The festival of dolls

Hinamatsuri is a manga about a powerful young psychic who’s adopted by a yakuza gang member. You might think it’s an action series fill of violent battles, secret conspiracies, and barely disguised metaphors comparing child soldiers to the academic pressure placed on modern Japanese kids. However, it’s actually a comedy about the daily nothings in the lives of a group of slackers and screw-ups.

The main character mostly eats, sleeps, and watches TV, while she uses her powers to move her video game controller so she can keep her hands free for eating potato chips. Of the people sent to capture her, one ends up homeless and sleeping in the park, while the other almost starves to death in a crappy apartment because she ran out of money. Her adoptive yakuza father accidentally gets her to attack a rival gang, but otherwise the most he’s done to exploit her is to use her existence to elicit a sympathy date from a woman he was pursuing.

Wisely, the author knows how superb the side characters are and does not hesitate to shift focus to them. Over time the series becomes more of an ensemble comedy. For instance, there’s a running gag about the protagonist’s 13 year old classmate that begins with her accidentally getting a job as a bartender and slowly builds up over time, culminating in the classmate being trained as a sniper at a Special Forces boot camp.

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The gray world

Princess Ran in her Nike sneakers cutting her way through the vines to her sleeping prince

I’m currently reading Ran and the Gray World, which is a manga about a girl growing up in a family of sorcerers. It’s a whimsical and beautiful magical realist story, like one of the more child-oriented Hayao Miyazaki films. The manga contains scenes of childlike exuberance on the one hand, and scenes of terror and crushing sorrow on the other, but the tone never feels dissonant. Describing more of the plot would make the story sound nonsensical – like I said, it’s magical realist – but it does hold together with its own internal logic.

I think the series does a good job of showing how kids can handle more than adults tend to give them credit for. The art is wonderful, so the manga is enjoyable just on the visual level, but I do like how well it shows the eternal resiliency of children. I can see why it’s big in Japan.

Boy meets girl

Yui and Yuuta at different stages of their lives: from elementary to middle school to high school.

I started reading a new manga, Shishunki Bitter Change, which is about a boy and a girl inexplicably swapping bodies back in grade school. Which makes it sound like a lot of other body swap stories, but instead of taking place over a single wacky weekend, the status quo has still not reverted years later. In fact, by the latest issue the kids are in high school and still hoping that they’ll wake up in their correct bodies.

The series is also not comedy, but is more about the ways the kids cope with their new bodies over the years. The conflicts are small and low key: The girl feels down that the boy is getting her first period, the boy feels left out when the girl and his best friend discuss boxers versus briefs. The two meet everyday and tell each other about the life that the other is living for them, and they promise each other that they’ll live the best possible life for the other person to return to. It’s very sweet and sad and I’m guessing from the title that this series won’t have the ending the protagonists want.

An interesting point to consider is that this began as a webcomic. I know of other body swap stories, but this is the only one I’ve come across that focused so much on issues of identity instead of getting caught up in plot shenanigans about posing as one’s own boyfriend or that kind of thing. The tone reminds me of Onani Master Kurosawa, another webcomic turned into a manga, in its quiet realness.

Anyway, I do recommend checking this thing out. A quick google will reveal all to the curious.

Uhh . . .

This is seriously one of the most batshit synopses I’ve ever read:

Akikaze Cosmos is a regular elementary student who also helps take care of the hostel that her mom operates in the town of Hanami. She is incredibly responsible for her age and seems much more mature than the other older residents of the hostel, like the high school girl Soyokaze, the college drunk Sonoko, and the pervert Raita. Everything about this hostel and the town of Hanami seems normal except that everything outside of the town is a nuclear desert where no one is allowed to enter. But when Cosmos unwillingly wanders into the lifeless desert, she is somehow transformed into a magical angel.

The Angel of Future History

Alita, the cyborg angel rising from the scrapheap of history

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another new recommendation. This one isn’t very obscure but it’s rather old, so it might have fallen off the radar by now. The manga I’m talking about is called Battle Angel Alita. It’s about an amnesiac cyborg making her way in a post-post-apocalyptic world, which is to say a world where the end has ended and a grimier, crappier version of civilization has been cobbled together.

There’s a formula to this type of thing: mysterious hints at the origin of the protagonist, savage battles of survival rendered in loving detail, betrayals, reversals, friendships, death. Alita follows that formula to the letter.

Still, I only started reading Alita on the recommendation of the fellow who makes the webcomic Gunnerkrigg Court – read that posthaste, by the way – so I knew there was something to the manga. And it delivered on that front as well.

Picture a murderous rollerball tournament played by cyborgs (and don’t overthink the premise). Picture our heroine fighting with gritted teeth and desperate urgency. Then picture genuine character growth in the midst of this frenetic shounen action sequence. Whilst reading I had to stop and take a moment to admire what the comic was doing.

There’s a reason James Cameron is making noises about doing a live action adaptation. I think the story is best early on, when its setting and its conflicts are smaller and more immediate. The latter portion of the series isn’t bad but by the end too many battles have passed by to give the climax its proper narrative weight. Apparently the author was dissatisfied with the original ending (something about being ill at the time) and has rebooted the series as Battle Angel Alita: Last Order. I’m only talking about the first series and have no idea if the semi-continuation is any good.

