Manga Review: Kanai-kun (Matsumoto x Tanikawa)

Title: Kanai-kun (かないくん)
Author: Taiyō Matsumoto, Shuntaro Tanikawa
Publisher: Tokyo Itoi Shigesato Office
Published: January 2014
Length: 1 Volume


In 2014, mangaka Taiyo Matsumoto released a 48 page picture book, exploring attitudes towards death. It was a collaboration with famed poet Shuntaro Tanikawa, and the artwork and manuscripts were also presented as an exhibition at the Parco Museum in Shibuya, Tokyo.

Recent events in my own life have led me to rediscover this heartfelt and very understated book, which is narrated in short verses by an unnamed male classmate of the titular character Kanai, who has passed away. The child silently observes his fellow classmates and the surroundings following Kanai’s passing, noting changes and trying to understand what death actually means.

The book then skips forward sixty years, with the unnamed character now an elderly man and on the brink of death himself. It is revealed the story of Kanai was being relayed to his granddaughter in the form of a picture book which he has authored, but the man admits he is struggling to conclude the piece, ultimately deducing he will only know the ending when he, too, passes on. The narrative then swaps to the granddaughters perspective, who similarly laments over the meaning and nature of death.

It’s a terrifically bittersweet tale, tackled in a calming — but nonetheless emotional — manner. The writing is, as you would imagine from Shuntaro Tanikawa, poetic and thoughtful. Matsumoto’s illustrations bolster Tanikawa’s poignant prose; the collaboration of words and image produce a vivid collection of entrancing scenes. It’s only a brief tale, but is nonetheless compelling and very memorable.

The artwork is marvellous. Taiyo Matsumoto illustrated the book himself, working on it over a period of two years. Almost every page is in colour, with each section of the story presented in a slightly different tone; the beginning is mostly sepia, with the end displaying some beautiful snowy scenes. The artwork is soft, with brushstrokes and watercolours, not so dissimilar to the artist’s coloured work in Takemitsu Zamurai and Sunny. The illustrations are serene, yet evocative — in melody with the writing.

Kanai-kun is a concise, brooding piece. It doesn’t contain revelations or attempt to impart any particular knowledge, but rather it offers insight into the complex and indiscernible nature of death, which is a common fate shared by us all, but also something which every person reacts to differently, and something many struggle to wholly comprehend. I found it to be a quietly pensive book, with two masters — one behind the narrative, and the other the illustrations — complementing each other beautifully.

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Manga Talk: I Am a Hero

Kengo Hanazawa’s manga I Am a Hero ended just the other day, after eight years of publication. The ending has divided readers—understandably so—as it leaves many questions unanswered, but I don’t believe it’s as open as it seems.

Warning! Spoilers below.

After the showdown atop the Sunrise building in Tokyo, a group of survivors manage to escape via the helicopter. It’s shown later that they land on the Izu Shichito islands off the coast of Tokyo, which are seemingly unaffected by the zombie apocalypse. Meanwhile, Hideo is engulfed by the monstrous hive mind, but is spared by Hiromi. Thereafter, the hive mind and—presumingly—the Kurusu conglomerate become idle after deciding to spare the final remnants of humanity in Tokyo. Hideo is then left to fend for himself in a post-apocalyptic world, where he believes he is the only survivor.

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Hideo lives out his days alone, ransacking supermarkets for food and eventually cultivating a small farm. He converses with statues and road signs, but is otherwise sane and healthy, transformed from the beginning of the manga where he was afraid of the dark and experienced numerous delusions. During an earthquake in the penultimate chapter, he even calls out for his imaginary friend Yajima, but he doesn’t appear.

In the final pages, Hideo locates a gun shop and begins making ammo for his rifle, after his crops are eaten by a herd of deer. At some point during this chapter—or perhaps even before—there appears to have been a significant time-skip, as Hideo is shown to be balding when he removes his cap. After shooting, skinning and butchering a deer, he is then shown in winter, tracking a boar, after which the manga ends.

