations.
  3. The transformations must be caused by non-habitual physical events.
  4. Some of the participants in the events must be intelligent agents who have a mental life and react emotionally to the states of the world.
  5. Some of the events must be purposeful actions by these agents.
  6. The sequence of events must form a unified causal chain and lead to closure.
  7. The occurrence of at least some of the events must be asserted as fact for the storyworld.
  8. The story must communicate something meaningful to the audience.

Clearly, the further down the list we go, the more debatable the conditions become. However, while one might be able to imagine a narrative without e.g. “intelligent agents”, one cannot deny that these are typical of narratives.

So far, so good, but what does this have to do with comics? Earlier in her text, Ryan calls narrative a “temporally ordered sequence of events” and identifies the lack of “clearly definable ‘narrative units’ comparable to the words or phonemes of language” as one of the main problems in its definition. Couldn’t the sequentially arranged units of comics – the panels – serve as such a narrative unit?

In many cases, this analogy works well. Consider the following panels from Black Magic (ブラックマジック), Masamune Shirow’s first published manga from 1983 (read from right to left):

Each of the panels could be said to depict an action, and we could describe this sequence of events in one sentence each: “Typhon says, ‘here’s to humanity’. Then Yasha says, ‘right’. Then Kongoki says, ‘to my daughter’.” (Of course, that’s just one of many valid possibilities; one could just as well describe it as e.g. “Typhon lifts a bottle, then Yasha turns towards her, then Kongoki raises his glass”.) Not the most interesting narrative, perhaps, but one can easily imagine that these three panels are part of a whole, proper story if preceded and succeeded by many more like them.

However, this only works well because we are dealing with, in the terminology of Scott McCloud, subject-to-subject transitions between these panels. Another type of McCloudian panel transition which can easily be ‘translated’ to a narrative sequence of events is action-to-action (in which the agent stays the same). But what about other transition types? The subsequent panels are quite different in this regard:

The transition from the first to the second panel on this page is an action-to-action transition, but the next one is a little tricky. The perspective shifts from the interior of the bar to an exterior view of the city, and it is day instead of night (assuming that the characters at the bar are meeting for drinks in the evening – then again, the story takes place on Venus, so who knows). The first caption might be understood as an explanation of this shift: “Before anyone awoke the next morning, Duna Typhon left Venus behind.” So this panel shows the city on the next day, and there’s a building labeled “station” from which Typhon might have departed, or maybe she’s leaving the planet right now on one of the aircraft depicted. This would make the transition a scene-to-scene transition, but we could still incorporate it into a narrative structure: “The friends propose toasts. Then they raise their glasses. Then Typhon leaves Venus.”

However, there are two more caption boxes placed in this panel, and they complicate matters quite a bit: the second caption(“Government by humans began…”) extends the time frame to months and the scale from individual characters to the whole Venusian society. The third caption even stretches out chronologically to an entire “period” of possibly many years. This doesn’t change the transition between this panel and the preceding one – still scene-to-scene – but in Ryan’s definition of narrative, the first condition is now threatened as the story shifts its focus from “individuated existents” to more abstract entities (“government”, “Venus”) and from “intelligent agents” (the 4th condition) to seemingly ‘agentless’ actions (“war broke out”).

This doesn’t mean that Black Magic isn’t a narrative. But we can say that in this little six-panel sequence, its “degree of narrativity” decreases slightly towards the end. Such fluctuations in narrativity are nothing unusual and not specific to comics; they occur e.g. in novels too. With her definition of narrative, Ryan gives us a powerful tool to describe such developments and to compare different works in this regard. Even more complex is Ryan’s suggestion of her definition as a “basis for a semantic typology of narrative texts. While degree of narrativity depends on how many of the conditions are fulfilled, typology depends on the relative prominence” of the conditions fulfilled, i.e. not only how many but also which. Thus each work could be thought of as a specific configuration of fulfilled narrative conditions.

