My Hero Academia and the Horrifying Nature of Quirks

My Hero Academia is one of the most bizarre anime series I have ever seen. Not because it’s challenging, or intricate, or even that high concept, but because it lacks any semblance of logic. Now, that’s not to say I don’t like My Hero Academia. On the contrary, I watched both seasons with great enthusiasm, and enjoy much of the comedy, action and characters. However, when you really think about the setting, and the concept and apparent boundless nature of quirks, it is really quite strange and even horrifying.

I started thinking about this when the character of the Principal was introduced, who is essentially a very small polar bear. He is, according to the Wikipedia entry, a rare case of an animal manifesting a quirk, which is the show’s name for a super power. His power is that he has super intelligence, and thus he is treated just like a human, and is even in charge of Japan’s most prodigious school. Imagine the logistics of that — one day a polar bear is placed in charge of your education. You could devise a court room drama about him fighting to be recognised in society.

But if that seems outlandish, know that a dog is in charge of the police force. Unlike the Principal, the Police Chief appears to have been born human — only his head is that of a nonchalant beagle.

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In the show, people are either born with their quirks, or they manifest by age four. That means one of two things: either his mother gave birth to a baby with a dog’s head, or one day as a child, he woke up in the morning to find his human face had warped quite spectacularly into a canine’s face. I wonder what would be more horrifying. Imagine the struggles this man has known and all he has overcome to reach the respectable heights of Chief of Police.

He isn’t the rarest specimen, though. During one of the early story arcs, the protagonists are attacked by a league of villains, many of whom sport terrifying features. There’s somebody with a Venus flytrap for a head, one is literally a black hole, and some are just beyond description. Just look at that cyan-coloured dinosaur thing and that paper man plastered in eyes. No wonder these people are villains, what do they have to live for!

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Being born a monster is difficult enough, but imagine you’re born a regular person, only to lose your humanity one day when you transform into an abomination. Forget Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and the chilling imagery of Cronenberg’s The Fly, the real horror stories are in My Hero Academia.

Early on in the story, the protagonist is terribly upset that he does not have a quirk of his own, but in a world where you could end up a monstrosity, I would count my blessings. The characters themselves are never fazed, though. Nobody bats an eye when some nightmare fuel walks past, and even the weird looking ones are strangely content. At one point, Mina — who is a pink skinned girl, with black scleras and wonky horns — proudly declares herself the alien queen. That’s some quality self-assurance, right there. What a world it would be, where humanity more closely resembled an unearthly population of creatures. I would probably die of trauma if I awoke one day to find I had turned into a boulder, but these people rejoice.

Now, I know this is an action shounen series, and you could rightly deride me for taking it all so seriously, but it isn’t a straight-forward parody like One Punch Man. It takes itself seriously enough for me to take it seriously, and when you create a functioning, fictional world, you generally expect some semblance of sense. My Hero Academia is a special kind of ridiculous, but I kind of love it for that reason. Half the time I’m watching with a befuddled expression, but it’s so outlandish that it’s fascinating. It’s unproductive, but I love to ponder at the would-be traumatic pasts of all these surreal looking characters.

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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Top 10 Japanese Movies

Greetings, perusers. I’m taking a short break from Watched This Month as I have been quite preoccupied recently, but wanted to take this leisurely day to instead write about some of my favourite Japanese films. If you know me — which you probably don’t — then you’ll know I adore Japanese cinema, which has a fascinating history and a catalogue so very diverse, poignant, compelling and inspiring. Akira Kurosawa alone has inspired numerous contemporary directors, and has largely influenced films from A Bug’s Life to Star Wars. There’s much to be learned from Japanese cinema — thus here are ten films I would absolutely recommend.

Before you grab that battleaxe, I must stress this list is composed entirely in my opinion, and has been compiled with the aim of featuring ten truly dissimilar movies, thus I have chosen not to include multiple films from the same director. Similarly, this list includes just a handful of my most loved movies, and on a different day the order or inclusion of such titles may well differ — so please take this list as ten great movies, rather than a definitive rundown of ‘the best.’ I may well do an expanded list in the future.


