Hello Japan: Manga!

12 March, 2011

*The last few days have been devastating and sad and we are all thinking of our families and friends in Japan. Japan isn’t accepting any international aid yet and neither is the British Red Cross. The British, American and Australian Red Cross are accepting donations. Please also visit Coco&Me and She Who Eats who have both set up fund-raising pages. It seems trivial to talk about other things during this difficult time, but this is one small reason out of so many why I love Japan.*

It’s been many moons since I participated in In Spring It Is The Dawn’s Hello Japan! mini-challenges. Always fun and informative, this month’s challenge is all about manga. So I thought I’d talk about one series that I read recently and another that I re-read ‘coz I’m greedy like that.

First up is The Glass Mask or Garasu no Kamen (ガラスの仮面) by Suzue Miuchi. This is probably the LONGEST running manga series I have ever read and it still isn’t finished after 20 years. Last year the latest volumes (45 and 46) were published and I think all the fans secretly hoped there would be some kind of conclusion but realistically you knew there was still a long way to go for the story to end naturally. So what’s the big deal?

The Glass Mask is about Maya Kitajima, a naturally gifted thespian, from a poor and working class background. She is lucky enough to encounter a brilliant acting coach, Chigusa Tsukikage, who sees her potential and marks her out for a possible lead part in the legendary play, Kurenai Tenyo (Crimson Goddess) which she herself had played before her tragic accident which resulted in the loss of her eye and the death of her partner. As news of Maya’s talent spreads, she catches the attention of Ayumi Himekawa, a privileged actress from an acting dynasty, and Masumi Hayami, the young boss of a powerful business conglomerate with fingers in many pies. Maya clashes with both, although she respects yet feels intimidated by Ayumi. It is at this time that Maya begins to receive notes of encouragement and rare purple roses from a secret admirer. As both Maya and Ayumi increase their repertoire and hone their acting skills, they also grow and learn about friendship, love and life.

I think what is so fascinating about this series is the detail and the love of acting and plays with which Miuchi infuses work. I first learnt about Hellen Keller through a role Maya plays. There are lots of different techniques, the inner conflict in realising a character part, method acting, all sorts. I’m not particularly interested in acting as such, but it’s interesting to see the different ways in which Maya and Ayumi approach their respective roles. Both women lead pretty separate lives except that you know that they are headed towards a collision when they both audition for the extremely difficult role of Kurenai Tenyo. Complicating matters is Masumi’s growing love for Maya, his fiancée chosen by his autocratic and wheelchair-bound father, who was also involved in the tragic accident that ended the career of Maya’s acting coach, and Maya’s discovery of the identity of her secret admirer.

I also think that although some of the characters in this series are pretty stereotyped and living in the late 70s (Maya’s room-mate still has a 70s hairstyle!), the character of Maya is wonderfully energetic, innocent yet with depth and there is a wonder to the way she sees the world.

And where does volume 46 leave us? Not very far. Both Maya and Ayumi are perfecting their character of Kurenai Tenyo, the triangular relationship of Maya, Masumi and his fiancée is coming to a climax (don’t worry, it’s not that kind of manga) but we still don’t know what’s going to happen. Gah, I’ve been waiting for so long and will probably be waiting for another twenty years. But that’s ok ‘coz I love this manga.

The second series is Godchild (ゴッドチャイルド) by Kaori Yuki who is more famous for her apocalyptic series Angel Sanctuary or Tenshi Kinryoku (天使禁猟区). I first became a fan of Yuki’s work through the Count Cain series of short manga stories of which Godchild is the later part of the saga told in 8 volumes. It’s Victorian, subversive and has lots of murder and deceit and it’s illustrated beautifully. I think I first fell in love with Yuki’s drawings but her story telling is pretty impressive too. It reminds me a little of Angela Carter because it’s a fairy tale for adults with lots of blood, gore and the forbidden.

Cain is a young English Count living in a sprawling pile with his butler and young ward. He’s known for his collection of rare poisons and is often called upon to solve ghastly mysteries and crime. In Godchild, Cain is being hunted by the thing he fears most, his sadistic father and the sinister society he controls called Delilah. So you have murder, poison, incest and madness all rolled into one. Even though his father is alive, Cain considers himself an orphan, born of an incestuous relationship (it’s very Byronic here). Yuki turns the tension up a notch with tragic betrayal, love lost and finally redemption in a world where Jack the Ripper isn’t the most dangerous thing around.

I love this series and I would probably start with the Count Cain short mangas beginning with Forgotten Juliet just so you become familiar with Cain and his household. It’s probably not to everyone’s taste, definitely not for the squirmish, but lovers of Victoriana and gothic horror would lap it up.

I’ve also posted about manga here and here.

In between reading my books ve-ry slowly, I’ve also been reading a number of manga and was contemplating doing a little update. So what a coincidence that In Spring It Is the Dawn’s Hello Japan June Mini-challenge is all about manga! As most of you will probably know, Japanese manga tend to run into many volumes and go on for years. So I’m still waiting to finish several, but have also found some complete series. The story-telling and illustrations will amaze you and I urge you to give them a try if you can.

Monster by Urasawa Naoki – I read Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys last year and was impressed by the clever story which combined a futuristic Japan after some kind of an apocalypse with the nostalgic simplicity of a 70s childhood. Great story, although I was a little dissapointed with the ending. Urasawa’s previous serial manga is Monster about Dr. Tenma, a genius Japanese brain surgeon working in Germany who decides to operate on an injured boy over an important political figure. His choice changes his life as his patron deserts him, his fiancée leaves him and his career stalls. But things go from bad to worse as his patron and other surgeons are mysteriously found poisoned and the boy Tenma saved dissappears with his twin sister. Urasawa is a master storyteller as we follow Tenma as he tries to prove his innocence and search for the truth behind the murders, uncovering the horrors perpetuated by East Germany during the Communist era which led to the birth of a ‘monster’ who kills for the greatest prize of all. I have to say I was very impressed with Monster. Forget the unlikely scenario of Tenma being the sole Japanese in this series running around Europe; Urasawa keeps you guessing as to what will happen whilst simultaneously peeling away the secrets to reveal the true reason behind the creation of the ‘monster’. Brilliant.