I can sympathise with the dissatisfaction surrounding this ending, as it leaves many aspects unexplained. I Am a Hero is a fantastically involved work, which spanned many years, featuring numerous characters in varied locations — at one point even jumping across the ocean to Europe to depict the pandemic in foreign territory. Naturally, readers expected some sort of conclusion to all the threads and pieces of information we were fed throughout the series.

However, the story had always been about Hideo and his place within the world. When the author took a step away from Hideo, it was more to do with world building and development than it was to introduce new character arcs and plot points. Not everything is essential to the overarching plot and by leaving many aspects vague, Hanazawa was able to maintain a terrific sense of allure and wonder throughout. Also, by building towards a conclusion for Hideo but leaving much of the rest up to interpretation, he breathes a sense of authenticity and perpetuation into the world of the manga.

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Hideo is a detached character whose life before the pandemic was full of dissatisfaction and emptiness. He wants to be somebody, but he doesn’t have the gumption to try. In the final pages, he laments over these times and ponders what the point of his life was. He had a comfortable routine, but no direction and a bleak future. Now, he is attuned to survival. He has grown from a pathetic, bumbling man-child to self-sufficient hunter, thanks to the numerous ordeals and situations the ZQN have forced him through. He is alone, but he is able to grasp his existence. Finally, he can exclaim: “My life — bring it on.”

The problem with zombie series—especially those that span a lengthy period—is that, naturally, audiences want to know the origins of the world. How did this happen and why? Hanazawa weaves so many fantastical elements into his work, from mutated people to magnificent clusters made from the bodies of thousands of former humans. These aspects are fascinating and it’s difficult not to ponder their place within the story.

  • Why did that walking head turn into a tree?
  • What the heck is up with those weird things in Barcelona?
  • What happened to the man on the boat?
  • What motives did the ZQN have?

There’s a lot more the author could have concluded, but those things don’t matter to Hideo’s story and it’s important to have focus as a writer. Hanazawa never once became lost in his creation and the ending—while it may feel deflated and incomplete given the potential scope of the story—is the most natural for Hideo’s progression.

I Am a Hero is about the small lives of ordinary characters in an extraordinary world. The author delved into this in a Manben episode, explaining how he likes to draw Hideo and the other main characters as part of the background rather than the foreground in order to paint them as ordinary people — quiet members of society who don’t stand out.

Hideo is wonderfully written and his psyche tremendously explored, with the author touching upon themes of introversion, alienation, loneliness, courage and dreams. If you think about the manga in terms of Hideo and his singular place within humanity rather than an all-encompassing zombie saga, it is far more fulfilling.

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Manga Review: Gintama (Hideaki Sorachi)

Title: Gintama (銀魂)
Author: Hideaki Sorachi
Publisher: Shueisha
Published: 2003 – Present
Length: 67 Volumes (as of February 2017)


“At its heart Gintama is a science fiction human pseudo-historical comedy. The bottom line is that this is a nonsense manga. But I don’t believe in telling readers what to think, so read it any way you like.” – Hideaki Sorachi

Set during the 19th century in an alternate-reality Edo that has been conquered by aliens, Gintama follows redundant samurai Sakata Gintoki, who struggles to make ends meet working as a jack of all trades in a world that has left him behind. One of the most quirky series in a sea of eccentricity, Gintama is a fantastically creative work and as consistent, comical and compelling now as it was a decade ago.

The story is told in a largely episodic fashion, with each chapter presenting a self-contained story featuring a handful of the cast. These chapters are largely comedic, but do well to avoid repetition — even after over sixty volumes — thanks to the fantastical, ever-expanding setting and the authors innate talent for comedy writing.

But alongside the ingenious gags and multifarious humour, Sorachi tinkers with a number of story arcs that are occasionally tonally opposite to the stand-alone chapters, presenting a more serious side to the characters and exploring more brooding and dramatic topics.

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The shift from comedy to drama can be somewhat jarring at first, but ultimately adds an interesting, alternate edge to the series and allows for greater character development and expanded narrative that is simply not possible in the episodic adventures and which is often absent in comedy manga. It’s an aspect that allows Gintama to stand out among its peers, though the arcs themselves are typically shōnen and never quite leave the boundaries of the genre.