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


Review, Jirō Taniguchi memorial edition: Icaro

When Stan Lee died in November last year, I was reminded of Silver Surfer: Parable again, his collaboration with Mœbius. Another collaboration of similar titanic proportions was Ikaru/Icaro/Ikarus by Mœbius and Jirō Taniguchi.

Ikarus (イカル / Ikaru, English title Icaro)
Language: German (originally Japanese)
Authors: Mœbius, Jean Annestay, Jirō Taniguchi
Publisher: Schreiber & Leser (originally Kōdansha / Bijutsu Shuppan-Sha)
Year: 2016 (original run 1997)
Number of volumes: 1
Pages: 284
Price: € 24,95
Website: https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=1169
ISBN: 978-3-946337-06-5

One memorable line of dialogue in this manga is: “Often the most brilliant ideas are bigger than the man who conceived them. And they can be no longer controlled.”

Who knows, maybe Mœbius thought the same way about Ikaru. According to the interview included in this edition, Mœbius created the initial concept, then wrote a script together with Jean Annestay. As with some others of his comic projects, Mœbius didn’t have time to draw it himself, and in this case he wanted this story to be drawn by Jirō Taniguchi. Taniguchi, however, heavily re-wrote and above all radically shortened the script. Furthermore, the magazine serialisation in Morning was not popular enough with the readers to warrant a continuation, so that instead of the 10.000 pages written by Mœbius and Annestay, these less than 300 pages is everything that has ever been drawn of Ikaru.

The premise is simple and striking: in the near future, a child is born with the ability to levitate and fly through the air. The Japanese government takes the boy away from his mother and locks him up in a remote research facility to study (and ultimately weaponise) him. Twenty years later, Icaro, as he is named, rebels and breaks out of his captivity.

Ikaru could have been (and to some extent is) a fascinating science fiction mystery thriller, with great moments of psychologisation associated with the ‘Kaspar Hauser’ motif of a child growing up in isolation. However, Taniguchi didn’t cut enough from the original script so that the manga is bogged down with unnecessary subplots, such as a rebellion of supernaturally powered clones, or the lesbian relationship of the villainous minister of defence.

There is a lot of Katsuhiro Ōtomo’s Akira in Ikaru (even though Mœbius downplays this in the interview), from the theme of the child with mysterious powers that is experimented on – reminiscent of Tetsuo, Akira, and the ‘numbers’ who also depend on a regularly administered drug – to the depiction of the clones’ psychokinetic powers. Ikaru also shows Taniguchi excel as a draughtsman with subjects not commonly depicted in his other works. The highlights of the art in this manga are the backgounds that show Icaro’s prison, which looks like a huge old greenhouse, and the scenes in which soldiers try to entangle the fleeing Icaro in ropes.

One more particularly clever little scene needs to be pointed out: in the beginning, one of the scientists is told on the phone that a levitating child has been born. The next panel shows him wide-eyed and speechless holding the phone. The panel after that shows him in the same way (from a slightly different angle), but the whole panel is turned upside-down! Then the phone call continues depicted in the usual orientation. This one panel could be interpreted in many different ways, e.g. that the scientist’s world has just been turned ‘upside-down’ through this discovery, or that ‘up’ and ‘down’ are relative directions for someone who can fly.

Within Taniguchi’s oeuvre, Ikaru takes an odd place as it was made in 1997 in between two masterpieces that defined his style: Chichi no koyomi (1994) and A Distant Neighborhood (1998). Both of these are semi-autobiographical, so a science fiction story like Ikaru, at this time in Taniguchi’s career, seems like a throwback to the 1980s when he made Ice Age Chronicle of the Earth, and if I’m not mistaken, he never took on another science fiction project after Ikaru.

