Manga Review: Monster (Naoki Urasawa)

Title: MONSTER
Author: Naoki Urasawa
Publisher: Shogakukan
Published: 1994 – 2001
Length: 18 Volumes


The story goes that Naoki Urasawa toyed with penning a manga set in the medical field early in his career, but met resistance from his editor. Now, almost two decades since Monster concluded, it’s clear to see it was not only – against his editor’s predictions – a landmark work for Urasawa in terms of popularity, but also served as the first manga in a formula that has since become the author’s forte.

Monster is the case of Kenzo Tenma, a brain surgeon whose child patient disappears amongst suspicious circumstances, only to resurface years later as an enigmatic serial killer who frames Tenma. The doctor turned vigilante detective must evade the police while tracking the real killer, which takes him across Europe, where he uncovers a thread of decades old villainy dating back to the Cold War.

It’s a sweeping narrative with a structure that is consistent in arguably all of Urasawa’s major serial work since. His winning plot formula spans decades, locations, perspectives, and generations, is based partly in history, is loaded with conspiracies and clever misdirection, and boasts an enormous supporting cast, with central characters which often trade places.

The extent of Urasawa’s research and planning is clear. For a story with so many threads, it seldom loses its way. His artwork effortlessly guides the reader through involved set pieces, which often unfold from several angles. His style is cinematic, communicating movement and cuts through expert panel arrangement and combined action-reaction shots.

American TV show The Fugitive was purportedly a strong influence on Monster, and I would argue not only in concept and tone. The author’s pace and artwork embody the fluency and rhythm of continuity editing – it’s easy to imagine Urasawa’s characters and settings in motion, with the author illustrating location with an astute sense of depth. The artwork itself isn’t as intricate as something you might see from the author’s contemporaries, such as Jiro Taniguchi or Nobuyuki Fukumoto – in fact, there are very few page spreads, let alone double spreads – but its finest qualities lie in its seamless ability to capture and enrapture the reader into another world.

This expert blend is what makes an Urasawa story so enjoyable to follow, yet for all the painstaking planning and brilliant drama, there are aspects which are a little coarse. The story itself is a complex blend of multi-narrative drama that is thrilling and expertly woven, but for a story of such impressive scope, the conclusion feels somewhat abrupt. Though, among Urasawa’s most renowned work, Monster is certainly not the worst offender in this regard.

The exposition is at times heavy-handed and too direct – perhaps a symptom of the author’s extensive groundwork – sometimes he’s too keen to chaperone readers. There are many panels where the artwork alone would have left a stronger impression than the accompanying dialogue, especially given Urasawa is excellent at drawing expression and reaction.

Urasawa’s characterisation ranges from noteworthy to lacking. Come the end, many of the supporting characters feel distinguished and important to the wider plot, and the author builds well to exciting character meetings and confrontations, but some are too narrowly bound by their framework. Central character Tenma is a good hero that you enjoy rooting for, but you know – contrary to his monologue – he’s never really going to kill the antagonist, or anyone for that matter. Urasawa’s protagonists have this unwavering moral compass that saps a lot of tension from key scenes.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, the ambiguity surrounding the antagonist Johan is gripping, and Urasawa plays well with subversion, knowing exactly when and how to tease key details, but his dialogue and spectre-like appearances become monotonous, with eventual revelations that are only half as fulfilling as the journey there. To this day, the character has a certain prestige among manga villains, but I think Urasawa has done better since with Tomodachi and The Bat in his subsequent works.

For a seinen manga, I would expect characters a little less straight-edged, though, as a counter point – even somewhat archetypal – Monster’s supporting characters are rarely tedious or uniform. Furthermore, that the author can swap out the central character for what would have been months at the time of its serialisation, and yet maintain the same level of tempo in the plot and intrigue from readers is very commendable.

There is an undeniable well-roundedness to Monster. The lesser parts in no way detract from the author’s expert storytelling, which has only gotten bolder since. Urasawa’s preferred thematic structure, with his impressive mixture of location and character, shape his work with a certain global and effective quality that is uniquely his own. Monster, while not as spectacular as 20th Century Boys, or as playful as Billy Bat, or as concise as Pluto, nonetheless presents its own allure as the definitive work among Urasawa’s mystery fiction, skilfully comprising all that makes his manga so compelling.