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#10. The Man Who Stole the Sun (Kazuhiko Hasegawa, 1979)

Among the hundreds of Japanese movies I have seen, The Man Who Stole the Sun is a real stand-out in terms of its satire, tone and plot. It was penned by Leonard Schrader, an American screenwriter who fled to Japan to avoid conscription. Schrader taught American literature, but subsequently became involved with the Yakuza, with his experiences leading to his foray into filmmaking.

The Man Who Stole the Sun was his fourth feature as a writer and is a very radical piece. It follows science teacher Makoto Kido (played by Kenji Sawada), who decides to build his very own atomic bomb, with which he holds the country to ransom. What ensues is a cat and mouse game between Kido and police detective Yamashita (played by Bunta Sugawara), which culminates in an exhilarating thirty minute showdown, with car chases and set pieces more akin to a Western movie than something from Japan.

It has a steady pace, with characters brilliantly juxtaposed, and cinematography that ranges from experimental to skillful. It’s a real marvel in Japan’s cinematic catalogue and has even been looked to for inspiration by Hideaki Anno.


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#09. The Bird People in China (Takashi Miike, 1998)

Takashi Miike is best known for his outlandish and violent cinema, but is the architect behind over one hundred different movies, some of which completely contradict his reputation as a gratuitous filmmaker. Enter the poetic and wonderful The Bird People in China — a film concerned with ecology, and the mysticism and sacrality of nature.

The film follows a Japanese businessman who is sent to assess valuable minerals in a remote area of China. Along the way, he is accompanied by a member of the Yakuza, who becomes warped by the other-worldly beauty of the distant Chinese province.

Sporting alluring visuals and themes that are still relevant today, it’s a meditative, illuminating and well balanced commentary on technology versus nature, and very poetic and symbolic in its delivery.


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#08. Confessions (Tetsuya Nakashima, 2010)

Confessions is in stark contrast to Tetsuya Nakashima’s preceding feature, Memories of Matsuko — swapping colour and quirks for a bleak palette and feelings of desolation. Confessions opens with high school teacher Yuko Moriguchi announcing her resignation due to the recent death of her daughter, which she attributes to two of her students. She ousts the children, but as they are protected by Juvenile Law, she concocts a twisted plan of revenge.

It’s a stylish and fluently plotted film, which maneuvers between multiple threads with the utmost finesse. The film doesn’t sport a score, with Nakashima instead choosing to compile a soundtrack of previously recorded songs, which includes pieces from Boris, Curly Giraffe and Radiohead, to name a few. These tracks compliment the visuals terrifically, creating a film bursting with artistry and panache.

It’s a movie with both style and substance, that features a comprehensive and wholly satisfying tale of desperation and revenge. The conflict is well paced and competently plotted, with an ending that is both stupendously exciting and terrifically haunting.


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#07. Adrift in Tokyo (Satoshi Miki, 2007)

Adrift in Tokyo is a completely endearing and wholesome piece of cinema. Joe Odagiri plays a loafer named Fumiya, who is in heavy debt. One day he receives a visit from a loan shark named Fukuhara (played by Tomokazu Miura), who makes Fumiya a proposition: If Fumiya accompanies him across Tokyo to a police station, where he intends on turning himself in for an unspecified crime, then Fukuhara will cancel his debt. Fumiya accepts the proposal and thus begins their journey across Japan’s illustrious capital.

The plot is — quite literally — wandering, but at the same time it never loses focus. Fumiya and Fukuhara traverse landscapes, encountering fresh personalities at every turn. With each chance meeting, they learn more about one another and develop a peculiar relationship that is at times jocular, and at others very precious and sentimental. Not only does it display the eccentricities and fascinating characters all around us, but it’s one hell of an advertisement for Tokyo, which is shown in all its beauty. The Japanese capital really is a treasure trove of flourishing neighbourhoods — the film will leave you lusting for your own wayfaring adventure.


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#06. Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954)

Akira Kurosawa is widely regarded for his samurai movies (interestingly, he is himself a descendant of samurai), but the director didn’t feature the popular swordsmen until his 14th picture, which almost needs no introduction.

Seven Samurai is a three and a half hour epic in which a band of ronin are recruited to help defend a small farming village from bandits. The film’s most memorable moments arrive during the fierce, rain-soaked climax, which was — as is usual with Kurosawa — an incredibly gritty shoot to ensure authenticity. Kurosawa refused to use a studio and instead had enormous sets constructed on location, which were stupendously destroyed in the climatic action.