Another element that keeps Gintama invigorated is the sheer number of characters. The main trio are — of course — featured the most, but Sorachi is especially good at utilising the supporting cast, which expands with every volume. The cast are very much comedy archetypes, with Sorachi playing on this a lot, often breaking the fourth wall and self-referencing (himself a character in his own manga, portrayed as a lazy ape), but archetypal characters never prevent the author from being innovative and unorthodox. It’s clear Sorachi has a lot of fun writing Gintama; he allows his imagination to run wild and frequently experiments with the components of his work, playing with plot devices and preconceived notions in order to conjure inventive and unconventional ways to entertain the reader. Sorachi wholeheartedly embraces his bizarre and outlandish creation, pushing his archetypes in unexpected and outrageous directions.

The comedy itself is wonderfully varied, ranging from traditional Japanese slapstick and manzai style sketches, to satire, parody and meticulously plotted witticism. Sorachi’s use of parodic elements and the series’ dynamic setting also allow the author to explore a variety of genres, from hardboiled detective stories to steampunk and high fantasy, creating a delectable blend of homages and whimsical imitations, all the while creating some amusing pastiches of popular culture, both Japanese and Western.

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Sorachi revealed in one of Gintama’s many afterwords that he was interested in becoming a mangaka as a child, but abandoned his dream after showing his artwork to his father, who laughed at it. However, after trying his hand at manga again following college, he eventually found his feet with Gintama — despite a tremulous first year — and is now published weekly in Shueisha’s famous Shōnen Jump magazine. Understandably, his artwork has gone from strength to strength after decades of practice, with the manga now boasting a very polished, distinctive style.

Gintama features a heavy use of line work and inking over a more sketchy approach, with Sorachi utilising a large number of panels for the comedic segments which feature a lot of dialogue and fast paced quips. He tends to reserve full-page artwork and double page spreads chiefly for action scenes and — during the dramatic story arcs — allows the characters more room and places larger emphasis on the backgrounds and surroundings to create detailed set-pieces. Sorachi’s character designs are a particular stand-out element, with the setting offering a lot of freedom to create some very unconventional and peculiar creatures.

With an inventiveness, imagination and originality rarely matched in its genre, Hideaki Sorachi’s Gintama is at the very forefront of comedy manga. It’s an offbeat marriage of genres and themes seldom thought to coincide, but the author makes it work with his eloquent blend of playful storytelling, wondrous imagination and razor sharp wit. A tremendous achievement, through and through.

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Manga Talk: Platinum End

Death Note and Bakuman authors Takeshi Obata and Tsugumi Ohba started their new series back in November, 2015. The manga – titled Platinum End and published monthly in Shueisha’s Jump Square magazine – introduces us to Mirai; a dejected youth who attempts suicide in the opening pages. Moments before his death, Mirai is saved by an angel named Nasse, who wants to give him the hope to live. She grants him an assortment of angelic powers – wings that allow the user to fly at unbelievable speed and an unlimited supply of two different arrows, a red one which causes whomever is shot to fall in love with the user and obey their every command and a white one used to instantly kill the target – and informs him that he’s one of the thirteen candidates to become the next God, who is stepping down in 999 days.

As a massive fan of both Death Note and Bakuman, I was ecstatic when I heard the news of a new series from Ohba and Obata. To date, four chapters of Platinum End have been released and I wanted to write a sort of ‘first impressions’ on the manga.

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First and foremost, Takeshi Obata’s artwork is – unsurprisingly – brilliant. His distinctive style is ever-present, with an abundance of well-drawn action and compelling designs for the angels. My only complaint is that Obata’s character designs can grow a tad repetitive, with many characters sporting eerily similar looks to characters in his previous work.

As usual, Ohba handles the plot, which I think has been a little hit or miss thus far. I have no doubt a lot of planning went into the story, but the execution is somewhat haphazard. The opening chapter felt a little overwhelming in terms of content and would have perhaps benefitted from a slightly slower pace. The subsequent chapters have a less erratic flow, but there are a couple of things that don’t quite add up.

For example, any of the God candidates that have a ‘Special Rank’ angel are given both the wings and the arrows, so why did Nasse even bother asking Mirai to pick between them? Tradition, apparently. Surely there are better ways to cover exposition.

