Favourite Writers: Manga

26 March, 2010

Asaki Yumemishi Tokimeki TonightYukan Club
(Covers: Asaki Yumemishi, Tokimeki Tonight, Yukan Club)

I’m half Japanese and the great thing about that is that I can read Japanese and have access to the world of Japanese manga without having to wait for a translation. It was also a great way to learn Japanese, and as my parents never limited the number of comics I bought when I lived in Japan it was a win-win situation. I was happy if I got my monthly comic magazine and a couple of comic paperbacks every three months. Of course, there is so much out there that if I wandered into a Japanese bookshop now, I wouldn’t know where to start.

It’s also a great conversation starter because all Japanese people grow up with manga. There is manga about every subject available and it’s a great way to learn. For example, take The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, the world’s first modern novel written by an 11th century court lady. The original is written in Heian court Japanese (which no one except academics can read). There is a modern version in 10 volumes by Tanizaki Junichiro which we have at home and which one summer I was planning to try but was told by my mother that it was still too difficult for me to understand. Luckily, there is a manga version, beautifully drawn and faithful to the story. The English version of the novel is over a thousand pages long and I would have to have the constitution of an ox and the patience of a saint to wade through such a classical text. I would try it, but reading Asaki Yumemishi was so much more enjoyable. You get the passion, the sorrow and the beauty. And you don’t mind reading it all over again when you’ve finished. So yay for manga! I learnt about the French revolution, the Cultural revolution, the Communist revolution, food, love, basically everything from manga. I even found a manga about the astrophysicist I was researching for my thesis! How cool is that?

I am aware that the manga you get in the west tends to focus on the extreme, but the majority of Japanese people don’t go for the hentai stuff (I didn’t even know they existed until I came to the UK), but the ordinary stuff about love, life, friendship and adventure. And there are some great manga out there for us normal folk.

Here are some manga I recommend:

20th Century Boys by Urasawa Naoki – part nostalgic/part futuristic mystery adventure charting the rise of a strange entity called ‘Tomodachi (Friend)’ who takes over Japan.

Asaki Yumemishi by Yamato Waki – The Tale of Genji.

Bleach by Kubo Tite – about Japanese reapers who battle hollows (spirits without souls) and herd human souls to the Soul Society. It’s a very Japanese take on the after-life.

Candy Candy by Igarashi Yumiko – all Japanese girls in the 80s grew up reading this manga. Set in America, it’s a tale of a feisty orphan girl who grows up overcoming her problems to find love and happiness. I thought it was pretty dark in places, dealing with friendship, betrayal and loss, but it’s pretty amazing.

Chibi Maruko-chan by Sakura Momoko – a modern tale of a Japanese family told with comic touches (like Sazae-san – see below)

Crows by Takahashi Hiroshi – high school gang wars, scary but funny. The films Crows Zero I and II are based on this manga.

Dragonball by Toriyama Akira – I admit I haven’t read all of this but I bought it when it first came out and I’m a big fan of Toriyama who also wrote Dr. Slump.

Garasu no Kamen (The Glass Mask) by Miuchi Suzue – long-running series (20 years?) about a talented actress competing with her celebrity rival for a prestigious role. My mum and I have been waiting with bated breath for new volumes but at the moment it’s being published at a rate of one every two years (normally it’s every 3 months). What’s happening??

Hokuto no Ken (Fist of the North Star) by Hara Tetsuo and Buronson – set in a post-apocalyptic world, a lone warrior with special martial arts powers helps people terrorised by monstrous gangs while looking for his lost love. The illustrations aren’t pretty and it’s very violent, but it’s also deep and philosophical. Just don’t watch the live-action movie.

La Maschera by Yoshino Sakumi – I just love Yoshino’s illustrations, they are so enchanting. This manga is an atmospheric murder mystery set in Venice during the Carnivale.

Oishimbo (The Gourmet) by Hanasaki Akira – I’ve learnt so much about the history, culture and preparation of food from this series about the adventures of a food journalist.

