Saturday, 24 January 2009

It's Not All About The Boobies

Here's a brief, thowaway article on alternative manga i did for The London student. It doesn't really say anything new or interesting and it's not even especially comprehensive, but i thought i'd post it here for posterity's sake.

Your local bookshop hides a dark secret. It’s in a corner, hidden away…probably towards the back. It emanates exoticism, the unknown. The lights flicker eerily, and the ceiling is cobwebbed in a stereotypically hammer-horror fashion. The carpet is caked with grime and on the grime-caked carpet sits a grime-caked man with a grime-caked beard, in a Batman t-shirt.

I’m talking about manga, obviously! If you like buxom, anatomically-unlikely women and swords as giant phallic metaphors manga is for you!

Of course, this is all a horrible, horrible stereotype. We think of comic books as ‘sub-culture’ in the UK (with emphasis on the sub-...); Not so in Japan, where manga is enjoyed by a hugely diverse cross-section of the population. What I’m trying to say is that, in Japan, normal people read comic books. It truly is a paradise on Earth.

It’s a shame that in the UK we perceive comic books as being somehow infantile. This moronic and infantile attitude baffles me.

The manga I'd like to talk about are all seinen, that is, they’re classified as being appropriate for males aged 18-30. There’s a tradition of strict classification by gender/age in Japan, and it rarely reflects the readership, so don't let it put you off.

Mushishi is the antithesis of everything that you know and demonise manga for.
It's all about nature and people, and the interactions thereof.

Ginko, the titular Mushishi, is a witch doctor of sorts, possessed of a wry smile and the perpetual stub of a cigarette. Much of the narrative follows Ginko as he wanders the countryside, curing ailments and dealing with mushi. The mushi in question are ghostly, ethereal automata; Beings on the the thin line between life and non-life; They cause trouble but do so out of their own natures, not out of malice. More often than not, it is the greed or pride of a man which is to be blamed.

Mushishi is sedate and tranquil but it never drags, each stand-alone tale is an ode to the beauty and cruelty of nature.

Gantz is the 'Lost' of manga. Many think that its esoteric and often indecipherable plot is overrated, but it has managed to attract a cult following. The art, heavily indebted to virtual storyboard technology, is something to behold, the level of detail is unrivalled.
Gantz stands out, not because it's all about the action (they're plenty like that), but because it realises said action so well. Reading Gantz is exhilarating like few other comic books can ever hope to be.

Death Note should come with a health warning. If you start reading it be prepared to lose sleep until you finish it.
Shinigami, akin to grim reapers, play a rather prevalent role in Japanese pop-culture. Death Note injects the Shinigami myth into a dark, psychological thriller with truly unexpected results. The premise alone is enough to sell it: Student is bright yet bored. Student finds mysterious notebook. Student realises that upon writing a person's name in the notebook, the person will die. Needless to say, chaos ensues, and i'd be spoiling the fun if I were to elaborate.

Mushishi, Gantz and Death Note are but three notable titles of a veritable glut of thought-provoking and intelligent manga. Akira and Ghost In the Shell helped bring the medium into Western conciousness and are well worth a read. The work of Osamu Tezuka, considered the 'godfather' of manga is especially notable, recommended are Phoenix and Buddha. A classic historical epic comes in the form of Lone Wolf and Cub, spanning nearly 30 volumes. Honourable mention also goes to the grimy, multi-layered Tekkon Kinkreet: Black and White and the girly, but strangely compelling Oh My Goddess!

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