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I was also perplexed at the reason all of the candidates are Japanese. Seemingly, one of the prerequisites to be chosen is that you must have attempted suicide, so what better place – apparently – than Japan. Nasse literally says all of the candidates are in Japan because it’s where a lot of people commit suicide. While the country is notorious for places like Aokigahara, its suicide rate is actually outside of the top fifteen. Even if the country did have the highest suicide rate, it wouldn’t be more than every other country combined. It doesn’t make sense for all of the God candidates to be Japanese, but given that it’s a manga and it’s almost expected to be set in Japan, I wish Ohba wouldn’t have even bothered with an explanation.

For these lapses, though, there are slight allusions to the Ohba we know and love. Once all of the exposition has been laid out, it’s clear to see the potential for the death game and/or cat-and-mouse plots that made Death Note so riveting – especially given that the God candidates can essentially kill each other off in order to be chosen – and the characters thus far have been interesting. Ohba is usually fairly good with characterisation and I’m anticipating some very memorable God candidates and a lot of cunning dialogue to come.

The first couple of chapters have been a little uneven and I was disappointed by some contrived exposition, but there are a couple of sequences that have stood out (much thanks to the wonderful art of Takeshi Obata), so I’m hoping Platinum End will settle into something quite amazing once it finds its feet and Ohba is able to delve further into the plot. It’s also slightly comparable to Death Note thus far and is – in ways – an opposite version, but I’m hoping it becomes something more distinctive along the way.

Manga Review: Ping Pong (Taiyo Matsumoto)

Title: Ping Pong (ピンポン)
Author: Taiyō Matsumoto
Publisher: Shogakukan
Published: 1996 – 1997
Length: 5 Volumes


Like much of Taiyo Matsumoto’s work, Ping Pong includes the same level of energy and surprising depth that outshines its basis to the point of sheer brilliance. Ping Pong – contrary to the title – is less a story about table tennis and more about the coming of age of two polar opposite individuals. The author uses ping pong as a medium to advance the story and to develop the characters, so well in fact the manga is almost criminally realistic. Ping Pong deals with worldly themes of friendship, affliction and adolescence, not so different from Tekkonkinkreet – the authors previous work – which makes it very down to earth and above all else; believable.

The manga introduces us to Peco, the energetic I-don’t-care-what-people-think personality, and Smile, the reserved gentleman who would rather lose than make his opponent feel bad. The development of these two main characters is a moving and nonetheless excitable journey and the supporting cast are utilised well; present thankfully for a lot more than moral support. Furthermore, during a ping pong contest Taiyo Matsumoto never really attempts to make the readers favour one character over the other, which allows the manga to stay at a realistic and high quality standard with a lot of emotional weight. What makes Ping Pong different from most sport manga is the larger focus on the characters as opposed to the game. The rules are not explained, nor do we get any history lessons. Table tennis is there as a foundation for the story and a means of development. Instead of the game fueling the characters, the characters fuel the game.

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If you’ve read anything by Taiyo Matsumoto before, then you’re more than aware of his distinctive artwork. Matsumoto’s art is very unique; his lines are often wobbly, the scale of things can sometimes be unclear and his shading is minimal while his inking is prominent. You won’t find many sketchy effects usually associated with manga in Taiyo Matsumoto’s work either, but what he offers instead is some truly outstanding line art. The composition and level of detail are all first-class and Matsumoto’s panel placement is genius; fluently depicting the nature and pace of the game. There’s a real energy to Ping Pong that the author himself has since admitted he’s unlikely to match.

Ping Pong is only fifty-five chapters long – collected in five volumes – but the content is wonderfully paced and never feels sparse. Matsumoto presents the reader with a superbly fresh coming of age story, accompanied by an extremely rousing backdrop and complete with realistic characters sure to leave an impression. The author once said his goal is to combine the powerful and cool feeling of American comics, the intellect of European comics and the lightheartedness of Japanese comics together to create a really tremendous work and I believe he has achieved such with Ping Pong. This is the very epitome of manga; passionate, stirring and really something quite special.

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