So is Ikaru required reading for the Taniguchi enthusiast? On the one hand, it is certainly interesting and relevant given the circumstances of its creation – the rather peculiar nature of this French-Japanese collaboration – as Taniguchi is often said to have been strongly influenced by French comics in general and Mœbius in particular, and also to have been more warmly received in Europe than in his native Japan. On the other hand, this is also a flawed manga and definitely not one of Taniguchi’s best, and not every reader might want to spend € 25 on a 290-page manga.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○

More Jirō Taniguchi memorial reviews on this weblog: Ice Age Chronicle of the Earth, Chichi no koyomi, Trouble Is My Business.


Kanji-kana ratio for stylometry?

I ended my blogpost on hiragana frequency as a stylometric indicator with the remark that, rather than the frequency distribution of different hiragana in the text, the ratio of kana to kanji is used as one of several key characteristics in actual stylometric analysis of Japanese texts. I was curious to find out if this number alone could tell us something about the 4 manga text samples in question (2 randomly selected scenes from Katsuhiro Ōtomo’s Akira and 2 series from Morning magazine, Miko Yasu’s Hakozume and Rito Asami’s Ichikei no karasu – in the following text referred to as A1, A2, M1 and M2, respectively). My intuition was that the results wouldn’t be meaningful because the samples were too small, but let’s see:

This time I chose a sample size of 200 characters (hiragana, katakana, and kanji) per text.

Among the first 200 characters in A1 (i.e. Akira vol. 5, p. 16), there are 113 hiragana, 42 katakana and 45 kanji. This results in a kanji-kana ratio of 45 : (113 + 42) = 0.29.

In A2 (Akira vol. 3, pp. 125 ff.), the first 200 characters comprise of 126 hiragana, 34 katakana, and 40 kanji, i.e. the kanji-kana ratio is 0.25.

In M1, there are 122 hiragana, 9 katakana, and 69 kanji, resulting in a kanji-kana ratio of 0.52.

In M2, there are 117 hiragana, 0 katakana, and 83 kanji, resulting in a kanji-kana ratio of 0.71!

6 hiragana, 2 katakana, 3 kanji in A2 (Akira vol. 3, p. 125).

Thus this time the authorship attribution seems to have worked: the two Ōtomo samples have an almost identical score, whereas those of the two Morning samples are completely different. Interestingly, this result contradicts the interpretation from the earlier blogpost in which I had suggested that the scientists in Akira and the lawyers in Karasu have similar ways of talking. The difference in the kanji-kana ratio between Akira and the two Morning manga, though, is explained not only through the more frequent use of kanji in the latter, but also through the vast differences in katakana usage (note that only characters in proper word balloons, i.e. dialogue, are counted, not sound effects).

Ōtomo uses katakana for two different purposes: in A1 mainly to reproduce the names of the foreign researchers, and in A2 to stretch syllables otherwise written in hiragana at the end of words, e.g. なにィ nanii (“whaaat?”) or 何だァ nandaa (“what is iiit?”). Therefore the similarity of the character use in the two Akira samples is superficial only and the pure numbers somewhat misleading. On the other hand, it makes sense that an action-packed scene such as A2 contains less than half as many kanji as the courtroom dialogue in M2; in A2 there are more simple, colloquial words for which the hiragana spelling is more common, e.g. くそう kusou (“shit!”) or うるせェ urusee (“quiet!”), whereas technical terms such as 被告人 hikokunin (“defendant”) in M2 are more clearly and commonly expressed in kanji.

In the end, the old rule applies: only with a large number of sample texts, with a large size of each sample, and through a combination of several different metrics can such stylometric approaches possibly succeed.


Hiragana for stylometry?

The other day I’ve been made aware that some things I’ve said in an earlier blogpost, “Author dictionaries and lexical analysis for comics”, might be misleading. So let’s be clear: if you would like to find something out about the writing style of an author or text, it’s not the best idea to look at the frequently used nouns, kanji, or other units of high semantic content. Those are more useful for analysing the content, i.e. the topic(s), of texts. In stylometry, units with low semantic content, such as function words (the, a, it, etc.), are more attractive objects of study, as they can be used almost independently of the topic and often present writers with a choice of which word to use when. In other words, the same writer tends to use the same function words and may be identified by them. (In practice, though, a combination of different characteristics is used for analysis – see the Stylometry article at Wikipedia and the references there.)

