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Imaizumi, intrigued and more than a little annoyed by Onoda’s seemingly effortless mastery of climbing the steepest of hills on a completely POS bike, challenges our hero to a race. With a special incentive to sweeten the deal.
And so this brings us to the first “conflict” of the story. Already you can feel the seeds of a certain dynamic being planted that will define the relationship between these two characters. Or will it?
And thus, as if we had any doubt before, we have a full-fledged shonen series on our hands. Is the idea of “genre” in anime and manga defined by age and sex of the principle characters (or by the age- and sex-specific experiences they go through)? Well, that’s often the case, so it’s tempting to see that as a hard and fast rule. But the demographics of the readership/audience also plays a big role in determining what’s labeled as shonen, shoujo, seinen, etc. In reality, it’s probably a combination of the content of the story and the make-up of the audience that decides which of these genres a title will get pigeonholed into. As if any of that really matters, all things considered (genre is, quite often, a meaningless signifier that discourages original thought and narrows the scope of what kind of stories a person will even consider reading at all). A good story is a good story, no matter who it’s about or who it’s “aimed” at, which means less to audiences of a geeky-persuasion today than ever before.
What I like about Yowamushi Pedal so far (among other things) is that our protagonist is an actual underdog, one whose abilities are certainly promising, but are untested and certainly not strong enough to instantly place him in the upper tiers of “strength” compared to the other characters of his world. His natural talents for bicycle riding — not to be confused with bicycle racing — definitely give him a lot of potential to improve. Maybe this will be the focus of the rest of the story? We’ll certainly see.
I should mention that I have watched the debut episode of Yowamushi Pedal (aka YowaPedal?) and I definitely do have thoughts on it, but I plan on blogging a few more chapters first and watching more than one episode before attempting to compare the two. I definitely wish that I’d found this series sooner, since I don’t want to get caught up in the constant temptation to simply compare the manga to the anime as it’s airing, or to read and blog the manga at a pace that stays ahead of the story as it’s being told from week to week on television. Heck, will I even want to continue blogging the manga as long as the animated series is being aired? I’m interested in both, but that might make for a lot of redundant content on this blog. I guess this is all a long-winded way of saying that I have no idea how I’ll continue to approach blogging about this series, but I’m confident that I will continue to in one way or another.
So what’s the best way to do this? Post a chapter summary? No one wants to read that. Post my “impressions” of the chapter? For the longest time I’ve hated that approach whenever I see it on blogs like this. Why? I’m not sure. Whatever my reason for feeling like that is, it probably says more about myself than it actually does about other fans and the approach they take to blogging about their favorite anime or manga. This is actually something I really want to talk about because it’s been a big part of my whole blogging experience. But I’ll get around to that later, maybe.
I read the first 4 or 5 chapters of Yowamushi Pedal all at once, so it’s probably misleading or dishonest of me to try to break each down into a single experience. I will say that I enjoyed this chapter a lot. That much is probably obvious. If reading an early chapter like this was anything but enjoyable, would I have bothered to stick around for any more? Anyway, I do want to mention two specific points about this manga that really come to light in chapter 2.
I’m a terrible artist and my inability to draw a picture that, in any way, shape or form, even resembles the subject which it is supposed to depict, is so serious that I’ve often wondered if it’s symptomatic of some kind of undiagnosed metal disease or significant brain injury. That’s particularly troublesome for myself given how much I love artsy-fartsy stuff, including comics, film, and all kinds of visual arts and design. Furthermore, I’d like to talk about art, and not just the ideas behind it, but the technical qualities of it as well. I don’t know if I have any business doing this. But I might try.
The “art style” of Yowamushi Pedal is very typical of manga in general and many of its most common and traditional conventions. The panel on the right depicts one of the characters — Shunsuke, an experienced and competitive freshman determined to overcome a recent loss against a rival cyclist — in a very dynamic scene. This is one of those full-page panels illustrating the page bearing the title of a chapter, where manga artists will usually go above and beyond the usual level of detail that’s reserved for the “regular” pages of the story. The first chapter opened with a similar sequence of detailed drawings, also depicting one of the characters in an exciting cycling race. Here, Shunsuke is simply in training, but the artist’s work is still done to great effect, not only establishing his determination as one of the defining traits of his character, but also portraying the sport in a dynamic and exciting light.