The director ultimately regarded his 1985 film Ran as his finest work, but Seven Samurai has gone down in the history as a defining picture, with stunning technical innovations. It’s a tour de force in filmmaking and storytelling, and one of the most epic, enthralling and impressive of the 20th Century.


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#05. Millennium Actress (Satoshi Kon, 2001)

Satoshi Kon’s second feature is an indelible portrait of Japanese history, a genre extravaganza, an excursion into the art of filmmaking, and a meditative exploration of life and love — undoubtedly my favourite animated picture.

The film — penned by Kon in collaboration with Sadayuki Murai — follows a small documentary film crew, who are on their way to visit an enigmatic actress who withdrew from performing to live a life of seclusion, reminiscent of real-life actress Setsuko Hara. After convincing her to relay her story, Millennium Actress takes audiences on a wondrous voyage across centuries, as the actress’ life is explored through her body of work, with Kon employing his trademark blend of reality and make-believe.

Don’t be lulled by its surface simplicity — Millennium Actress is a sinuous and brooding journey across time, with a narrative that unravels in remarkable ways. Kon was a true master of the medium; a director well attuned with the scope of animation, who would utulise fresh techniques with each production. Millennium Actress employs a unique use of montage and transitions to meld narratives, producing an extraordinary visual flair. Couple this with Susumu Hirasawa’s hypnotising score and you have something quite special.


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#04. Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2008)

Kiyoshi Kurosawa is perhaps best known for his horror movies, but I find his 2008 film Tokyo Sonata to be the most poignant and memorable in his filmography. The film examines social constructs and the family dynamic in a modern Japanese setting, as the patriarchal figure looses his job and sole income. He tries to keep his misfortune a secret from his family, but things begin to implode nevertheless, as each member undergoes an introspective journey as they struggle to maintain stability.

It’s a masterfully shot film that is both distinctly Japanese and very universal, with the director exploring crisis within both the family unit and the economy. Kurosawa builds an eccentric tone by forcing his typical family into extraordinary situations, ultimately presenting a darkly comical sequence of events, but nonetheless he doesn’t shy away from heartache and melodrama — there are a number of doleful scenes that are tremendously affecting. It’s a spellbinding feature with many threads and layers, which includes one of the most wistful and lingering endings ever put to film.


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#03. 0.5mm (Momoko Ando, 2014)

Sakura Ando stars as a beguiling enigma in her sister’s sophomore feature (and a feature it is at three and a half hours long). The film is an odyssey of sorts, charting the journey of central character Sawa, who finds herself penniless and alone after losing her job. She reveals a deceptive side when she begins to take advantage of the elderly, blackmailing and forcing herself upon a number of men throughout the runtime in order to obtain money and board, but her cunning machinations turn bittersweet and poignant, as the men begin to reveal their inner pain. Sawa becomes a sort of mischievous angel who unlocks people’s suffering and steers them towards a path of alleviation.

It has that expert blend of wry humour and tender, heart-rending drama the Japanese seem so proficient at, with many powerful and rousing scenes that are skillfully and subtlety employed. It’s transfixing through and through, with Sakura Ando the driving force. We learn little about her Sawa character, but she is endlessly compelling — an inscrutable figure you can’t quite keep your eyes off. It’s twice as long as an ordinary film, but could divide nicely into a series of shorts. It never repeats itself; every section of Sawa’s journey is extraordinary and distinctively alluring. I couldn’t bare to see it end.


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#02. Kikujiro (Takeshi Kitano, 1999)

Mischievous layabout Kikujiro forms an unlikely bond with young Masao, who is on a journey across Japan to locate his mother. What ensues is a road trip of hijinks and escapades, with a seamless blend of slapstick comedy and stirring drama. Kikujiro is Kitano’s eighth film as a director, following perhaps his most renowned work (Hana-bi) and preceding one of his most ignored (Brother).

