Manga Friday: The Outer Limits
My reading has been rejuvenated over the past couple of weeks by infusions from the Eisner Overmind – I’m a judge this year, and so I’m reading ahead in preparation for the big judging weekend coming up at the end of March – in particular by these three recent, and unique, manga volumes. All are complete stories in themselves, which seems rare for manga, and they range pretty far – from each other, and from the well-trodden paths of shonen and shojo.
By Hideo Azuma
Fanfare/Ponent Mon, October 2008, $22.99
Azuma has worked in manga since 1969, and is known as the father of “Lolicon.” He created many long, popular series for the Japanese market – Futari To Gonin and Fujouri Nikki, for example – over several decades. But this is something different.
In 1989, Azuma ran away from his home and work, and lived as a homeless man for months. He did it again in 1992. And then in 1998, he was forced into rehab to recover from his alcoholism. Disappearance Diary is the story of those three times in his own life – a memoir comic of some very dark moments.
But Disappearance Diary isn’t dark at all; Azuma uses his normal sunny style, and so – as he says in the first panel, “this manga has a positive outlook on life, and so it has been made with as much realism removed as possible.” Azuma draws these stories in a style just this side of superdeformed: his characters are squat, with chunky hands and feet and legs that splay out to the side as they walk (for that “Keep on Truckin’” feel).
The first section of Disappearance Diary is “Walking at Night,” the story of his 1992 episode. He was off in strange countryside in November, supposedly researching a new project, but he just went into the woods and started living there. Azuma narrates these stories in the voice of the man he was then, so there’s no explanation or excuses – he’s just gotten fed up with other people, and ran away from them all. He lives rough, but gets better at it – eventually discovering a supermarket where he can trash-pick decent food. He tries to only go out at night, to avoid people. And his life revolves around finding cigarettes, food, and – though he doesn’t stress this, and it would be easy to miss – alcohol. Sometime after he settles into this life, a chance encounter with the police sends him back home to his wife.
And, somehow, for whatever reason, he stayed there, and went back to work – as if nothing had happened. (Or maybe not; remember that this is a work with “realism removed,” so the details of any unpleasant scenes are kept off the page.
And then it’s 1992, and “Walking Around Town” details Azuma’s second walkabout. This time, he ran off in April, and wasn’t quite as misanthropic – he talked to some people (though, as far as he tells us, not his wife or anyone from his old life). And, oddly, by the time the summer came he had a new job as a pipe-fitter – a job which he did pretty well, and started getting increasing responsibility for. But, then – in another transition he skims over – he quits that job and… “since I had nothing to do I went back to drawing manga.” The end of this section sees Azuma giving a very quick account of his earlier career, and increasing drinking, to lead into the third part.
By the opening of “Alcoholic Days,” Azuma is a mess – he spends all of 1998 drunk – drinking to get up in the morning, to get through the day, instead of eating. Finally, at the end of the year, his wife has him forcibly committed to a psychiatric hospital, and he begins the long process of drying out. This is the shortest section of Disappearance Diary, and is taken up mostly with personality sketches of the other patients – and, through that, a look at the psychology of alcoholism.
There’s a tension throughout Disappearance Diary – the style is always at odds with the substance. Azuma frankly admits to being suicidal at least once in each story – in fact, he tries and fails (miserably, with no serious effects) at suicide once – but he doesn’t dwell on it, or on his troubled mental state. Disappearance Diary might be a monument to repression, or to putting things firmly in the past – I’m not sure which. But it’s both entertaining and troubling, and a book that sticks in the mind long after it’s done.
By Yuichi Yokoyama
Picturebox, December 2008, $19.95
Three figures board a train, walk down its length, settle into seats, and travel across a complicated, ever-changing, carefully detailed and often baffling landscape. Not a word is spoken.
For two hundred pages.
And then they reach their stop, where they get off the train and walk to the shore of a choppy, turbulent sea.
Travel almost feels like an artifact of the ‘70s, with its chilly angular backgrounds, expressionless oval faces, and obsessive focus on sightlines and viewpoints. But it’s actually from 2005 – first published in France, actually, despite Yokoyama’s being Japanese. It does make sense that France would be the first home to a book like Travel; it’s a country that has always had respect for uncompromising artists (as well as uncompromising everything else).
Travel is not a conventional narrative; it has faces rather than characters, surfaces rather than dialogue, and events that do not add up to a plot. But it captures the feel of a long train ride – the changing light, the different views, even that stuttering moment when two cars pass and the faces opposite blink past – with a casual brutality and cold preciseness that’s intoxicating. It’s easily one of the best manga of the year, even if the vast majority of manga readers would dislike it.
The Quest for the Missing Girl
By Jiro Taniguchi
Fanfare/Ponent Mon, December 2008, $25.00
There’s a kind of mystery novel where the hero – either a professional detective of some kind, or, more often, a private citizen pulled into events he didn’t expect – gets called out from his refuge to do some favor to people, or a person, that he knew long before. That hero inevitably had retreated from the wider world, and this favor – finding something, finding someone, retrieving something, whatever – drags him back into the darkest corners of that world. Luckily, his skills are always just enough to get him through – though usually not without damage, to him or to the people he’s trying to help.
The Quest for the Missing Girl is that kind of mystery in comics form. Taniguchi’s hero is Shiga, a Japanese mountaineer called down to Tokyo to search for Megumi, the fifteen-year-old daughter of his dead best friend Sakamoto. Shiga of course has conflicted feelings about Megumi and Sakamoto and Yoriko – the mother of the one and widow of the other – since that’s how stories like this work. Shiga is sure that Sakamoto died, in a climb in the Himalayas, because Shiga wasn’t there, and so he has a debt to pay.
So Shiga tries to track Megumi, getting no help from the police and active hostility from her school. He quickly learns that she’s fallen in with a bad influence, another girl named Maki Ohara, and had been spending a lot of time in the Shibuya district, in the bars and karaoke parlors. Missing Girl would make a lousy straight mystery, because there are no red herrings – it takes Shiga a few days, but he finds out what happened to Megumi without going down any blind alleys.
Megumi had been prostituting herself, at least some of the time, to older businessmen, and – the night she disappeared – she and Maki met one rich guy, and Megumi went away with him. Shiga then soon figures out who that man must be…and, inevitably, it’s someone the police can’t touch without impeccable evidence.
And Megumi is being held by him, in an inaccessible location. And so, in the best tradition, Shiga’s greatest skill is precisely what he needs. You can figure out the ending from there, I assume.
Taniguchi’s art is exceptionally clean, in the tradition of Ryoichi Ikegami – slightly cartoony but believable characters in front of utterly realistic, impeccably rendered backgrounds, all bristling with a million absolutely precise lines. His writing is equally clear and professional, but, possibly, equally second-hand. Missing Girl is a gripping read, with a hero to root for and a soiled dove to be saved – but I’ve seen this Chandleresque story many, many times before, and Taniguchi doesn’t turn it to his own purposes and make it clearly his own as he needed to. It’s a fine story, well told – but it’s a very familiar story.
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
Publishers who would like to submit books for review should contact ComicMix through the usual channels or email Andrew Wheeler directly at acwheele (at) optonline (dot) net.