Pages later, we get this:
This is not a “bad” drawing but it lacks the realistic qualities of the former panel. And it’s, for lack of a better word, sorta rough-looking. Why is this so? I like to think that this was all a choice on the part of the artist. After all, the panel still gets the job done, the “quirks” working to draw out particular qualities of the two characters in ways that a “perfect” rendition would leave rather ambiguous, while lending a lighthearted tone to some of the scenes that rely heavily on dialogue. These two different “styles” — if it’s correct to even call them different “styles” at all — are integrated together well enough that their juxtaposition never bothered me. Then again, I enjoy a pretty big range of art styles, from crisp and detailed “realistic” works to the look of significantly less-pained visuals more accepting of “imperfections” that would seem out of place in the former. Looks like we’re going to get some of each in this story but so long as it obeys certain laws of visual consistency and such, that shouldn’t be a problem. In fact, it could be a very effective technique! But like I said, I’m not an artist and have no training in this stuff so if this all sounds like a bunch of hot air, then that’s probably because it is. I’m trying to learn the “rules” of comics on my own. We’ll see how well that works out.
The other point or topic that I’d like to mention is the characterization of the lead protagonist. The last few pages of this chapter focus on Onoda and show us a side of him that, I fear, may turn certain readers off from him as a character. His reaction to a confrontation with a teacher reveals the depth of his beta-male nature and the resentment he holds toward anyone he perceives as establishing dominance over him. This is meant to inspire empathy in the reader. I wonder how many readers will have quite the opposite reaction to him instead? It’s shocking how often fans of anime and manga will turn against a character for showing any sign of weakness, often to the point of rejecting the entire story rather than even trying to identify with or understand said character. Yes, I know that this kind of attitude is somewhat of an Internet phenomenon and probably a Western one at that. But I still wonder how this is going to play out among typical readers who expect a certain level of badass ‘tude in their lead dudes. This probably sounds like I have an axe to grind with a certain kind of fan, but I realize that’s always been the case with all kinds of storytelling mediums and that there’s nothing anyone can do about it aside from learning to tell when it’s best to ignore other people’s opinions. All I’m saying is that I hope he’s well-received as a character, but I won’t be surprised if 4chan /a/-bros label him a worthless faggot or something after one episode.
I’d hope to have more entries like this finished before Yowamushi Pedal‘s first episode would make its debut. That’s tonight, by the way, so it’ll probably show up on Crunchyroll pretty soon. I don’t know when I’m going to start watching or how much of the manga I’ll finish before tuning in. I wish I would have planned this better.
I’ve never attempted something like this before. I’ve no idea if I’ll be able to stick with it or not. But here goes.
I don’t read much manga. It’s not that I don’t like it. Far from it! It’s just that I’ve grown lazy over the past few years and haven’t taken the time to dive into books for pleasure like I used to. That goes for fiction, nonfiction, comics, pretty much everything. I guess I could take this opportunity to investigate why that is but I think my time would be better spent actually reading. And lo and behold, I just found a manga that, for the first time in a while, I’m feeling very motivated to read and also talk about. If you haven’t figured it out already, that manga is Yowamushi Pedal.
This is one of those stories that, judging from the cover and the opening pages, is quick to give away certain plot details that, ideally, shouldn’t be spoiled for the reader up front. I guess it’s almost unheard of for any kind of story, whether it’s a book or a film or a TV series, to shroud itself in mystery and not foreshadow anything at all about the the turns it might take after the opening chapters. After all, if you want an audience, you have to give them something to look forward to. Lately, though, I’ve wondered how often this ruins the experience of the story. Here’s yet another case in which I’d really like to just “fall in” to a story with no idea where it’s headed. Not necessarily because there’s a big twist on the way (maybe there is, maybe there isn’t), but simply because I’d like to truly share in, and not simply observe, the sense of surprise and discovery that the protagonist is about to experience with no prior expectations on my part. Alas…
Sakamichi Onoda is a new high school student. I guess that makes him 15 years old? Maybe 16? Most summaries of the series describe him as an “otaku,” which is certainly an accurate statement. I’m hesitant to label him as such, given the all the baggage that the term carries. I do appreciate how readers are given a window into his mind concerning the matter, though, giving us a chance to understand how being an otaku has shaped his personality and affected him socially. There’s a sequence very early in this chapter in which he discovers the existence of an anime club at his new school. I don’t want to get in the habit of uploading complete pages from the scanlated manga, but I’ll make an exception for now, since this was what got me hooked on the story and I don’t believe for a second that I could adequately describe what’s going on here in such a way that captures the emotion in each panel.