Peking Reijin Sho (An Actor’s Journal) by Sumeragi Natsuki – beautifully drawn and set in Peking on the cusp of revolution when the communists are just gaining power. Sumeragi shows a Peking that is slowly succumbing to modernity.

Rontai Baby by Takaguchi Satosumi – set in 70s Japan, this is a tale of two tough girls as they go through high school fighting and searching for love. You won’t look at Japanese high school girls in the same way again. It’s kind of a female version of Crows.

Sazae-san Hasegawa Machiko – a manga and anime that has been loved by generations. It’s a heartwarming traditional family comedy showing the everyday life of a post-war Japanese family.

Tenshi Kinryouku (Angel Sanctuary), Count Cain and Godchild by Yuki Kaori – Yuki is the queen of gothic manga. I first read the Count Cain series set in Victorian England with overtones of various European fairytales. Then I came across Angel Sanctuary which cemented her reputation about the war of the angels (which was quite difficult for me to understand in Japanese – with lots of references to Milton and the Bible). Her illustrations are gorgeous.

Tokimeki Tonight by Ikeno Koi – the first manga I fell in love with about a family of vampires and werewolves in which a vampire girl falls in love with her human classmate.

Vagabond by Inoue Takehiko – based on Yoshikawa Eiji’s Musashi about the life of Miyamoto Musashi, Japan’s greatest swordsman. Violent but profound with a lot of references to Zen Buddhism and the search for the self.

Versailles no Bara (The Rose of Versailles) and Orpheus no Mado (Orpheus’ Window) by Ikeda Riyoko – legendary mangaka Ikeda always tackles epic themes. The first is about Marie Antoinette and the French revolution and the second is about Regensburg, music and the Russian revolution. They both made me cry.

Yukan Club by Ichijo Yukari – one of my favourite mangas about a group of six extremely wealthy high school students and their adventures. It’s very funny and with lots of cultural and historical references. Her illustrations are divine and she seems to have a fondness for food and the macabre.

Yume de Aetara and Yume no Hitotachi by Ogura Fuyumi – her love stories are still and beautiful.

The greatest draw for me is the beautiful illustrations. I cannot help but pick up a comic when the cover boasts such beautiful art.

Currently I’m making my way through Bleach, Vagabond, Crows, Fist of the North and Cesare by Souryo Fuyumi (about Cesare Borgia). As I don’t have access to Japanese manga, I’m reading them online as they get scanslated.

You can read translated manga online at One Manga, Manga Volume and Manga Fox and bookshops now seem to stock a wider range. And I know that in the States you can get Weekly Shonen Jump. I love my Archie and Asterix comics but for me, my first love will always be Japanese manga.

A list of manga authors can be found here.


(Covers: Vagabond, Bleach, Angel Sanctuary)

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It’s almost the end of the year and the time for lists, so I thought it would be appropriate to list my most enjoyable reads of the year. There haven’t really been any duff reads and I think I only gave up on two books earlier in the year before I started my blog in July.

1) The most enjoyable thing this year was starting my blog! I was really nervous about this and, having been surreptitiously reading book blogs for about a year beforehand, I felt rather intimidated at the professional manner in which many blogs are maintained. They are all so lovely, funny and well thought out. But I took the plunge and I’m really glad I did, because it’s so much fun and I’ve met some incredibly nice bloggy people.

It’s made me think a lot more about why I read and the books that I choose. I also found it surprisingly hard to write a negative review and made me think about the honesty in my writing.

2) OK books, here we go. In 2009, I really liked reading and writing about:

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam
Love Marriage by V.V. Ganeshananthan
The Night Watch by Sarah Waters
The Boat by Nam Le
The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki
A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
Graceling by Kristin Cashore
The Season of the Witch by Natasha Mostert
The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas

I also liked the following which I didn’t write about, as I read them before I started blogging, but highly recommend:

The Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erickson
The Book of Other People edited by Zadie Smith
Alexandria by Lyndsey Davis
All the Sad Young Literary Men by Keith Gessen
In the Woods by Tana French
Tokyo Year Zero by David Peace
Singled Out by Virginia Nicholson

I realise that I haven’t written about my favourite book of the year, Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erickson since I read it way back in January, but as I’ll be reading the second installment in the 10 book sequence next year, I promise to write a big juicy post about the Malazan Book of the Fallen series when the time comes.

