License request day: Karechi

Have I mentioned how much I prefer rail travel to the indignities of air travel? Have I mentioned how annoyed I get that there are so few rail options in my region of the country?

I’m certain I’ve mentioned how much I like comics about travel. I know there’s ample evidence that I like episodic, slice-of-life manga and would like to read more of it.

So it should come as no surprise that I’m very interested in a series called Karechi, written and illustrated by Kunihiko Ikeda and currently running in Kodansha’s Weekly Morning.

It’s set in the late 1960s and stars a conductor on the then-new high-speed rail line between Osaka and Tokyo. It’s about how Kenji Ogino helps individual passengers, and it’s also about how high-speed rail changed Japan. All evidence indicates that it’s nostalgic in tone, which is another plus for me. And you can even buy a reproduction of the lead character’s uniform.

Isn’t that dapper? I probably couldn’t walk through the club car on a moving train without it ending up looking like tie-dye, but that doesn’t diminish the uniform’s old-school elegance.

Now, I live in a country where governors actually turn down huge amounts of money to develop rail systems for reasons too baffling to credit. (My personal theory is that these governors’ oil-company overlords are petrified that people might actually use these rail systems instead of filling up their cars with gasoline.) But that doesn’t mean we can’t have a few volumes of comics about rail systems, does it?

It probably means exactly that, doesn’t it?


Upcoming 5/11/2011

After last week’s bonanza and Free Comic Book Day over the weekend, it’s tumbleweed time on the Comic List. This drove the Manga Bookshelf crew to an alternative approach to our Pick of the Week, but there are tons of relatively recent books under the microscope in the current Bookshelf Briefs.

Of course, if you depend on Diamond for your manga needs, there is a piece of good news: the seventh volume of Kou Yaginuma’s Twin Spica arrives from Vertical. This series gets better and deeper as it goes along, and it was pretty darn good to start. As a bonus, this volume is about a hundred pages longer than average, and it’s fairly packed with character development and event. Highlights include a summer visit to heroine Asumi’s home town, a training exercise set in a prison, and lots of little revelations about our quintet of would-be astronauts. If forced to identify a failing in this series, I would have to say that Kei (the gung-ho, “energetic” girl of the group) is overdue for some serious examination. She’s still functioning as bossy, easily flustered comic relief, and she needs some nuance.

Oh, and I’ve been meaning to tell you the results of my latest boys’-love blind date: like so many of us sometimes do, I’ve cast aside my usual standards in favor of looks. Yes, in spite of my aversion to BL where the “boys” is literal, I’ve cast my lot with Puku Okuyama’s Warning! Whispers of Love (DMP) based almost entirely on its lively, attractive cover. Thanks to everyone who put in their two cents!


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.


Six to grow on

Viz has certainly delivered some beloved manga to English-reading audiences in their almost-25-year history, haven’t they? Yesterday’s discussion has certainly reinforced that belief. So, by all means, let us extend warm and gracious thanks for the seinen, the shônen, the shôjo, the josei, the fifth genre, and so on!

And yet…

It would not be Friday if I didn’t at least obliquely express a little dissatisfaction with what’s on our shelves, and Viz co-owners Shueisha and Shogakukan certainly aren’t exempt in terms of onus for rectifying perceived shortcomings. So, instead of adding a new, unlicensed title to the pile, I’ll offer a polite but firm reminder of some of the titles these two publishing giants might consider sending through the Viz pipeline.

Bartender, written by Akari Joh and Illustrated by Kenji Nagatomo, currently serialized in Shueisha’s Super Jump. While I hope Vertical’s release of wine epic Drops of God succeeds for its own sake, I hope one of the side effects is that it helps create a market for intoxicant-driven manga like this one. Sure, it’s great to enjoy a cocktail while reading manga, but it would be even better to enjoy a cocktail while reading manga that’s about cocktails.

The Cornered Mouse Dreams of Cheese, written and illustrated by Setona Mizushiro, originally serialized in Shogakukan’s Judy. If you’re looking for someone who can explain to you why there isn’t more Mizushiro manga available in English, you can just keep on looking, because I am not even remotely equipped to do so. It’s honestly hard to pick just one of Mizushiro’s yet-to-be-licensed works, but I settled on this one to add a little boys’-love spice to the mix.

Gokusen, written and illustrated by Kozueko Morimoto, originally serialized in Shueisha’s You. If assembling The Josei Alphabet has led me to no other conclusion, it’s further convinced me that we need more josei in English. By all accounts, this tale of a math teacher trying to get the delinquents at her all-boys’ school on the right path, is funny and sprightly and could certainly reach a fairly diverse audience.

Hime-Chan’s Ribbon, written and illustrated by Megumi Mizusawa, originally serialized in Shueisha’s Ribon. There are almost certainly more important shôjo titles in both Shogakukan and Shueisha’s catalogs that are crying out for licensing, but this one sounds really adorable, and its accessory-driven storytelling might both catch and support the wave that I hope is created by the re-release of Sailor Moon.

Otherworld Barbara, written and illustrated by Moto Hagio, originally serialized in Shogakukan’s Flowers. I give Viz all the credit in the world for being the first stateside publisher to introduce Hagio’s work to readers, but what have they done for us lately? It’s been a long time since Fantagraphics released A Drunken Dream and Other Stories, and I need a new Hagio fix. This award-winning, four-volume series would do the trick.

Witches, written and illustrated by Daisuke Igarashi, originally serialized in Shogakukan’s IKKI. I love Viz’s SigIKKI initiative, but they desperately need to add another substantial, ongoing series to their roster, and I would love it if that series was Witches, because I can star at Igarashi’s illustrations for hours.

So there are my top six Viz-friendly license requests of the moment. What about you? What Shueisha or Shogakukan titles top your wish lists?