The revelation of these pages is not the depth of his otaku-dom, which would be easier to convey (and reading slightly ahead, is made obvious on many other occasions), but rather the sense of alienation that he feels because of it. This was hinted at early on, as introductory pages show Onoda riding his bicycle to school, passing by classmates in mid-conversation, making plans for afternoon get-togethers. Unlike Tomoko from Watamote (which I’ve been watching and enjoying immensely, lately), he doesn’t resent their social success or violently brood over his own shortcomings in that department (after all, he has plans of his own for the afternoon). He’s endured loneliness long enough to accept and live with it, but also realizes that he’s now at a critical juncture. Starting at a new school has given him a fresh start and a chance to meet people that share his interests. The moment of excitement that he allows himself to feel after spotting an advertisement for the school anime club shows the depth of his eagerness to find a connection with others. On the other hand, the possibility of such an opportunity not panning out as planned seems to leave him without anything resembling a feasible plan b for finding his place in high school life. It’s very apparent early on that Onoda needs such an outlet for his passions, which are a non-negotiable dealbreaker when it comes to making friends.
This is a common experience that isn’t explored in fiction very often. Often, the niche interests or hobbies of characters are nothing more than character traits used to cast them as eccentric or weird. Sometimes this is done for comedic effect. Other times, it’s a trope used to illustrate how “broken” they are. We don’t often find otaku characters — “otaku” in the sense of being unusually obsessed with any subject whatsoever — cast in such a sympathetic light. So far, we have no reason to believe that Onoda is anything other than the person we’re shown: shy, timid, lonely, but also enthusiastic about the subjects that excite him and truly hopeful that he’s about to find a place in which he can be comfortable in his own skin. These are feelings that I’ve felt very deeply, which is probably why this story is resonating with me in such a poignant way.
I’m trying not to praise this manga simply because it tells a story that I can relate to. Maybe I’m a little too eager to invest myself in it? After all, this is just the first chapter and it would be foolish to assume that we’re getting anything resembling a complete picture of the characters and their motivations. For now, I’d like to use this as practice, for lack of a better term, for observing not just how a story of such length is told, but also what criteria I use to judge it. Am I filling in the blanks so that it better fits my needs? Is that okay? Just a few thoughts to keep in mind as I get ready to blog this story chapter by chapter…
In looking over my (rather small) manga collection, I noticed a tendency for me to gravitate to books with bold and creative cover designs. Of course, there’s a handful of notable titles that I bought because of great reviews or word of mouth, but when it comes to making the occasional impulse buy (or in this case, Amazon wishlist add), I’m always looking at covers for something to grab my eye. In the case of Deadman Wonderland, just a passing glance at the bookstore was all it took to pique my interest. The art and design on these covers, alongside the vague but intriguing title, grabbed my attention almost immediately.
Deadman Wonderland tells the story of Igarashi Ganta, a middle school student who’s wrongly accused of murder when his class is slaughtered by a grim (and possibly supernatural) figure that Ganta knows only as “the red man.” Ganta meets a swift conviction at his trial and is sent off to the notorious Deadman Wonderland prison, which also functions as an amusement park open to the public. Deadman Wonderland’s “attractions” include regular races between inmates on a deadly obstacle course and the famous “Carnival of Corpses,” which pits two inmates against each other in a fight to the death. If only that were the least of Ganta’s troubles: each inmate is fitted with a collar that continually delivers a lethal dose of poison, which can only be countered by medicine that must be purchased with inmate “cast points.” Needless to say, this prison is far from ordinary, and as Ganta soon finds out, neither are its inmates.
