Lychee Light Club

David: Kate and I were both planning on writing about Usamaru Furuya’s Lychee Light Club, which arrives courtesy of Vertical this week, and we decided to pool our critical resources. It’s… quite a reading experience, and I think Kate and I have different overall responses to the book. First, though, Kate, would you like to take a stab at summarizing the plot?

Kate: If I were at a cocktail party, and someone I didn’t know very well asked me to describe Lychee Light Club, I might say that it’s about a group of teenage boys who are just beginning to go through puberty. They’ve formed their own secret organization with elaborate rules and rituals, and go to extreme lengths to conceal their activities from outsiders. Among those activities: building Lychee, a robot who’s programmed to find beautiful girls and bring them back to the clubhouse. Not long after his activation, however, Lychee develops a conscience, forming a bond with one of his kidnapping victims and turning against his creators.

Of course, that summary makes Lychee Light Cub sound more coherent and less violent than it is; the boys deal with threatening figures by raping, torturing, and dismembering them, acts that Usamaru Furuya draws in exquisite detail. There’s also a great deal of internal conflict within the Lychee Light Club, as several charismatic boys vie for control of the group. And in true Lord of the Flies fashion, the boys begin turning on each other with a savagery that’s genuinely disturbing.

How’d I do?

David: I think you did very well. It’s a fever dream of adolescent power fantasies manifesting themselves as abominable realities. I think there’s always an element of that in Furuya’s storytelling, and I don’t always have a lot of patience for it. I tend to find that his work is characterized more by flashes of brilliance than sustained craftsmanship.

In this case, though, and in spite of the really strenuous efforts to be shocking, I found this to be the most coherent work of Furuya’s that I read. It’s packed with undeniably revolting moments, but it holds together in ways that something like Genkaku Picasso didn’t. Whether that coherence compensates for the unsavory content is an entirely different question, obviously.

Kate: I wonder if the story’s coherence can be attributed to the fact that Furuya adapted Lychee Light Club from a pre-existing work. (For folks who haven’t read the English edition, Furuya based the story on an experimental play called Tokyo Grand Guignol.) Perhaps working from someone else’s storyline helped Furuya concentrate more on plot mechanics, something he definitely had difficulty doing in Genkaku Picasso. It certainly makes me curious to see what he’ll do with Osamu Dazai’s No Longer Human.

As for the unsavory content… I don’t even know where to start. I understand that the story is intended to be dark satire, to reveal just how hysterical and silly young adolescent boys can be, especially before they know how to approach and interact with girls. But I have a hard time getting on board with that kind of satire when it requires the characters to grossly abuse girls and women. And I have an even harder time embracing that kind of plot device when the author eroticizes the violence against female characters. I’m thinking, in particular, of an early scene in which the boys capture one of their teachers. Though we’re meant to see that the boys’ behavior is a symptom of their depravity, the scene in which they kill her is charged with a thoroughly unpleasant, sexual energy: they fondle her, they strip her, and then they vivisect her, inspecting her internal organs with prurient interest. As a female reader, my own revulsion was so strong that it was hard to push past that scene.

David: That scene definitely constructs a high barrier to the work. I almost wonder if it got so gruesome so early to inform the audience that this was what they were likely to get, and that they might choose to flip past those chapters as they appeared in Manga Erotics F. An issue that may compound the problem of the frankly repulsive acts these kids perpetrate is that, while Lychee Light Club is more structurally coherent than some of Furuya’s other works, that doesn’t mean that it has a sound and consistent philosophy. On one hand, I’m not a fan of entertainments that try and paint aberrant depravity as generational malaise, and this book certainly doesn’t attempt that. But it doesn’t really present any other explanation aside from the malignant influence of a charismatic psychopath. And that’s a problematic starting point for other reasons.

But I’m glad you mentioned the work’s theatrical origins side by side with its offensive content, because the theatricality was key to my appreciation of what I feel like Furuya is doing here. One of the striking things about the book was the very specific theatricality that I took away from it.

By that, I don’t mean that it was melodramatic or extravagant, but that it seemed wedded to certain theatrical conventions. Furuya kept using compositions that suggested proscenium staging to me, a sort of one-set gore opera not unlike Sondheim and Prince’s Sweeney Todd or the sewer scenes in Phantom of the Opera. Even the strange flatness of character and event, no matter how horrible, seemed like a conscious aesthetic choice that a theatrical troupe might assume as their distinguishing shtick. I’m not saying it justifies the gratuitous violence, particularly when it was sexualized, but it did add a layer of distance for me, and it added a certain degree of fascination.

Kate: I agree; the characters’ interactions with one another — especially the boys’ group dynamic — feel like pure stage business, which makes it easier to interpret their behavior as ritual or schtick. I also agree with you that there’s something aesthetically appealing about the way Furuya emphasizes the story’s theatrical roots, both in the way he frames the action and in the way he moves his characters around the “stage”; the boys’ ceremonies reminded me of something out of Young Sherlock Holmes — well, if that movie had been made by Leni Riefenstahl, and not Steven Spielberg.

And yet…

I’m still struggling with my reaction to the way the female characters are treated. Kanon endures less sexual and physical humiliation than the other female characters, yet she’s so saintly that it’s hard to see her as anything more than an adolescent fantasy figure. Maybe that’s the point, but Furuya’s treatment of the other female characters is so despicable that it’s hard to know whether he’s condemning the boys’ behavior or just shrugging his shoulders and saying, “Gosh, that’s just how young teenagers are.”

