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: Billy Bat (Naoki Urasawa)

Title: Billy Bat
Author: Naoki Urasawa (Story and Art), Takashi Nagasaki (Story)
Publisher: Kodansha
Published: 2008 – 2016
Length: 20 Volumes


Billy Bat is an intricately woven mystery-thriller; it’s a manga where twists and turns are around every corner and one which you will have to invest quite a bit of time into before any kind of revelation or payoff, but my is it gripping.

We begin with Kevin Yamagata; a Japanese-American cartoonist whose series Billy Bat – which follows the adventures of an anthropomorphic bat detective – is published by the reputable Marble Comics and adored throughout America. However, by chance Kevin learns of a manga which features a similar protagonist to his in Japan. Realising he may have unconsciously plagiarised the character whilst in Japan some years prior, he travels there hoping to meet with the author, but what he discovers is a web of conspiracies, murder, cover-ups and betrayal which all seemingly lead back to his bat character. Before long, however, it becomes evident that Billy Bat is something far beyond Kevin, as he’s whisked into a mystery surrounding the bat’s inception millennia ago and how – since the beginning of time – it has influenced history.

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‘Begin with’ is an opportune phrase as – while Kevin is the protagonist – like much of Naoki Urasawa’s work, the cast is impressively extensive, with Urasawa dipping in and out of different time periods and into the minds of numerous characters. The story is sinuous to say the least, but following it is never a chore. Urasawa nails the pacing, with much of the latter content split into story arcs which usually consist of eight chapters (one complete tankobon). As a manga which portrays no less than fifteen different time periods – ranging from the 1st century to the 21st – it rarely comes across as confusing or disjointed, with Urasawa utilising sublime, almost cinematic transitions, along with many familiar faces in the form of characters based on real-life historical figures, which many readers will be able to pinpoint.

These characters – along with the inclusion of many real-life incidents, such the the Shimoyama affair, the JFK assassination, the falling of the Berlin Wall and even the 9/11 attacks – make the series feel as though it’s grounded in reality. Billy Bat has a certain familiarity about it; it’s an evocative series which balances fiction and non-fiction well, all the while displaying just how much planning and preparation Naoki Uraswawa and Takashi Nagasaki have put into the story.

It does require a certain amount of patience, however. Much like in 20th Century Boys – one of the authors’ previous series – a hundred and one questions are proffered before only a handful are answered. Urasawa grips readers with frequent twists and startling cliffhangers at the end of every chapter – the story itself never sours – but readers of an impatient disposition may encounter some frustration with how long certain questions are held in limbo.

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The characterisation is phenomenal, with both the fictional and non-fiction based characters portrayed immeasurably. Certain characters are more well-rounded than others, but for such a huge cast, Urasawa works wonders. I’m delighted to say, both the protagonists and antagonists are superbly crafted; with a heart, a soul, emotions and clear motivations. It’s especially great to see the more villainous characters looked after, so to speak. One dimensional characters can cause a story to fall so utterly flat, but Urasawa deserves much praise. He has created a multitude of level-headed, layered, intelligent, intriguing, well-written, well-implemented characters sure to leave an impression.

Urasawa’s handiwork continues in the art, which rarely misses the mark. Certain panels could do with a little more detail, but all-in-all, the characters are appropriately differentiated and well-drawn, the backgrounds are stunningly detailed – especially in the page spreads – and, as before, Urasawa’s use of transitions from one scene to the next is second to none. Urasawa utilises a different style for the comic-in-a-comic sequences of Billy Bat – it’s more cartoonish and Americanised – which works exceedingly well and adds yet another flavour to an already appetising manga. The flow of his artwork and panel placement is admirable, with the dramatic beats hitting their mark and the action sequences thrilling to follow.

Ultimately, Billy Bat is a precisely planned and efficiently presented manga; it’s clear to see how in control Urasawa is. Despite such a gigantic cast and involved plot, he never loses his way. The story is well-rounded and confidently written, with the characters consistent and appealing. Additionally, the drama is realistic and attentively developed, with many of the story arcs able to garner substantial emotional investment. Overall, Billy Bat is an immersive, gripping and highly stirring read; among Urasawa’s best.

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Manga Review: Peace Maker (Nanae Chrono)

Title: Peace Maker (新撰組異聞PEACE MAKER)
Author: Nanae Chrono
Publisher: Square Enix
Published: 1999 – 2001
Length: 5 Volumes


Nanae Chrono’s Peace Maker was released at a time where Shinsengumi fiction was confined mostly to television shows and films – in fact, the same year saw the release of Nagisa Oshima’s Gohatto – despite them being a staple of Japanese history and culture. Rurouni Kenshin and Kaze Hikaru were really the only other established manga that had depicted the historical figures in any light. The decade since has seen the Shinsengumi reinvigorated, with numerous portrayals in Because Goodbyes Are Coming Soon, Sayonara Shinsengumi, Hakuouki and Gintama. However, no manga since Peace Maker has portrayed them so tremendously and to such a memorable degree.