Despite being a “prison manga,” with all the grisly expectations that we’ve come to anticipate from “prison movies” or any story set behind bars, Deadman Wonderland isn’t the dark or depressing tale that we might expect. The prisoners are given a surprising freedom to roam, which Ganta uses to his advantage as he spends most of these three volumes exploring Deadman Wonderland and meeting some of its most unusual inmates. Despite his naive nature, he quickly makes friends with a handful of inmates, including Shiro, a cheerful, friendly girl, and Yoh, a thieving prisoner with extensive connections and a hidden agenda. And just when things couldn’t get any stranger for Ganta, he discovers something in himself that changes everything.
Deadman Wonderland is Jinsei Kataoka and Kazuma Kondou’s follow-up to the hugely successful Eureka 7 (which I haven’t had the pleasure to read or watch just yet) and should look familiar to any reader who’s even casually familiar with that series. I love how Kondou draws his characters: very expressive and emotive, with lots of detail in the finer aspects of their appearance (hair and clothing, especially). The characters radiate charisma, and coolness, and are a pleasure to follow.
Ganta makes for a simple but likable lead character. He’s not the overly-precocious protagonist that so many characters his age commonly are; not particularly bright or gifted, he’s understandably overwhelmed by the situation he finds himself in but still displays flashes of bravery and determination when it counts. The gallery of supporting characters are colorful and interesting enough in their own right, making the world of Deadman Wonderland bizarre and often absurd, like a nightmare that could be terrifying if only it weren’t so funny and strange.
I don’t know if I’m completely hooked on this story or not yet, but with the release of volume 4, I feel like I’m in too deep to quit. With the secrets of Deadman Wonderland slowly revealing themselves, I’m looking forward to reading more.
I’ve found the phrase “slice of life” creeping into my entries here a little more often than I’d like. There’s nothing wrong with it, but I just feel like relying on it so much kind of suggests that stories about everyday people and their everyday lives are somehow a strange kind of niche, one that readers may need to be “warned” about in advance or something. I’ve always enjoyed comics that tell stories about average people and the trials and tribulations they face in figuring out who they are and what to do with their lives. Two of my favorite graphic novels are Craig Thompson’s Blankets and Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World. These books honestly and artfully deal with what it’s like to be young and struggling with real-life issues: coming to peace with yourself and trying to find one’s place in the world. Solanin tackles some of the same themes, which affect young adults just as much as adolescents, and takes its place next to those titles as one of the best illustrated books that I’ve ever read.
Meiko Inoue, the “heroine” of the story, is disillusioned with her dead-end office job, which was hardly the future she envisioned for herself after she graduated college. At 24, she wonders if she’ll ever discover a greater calling for herself than the soul-crushing world of nine-to-five work. Early in the story, she quits her job in the hope that it will force her hand and lead her to a more meaningful calling in her life. I know how she felt because, at almost the same age, I did the exact same thing. I expect that plenty of readers will relate to her situation or perhaps even be reminded of when they finally reached that breaking point themselves.
This, perhaps, isn’t the most responsible decision that Meiko makes in the story, particularly because her longtime boyfriend Taneda is only able to find part-time work as an illustrator. Taneda deals with his own professional dissatisfaction by continually pursuing his dream: to play in a successful band with his friends from college. Throughout the story, we follow not only Meiko and Taneda, but their friends and bandmates Rip and Kato. They weather trials of chronic boredom, self-doubt, indecision and impatience, both in their individual lives and in their relationships. This is the kind of stuff that may have many shonen readers crying “emo!”, but will instantly hook anyone who’s craving a thoughtful story about well-developed and empathic characters.
The art in this book is wonderful. Asano’s characters are drawn with personality and flair, and with lots of attention to their individual sense of style. Set in Tokyo, the backgrounds are richly detailed and boldly flushed out, drawing the reader into the world of the characters. Even the interiors, from Meiko’s apartment and office to the band’s practice space, are meaningfully designed and rendered, often feeling tiny and claustrophobic. This is difficult to achieve in the space of a few panels on a page, but Asano makes the characters’ spaces highly involved in the story.
As the story progresses, we learn more about Taneda and his music, which takes a more prominent role in the second half of the (rather lengthy, at 426 pages) book. Asano captures the raw energy of the band’s performance in a way that I’ve never seen in comics before. In contrast, there’s nothing glamorous about the way he shows the struggles of a young band trying to succeed and simply be heard. There are plenty of opportunities to glorify the rock and roll lifestyle in this story, but Solanin‘s portrayal of playing in a band is much more true to life than most fiction. Just convincing others that it is (or could be) more than a mere “hobby” is a hurdle that many fail to clear. Asano understands this, as well as the conflicts that young artists face in slowly growing up and facing the eternal question: how long should one continue to push on with your dreams? When is it time to give them up?