Manga Talk: Bio-Booster Armor Guyver

151Guyver is a classic — the manga began early in 1985 and is still published to this day. Written and illustrated by Yoshiki Takaya, it follows a high school student named Fukamachi Sho, who stumbles upon a strange device that envelopes him, and subsequently allows him to transform into the Guyver, which is a sort of bio-engineered alien bodysuit. Sho and his friends then find themselves pursued by a mysterious organisation with an otherworldly origin named Chronos, who want to reclaim the Guyver unit.

The manga was promptly adapted to anime in 1986. The fifty-five minute original video animation was titled ‘Guyver: Out of Control’ and made its way to Western audiences in the early 1990s. For many, it was among their initial exposure to anime. This was followed by two more adaptations: a twelve episode series in 1998, and a twenty-six episode series in 2005, which covered the first four and ten manga volumes respectively. It was even adapted to film in 1991 and starred none other than Mark Hamill. Apparently it had some degree of success, as there was a sequel in 1994, although without Hamill.

I must credit the 2005 adaptation as my introduction to the series. It remains the newest interpretation of Guyver, and has certainly aged the best. It was part of the ADV line-up, with the company also helping to produce. I love this anime for two reasons in particular: its accuracy in adapting the manga, and its ending. It did not cut corners, or attempt to alter the plot, and was not afraid to end on a rather perilous note. It serves as a terrific platform to launch viewers into the manga, which utilises the long form of the medium to stage some spectacular revelations and surprises, which I have seldom seen in a series that seemed to begin as an analogue shounen.

Warning! Spoilers below.

The reason I’m writing about Guyver today is because I was recently on the hunt for an anime where either the villain is the primary character, or one in which the antagonists win. To my surprise, there really isn’t that many, or at least many good ones. On the other hand, there are a wealth of manga series with a significant focus on the antagonists. Guyver is one of these, and the 2005 adaptation actually ends with the villains winning.

In episode twenty-three the heroes are easily defeated, and in episode twenty-four the evil organisation Chronos takes over the world. The swiftness of this transition really struck me. The takeover is portrayed in montage in both the anime and the manga, with multiple world leaders simultaneously revealing themselves to be Zoanoids (a sort of super powered monster of which Chronos is comprised) on what would become known as X-Day. They are battled, shot at, and even nuked, but all to no avail. Then we cut to a year later, and the entire planet is under Chronos’ dominance.

150Our hero Sho is nowhere to be seen. In fact, he was freshly vaporised by one of the founders of Chronos, who was literally created by alien-like Gods who spurred the onset of human evolution. What else had beset our hero before then? Well, besides his life being ruined simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, he was knocked unconscious while in the Guyver suit by one of the villains. The suit subsequently went into ‘autopilot’ and ended up killing Sho’s own father (with Sho still inside), who had been unwittingly transformed into a Zoanoid. At this point, the manga was still published in Tokuma Shoten’s Shounen Captain magazine, with Guyver being a mainstay from the magazine’s inception until its dissolution. The magazine was home to other gritty manga like Trigun and Grey.

I feel like Guyver is a bit of an outlier these days. Sure, there are manga with similar concepts — such as Zetman and Ultraman — but I feel as though none quite match the level of depth and engagement present in Guyver. A lot of it sounds very strange and rather far-fetched, but it is deceptively layered and wonderfully organic. The story ultimately spans hundreds of millennia, with a gripping and sinuous mythology, and although some of the characters are terrifically funky-looking, they all have personality, or at least a sense of plausibility and depth. Many of them are flawed; they make controversial decisions, and are rash and swayed by personal interest, which lends them a degree of authenticity.

Characters switch sides — villains become anti-heroes and protagonists are turned against their comrades. It’s not so black and white, or good versus evil. Sho is betrayed multiple times by Makishima, one of his very limited number of Guyver allies, who ends up establishing his own questionably wicked faction. He even takes advantage of his childhood friend who obeys his every command, and eventually snatches away her livelihood altogether by transforming her into a Zoalord (which is essentially an all-powerful Zoanoid) condemned to live a tragically short life.

152

I feel it’s a testament to the manga’s depth and intrigue that it began publishing in 1985 and is still going more than thirty years later, albeit the updates are few and far between.  Nonetheless, it does feel like a remnant of an older time. There are no harems or flashy protagonists in Guyver, nor does the hero try to balance his super powers with an ordinary school life. It’s amusingly contrasted with almost every manga serialised within Monthly Shounen Ace magazine, which is currently home to Guyver.