In order to automatically separate function words from content words in a digital text, part-of-speech tagging software may be employed. For Japanese, there is e.g. Kuromoji. But isn’t there a simpler way? Can’t we make use of the kanji–kana distinction used in the aforementioned earlier blogpost? If we identified kanji as the semantically rich(er) units, wouldn’t it be sufficient to focus on the kana for stylometric analysis? Maybe, maybe not. The results would probably be poorer, due to two main reasons:

  1. Every content word (noun, verb, adjective), even if usually written in kanji, may also be written in kana. For instance, 分かる (to understand) is more frequently spelled in hiragana only, わかる. So when we gather kana from a text, we might end up with unwanted content words.
  2. In flection suffixes, hiragana are dependent on the preceding kanji, and thus ultimately on the content of the text. For instance, a text on musical performance might contain many instances of the verb 引く hiku (to play an instrument), so one can expect the hiragana か ka, ki, ku, ke and こ ko to occur more frequently than in other texts, as they are used for inflecting 引く.

That being said, why don’t we put this kana analysis method to the test anyway? Let’s take the example from Akira vol. 5, p. 16 again in which the scientists are talking (初めまして。スタンリー・シモンズ博士です etc.). We’ll focus on hiragana and ignore katakana, as they tend to be used for nouns too. Starting from those two panels, I manually counted these and the following hiragana until I reached 100. Here are the 5 most frequent hiragana in this set:

  • de: 8
  • i: 7
  • shi: 7
  • te: 7
  • no: 6

That means, if this was a sufficiently large sample, in any other piece of text by Ōtomo, or at least within Akira, roughly 8% of its hiragana should be de, 7% should be i, etc. So I randomly picked another scene from Akira (vol. 3, p. 125 ff) and looked at the first 100 hiragana there. The 5 most frequently used hiragana from the previous example are used less often here, with the exception of i:

de, su, u, ru, se, da

  • de: 3
  • i: 8
  • shi: 1
  • te: 2
  • no: 3

In these pages in vol. 3, we find mainly other hiragana such as tsu (9 times – including small tsu), ga (6 times), o (5 times) and su (5 times) to be the most frequently used. That, however, doesn’t tell us anything yet about the similarity of these two pieces of text (which I’m going to call “Akira 1″ and “Akira 2″ from here on). We need to add a third example, and for this purpose I’m going to use 100 hiragana from Miko Yasu’s Hakozume from the recently reviewed Morning magazine. If our method is successful, the differences between Hakozume and each of the two Akira scenes should be larger than those between Akira 1 and Akira 2. With frequency values for approximately 50 distinct hiragana we now have 3 × ~50 data points on which we could unleash the whole range of advanced statistical methods. But we’ll keep things simple by simply adding up the differences in frequencies: Hakozume contains only 6 instances of de, i.e. 2 less than Akira 1; Hakozume uses 3 times i as opposed to the 7 in Akira 1, i.e. 4 less; Hakozume contains 6 instances of shi less than Akira 1; etc. Here’s the table of frequencies of de, i, shi, te and no in Hakozume:

a, no, na, n, de, a, no, ga…

  • de: 6
  • i: 3
  • shi: 1
  • te: 6
  • no: 8

The combined difference between Hakozume and Akira 1 for these 5 hiragana would be 2+4+6+1+2 = 15. For all ~50 different hiragana, the sum is 96.

This looks like a large number, and indeed, when we calculate the difference between Akira 1 and Akira 2 in this way, the result is 82. This means, the two Akira chunks are more similar in their usage of hiragana than Hakozume and Akira 1.