Pluto by Tezuka Osamu and Urasawa Naoki – again another brilliant sff manga. Reminiscent of Asimov’s robot world in which humans and robot live together in an uneasy alliance, Pluto is the re-imagining of Tezuka’s most famous work, Tetsuwan Atom (Astro Boy) which was first serialised in the early 1950s. Tezuka is probably Japan’s best loved mangaka. Originally a medical doctor he turned to writing manga post-war creating some iconic manga such as Atom, Buddha and Black Jack. Urasawa opens Pluto with the murder of one of society’s most beloved robots. As more high-profile robots are destroyed, one, a police robot, is determined to find out who is trying to exterminate them. In order to do so, he must delve back into his and their pasts, their involvement in the last war and try and remember who wants them dead. Urasawa deals with deep-rooted fears and emotions in a way which makes you question what it is to be human. Profound.

Naruto by Kishimoto Masashi – I wasn’t sure about reading this as it seemed to be a boy’s comic, but seeing how popular it is, I thought I’d give it a try. And boy am I glad I did. It’s all about the world of the ninja (and who doesn’t want to know more about the ninja?) I’m still halfway so can’t say how it will pan out (the series is still ongoing), but the manga is about Uzumaki Naruto, a student ninja, an orphan and a boy who has had the evil and extremely dangerous nine-tailed fox sealed within him. We follow him as he learns to be accepted, finds friends and trains to be a ninja, all the while aiming to be the strongest in his village whilst keeping the seal intact. Great fun!

Bleach by Kubo Tite – Oh, what can I say about this series? It’s a totally new concept of telling a story about reapers (shinigami) who collect souls from the recently deceased and shepherds them to their next destination. Kubo takes inspiration from Japanese history and folklore where the reapers dwell in Soul Society controlled by the laws of bushido. They dress, speak and think feudal Japan but with all the techonological kit that makes life so convenient. Kurosaki Ichigo is a high school student who encounters a strange girl named Kuchiki Rukia who turns out to be a shinigami. Ichigo is immediately drawn into a parallel world where he must battle hollows, souls without closure who are unable to find peace. Kubo Tite’s long-running series is still on-going and it’s utterly brilliant. I particularly like how the Soul Society’s nemesis who controls the hollows and their world, Hueco Mundo, are all given Spanish names (as opposed to the usual English/French/Latin so liberally used in manga). There is a huge cast of characters, both reaper and human, there’s love, family, regret and anger and I guarantee you will fall for this series as hard as I did. Temple Library Reviews has a wonderful post about Bleach, so check it out.

And finally, Vagabond by Inoue Takehiko based on Yoshikawa Eiji’s novel Musashi about the life of the famous swordsman. Miyamoto Musashi, author of The Book of Five Rings and master of the sword, is given the fictional treatment here and it’s wonderful to see how Inoue brings him to life. Musashi starts life as Takezo, who has his first taste of battle at 17 at the Battle of Sekigahara. Finding his strength and battle rage, he goes from one place to another trying to become the strongest warrior. With time, he realises that just killing someone doesn’t make you strong unless you have dealt with your inner demons first. And his meeting with the Buddhist monk Takuan as well as other great sword masters profoundly changes his view of life and introduces him to the ideas of Zen Buddhism. Although the violence may put some people off, I found there were moments of intense quiet and depth when reading Vagabond. Musashi will meet his greatest rival Sasaki Kojiro and their fight will become the stuff of legend, but I’m not there yet as the series isn’t finished!

These days I find myself reading more shonen (boys) manga as it’s more plot-driven compared to shojo (girls) manga which tends to be all about lurve with achingly beautiful illustrations. I never used to question this distinction when I was younger but it’s beginning to bother me a little now… I guess I don’t like being categorised.

I read all of these in English online as I’m finding it difficult to get my regular supply of manga in Japanese. The plots move at such a fast pace that reading them in translation didn’t bother me at all.

Have you tried any of these, and what is your favourite?

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)

Japanese Literary Challenge 3

I was going through my blog list during a particularly dry patch at work a few days ago and happened upon the Japanese Literary Challenge hosted by Dolce Bellezza. Two words to instantly grab my attention: Japanese and literary, and although I’m not an aggressive go-getter who’s always out to win, I occasionally like a challenge, and I’m definitely up for some midnight oil burning-type reading. This is Bellezza’s third year hosting this challenge and she has a nice long list of book suggestions. I am familiar with most of the titles from my stint working at a Japanese bookshop during my student days, but I thought I’d try a couple of books that weren’t on the list.

So, the challenge calls for one work of Japanese origin to be read between July 30, 2009 and January 30, 2010. No problemo! I’m going to finally start reading Murakami Haruki’s Kafka on the Shore which has been languishing in my TBR bookcase behind a number of other books and also give Tanizaki Junichiro’s Naomi another go. I tried to read the latter several years back but wasn’t in the right frame of mind so only got past the first few pages. Sartre and Beauvoir were great fans of Tanizaki’s whose books provoked outrage due to their morally ambiguious content.


I am also currently reading and watching Bleach by Kubo Tite but it’s a long-running manga and anime series and who knows when the end will be in sight. The manga, about Japanese soul reapers, is so good I don’t actually want it to ever end. But I will write about Bleach another day as it deserves its very own post.