The pages are dominated by cutesy female characters as seen in the likes of Kemono Friends and Gamers, which the covers then paint as almost gaudy and super contemporary. You could scarcely guess it is the type of magazine in which Guyver would reside. Nonetheless, there it remains, holding on after thirty-one volumes. The manga sadly has almost no presence in the West, and has itself been absent in Japan due to a hiatus, but to me, the day Guyver comes to a close will be one of the most momentous days in the history of manga — one of the true greats of an older time will have concluded, leaving behind a terrific legacy and a tragic void. I feel it’s one of the heavyweight ‘superpower’ series, and I wonder if the Marvel obsessed masses of today would afford it a new audience.

One can dream.

Alita: Battle Angel — Trailer Impressions

I am currently swamped with deadlines, fighting off procrastination, and trying to whip up thousands of words a day before I succumb to the indolence of the Christmas period, but I had to give myself a break, for something momentous has occurred. The first trailer for the live-action adaptation of Battle Angel Alita has arrived.

Battle Angel Alita is one of my all-time favourite manga series, and I wrote about it over twenty months ago here on my blog. I ended by saying to drop by in a couple of years for my thoughts on the film version, which will undoubtedly be here come July, but before that, I must comment on the trailer.

My immediate impressions are that it looks very promising. I am impressed with the look of almost everything — they have replicated the world and the content of the manga extremely well. I’m eager to see more of the setting, but certain sequences from the trailer seem to match the manga shot-for-shot.

Thus far, the cast are looking quite exceptional. Besides Jennifer Connelly, who I believe is playing an original character, every character is immediately recognisable to me as a fan of the manga. Dr. Ido in the manga is a mixture of somebody very brave and charming, but also rather vulnerable and sensitive. I believe Christoph Waltz will be able to match his temperament considerably, and Mahershala Ali looks as though he may bring a sense of menace to the character of Vector. In the manga, Vector is very sly and often acts a lot tougher than he is, but I am wondering if they will expand his role given the popularity and presence of Mahershala Ali.

Rosa Salazar as Alita seems to be the biggest talking point from the trailer. Long before production began, Cameron teased the possibility of Alita being all CG, and it looks as though they’ve certainly played on that idea to some extent. Her big eyes are the most immediate feature, and something that I didn’t expect to see, but I really love that they’ve given Alita a sort of uncanny look. In the manga, she’s very obviously the main character — she has an extremely distinctive appearance, and her main characteristics throughout are always her big eyes, octopus lips, and buoyant hair. Here’s a comparison I put together (and another at the end of this post).

120

I’m extremely pleased about Makaku’s appearance, too. Often during adaptations, it seems as though certain characters are deemed to difficult to work on screen, and are thus changed, but Makaku—who is the first villain in the Alita series—appears just as he does on the page. Some of the special effects do look as though they need more refinement, but as this is just the first trailer, I fully expect them to look better implemented in the final product. There are also a couple of tantalising spots for people familiar with the manga, such as a small glimpse of Ido’s Rocket Hammer.

There are also a couple of changes. It appears as though Gonzu—Ido’s close friend—has been completely replaced with another character, and judging from this trailer alone, it would appear as though Motorball is no longer going to be included. Cameron had previously commented that his adaptation would include elements of the first four books, including the Motorball arc, but either things have changed since handing over to Rodriguez, or they’re saving it for a later reveal. On a personal note, I did feel as though merging four entire volumes would be a bit much to fit into a single film, but nonetheless, I was excited to see some big screen Motorball action.

Nothing too solid is revealed about the plot. Scenes from the manga are in there, but it’s difficult to speculate how closely they’re sticking to the original structure. Two lines in particular—”They will come for you,” which is spoken by Ido to Alita, and “I’d give you my heart,” which is spoken by Alita to Hugo—did throw me off slightly.

Early in the manga, Alita strives to live a relatively normal life, and the only person who is really after her is Zapan, who is played by Ed Skrein in this film. But this occurs much later, even after the Motorball arc, and it seems as though Ido is referring to a group of people, rather than one person.

The second line seems to really nail Alita’s obsessiveness over Hugo, but I don’t recall her ‘heart’ being an object she can whip out and have a look at. No doubt, this is some sort of subtle exposition for later on.

All in all, I am feeling relatively upbeat about this adaptation. I’ve had a look at the larger response online, and it seems rather mixed, but I feel as though they’ve implemented many key aspects of the manga. I found the Death Note and Ghost in the Shell adaptations extremely disappointing because of their disengagement with the source material, but here it actually looks as though the creative team are familiar with Yukito Kishiro’s work. It helps that the project was first devised by James Cameron, and that he remains on board, as he is an enormous fan of the manga, and a project like this needs enthusiasm and passion behind it.