3) I found some amazing book challenges this year including RIP IV and the Japanese Literary Challenge 3 which put me in touch with some lovely people, the Clear Off Your Shelves Challenge which actually motivated me to read something off my TBR shelf and the Women Unbound Challenge which has made me veer towards some thoughtful reading. I’m also enjoying the Hello Japan! challenge which has made me look at Japan anew.

4) I also reconnected with my love for Japanese drama and film. This year’s favourites were Crows Zero, Sakuran and Gokusen.

♥  Thank you to everyone who has taken their time to read my blog and post comments. I always enjoy hearing from you and I look forward to getting to know you all a lot more next year!

And I’ll leave you with my favourite book and cover art of the year.

Shimotsuma Monogatari

I watched this film a few weeks ago and was totally bowled over. It had been on my radar for a number of years now since its release in 2004, but I wasn’t particularly drawn to it as I had no interest in the gothic lolita trend that was sweeping Japan and slowly travelling to the West. But Shimotsuma Monogatari was a bright, funny and poignant film about friendship, fitting in and chasing your dreams.

The style of the film is similar to that of director Tetsuya Nakashima’s subsequent film Kiraware Matsuko no Isshou (Memories of Matsuko) which I saw a few years ago, a technicolour pop extravaganza that seems to be at odds with its weighty themes but works brilliantly.

The protagonists Momoko and Ichigo, played by two of Japan’s most talked about actresses Kyoko Fukada and Anna Tsuchiya, are both charmingly contrary and you can’t help but want them to succeed. There are a lot of comic moments in the film, especially in the beginning when we are a given a technicolour kaleidoscope of Momoko’s background and upbringing, especially her petit yakuza father’s dodgy business: flogging pirate brand goods which became a surprise cult hit.

After getting caught and threatened with legal action, Momoko and her father make a quick getaway to live with her grandmother in a sleepy town called Shimotsuma, where the locals all shop for clothes at Jusco, Japan’s Wal-Mart. Momoko, who spends all her time alone, has one passion, and that is for the lolita fashion brand Baby, The Stars Shine Bright. It isn’t cheap to go all the way to Tokyo to shop for clothes and Momoko soon needs to look for ways to fund her lolita fashion lifestyle, and she does so by selling her father’s long-forgotten knock-offs. And that is how she meets Ichigo, a member of the local ladies motorbike gang, Ponytails. The two strike an unlikely friendship and the film follows their transformation as they realise what they mean to each other.

Shimotsuma Monogatari is a comic, yet poignant, portrayal of smalltown Japan, slowly vanishing as it is consumed by the ever encroaching urban sprawl. The message I got was that wherever you are, you should follow your dreams and that there is always someone you can bond with even in the most unlikeliest of places. I know it sounds cheesy, but what a great film.

Kafka on the Shore

I always fret long and hard when writing Japanese names: do I do it the Japanese way with the surname first or the English way (i.e. Murakami Haruki or Haruki Murakami)? In my first post about Japanese authors I did it the Japanese way but as I blogged on I’ve switched back to the English. What to do? I guess my western education has come through and won. So, I think I’ll just go with the flow. If in my mind I’m thinking in Japanese, then the Japanese way it is. If not, tough. So if you do get annoyed, I apologise in advance.

Now that’s out of the way, let’s get down to the serious stuff. I finished Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore last night. It took me about a week or so which is quite a long time for me to finish a book, but then I wasn’t reading every hour of the day. I got snatches in on my commute and before going to bed.

Kafka on the Shore. What can I say? It was pure Murakami. It had mystery, whimsy, darkness and a lot of soul searching. There were some choice of words in the translation that jarred, but overall it was easy to get into and kept me hooked. And a significant part of the book was about books and set in a library. What’s not to like?

The novel begins with an inexplicable happening during WWII in the mountains of Shikoko, one of the southern islands of Japan. A group of children collapse on an outing leaving one boy in a coma. They do not remember anything and the doctor and teacher are forbidden by the military to speak of the incident.

