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

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.

67.1

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.

68.1