Solanin is a handsomely-bound book that you wouldn’t feel ashamed to leave on your coffee table, even in sight of your non-otaku friends. I hope that fans of thoughtful graphic novels like Blankets or Ghost World will give it a chance, as it’s not only a wonderful story, but stands to bridge the gap between manga and those kind of books, so much more commonly accepted as worthy reading for adults than ever, even here in America. And like so many graphic novels of that caliber, Solanin carries with it an air of “cool” that’s impossible to deny. It not only makes the case for manga as vital modern literature, but as a genuinely hip cultural item to possess. Heh, if only.
So it’s funny how, in the afterward of the story, Asano blatantly states that, “there’s nothing cool about these characters,” perhaps understanding the temptation of readers to ascribe such a tempting quality to them. (And the fact that we may see ourselves mirrored in them? What a coincidence!) “They’re just average 20-somethings who blend into the backdrop of the city. But the most important messages in our lives don’t come from musicians on stage or stars on television. They come from the average people all around you, the ones who are just feet from where you stand.” In its thoughtful focus on the pervasive aimlessness and quiet desperation that’s so common in our world today, Solanin might make you take a second look at the people around you. Maybe their stories are worth telling, too.
The original Read or Die OVA was one my first anime DVDs, and remains one of the best pure action titles that I’ve ever had the pleasure of viewing. Combining slick animation, esoteric historical references, snappy dialog and colorful characters, it was a short but sweet series that simply oozed “cool” from beginning to end. I really fell for the lead character, British Library agent Yomiko Readman, who was everything I could ever ask for in a heroine: intelligent and resourceful, definitely on the nerdy side, and the very epitome of bookish. I was delighted to see her return in the sequel, R.O.D. -The TV-, which was more of a continuation of the original manga than the OVA really was. So it’s a wonder why I never got around to reading the manga until now.
My fondness for Yomiko (and by extension, the entire Read or Die universe) was based on her appearances in the OVA, where she balanced her obsessive devotion to books with an equally strong resolve to complete her missions. Despite her appearance and demeanor, she was a capable combatant, overcoming her opponents through her masterful and creative use of paper. Her cheerful personality and thoughtful compassion for others made her even harder to resist. It’s little wonder that when I finally registered for an account at MAL, she was the first to go on to my list of favorite characters.
And yet, there’s a moment near the end of R.O.D.-The TV- where her status as a “strong” character is nearly completely undermined, not only resulting in a somewhat anticlimactic finish to the series, but perhaps even causing me to question just what it was that I liked about her in the first place. This scene (skip ahead to 1:13) shook the confidence I once had in her, but I brushed it off as a product of lazy writing; certainly not her finest moment, for sure, but not one that was going to redefine her for me.
This brings me to back to the original manga, which takes place before both of the anime series and introduces us to a younger, less-experienced Yomiko. She’s still developing her skills in the field, but clearly displays the bibliophilic chops needed to become a legendary paper master. We also meet Nenene Sumiregawa, the favorite young author of both Yomiko and a certain crazed fan who’ll stop at nothing to have her all to himself. Volume one is a rather silly read, with shameless fanservice, slapstick humor, forcefed undertones of yuri and a Hollywood-style chase scene. I’d say that this was my favorite volume of the series, but I think that says more about the books that followed than anything overwhelmingly positive about this one.
What follows for the rest of the series is a pretty ridiculous plot involving a mysterious private school, a legendary “underground library,” lengthy flashbacks that don’t tell us anything about the characters that we really want to know, sinister double-crossing among Yomiko’s fellow agents, and a frustratingly-long descent into a series of mental breakdowns that renders Yomiko into a quivering, blubbering mess of a woman. To be fair, no well-rounded character should be perfect and without their faults, and for Yomiko to be able to grow and develop over the course of the entire R.O.D. franchise, she might need to be put through the wringer a few times before coming out as a truly strong, resilient character. But did this process really have to be so unpleasant to read? A good portion of volumes three and four finds her surprisingly pliable and receptive to her opponents’ simple psychological tricks, reducing her to a near catatonic state for several unenjoyable chapters. The artists’ willingness to dwell on her mental suffering for so long almost makes me wonder if they really like Yomiko at all (or Nenene, for that matter, who’s shown chained, collared, and gagged in several scenes).