The ‘road trip’ concept isn’t something explored often in Japanese cinema (I can think of Suicide Bus and Sake-Bomb off the top of my head), but Kitano uses it as a means to explore alienation in a variety of segments. As Kikujiro and Masao travel Japan, they encounter a number of characters who not only assist them on their journey, but also on an emotional and subconscious level. Some of these scenes are very subtle and poetic, aided tremendously by Joe Hisaishi’s sublime score.

Kitano’s deadpan, manzai-inspired humour weaves many endearing moments into the films lasting sentiment, adding a bizarre atmosphere to the pensive vignettes that fill the runtime. Kikujiro is one of Kitano’s most family friendly movies, but is at the same time one of his most poignant and affecting.


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#01. All About Lily Chou-Chou (Shunji Iwai, 2001)

No movie before or since has affected me in ways All About Lily Chou-Chou has — finding it was like unlocking a chest full of elegies from a long lost friend. It’s an enlightening and wholly mesmeric picture, that reveals new layers on every watch.

The film depicts the transformative journey of a group of high school students, some of whom become enamored with a mystical singer named Lily Chou-Chou. In many ways, All About Lily Chou-Chou was ahead of it’s time, and Iwai couldn’t have been more exact in his depiction of netizens, whose ease of connectivity can sometimes foster isolation. He portrays adolescence as a defining period in which some youths lose themselves; as they struggle to find compassion and familiarity in their peers, they turn to the internet and become absorbed with pop culture, which offers them a sort of exclusive comfort.

All About Lily Chou-Chou sports Iwai’s bewitching and hazy tone, and — in addition to the principal score, which includes some enchanting compositions — features a fully arranged album from the titular singer, which offers the enigmatic figure a very real and haunting presence, that almost goes beyond fiction.

Shunji Iwai focuses often on youthful characters who feel misunderstood and forlorn — I am continually impressed by his grasp of adolescence, and the clarity of his vision, and the organic sentiment his work so impeccably exudes. His films are enlightening in the most unobtrusive and delicate of ways; portraying pain and confusion with touches of warmth and repose.

Further to Iwai’s alluring writing and imagery, he seems to share a terrific rapport with the other talent in his work. Japanese Academy winner Yu Aoi debuted in All About Lily Chou-Chou, and Tadanobu Asano and Takako Matsu also established themselves in Shunji Iwai films. He comes across to me as a decided maestro of the art, and is the designer of some truly original, soul-stirring movies. All of his features, and even his short work, are bursting with individual merit, but — to me — All About Lily Chou-Chou is his masterpiece and is, in it’s most basic form, a remarkable voyage concerning loneliness, escapism, and what it is like to grow up during the onset of the 21st Century.

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 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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Movie Talk: All About Lily Chou-Chou

Title: All About Lily Chou-Chou (リリイ・シュシュのすべて)
Director: Shunji Iwai
Screenplay: Shunji Iwai
Starring: Hayato Ichihara, Shûgo Oshinari, Ayumi Itô, Yû Aoi
Released: Oct 2001 (JP), Jul 2002 (US), Aug 2002 (UK)


Ever since I discovered All About Lily Chou-Chou in 2006, it has held a special place in my heart. Along with Takeshi Kitano’s Sonatine, it is one of the first Japanese films I remember watching and – still unlike anything I have seen since – it remains to this day one of my all-time favourites. It is a film rich in detail, substance and beauty; a story of youth culture, escapism and loneliness just as important now as it was fifteen years ago. Rather than present a straightforward review, I wanted to take a moment to write somewhat about the films aesthetics, why it is so important and continually relevant, and why it should be on your radar.

Japanese director Shunji Iwai released his third full-length feature – All About Lily Chou-Chou – in 2001. The film – a rather eerie and melancholic drama about the escapism of a group of children through cyber culture and the fictional pop sensation Lily Chou-Chou – follows Yuichi, a particularly shy and lonesome youth, who becomes entranced by the mysterious pop star. The film charters the increasing solace and comfort Yuichi discovers in Lily’s music – and explores others touched by the enigmatic figure through messages posted on a ‘Lilyphilia’ internet forum – to the backdrop of the harsh realities of the outside world. In many ways, All About Lily Chou-Chou was ahead of its time. Released fresh into the new millennium, it portrayed a generation of youth caught in a seemingly endless adolescence, enthralled by cyber culture and confused with their identity and emotions, isolated in the all-too-big world and seeking escape through electronic communication rather than physical interaction.

