Monday, November 17, 2008

Short reviews

Gyo v. 1-2 (complete) by Junji Ito

I wanted to read this series when it was out of print, so I'm glad to see this new edition. The first volume is kind of funny, as I had heard would be the case. It's hard not to laugh at a shark scurrying through a house on little mechanical crab legs. But overall, it's a somewhat funny idea stretched to the point of tedium: there's only so many times you rely on an army of walking fish as sufficient spectacle to avoid having anything else happen. Especially since the protagonist's shrieky girlfriend was the only thing punctuating the monotonous fish-walking.

The second volume, however, is a lot more interesting, as the disease/parasite/evil spirit moves from fish to human, with absolutely disgusting results. The climax comes with a simultaneously ridiculous and horrifying circus performance. Shortly after this we get probably the most revolting image of the entire series, delivered in such an offhand way that it magnifies what would already be one of the most awful thing I've ever seen in a comic book. (And I mean "awful" in a non-pejorative way.)

There's some suggestion that unaffected humans are going to push back against the disease/whatever, and a few suggestions that there's a mystery afoot regarding immunity to the disease. But Ito chooses to end the story shortly after broaching these topics. It's an odd choice, but it's probably better to see him blow all his wild ideas in two volumes rather than try to stretch them out over 1000+ pages. It's kind of like a short Lovecraft story now, except that we're fortunate that Ito's art tells the story rather than Lovecraft's words. If Lovecraft had written Gyo, it would probably read something like this:

"The fish walked decayingly across the impractical and ugly bamboo floor. The human male Nipponese, being somewhat more sturdy of mind than his other mongolian cousins, found his mind a-disturbed by the loud spectacle. He put down his opium pipe and spake, 'Ah-so, meester fish. You-a want to wark in my hut? I put-a you in my berry! Wife number one? Bling me empty rice bag so I can catch this fish!' The piscene ambulator, unimpressed by this asiatic claptrap, matriculated along eldritchly."

Travel by Yuichi Yokoyama

I'll probably save my more detailed thoughts on this for my best of 2008 list (yes, work has commenced and Travel will be on it). For now, I'd like to point out how intimate this book is, at least when compared to last year's New Engineering. The latter was a surprisingly large book, its big pages filled with scenes of artificial landscape construction and battles between oddly dressed people, using things like books and the contents of a refrigerator as weapons. Travel is in a much smaller format, and its subject matter is totally relatable: a train trip. Jog's review suggests (somewhat facetiously?) that Yokoyama is a crypto-humanist. I actually found a surprising degree of humanity and hope in even New Engineering, and I see it even more clearly in Travel.

Bat-Manga by...uh, let's not get into that, actually

Finally got a chance to read this, and I have to say: I have no idea who's going to be buying this book for the non-manga stuff. I mean, I have a pretty good idea who Chip Kidd and Pantheon think will be buying this book: people whose domiciles are strewn with Batman: TAS maquettes, lithographs of Harley Quinn drawn by Alex Ross, the Absolute edition of Hush, etc. But here's the thing: obviously I haven't met everyone who fits this target demographic, but those who I do know have little interest in or patience for the 1960s TV Batman. And all the pictures of various Japanese Bat-toys all feature hilariously weird art based on Adam West's version of Batman.

Of course, there are undoubtedly completists who have sacrificed heroic portions of their lives and income collecting everything with a bat logo on it. Those people will love the pictures of amusing toy packaging. The problem here, however, is that those people (a) don't comprise a significant portion of the English-speaking populace, or even the potential audience for this book, and (b) probably would have preferred to have more of the toy stuff, possibly with an index/checklist. This is not to say they wouldn't enjoy the manga; it's more to say that they might have preferred two different books, one devoted to Japanese bat-ephemera, and another devoted to the manga by Jiro Kuwata.

If they're like me, they might also prefer better treatment for the Kuwata material. Here it's been presented as another type of ephemera, down to the high-resolution photographs of the pages which make the manga look like recently-exhumed papyrus scrolls. I usually like this approach, particularly as seen in the Chip Kidd-designed Jack Cole/Plastic Man book from a few years ago. Here, though, it's strangely fetishistic, as though the manga as an artifact of Japanese bat-mania is more important than the content of the work. But if that really were the case, why did Kidd include so much of it?

The obvious answer is that it's very good. It certainly beats the hell out of 99% of the Batman stories I've ever read, possibly because they don't read like typical American Batman stories. Instead, they almost bear a greater resemblance to EC comics, particularly those from the sci-fi and crime lines. Kuwata's Batman is infinitely less compelling than his villains; he mostly lends stability and a narrative framework to all these stories. I can't remember much about Batman from these comics, but Lord Death Man, a mutated governor, and a much creepier version of Clayface linger in my mind. It's an approach which reminds me a little of Fist of the North Star. Each episode of that series was ostensibly about Kenshiro's search for his fiancee or brothers or something, but the focus of any given episode was actually on the villain of the week, whose arms, legs, and/or head will inevitably explode in the big fight at the end of the episode. In between Kenshiro asking about his lost family members and the limb detonation sequence, we get to focus on each villain's baroque approach to evil--vampirism, military-themed torture, whatever. They were always more interesting than Kenshiro, and they all ended up dead or crippled by the end. In other words, they never came back.