We then come to the present day where fifteen year old Kafka Tamura and his mysterious friend Crow have run away from his father in Tokyo. He has been cursed since birth, his father claiming that Kafka will kill him and sleep with his mother and sister. So naturally, Kafka wants to defy him and break free from his Sophoclean fate. But Kafka’s mother and sister disappeared when he was four. This complicates things because Kafka seeks them in every female he meets, but due to his youth and hormones cannot escape from sexually fantasising about them. Kafka ends up in Takamatsu in Shikoku and is befriended by first Sakura, a hairdresser, and then Oshima, a long-haired boy who works in the Komura Memorial Library, a private library which becomes a refuge for Kafka. Here he meets beautiful Ms. Saeki who still carries a torch for her long-dead lover.

Elsewhere in the novel, we follow Nakata, who is unable to remember anything since the incident during the war and cannot read or write. But he can talk to cats. While looking for a missing cat, Nakata is led to a sinister being, one Johnnie Walker who collects the souls of cats, who persuades him to commit murder. Nakata goes on the run and is helped by Chunichi Dragons fan Hoshino, a once-delinquent truck driver.

Murakami cleverly entwines the two strands of the novel, keeping the reader guessing until the end. The characters in his novel are charming, troubled, naive yet strong. They are trying to figure out their destiny, and although they do not go through life in the easiest way, we are glad to follow in their footsteps.

Kafka on the Shore is very different to a lot of novels currently out there. Although Murakami doesn’t provide a definitive answer he does provide some sort of closure in Kafka’s story. As in After Dark, Murakami’s novel is peopled by the displaced. Alienation is a theme that runs through this novel, yet we also encounter people who are willing to stretch out a hand and help. Murakami leaves you pondering about the nature of life and people and that’s always a good thing.

okuribito

A Japanese friend of mine recently recommended Okuribito (Departures) saying what a beautiful film it was. I recalled hearing about it earlier this year and was vaguely aware that the film was about undertakers and funerals. I wasn’t particularly interested in watching something depressing but her comments and the cast list (I have a soft spot for Tsutomu Yamazaki) swayed me into watching it a few nights ago to relieve a particularly stressful day. And boy was I glad I did. It was surprisingly funny, sad, warm and big-hearted and each actor gave their utmost in rendering trully incredible performances. I laughed and cried all the way through it. It totally deserves the Oscar it won for the Best Foreign Language Film.

One of the qualms I have about Japanese modern day cinema is that, although they are beautifully shot and the stories engaging, sometimes the editing isn’t quite right. Often the film is too long without enough action (although I like my action films, I also like slow, contemplative ones too.) However, Okuribito was just perfect (except for one scene when the protagonist is playing his cello on the side of road to signal the passing of time…)

The main character Daigo played by Masahiro Motoki was inspired. I have always known him as Mok-kun (as he was affectionately known way back in the 80s as a member of the aidoru group Shibugakitai) and I never realised what a good actor he was. His facial expressions alone could have carried the film. The supporting cast of Tsutomu Yamazaki (his boss), Ryoko Hirosue (his wife) and Kimiko Yo (his colleague) were all reassuringly familiar and understated. It is a quiet film with big themes.

The film begins with Dai returning to his home town after his dream of becoming a professional orchestral cellist is dashed. He has to deal with memories of his father who had dissapeared leaving his mother to bring him up alone. She had left him her coffeeshop/bar when she passed away a few years back but he had been abroad at the time and was unable to make it to her funeral. Dai is an isolated figure, keeping his problems to himself and unable to confide in his supportive wife. This becomes a problem when he is unable to refuse a position at the local encoffinment company and is drawn into lying about his work. Soon old prejudices regarding working with the dead start to surface especially in such a small town. How Dai deals with this and how his perspective on life, love and family changes is the central theme of this film. What you can do for the one you love is to prepare and send them off to the next world.

Although the film is about death, the director Yojiro Takita and writer Kundo Koyama leave you thinking about life.