I genuinely hope this is a success, because the world of Alita is so enormous and rich with detail and scope. The manga is one of the essential cyberpunk series, and an adaptation has so much potential. Arguably, the best material and some of the most exciting characters, such as Jashugan, Berserker Zapan, Figure Four, and Desty Nova, are not introduced until after the first couple of arcs, so if the adaptation were to become a trilogy, it has the ability and substance to continually outdo itself with each installment.

Here’s hoping! Alita: Battle Angel is set to be released on 20th July, 2018.

Alita

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.

110

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!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

109

Movie Review: Death Note (2017)

Title: Death Note
Director: Adam Wingard
Screenplay: Charles Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides, Jeremy Slater
Starring: Nat Wolff, Lakeith Stanfield, Margaret Qualley, Shea Whigham, Paul Nakauchi, Willem Dafoe
Released: 25ᵗʰ August 2017


In the process of adapting a book or television show to film, there are undoubtedly numerous considerations. However, before deciding what material to exclude, what to include, and how your version will differ in getting from point A to B, the first point of call is surely to read, watch and understand the source material. Once you know what makes the original work so compelling and unique, you can focus on those components when moving it over to a different format.

This is a terrible adaptation, pure and simple. It’s an utter bastardisation of the Death Note manga and it’s anime adaptation, and barely resembles what it is apparently based on. It’s as though the original work were a third or fourth reference, rather than the immediate source.

The major issues are in the plot and characterisation. The original version of Death Note is a psychological thriller and part police procedural, in which law enforcement attempt to track down a seemingly supernatural serial killer known as Kira, who begins cleansing the world of criminals. But at it’s heart, it’s a game of cat and mouse, where Kira and an enigmatic detective named L exchange metaphorical blows as they strive to put an end to each other.

108

The Netflix film contains none of what made the original so compelling — no cat and mouse play, no cunning machinations, and none of what you loved about the characters. It is vapid, with the Death Note itself a gratuitous weapon that exists simply to set up a series of elaborate and violent deaths as the movie crudely maneuvers from one beat to the next. Tsugumi Ohba, the original writer of Death Note, employed the notebook in involved and Machiavellian ways, but its use here is neither ambitious nor inventive.

The characters are a crowd of husks which exhibit very little range. Audiences enjoyed watching Light in the original for the same reason they enjoy watching Frank Underwood; because he is utterly devious, compelling and charismatic. This new interpretation is simply unremarkable, and L has devolved from a calculated and level-headed oddity into an irrational hothead who lacks any sort of distinctive personality.

The characters are wearisome and banal when following them should be thrilling. Willem Dafoe and Shea Whigham give respectable performances, but their parts are extremely minor and Ryuk has been reduced from an amusing and impartial observer to something resembling a devil on the shoulder, which takes away all his quirks and charm.

The story itself follows a similar premise as the original, but does not contain any of the same progression, set pieces, or plot points, and is utterly forgettable and at times so terrifically brainless. The plot is essentially complete within fifty-one minutes, and the rest of the movie is a very dismal, convoluted and ungainly effort to weave some twists and action into the film, which ultimately makes for a crudely dramatised and terrifically tedious culmination.

107

It contains numerous holes and many scenes that appear very manufactured and coarse. It’s one of those movies were events occur and are set up in ways that make you question the integrity of the plot — it doesn’t have any fluency or sense to it. It is extremely rushed and hesitant with details, and appears more concerned with getting to the end rather than telling a coherent and developed tale.

For example, how serious is Light about cleansing the world of criminals? We don’t really know. Such little time is spent establishing the motivation and clout of Kira himself, and we barely even see Light write in the Death Note. Further to this, how can the law enforcement even reliably keep track of Kira’s victims when the vast majority appear as accidental deaths? How does Kira gain a following and become an entity unto himself? In the original, Kira’s victims are identifiable by their shared fate (sudden heart attack), which is not the case here. It’s as though the writers just expect you to follow along, without adding a sense of comprehension to the plot. It’s all very vague.

It’s difficult to take the movie seriously when it lacks so many components, no only from a filmmaking and storytelling perspective, but also as an adaptation. Events that were so astounding, atmospheric and dramatic in the original work are all too often glossed over or missed entirely here. There were so many opportunities, and the story was already written, it need only be condensed. How such an absorbing and well-plotted thriller was moulded into something so tedious and inadequate is beyond me. What’s even more insulting is the ending, which is a major cop out and seems to lead into a sequel. If two movies were planned, there is just no excuse for how rushed, yet barren this movie is.