The story follows Tetsunosuke, a determined young boy seeking to join the Shinsengumi – a sort of samurai police force active during the Bakumatsu period – in order to enact revenge against the man who killed his parents two years prior. Revenge stories often struggle to avoid the cliches, and some are definitely present in Peace Maker, but the plot remains thoroughly engrossing through its historical content. The setting is the late Edo period, the Meiji restoration is on the horizon, the final days of the samurai are near approaching and many major events that occur in the manga are events that have occurred in history; such as the Ikedaya incident.

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The author follows a rough historical timeline and adapts her material along the way; it’s incredibly well written, planned and paced. The manga is only five volumes long and it goes without saying that certain liberties are taken, but nonetheless Nanae Chrono creates a world based partly in reality and portrays – with great detail – historical Japan. It’s a wonderful setting and her depiction of the Shinsengumi is ever captivating.

Tetsunosuke always attains full focus; he’s a determined young character – not so dissimilar to the Shounen archetypes, but with real heart and soul – and a befitting protagonist. His revenge story remains an engrossing, vivid and sensational read throughout and it’s fascinating to discover how Chrono has woven Tetsunosuke’s fictional story into a real-world timeline and setting.

Chrono’s art style is quite bold; the characters stand out firmly from the backgrounds and her action is ferocious and exciting to follow. Her backgrounds and settings help to bring out the world of Peace Maker and it becomes easy to imagine a general layout of the Shinsengumi headquarters and the surrounding areas, which is quite a feat for an artist in establishing the setting so strongly. The artist provides a fine amount of detail overall and the action is easy to follow through her attentive panel placement.

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History books offer descriptions of the Shinsengumi – Okita is often said to be polite, honest and good-natured, though a strict teacher to his students, while Hijikata is said to be tall and handsome, but mean to all but his family and friends (later adopting the nickname the Demon Vice Commander of the Shinsengumi). Nanae Chrono generally follows these interpretations; portraying Okita as a sweet, good-natured pretty-boy, but deadly with the sword, and Hijikata as a tall, handsome fellow, with a mean demeanor. It’s yet another aspect the author gives a real historical edge. Chrono’s character designs are consistent and appealing, and the characters themselves are well written, diverse and absorbing, with great depth and a real sense of development and growth.

Peace Maker is a fascinating series that will not only entertain, but perhaps also pique your historical intrigue. The Shinsengumi are fascinating historical figures and brilliant manga subjects. Chrono presents a wonderfully invigorating historical setting, chock-full with action and drama, complemented by an alluring – and at times harsh – coming of age story, set to the background of revenge. The author continues to excel throughout, offering readers a thoroughly explosive climax. Peace Maker is an engrossing, all around marvellous manga and contains easily one of the most captivating portrayals of the Shinsengumi.

Manga Review: Coin Laundry no Onna (Hiro Kiyohara)

Title: Coin Laundry no Onna (コインランドリーの女)
Author: Hiro Kiyohara
Publisher: Kadokawa Shoten
Published: 2005 – 2009
Length: 1 Volume


Coin Laundry no Onna – otherwise known as The Laundromat Woman – is a humorous, gag-based series that follows the life and times of Maoko, a Sadako-like girl who receives much pleasure in scaring the customers of her laundromat.

The manga is presented in an episodic fashion, with each chapter following Maoko and the supporting cast through a variety of misadventures. The chapters range in length, with the shortest only four pages long. The author doesn’t allow the manga much breathing room, with each plot proceeding at a lightning-fast pace, but such is the nature of a gag-based plot. Comedy is the sole genre, with the author churning out the laughs in quick succession. The humour itself is outrageously comical (not so dissimilar to the likes of Gintama and Cromartie High School); it’s both well implemented and superbly executed, allowing the manga to stay at an enjoyable level throughout. The manga would perhaps benefit from some more substance, but it’s simply not the avenue the author was going for. Instead, Hiro Kiyohara presents a quick-fire comedy series that doesn’t dwindle; each chapter is distinct from the next and above all else, they’re enjoyable.

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The artwork ranges throughout; the first chapter has noticeably more detail than the subsequent additions, with Maoko’s design taking a bit of a hit later on. Still, in the larger frames, chapter introductions and page spreads, Hiro Kiyohara often delivers to a very high standard, with Maoko’s horror reenactments and scare tactics being of particular note. But a number of scenes do come across as simplistic; lacking in background and detail.