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The characters find redemption of sorts in the form of ambiguous pop-sensation Lily Chou-Chou. Her music provides them with an emotional resonance; the characters confide in her songs and revel in the other-worldly feeling her music creates – what they label as the ‘ether’. With music and a fan-base reminiscent of the Icelandic ambient scene (think Sigur Rós, amiina and múm) back here in the real world, the characters empathetically discuss the singer on the ‘Lilyphilia’ forum and listen intently to each other’s stories of self-discovery and what Lily’s music has brought them. But as the characters progress deeper and deeper into the ‘ether’ and engage more and more openly with their online counterparts, thus begins their descent into isolation and withdrawal from reality. Their internet messages are communicated to the viewer through text on the screen, though with only internet handles and vague clues to go off, it’s up to the audience to work out which of the characters are typing what. Very little is explicitly stated in the film; the audience – more so than usual – are mere observers and it is clear Iwai has great respect for the viewers’ intelligence.

All About Lily Chou-Chou is a film that could only be made in this millennium, in the here and now, as it centers around the evolving of communication – or perhaps degrading, depending on how you look at it – in the age of the internet. It captures the disconnectedness of the current youth and, as Empire note; “portrays a generation in a world of electronic communication which promises greater interaction, but instead fosters isolation.” Loneliness and isolation are major themes within the film and the characters are all grounded in their attempts to connect physically with one another. Iwai even presents an underlying barrier between adults and children; in fact, the adult characters take a step back and almost have no place in the story at all. Iwai displays them as very distant and incomprehensible; people, despite social constructs, which the children struggle to look up to or trust in. All About Lily Chou-Chou spares no expense at posing questions, yet it seeks to answer none – Iwai displays the world as anything but simply black and white, as anything but straight forward.

This is emphasised in the narrative, told in a non-linear fashion with the middle first, followed by the beginning and then the end. References to disconnectedness are left, right and center, and for such emotionally compromised characters, the hugely dominant child cast work wonders. The films main characters are Yuichi (Hayato Ichihara) and Hoshino (Shugo Oshinari) – mutual admirer’s of Lily Chou-Chou whose friendship collapses after a fateful holiday – and the films back-drop is largely rural Japan, with much of the middle chapter set in Okinawa; largely secluded and alien areas, again referencing that isolation. The cinematography and tone is very melancholic, with the crew creating some stunningly bleak visuals, often contrasted with the hypnotic beauty of the Japanese countryside. Iwai presents a spellbinding, starkly beautiful and wholly unique visual flair, which has since become one off his trademarks as a filmmaker.

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Another key aspect is the music and the films almost God-like idol, Lily Chou-Chou. The singer herself is rarely glimpsed, but is always portrayed as some near-deity, an ethereal Goddess, absolutely worshipped by her fans, which displays the level of idolisation and the prominence and development of pop culture through technology and social media in the current generation. The music in All About Lily Chou-Chou works as a narrative element and a vessel for the main characters, helping to communicate their thoughts, feelings and desires to the audience. The soundtrack is actually made up of two complete CDs, one being the film score (a stunning collection of melancholic piano compositions written and arranged by Takeshi Kobayashi, along with three wonderful Claude Debussy renditions by actress and pianist Yui Makino) and the other an album by Lily Chou-Chou titled Breathe, which was made specifically for the film and features prominently. The film and its music was actually received so well that it established a career for Japanese singer Salyu, who portrayed Lily Chou-Chou.

All About Lily Chou-Chou is a master class in filmmaking, displaying completely how every element in sync creates one tremendous piece of art. The film just oozes emptiness and desolation, but it is tackled in such a calm and – dare I say it – ethereal way, that it isn’t necessarily depressing so much as it is enlightening. Like the music of Lily Chou-Chou, the film has an other-worldly feel to it, something magical resides there. It isn’t light viewing, but once you wrap yourself around the narrative and delve into the minds of the characters, it’s comforting in a slightly haunting way. Anyone who has ever felt disconnected or apart from society should watch All About Lily Chou-Chou; it is a film about what it is to be human in the 21st Century and quite possibly one of the most important of its generation.

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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