That doesn't appear to be entirely the case here--Clayface makes two appearances--but, generally speaking, these seem to be one-off villains. It's such a fresh and interesting approach that it makes me wonder if superhero comics in North America would have benefited from a more diversely villain-centric approach. In any event, the manga sections of Bat-Manga are well worth your time, and maybe, hopefully, we'll see an actual archival reproduction of these comics one of these days.

Real v. 1 and Slam Dunk v. 1, both by Takehiko Inoue

Slam Dunk is kind of like the distillation of everything I loved about anime (didn't read manga at the time) when I was a teenager: angry-yet-romantic high school student struggles in an alien field to impress classmate. Hilarity ensues. This, of course, doesn't give Inoue nearly enough credit. Main character Hanamichi is the best possible shonen hero, a character whose monumental ambition is directly proportionate to his equally monumental delusion; whose interest in the BIG SELF IMPROVEMENT GOAL is predicated on entirely self-serving (and yet kind of mundane) desire; whose solution for every possible problem is violence. And best of all, you don't actually have to like basketball to enjoy Slam Dunk! It's not that I have anything against basketball per se; I'd much rather watch it than a lot of sports (soccer, hockey, and golf spring immediately to mind) or nerdy blogger favorites like Dr. Who or Battlestar Galactica or whatever. But I've never been as interested in basketball as (American) football, baseball, or combat sports. Or even tennis, actually.

Which is why it's sort of strange that I actually preferred Real, Inoue's grown-up (big boy format and everything!) series about wheelchair basketball. The protagonists of Real are obsessed with basketball, unwilling or unable to give it up despite their circumstances. This is a book about absolute passion; you have to buy into Nomiya Tomomi and Togawa Kiyoharu's absolute obsession with the sport to appreciate Real. There are other obsessions as well; for instance, Nomiya is plagued by guilt for his role in a traffic accident which left a young woman paralyzed. Nomiya is actually kind of like an inverted Hanamachi Sakuragi from Slam Dunk: while Hanamachi only plays basketball to attract the attention of Haruko, Nomiya's obsession with basketball turns off even his teammates. Even after being expelled from school (thus depriving him of the competition he craves), Nomiya is unable to let go of his passion for basketball. It's this passion that leads him to take an interest in Togawa Kiyohara, an outstanding wheelchair basketball player.

This could all be very schmaltzy in the wrong hands, but Inoue has taken several steps to avoid this sort of thing. First, Nomiya is in no position to be a mentor to Togawa; he's about the same age and is too impulsive (and in contrast to Hanamachi, Nomiya loses his fights). As for Togawa and his cohorts, they're not the Mighty Ducks in wheelchairs; if anything, they're mentally tougher than Nomiya. But this isn't a story of Nomiya's self-discovery by way of learning from the disabled, either. Togawa is no magical paraplegic; he has his own problems and negative traits as well. So that seems to be setting us up for some kind of parallel story of growth, each protagonist learning from the other. But at the end of the first volume, Inoue introduces a wild card in the form of Takahashi Hisanobu, a former teammate of Nomiya's who is hit by a truck, thus paralyzing him from the waist down.

I haven't read the second volume of Real yet, but it's pretty clear that Takahashi will be somehow involved in wheelchair basketball, either as a teammate of or a rival to Togawa. I'm not sure about Takahashi yet. His character was the most stock of all these--there wasn't much to him besides "asshole jock," making me worry that his journey towards acceptance of his condition/determination to transcend it would be similarly generic. But his final scene in the first volume adds a degree of vulnerability and sadness that strips away the sentimentalism one might normally associate with this sort of character arc. His presence might change the dynamic of the Nomiya-Togawa relationship, and that could be better for Real in the long run.

So for right now, I do think Slam Dunk is more entertaining, but Real has more potential. There are a number of scenes where Inoue really seems to be onto something in his mixture of personal tragedy and sports obsession. In particular, a sequence involving a dying teammate of Togawa's is particularly affecting. The young man expresses the comfort he gets by merely holding a basketball, feeling the pebbled texture on his fingers. He thinks to himself that even this pleasure will soon elude him, as he will lose the strength to hold the ball over his head. The scene ends with him regretting his delay in buying a basketball, but resolving to cherish the remaining time he has to feel it in his hands.

I found this particularly moving, and it's the sort of thing I hope to see more of in future volumes. Even those with no interest in basketball or sports in general should be able to appreciate the tension between fleeting moments of pleasure and the tragic lurch of the future.


Anonymous said...

At the end of of Gyo there appear to be two more very short stories to pad out the second book. The first one is quite a bit of meh but the second one, 'the enigma of amigari fault' might be Itto's best story yet.

Dick Hyacinth's Ghost said...

Yeah, I liked that story too. I think it's a good example of what horror comics can do well--not scary, but very, very unsettling.