The characters – Maoko in particular – are the life and soul of the series. Since humour takes precedent over any sort of depth or development, they’re generally rather one dimensional, but remain consistently enjoyable, captivating and lovable throughout. Maoko is a wonderful enigma and ever-interesting to follow, and while the rest of the cast are rather stereotypical, the comedy provides them with life and enthusiasm. Still, it would have been nice to have a more involved and firmly established cast. Certain character traits – and even some characters in the case of chapter five, which features none of the recurring personalities, but instead introduces a separate cast who are never seen again – come and go like the wind. Authors of manga such as School Rumble and Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei successfully delve into their characters while maintaining a steady flow of comedy, but unfortunately Coin Laundry no Onna’s length doesn’t allow it the same privilege.

The length of the manga is what prevents it from standing out; given more time and substance, I can’t help but feel the series would have come into its own. Nevertheless, Coin Laundry no Onna is an enjoyable compilation of outrageous comedic situations, with wonderful characters and many stand-out segments. It’s a marvellous read; I just wish there was more.

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Manga Talk: Battle Angel Alita

When I read manga, I pay very close attention to panel placement and the fluidity of the artwork, in that is the action easy to follow. Manga can – at times – appear rather erratic, with large jumps between panels and characters who move very suddenly, which is understandable considering authors are very page-limited. Pace is something I imagine every artist of manga, comics or graphic novels grapples with, but when an author nails the pace and fluency of a scene, it’s such a pleasure to read.

50Last night while listening to the grandeur of The Cure, I recalled such a scene; it was in Chapter 22 of Gunnm, otherwise known as Battle Angel Alita.

Battle Angel Alita follows the life of Alita, a female cyborg with tremendous fighting abilities who is rescued from a garbage heap by a cyberphysician. When she recovers, Alita finds she doesn’t remember who she is or where she comes from, thus she begins to piece together the fragments of her past.

The chapter – titled Ars Magna – is the culmination of a two volume long arc and at a point in the story where Alita has self-exiled herself from her new life and adoptive family following a tragedy. Leaving behind everything, she immerses herself in the high-octane sport of Motorball, which is something akin to a murderous, all-at-once relay with just one baton.

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Alita spends much of the arc recruiting members to help defeat the reigning and undefeated champion, Jashugan, and the build-up to this moment is executed with perfection. The racers take their positions in Chapter 21 – there are flashbacks and monologues, the emotional weight is stacked to the Heavens – and everything gets underway in Chapter 22.

The readers are led to believe Alita has a chance; it’s five against one and Alita’s recruits are no pushovers, but from the get-go Jashugan completely dominates. This is where the author, Yukito Kishiro, absolutely nails the pace. Jashugan quite literally plows through Alita’s team and the scene reads in slow motion. Jashugan’s movements are precise, with Kishiro’s artwork and panel placement incredibly fluid. Backgrounds are erased as Jashugan calmly pulverizes the opposing team one by one, with Kishiro effortlessly displaying every key movement in tremendous detail. The reader gets a genuine sense of the action and the movements of each character, which is a phenomenal feat for such a busy scene.

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Alita rushes to the aid of her team and – inevitably – she and Jashugan become locked in a showdown. They fight one on one, with the author continuing to illustrate the action with not only incredible fluency, but tremendous ferocity. Jashugan is painted as all-powerful, in one scene rising from the flames after a seeming defeat. It’s a completely exhilarating chapter in a thoroughly outstanding manga. I cannot recommend Battle Angel Alita enough. It’s such a remarkable work, set in a completely alluring world with some of the most memorable characters and artwork manga has to offer.

I mentioned how I recalled this scene while listening to The Cure. The song that caused the images to surge into my mind was Plainsong from their Disintegration album. The opening instrumentals are particularly stirring; very grand and powerful. I love to listen to instrumental music when I read manga; if you get a piece that fits the tone of the book, it can become wonderfully immersive and not to mention incredibly exciting to follow when you have a master such as Kishiro illustrating each and every scene with elegance and fluidity.

James Cameron has been sitting on the rights for a film-version of Battle Angel Alita for over a decade and said himself that his adaptation will “use elements from the first four volumes”, which includes the Motorball arc. I’m not the type to freak out and fanboy over things, but to see this chapter on film would be an absolute dream. After many years of silence, it was announced a couple of months ago that the movie is finally going ahead, but that Robert Rodriguez would direct with Cameron producing. I’m not all that familiar with Rodriguez’s filmography, but am a little dubious whether or not Battle Angel Alita is really his style, but hopefully under the guidance of Cameron – who is a longtime fan – they’ll do it justice. Check back here in a couple of years for my thoughts!

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