David: I’m glad you mentioned that shrug, because I view it as a consistent problem in this sub-genre of fiction. When I was in college, it seemed like there was a minor flood of independent films about how awful and amoral teen-agers are, and my consistent reaction to them was always, “Yes? And?” I’ve never thought that merely identifying the depths to which any group of people can sink isn’t sufficient purpose for fiction, no matter how well it’s crafted. When it resorts to a vérité approach to that material, whether it’s a movie like River’s Edge or a graphic novel like Ayako, I feel like there’s nothing to respond to but the bleak appraisal, and that’s always unsatisfying. Lychee at least has the absurd theatricality to elevate it.

But, as you say, that’s not going to be enough to mitigate the effect of violence, particularly the violence against women. And Kanon is a problematic female lead in the sense that she’s very much in that gray area between ambiguous and under-developed. I kept hoping that there was more to her behavior, as I would occasionally detect some suggestion of a larger pattern to her actions, but that never really cohered into anything meaningful. She influenced the outcome of the story, but that was less through agency than it was a result of an incongruous female presence, which is hardly the same thing as an active female character. Does that make sense?

Kate: Absolutely — I think you’ve put your finger on why I struggled so much with the story, even though Kanon is intended to be a sympathetic figure.

Switching gears, I wanted to ask you what you thought of the artwork.

David: I’ve always been taken with Furuya’s art, even when it’s in service of this kind of material. He strikes a really impressive balance between realism and stylization, I think, and that was definitely my impression here.

One thing I have to mention, which is minor but struck me repeatedly in this book: the odd blush that he applies to boys’ lips. It’s such a strange little detail, but I always notice it, and I always find it unsettling in a productive way, at least in this book. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but it landed in this place where it suggested both innocence and horror.

Kate: That small detail with the boys’ lips harkens back to what you said about Lychee Light Club‘s theatricality; it’s as if the characters are wearing stage make-up to make them look even younger and more androgynous.

And speaking of the boys’ appearance, one of the things I found most interesting about Lychee Light Club is the way in which Furuya channels the spirit of Suehiro Maruo. When I first flipped through the book, I was struck by how many of the characters reminded me of an image that appears in Frederick Schodt’s Dreamland Japan. It’s a picture of three schoolboys — one holding a sword, one playing a flute, and one cocking a baseball bat — from Maruo’s Itoshi no Showa (My Beloved Showa Era). Each of the boys represents a different period in modern Japanese history (the Meiji, Taisho, and Showa eras, respectively), and at the end of the story, when a new “sibling” is born into their family, “they take off their masks and reveal themselves as monsters.” Schodt goes on to quote critic Inuhiko Yomota, who characterizes Maruo’s style as “a museum of 20th-century kitsch art” for the way in which Maruo synthesizes Nazi symbolism, traditional Japanese woodblock prints, and Taisho and Showa-era graphic design into a coherent visual language.

I think that “museum” metaphor is an apt way to describe Furuya’s style as well. In Short Cuts, for example, he proved that he could mimic just about any manga-ka’s style in service of a good joke; he pokes fun at Leiji Matsumoto and Osamu Tezuka with beautifully drawn panels that not only reproduce the characters from Galaxy 999 and Astro Boy, but also the sensibility of those comics — the linework, the density of images, the application of screentone. In Lychee Light Club, Furuya does something similar with Maruo’s work, though the prevailing spirit is different: the character designs, extreme violence, and “unmasking” of the boys in the final act of the story seem like explicit homage to Maruo, rather than a playful jab at established masters.

David: That’s so interesting, and it helps some things click for me. I think I noticed a similar kind of curatorial bent in Furuya’s Palepoli strips in Secret Comics Japan. I always find creators more interesting when they have a wider frame of reference, so to see Furuya fusing theatrical conventions and Maruo homage with his own sensibility is very satisfying, in a way. I just feel like artists are almost always automatically better when they have interests beyond their specific creative spheres and when they can drawn on these interests to inform their work while still maintaining their specific point of view. The ability to synthesize a range of elements from all over high and low culture while still creating something unique is quite impressive to me.

Of course, if it’s in service of fairly repulsive material, that may not be enough to salvage the reading experience. It did for me, but I certainly understand that it probably won’t for many, many people. Which brings me to a tricky question: to whom would you recommend this book, if you would recommend it at all? It’s interesting to me that Vertical would publish a book like this. There’s certainly been no shortage of aggressively shocking material in their other releases (Felipe Smith’s Peepo Choo and Tezuka’s MW and Ayako come to mind), but Lychee Light Club seems to be on a different taste plane altogether.

Kate: Good question — and one I feel unqualified to answer, since a formulation as glib as “fans of Suehiro Maruo’s work!” only addresses a tiny fraction of Lychee Light Club‘s potential audience. But if I had to take a stab at recommending it, I’d say it would be of interest to anyone who was intrigued by the darker stories in AX: An Alternative Manga Anthology (e.g. Kaizuichi Hanawa’s “Six Paths of Wealth”).

David: I think that’s an excellent answer. I like it even better because I don’t have an answer of my own.

On the subject of marketing, I noticed an intriguing tag line in Vertical’s house ad for Jiro Matsumoto’s Velveteen and Mandala, which asserted that “the manga renaissance continues.” I quite liked that sentiment, particularly as it relates to Vertical’s catalog. It’s ambitious, and not every book is right for every reader, but Vertical does make very ambitious choices, and their selection does have something for many different demographics, from kids who like funny cats to hardcore otaku.