So, is there anything that actually works in this film? Well, it’s competently shot. The cinematography is not bad, and some shots were quite alluring and stylish. The score was rather unexceptional, but it is passable, although the music played during the climax came across to me as rather cheesy. That’s about it, though. Even as a stand alone movie for someone unfamiliar with Death Note, it’s lusterless. The original work was so groundbreaking and captivating — it’s a travesty this adaptation exists. It is Death Note in name only.

Movie Review: Ghost in the Shell

Title: Ghost in the Shell
Director: Rupert Sanders
Screenplay: Jamie Moss, William Wheeler
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Takeshi Kitano, Pilou Asbæk, Michael Pitt
Released: Mar 2017 (US & UK)


Well, what do you know. They’ve only gone and made a live-action version of Ghost in the Shell. This would have been a dream come true for my teenage self, but sadly the Rupert Sanders film is a far cry from the original manga and its various incarnations.

The main problem with the new Ghost in the Shell is its simplicity. The 1995 film isn’t as philosophical as it’s often remembered being, but it has a meditative ambience and the idea of the ‘ghost’ is well expressed and worth pondering. Here, the ‘ghost’ is reduced to a simple noun — a word for an individual’s consciousness and nothing more. There is no commentary on humanity or singularity; in fact it bares such little weight on the plot, they could have done away with the concept of the ghost and simply given the principal character drug-induced amnesia. Here, the main theme is how actions rather than memories define a person.

95

By doing away with the philosophy and changing the film into a mystery-vengeance story, where Motoko is the “first of her kind” and seeks answers about her obvious past, they’ve gone a well trodden and thoroughly uninspired route, which is bolstered by some terrifically mediocre writing that is filled with clunky exposition and many contrivances. At one point, the head of the company behind Motoko’s synthetics orders her to be terminated, after which there’s a disagreement between the head and a cybernetics doctor who clearly cares about Motoko. The company boss then instructs the doctor — the sole person who sympathises with Motoko — to do the honours. Where do you think this is going? It’s painfully predictable and lacks so much of the nuances present throughout the franchise.

There’s also a scene where the cybernetics boss says to one of his creations; “you came close, you freak.” I don’t know if the character is supposed to be a supercilious ass who doesn’t quite realise he made the ‘freak’ or if the writers just don’t think about the implications of certain dialogue. Either way, the dialogue is often heavy-handed, inconsistent and partial on details.

The plot itself is an amalgamation of various Ghost in the Shell products, but namely the 1995 film and the Stand Alone Complex series. There are a couple of shot-for-shot sequences that match well the aesthetic of Mamoru Oshii’s adaptation, along with some subtle references only fans of the franchise are likely to notice, but sadly they serve more as a reminder of better material than a homage. Still, the ‘shell’ is at least present. The world of Ghost in the Shell is fully realised and they include direct reference to the prevalence of cybernetic enhancements, though there is little commentary on transhumanism.

96

The visual effects are top-notch and the practical effects and props made by Weta — though utilised far less than I expected — were impressive. I thought much of the cast had a good likeness to their anime and manga counterparts, too. Effort had gone into making Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbæk and Takeshi Kitano resemble their illustrated equivalents. The performances and the action scenes were satisfying, but nothing particularly applaudable.

One aspect that was tremendously unsatisfactory was the score by Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe. I generally enjoy Mansell’s music and adore his work on The Fountain, but here the music just isn’t notable. It lacked a presence and was neither emotive nor thrilling. At certain points, it contains tiny fragments of Kenji Kawai’s original Ghost in the Shell score, but does not attempt to hone or replicate the composers enthralling sounds. Then, almost as a joke, Kawai’s prominent ‘Making of a Cyborg’ theme from the 1995 film is played during the credits, as if to say — this is what you could have had.

As a generic action movie, Ghost in the Shell is passable, but relatively unexceptional. However, as an adaptation of such a breathtaking and esoteric franchise, it misses the mark entirely. It is formulaic and devoid of any substantial philosophy — ultimately another great concept dumbed-down for the lowest common denominator. It’s frustrating, as the allusions to the prior material generally translate well to live-action, but the vast alterations and perplexing union of sources hindered what could have been a terrific film. They couldn’t even commit and go whole hog with the ending, which seemed to be going the direction of Oshii’s initial adaptation before fizzling away and becoming completely vapid. It seems the ghost was far too much for them.

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.

88

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.

89

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.

90

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.

70

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.

68-5

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.

65

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.

62

‘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.

63

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.

64