The English translation is from that older era when translators would put more of a stamp on the finished product. For example, in Japanese the protagonist’s name is Gally and the series is called GUNM. I prefer the alliteration of the alternate title, and honestly, what the hell is a GUNM?

Overall, I would suggest reading at the very least through the first four volumes. That’s what made this series one of the early seinen sensations in English. Give the manga a skim, let its images assault you, allow its battles to excite you, and imagine what it would have been like to see this kind of thing for the first time in translation. This series is remembered for a reason.

World without end

Cover to Volume 3 of Eden: It's an Endless World

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eden: It’s an Endless World is one of the standout manga in my many years of experience with the medium. I’ve wanted to write about this series for years. It’s just taken me this long to digest its ideas, as you can see from the meandering summary I wrote a while back. The story is so big and its scope so grand that I’m daunted at the idea of ever reading the series again, but it’s also so compelling that I know I will revisit this manga someday.

Eden is a science fiction story about a world where the apocalypse didn’t happen, which is to say that it’s a science fiction story about our world.

In this cyberpunk future the Closure virus has ravaged humanity, killing two percent of the global population (which, let us be reminded, means the death of millions). The old order is dead, and the new order – the New World Order of the conspiracy theorists – has descended upon humanity in the form of the leviathan named Propater. Opposing Propater are an eclectic mix of drug lords, terrorists, and gangsters.  Mostly they fight not out of ideological zeal but because they also want their cut.

The near-apocalypse of the setting invites millenarianism in its fictional universe, which the story covers extensively. In fact, the series draws heavily on Gnosticism, though not gratuitously and not gratingly. It’s possible to enjoy the manga without having any idea of the theological significance of aions, for instance.

The creator, Hiroki Endo, is an unrepentant leftist, and his politics suffuses every page. This is the only manga I know of which invites readers to check out Noam Chomsky in the appendix. The story is better for being overtly political. Otherwise it would be the type of reactionary fantasy that makes vague calls to fight for great justice while being so naive and so divorced from the everyday that it invites the opposite action. It’s heavily cyberpunk in that it’s a science fiction story distrustful of the establishment, but it also avoids the provincialism of much of cyberpunk. Be it New York, Los Angeles, or Neo-Tokyo, the classic cyberpunk stories are rooted in particular and specific urban geographies.

By contrast, this manga spans the globe, from brothels in Peru to private schools in Australia, with the story being the most compelling when it deals with the dispossessed. The manga even touches upon what the Zapatistas call the Fourth World, or the indigenous peoples so far out of the orbit of the powerful that they don’t fit into the totalizing categories of First and Third World.

As well, Endo is fascinated by the interface between humanity and its technology, personified in the form of the cyborg. He’s fond of images like the one above, where the hard and mechanical is revealed underneath the feminine and organic.

As you may guess, the subject matter guarantees that this manga is full of violence, but of the more grounded type. This is an example of the seinen genre, which is targeted at men. I guess it might be characterized as a thriller in the vein of a more leftist Spartan or Ronin.

This is not a story for everyone, but at times it felt like it was made for me. Perhaps I misspoke when I said that I’ve taken years to digest the ideas in this story, for I’m still grappling with them. Too many action stories and too many manga retreat into fantasies of empowerment and away from actual political engagement. It’s refreshing to read one that faces the political head on.

It is accomplished

I have finally watched all non-filler episodes of Bleach. I’ve been watching this show for most of the 21st century, so realize that I feel like I’ve hit some kind of personal milestone. A dumb and inconsequential milestone, but still one nevertheless. Like many other anime series in the genre of boys’ action (shounen, for the initiated), it dragged on for far too long, not least because the anime’s production of episodes quickly outpaced the manga’s story. Yes, the anime was based on a comic book series that wasn’t finished yet.

The ending didn’t feel essential. The final bit is basically a season-long epilogue, with the real ending being the one two seasons ago where the actual central villain was defeated.

But, it’s done now, so kudos to Kubo Tite for joining the ranks of creators who have successfully brought a long-running series to a close. I’m just glad I can finally cross this entry from my lifetime list of unfinished stories. Onwards to the next one.

‘Nuff Said

A line from an online customer review on a manga I was looking at:

Someone is nearly gang raped or implied to have been gang raped in every volume.

I guess that answers the question of whether I want to read this series. And in case you were wondering, the manga is called Arachnid.

Harem Manga Maker

Crunchyroll, a streaming service for anime and live action Japanese drama, is now tentatively branching out into manga. The selection is very small right now and I don’t see anything there I must absolutely read. Plus, I already took out a 12 month anime membership anyway.

Curiously, though, Crunchyroll is also offering for sale a program called ComiPo!, which claims to be something for non-artists to make their own manga with. You create 3D models of your own characters by picking their bodies, hair styles, clothes, and so on, then placing them picking the environment and the camera angle for each panel in your manga. Of course, you’ll have to supply your own story.

All this is well and good, but apparently most of the stock characters are female and most of the settings are in school, meaning the program is mostly for creating high school stories. I’d like to think there might be some good female-oriented stories being made with this system but I rather suspect there are a lot more insipid male fantasy harem series. You know, where the male protagonist has the personality of a formless blob who girls find inexplicably attractive.

But hey, plop down $50 and you can be making your own brand of shitty manga right in your own home.