In short, what I wanted from Read or Die was more of the intelligent and colorful action that I enjoyed so much from the anime series, and hopefully more of the gawky but sexy Yomiko stepping up and asserting herself like I always thought she was capable of (rather than being repeatedly torn down and built back up by the words of others). What I got instead was, well… something quite different. Had I read these books before watching any of the anime series that followed, I’m not sure I would have come away with a good feel for the characters, or any kind of positive impressions that would have left me craving more of their adventures. I don’t think I’d call Read or Die a truly bad manga by any means, but its plot feels like a pileup of far fetched ideas that never really coalesce, and its potential for humor and charm is never fully realized. That’s a shame, since the creators went the extra mile in shining the spotlight on their heroine’s cruel downfall, even before readers have much of a chance to develop any real empathy for her.
Here’s hoping that the R.O.D. franchise returns in some shape or form in the future. Is it truly great, or am I simply projecting my best hopes onto it in the name of a few deserving characters? I can say with confidence that the anime does deliver some great action scenes, whereas with these books, it’s often difficult to tell exactly what is happening from panel to panel. Sound effects feature prominently in dramatic panels but are often more confusing than helpful — what, exactly, captions such as “Hyuuuuuuu” or “JAGA JAGA… GA” signify is beyond me — although whether these were the work of the original creators or the English language translators, I can’t say. I’ll admit that I’m hardly a manga connoisseur by any means, but I think I’ve read enough to understand its basic language and flow, and I found many pages here to be awash in visual clutter to the point of confusion.
The ultimate resolution of Read or Die will come as little surprise to many readers. Hopefully most will find it gratifying enough to bring the story to a satisfying conclusion. But in the end, I couldn’t help but feel let down by this title, which never approaches the grace or cool of its animated follow-ups, choosing instead to wallow in silly cliches and tiresome nihilistic despair.
As my twenties slowly drew to a close, I looked forward to turning 30 with no small amount of dread. But hey, at least I’m not 40! Shizuo Oguro is, and like so many men his age, he’s itching for a change in his life. His work unfulfilling, his life rather aimless, he finds himself looking for a new path that will give his life some direction and meaning. For many men in Shizuo’s position, such a midlife crisis is quickly solved by buying a sports car or finding religion. Not so for Shizuo, who quits his job and spends his days wandering the neighborhood and playing video games until inspiration finally strikes. His new goal in life? Becoming a manga artist! Never mind that Shizuo’s passion far outweighs his artistic abilities, or that he still has a teenage daughter to raise on his own (with a little help from his flabbergasted father, who also lives with Shizuo and can hardly believe his son’s seemingly delusional aspirations). Despite the odds against him and his new goal, Shizuo resolves to truly give it his all.
Resigned from his dull but secure desk job, Shizuo takes a job in fast food to support his family while pursuing his creative dreams. Working and hanging out with people nearly half his age — captions in many of these scenes list the various characters’ ages, highlighting his growing anxiety over his perceived (and real) lack of progress in his life compared to his younger peers — he tries to recapture the carefree spirit of his youth while simultaneously asserting the value of his age and experience. Whether it’s in his clumsy attempts to impress girls, or in his early drafts of cliche-ridden manga, Shizuo clings desperately to the belief that his age is an asset, and that his life experience, however dull it might have been, will give him the edge he needs to succeed.
I’ll Give It My All… Tomorrow is a deadpan but emotionally resonant slice of life comedy, with a premise that might feel familiar to anyone who’s read American Splendor or at least knows the tale of the late, great Harvey Pekar. But Pekar possessed an insightful appreciation of the mundane, an intelligent sense of cynicism, and a clear understanding of himself, all qualities that Shizuo lacks in spades. He also had help from numerous gifted artists willing to help bring his ideas to life. Shizuo’s artistic abilities — to put it in the most positive light possible — show potential, but are still a little too rough around the edges for publication. Will he ever find his muse and take his skills to the next level? Shizuo isn’t the brightest guy or the hardest worker (despite devoting all-nighters to his manga), and as a dad he’s nearly lost touch with his daughter Suzuko (who seems to relate to him more as a clumsy big brother than as a father). Despite his shortcomings, he’s a likable lead character, one you’ll want to root for through all the ups and downs of his quest for mangaka glory.