However, we’re not done yet. We still need to compare Hakozume to Akira 2. The result of this comparison may come as a surprise: the sum of differences is also 82! So Akira 2 is as similar to Hakozume as it is to Akira 1. If our goal was to find out whether a given piece of text is taken from Akira or not, our method would fail if we used Akira 2 as our base text with which to compare all others.

ha, no, ki, ka, ra, ho, do, de, ki, wo…

Just to make sure, I took another 100 hiragana from a different random manga in the same issue of Morning, Rito Asami’s Ichikei no karasu. I’ll refer to Ichikei no karasu as Morning 2 from now on, and to Hakozume as Morning 1. The results of the comparisons are even ‘worse’: while the sum of differences between Morning 2 and Akira 2 is 98 – i.e. vastly different – the difference between Morning 2 and Akira 1 is only 74, i.e. very similar.

Frequency of all hiragana in each of the four 100-hiragana samples

In a way, the results do make sense though. We’re looking at dialogue, after all, and the way scientists (in Akira 1) speak is closer to that of lawyers (in Morning 2) than that of insurgent thugs (in Akira 2). And apparently, the conversation between the two policewomen (in Morning 1) is not quite unlike the latter.

As ever so often we could now blame the unsatisfactory results on the small sample size – if we had used chunks of 1000 hiragana instead of 100, surely our attribution attempts would have been more successful? We’ll never find out (unless we obtain a complete digital copy of Akira and extract the hiragana automatically). Another way to improve results would be to tweak the methodology: using data mining algorithms, more elaborate metrics such as co-occurrence of several hiragana could be employed. In actual stylometric research, hiragana seem to be used in yet another metric – the ratio of all hiragana to all other characters (kanji, katakana, rōmaji).


Manga reviews, Halloween 2018 edition: Ajin, I Am a Hero, Uzumaki

Halloween means scary manga time at The 650-Cent Plague. As always, here are short reviews of two recent and one classic horror manga. Find the previous Halloween blogposts here: 2017, 2016, 2015.

Ajin – Demi-Human (亜人 / ajin, lit. “sub-human”)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Authors: Tsuina Miura (story), Gamon Sakurai (art)
Publisher: Egmont (originally Kōdansha)
Years: 2015- (original run 2012- )
Number of volumes: 12 so far
Volumes reviewed: 1
Pages per volume: 226
Price per volume: € 7.50
Website: https://www.egmont-manga.de/buch-buchreihe/ajin-demi-human/ (German publisher), https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=75929 (Baka-Updates)
ISBN: 978-3-7704-8605-2

When high school student Kei is hit by a truck one day, he discovers that he is an immortal ‘ajin’ – one of 47 such beings known to exist worldwide. Ajin are not considered human, and Kei fears he will be experimented on if he gets caught. Now he is on the run from both the government and bounty hunters.

Ajin suffers from the same mistake that many mystery manga series make: somehow the creators think the basic premise (in this case, Kei’s immortality) isn’t interesting enough, so gradually more and more supernatural phenoma are revealed (here: the ajin’s petrifying voice, demonic figures with razor-sharp claws, and who knows what else in the following volumes). In this and some other ways, Ajin is a poor man’s Death Note with its ‘howcatchem’ plot structure and its eccentric detective character.

On the plus side, the art is pretty cool, particularly the motorcycle chase scenes. If I had read this manga when I was 14, I would probably have loved it, even though (or maybe precisely because) the publisher’s age recommendation is 16+.

Scariest moment in vol. 1: there’s nothing really shocking here, but it’s quite a chilling scene when Kei realises that he can heal his injuries by killing himself – whenever he dies, he is alive and healthy again shortly afterwards. This is perhaps the most interesting thing about Ajin: how on the one hand his friends, family and everyone else around him turn away from him when they find out he is ‘not human’, and how on the other hand he slowly embraces his newfound power so that he is indeed in danger of losing his humanity.

Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○

I Am a Hero (アイアムアヒーロー / ai amu a hīrō)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Kengo Hanazawa
Publisher: Carlsen (originally Shōgakukan)
Years: 2012-2018 (original run 2009-2017)
Number of volumes: 22
Volumes reviewed: 1
Pages per volume: ~230
Price per volume: € 7.95
Website: https://www.carlsen.de/serie/i-am-a-hero/30897 (German publisher), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_Am_a_Hero (Wikipedia)
ISBN: 978-3-551-79491-8

You might have already heard that this is a series about an average guy trying to survive a zombie apocalypse. This first volume, however, deals much more with protagonist Hideo himself than with flesh-eating undead. We get to know his daily routine, his lacklustre job as an assistant in a manga studio, his difficult relationship with his girlfriend Tekko, his futile attempts to get his own manga published, etc.

Hanazawa’s attention to detail is admirable. He uses a great many panels for the mundanest of Hideo’s activities, e.g. his lonely TV dinner after work. Each panel itself is meticulously drawn, sometimes obviously photoreferenced with reproduced lens distortions. Not only does this slow build-up make the eventual confrontation with the zombies more dramatic, it also allows Hanazawa early on to plant subtle hints about the coming zombie virus outbreak. But is he able keep up the suspenseful atmosphere over the course of 22 volumes? I don’t know yet, but at least vol. 1 is highly successful in this regard.

Another asset of I Am a Hero is its meta level. Hideo’s work at the manga studio, his dealings with magazine editors, co-workers and rival mangaka, and his ramblings about what makes a good manga all amount to a sometimes straightforward, sometimes satirical perspective on the manga industry.

Scariest moment in vol. 1: forget the zombies. Granted, the final scene in which a zombie crawls towards Hideo (and the picture surface) is impressive. But far more terrifying are Hideo’s hallucinations which are unrelated to the zombie apocalypse. This man simply has some severe mental issues. Thus when he is alone at home at night and starts seeing faces and arms outside his window and under his bed, it is so frightening because Hideo is such a realistic character. Some other reviews have descrived Hideo as “eccentric” or a “loser”, but he’s neither – he’s quite a normal person like you and me. So which is the scarier notion: getting attacked by fantasy creatures, which we know don’t exist in real life? Or losing your mind, which happens all the time to people in real life?

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○

Uzumaki – Spiral into Horror (うずまき / uzumaki, lit. “spiral” or “vortex”)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Junji Itō
Publisher: Carlsen (originally Shōgakukan)
Years: 2013-2014 (original run 1998-1999)
Number of volumes: 3
Volumes reviewed: 1
Pages per volume: 201
Price per volume: € 7.95
Website: https://www.carlsen.de/serie/uzumaki/33037 (German publisher), https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=6086 (Baka-Updates)
ISBN: 978-3-551-79271-6

The classic horror manga for this year’s review comes from one of the master mangaka of horror, Junji Itō.

The town of Kurōzu is haunted by spirals. In the first chapter, the inhabitant Mr. Saito develops an obsession with all kinds of spirals, collects kimonos with spiral prints, seashells, pottery with spiral designs… but that isn’t enough for him, he wants to become a spiral, and in the end he dies after twisting his body in a spiral shape inside a barrel. In the second chapter, his widow develops a phobia against spirals. In the third chapter, a girl at the local high school is slowly swallowed up by a vortex growing on her forehead (perhaps the most famous image of this manga), etc. etc.

It’s impressive how many variations of the spiral theme Itō comes up with. The episodes are only loosely connected through the high school couple of Kirie (a classmate of the girl from chapter 3) and Shuichi (son of the Saitos), though apparently in later volumes (see e.g. Jason Thompson’s review), an overarching plot emerges. Thus the stories in this first volume have a kind of Tales From The Crypt feeling to them. Their ‘twist’ endings are never funny, but somehow still darkly humorous. A great deal of this gloomy atmosphere is conveyed through Itō’s fine linework with which he subtly varies his characters’ facial expressions.

Scariest moment in vol. 1: when Mrs. Saito, already in hospital due to her fear of spirals, realises she has spirals on her fingertips – her normal papillary ridges – and wants to get rid of them.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○


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.