Allow me to vent for just a minute. I’m currently stuck in a dead-end job I despise, one where I wait on kids (er, usually 22 or 23 year-olds) fresh out of college who’ve just landed themselves a great job with a bright future. I’m still trying to start over and find a better career for myself, which has been a challenging and lengthy process, to say the least. I still go through periods of trying to “find myself,” despite being out of my teens and twenties, the time that society deems it most appropriate to try out new pursuits and identities in the way that I’d still like to do. While it makes no sense to constantly compare myself to others or regret my choices, I still catch myself doing it on a constant basis, regardless of the ill effects this has on my self-esteem (Psychology Today has a great article this month on this very phenomenon). Yet, I still want to believe that I have something worthwhile to offer to the world, an untapped potential that’s just waiting to be found, one that I’ll get around to discovering… one of these days. Maybe everyone feels like this sometimes? If you ever do, you’ll find plenty to relate to in I’ll Give It My All… Tomorrow.
This is the sort of title that’s poised to crossover to open-minded fans Western graphic novels. The story has a universal appeal, and the art style is very loose, looking more at home next to newspaper or in Japanese 4-koma comics than it does with traditional manga. It’s easy to imagine this having a good deal of success in America and beyond, if only it were shelved next to some of these books at Borders instead of Inuyasha. But hopefully savvy readers will still seek it out. Like Kingyo Used Books, IGIMA…T is a kind of meta-manga that explores the relationship between manga, readers, and artists in Japan. While it’s just one author’s take on the subject, I think it’s another insightful look at the culture and its prevailing attitudes, which are commonly painted in the most broad strokes throughout American fandom. Obviously, it’s not exactly an action-packed title, but every chapter is consistently rewarding in its own quiet way. Highly recommended, especially if you’re looking for a story that’s a little off the beaten path.
Aside from its use of cyberpunk tropes, from artificial intelligence to cybernetic bodies, the dystopian future of Hiroki Endo’s Eden: It’s an Endless World! could almost pass for a modern day gangster story. And that’s one of the least likely genres that I imagined the plot moving towards after the first volume, with its reflective, existentialist tones. Eden seemed focused on a bigger picture, one ecological and geopolitical in nature. Nothing less than the fate of the world seemed to be at stake. If only it were that simple.
As the series has progressed, such greater problems have gradually given way to “smaller” ones: poverty, drug addiction, prostitution, organized crime and corrupt government. While the ragtag band of mercenaries and outcasts that make up the story’s protagonists are able to prove themselves in combat through teamwork and sheer will in early volumes, overcoming such social pressures (along with new foes) could prove to be too much for them to handle. But for the characters of Eden, life isn’t about changing the world, but just surviving in it one day at a time. This, as it turns out throughout volumes two through seven, is never a easy matter.
Volume 2 opens with the central protagonist, 15 year-old Elijah Ballard, unwittingly teamed up with a band of resistance fighters in the Andes Mountains. His companions (formerly his captors) set out to escape territory controlled by the right-wing, global dictatorship known as Propater. Outmanned and outgunned, they face off against their opponents in some of the most elaborately composed and intense action scenes that I’ve ever come across in manga. I’m no expert on the form so I can’t say how Endo stacks up against the greats as an artist, but I’ve got to admit that his attention to detail, no matter how gruesome it can be at times, is unmatched in my book.
Pretty pictures aside, his attention to detail concerning the characters is what makes Eden such a great read. The more manga I read (not to mention the anime I watch), the more I notice authors consistently going the extra mile to fully develop not just the protagonists, but the villains as well. From acclaimed Studio Ghibli films to popular shonen series, characters’ backgrounds and motivations are often explored to a degree that’s rarely considered (or truly valued) here in the West. This is a broad statement, for sure, but I think that most fans of manga and anime would agree with it to some extent. Eden operates well within this tradition, devoting multiple chapters to its characters’ troubled pasts. Little is revealed of the quiet but ruthless assassin Kenji during the first few volumes, until we’re treated to a flashback of his childhood and the events that lead him to choose such a dangerous path in his life. We also get to know the cyborg hacker Sophia, the gang lord Pedro, the prostitute Helena, the circumstances they faced from birth and the choices they made which eventually entangle their fates inextricably together.
In short, we’re presented with characters deep enough to, if not truly care about, then at least empathize with. This is important as it’s made clear quite early on, no character is truly safe from the violent twists of fate that are so common in Eden‘s hostile world. This left me more shocked and shaken than I’ve been by a manga in quite some time, and I don’t expect any respite in future volumes.
I’ll admit that I’m far from the most seasoned reader of manga in the otakusphere, but I think I can recognize a great book when I see one. Eden: It’s an Endless World! continues to be one of the more ambitious mangas I’ve ever read. Even as it’s set its sights on more conventional targets, it’s continued to grow more intriguing. With no small amount of trepidation, I look forward to more.
Manga in America, for all its successes over the past decade or two, has never been an easy sell. Aside from the easiest and most obvious markets for their products aside — anime fans, comic book readers, kids — it hasn’t been easy for publishers to cross over into the larger, more mainstream audiences that could potentially enjoy the medium. Whether or not they even should is another issue, but you can’t deny that readers of science fiction and romance books (to name only two notable groups) would find much to love if they could only get past their personal hang-ups over comics in general. To push back against these stereotypes, the general strategy has long been to promote manga for its mature qualities, including its adult themes and complex storytelling, all elements that would definitely appeal to a hip and intelligent reader like you. In other words, these are not your grandfather’s comics and you’re definitely not reading them for the laughs like he did. Manga is serious business, right? Not kids stuff!
I’ll venture to guess that they’re long past this sort of conversation in Japan, where manga is mainstream and a regular staple for readers both young and old (or so I’ve been lead to believe over the years, but that’s a different topic for another day). The characters in Kingyo Used Books sure do love their manga, and don’t have any trouble enjoying it for its simple pleasures… not to mention its inspiring, life-changing powers. These reasons are explored through several serendipitous tales centered around the titular bookstore and its staff and customers. This is a lighthearted read that occasionally indulges in the sort of hefty sentimentality that’s probably bound to divide readers, although I doubt that most of the sort that would gag at typical scenes like this will likely bother picking up the book in the first place:
I enjoyed Kingyo Used Books as a welcome break from reading the violent and grim Eden. It’s a relaxing and pleasant read, and for Western readers, it’s an enlightening journey into Japanese otakudom as it’s rarely portrayed in manga or anime. We’re used to experiencing both mediums as being uniquely, urgently new: their very style (to say nothing about their stories) embodies a certain youthful spirit, and their continued rise seems to point the way forward into a digital, synergistic future without borders. Few readers today ever pause to ponder what manga was like before the Internet, much less where it was 30 or 40 years ago. This dusty history is revisited throughout Kingyo, primarily by characters reconnecting with their pasts through nostalgic memories of their favorite manga, or through the continued devotion of lifetime fans who never stopped reading in the first place. Titles from the past, both classic and obscure, play a major role in each of the seven chapters, but you don’t need to be very familiar with them to understand their meaning. There’s plenty of notations throughout to keep readers informed, as well as a nice collection of notes at the end of the volume that should satisfy readers hungry for more.
If you’re looking for realistic, slice-of-life drama, Kingyo‘s pathos might come on a little too strong at times. However, I found the characters likable enough to look past the more implausible plot elements. And if you have the same cataloger/curator/collector mindset as I do, you’ll no doubt be pulled in by the subject matter.
The message of Kingyo is simple: in personal (or interpersonal!) ways, manga can be something more than mere entertainment, especially when the right reader finds the right title at just the right time in their life. Is this an American-style apology for manga, a plea for older readers to finally take it seriously (or, in this case, to come back and take it seriously again)? I don’t know how readers in Japan change their habits as they grow up, but in times like these, I’m sure that people everywhere are looking to find escape, revisit their youthful pursuits, or embrace the simpler pleasures of life. If you’re looking for a quick fix, picking up some manga might do the trick, and a book like Kingyo Used Books could be a great place to start with. Or to even start all over.