Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Manga Round-Up: Murakami, Mizuki

Let's briefly look at a variety of manga that have come my way in the past couple of years:

Stargazing Dog, by Takashi Murakami (NBM). This was a best-seller in Japan and has an inviting, easy-to-read quality that no doubt made it a success for NBM's translation. It's a book that's fundamentally about happiness, as the titular dog is one that "stare(s) at the stars wistfully, Just as we all wish for something that we will never possess..." The plot is bare-boned: an abrasive man who preferred to let others make decisions for him finds his life fall apart in short order, as his wife leaves him, he loses his job and he learns he has a serious heart condition. All he has left is his intensely loyal dog, and he drives down the coast until he runs out of money and winds up dying in a snowy field. His dog never abandons him and winds up dying at his feet. Murakami tells the story from the point of view of the dog, who is both oblivious in telling his life story as well as incredibly perceptive. The further we get to the end of "Daddy's" life, the longer Murakami stretches out the narrative, as the man, though near death, actually feels his burden lifted in part because of the companionship of his dog. The dog gives him structure, responsibility and another creature to talk to, even as he knows the end is near. He pawns all of his possessions to save his dog's life at the vet. No one in the book may be close to achieving that ineffable happiness, but I think "Daddy" comes the closest in his last days, as the dog (of course named "Happy") provides him a powerful sort of unconditional love in his lowest moments.

The second half of the comic sees this story told through the experiences of the man who lives on the property where "Daddy" died, man who has himself lost everyone in the world dear to him and remembers how poorly he treated his own dog until the end. It's a redemptive arc that pulls every heartstring imaginable and leaves the reader on an upbeat note of sorts, even if it's just a way for the senseless death of one man to provide caution and meaning to another. This is an incredibly manipulative book, and I found myself wishing that Murakami had left things off at the death of the dog instead of adding on this second narrative. If "Daddy" was a schmoe of an everyman that revealed the ways in which we are dependent upon others in so many ways but was otherwise unremarkable, then Okutsu's life story is given way too much ink as a boy who had a lot of bad things happen to him. Even worse is the way Murakami sets him up as a social worker that tries not to get too close to his clients, and then has him abruptly make a dangerous journey to find out more information about "Daddy", information that proves to be life-altering. In other words, I believed the story in the first half of the book but found myself confronted by bald artifice in the second half. Still, the fact that Murakami had the guts to create such a downbeat story that contained almost no leavening moments at the start of that story makes Stargazing Dog a fascinating read.

Drawn and Quarterly continues to slowly reprint the best of the gekiga ("drama manga", more or less) masters in dribs and drabs. While there's been some controversy as to the quality of Yoshihiro Tatsumi relative to his peers (in Japan, he's mostly an obscure figure), there's no doubt that Shigeru Mizuki is a living legend. Credited with being the first to do yokai (spirit) manga in a series of popular books, he was drawing important books well into his 60s. The most recent release from D&Q, Nonnonba, was done when he was 55 years old and was a sort of coda to his celebrated career. In the same way that Tatsumi's A Drifting Life was about his early career in comics, so to does Nonnonba give Mizuki's "origin story", if you will. One thing that's obvious in reading this story is that Mizuki is obviously a much better storyteller than Tatsumi. His characters are more interesting looking for starters, but he just has a deft way of weaving themes and plot threads in and out of episodic storytelling.

Magical realism is the conceit at the center of the book. Mizuki grew up in a rural village with an elderly neighbor nicknamed "Nonnonba" ("grandmother" or "elderly aunt" roughly) who was a devoutly religious Buddhist who also was quite knowledgeable regarding local yokai lore. To her, these things were as real and a part of everyday life as the ground and the air. Spirits were everywhere, revealing glimpses of many thousands of other worlds. Mizuki depicts their existence as real but hard for many to see or believe. Some of them wind up being relegated to what are later revealed as dream sequences or things he draws to entertain others. What makes this book such a treat is that while it's ostensibly about his creative process and the things that influenced it, it's really about a child learning about pain, tragedy and disappointment. It's also about that same child learning about loyalty, independent thinking and love. Young Shige is forced to grow up fast in a household constantly threatened by money woes and the death or abandonment of two unique girls in his life. He also has to negotiate what it means to be part of a social group, what it's like to be shunned from that group, and how to play his own game when it comes time to confront them again.

What makes Mizuki's depiction of the Yokai that plague his life so fascinating is how mundane so many of them are. While they must all be respected, some simply want you to move out of their way while walking, while others eat dirt off of ceilings. One of them, a squat hairy yokai with bulging eyes,  winds up becoming a friend of sorts to young Shige, appearing at various times to give him advice, warnings and even heavenly tours. Mizuki's character design is incredibly expressive; Nonnonba has big lemon-shaped eyes and her face is scored by wrinkles surrounding those eyes.  Shige himself is more ordinary-looking, an Everyman that readers can look to when navigating the wonders that are encountered in the course of the story. Mizuki also balances the more grim aspects of his story with lots of gags. For example, a wart on Shige's hand turns out to be a yokai who offers to help him with math in exchange for not getting rid of it. It turns out that the wart plans to take over Shige's entire body, leading to a crazy chase scene and Nonnonba having to tattoo him in order to get that yokai to ignore him. That entire sequence was told in a frantic, funny and propulsive manner that reminded me a bit of Carl Barks. Indeed, this book feels like part Barks, part Charles Schulz, and part Charles Addams, put into the blender of Mizuki's background believing in the reality of everyday spirits. The backgrounds (whom some say were done by assistants) are incredibly and richly rendered, but they blend perfectly with the cartoony and exaggerated character designs we see throughout the book.

Mizuki's work has been called nostalgic by some, but that's only really true in the sense that he's choosing to write about his childhood. And while his childhood was obviously very important to him, he doesn't back away from its less savory aspects: being held hostage by a robber, having his best friend sold into slavery, seeing his beloved cousin die of tuberculosis, watching his parents squabble over money and being ostracized by his peer group. That latter storyline is one that is perhaps the backbone of the group and the one most reminiscent of Schulz. He's in a neighborhood gang that wages "war" against neighboring gangs and eventually winds up being considered for Boy General. When he loses out on the job on a technicality, he's shunned by the new general, but his friendship with an odd girl who also sees yokai as well as advice from a spirit allow him to cope and eventually come back into the group on his terms. It's very much a rite-of-passage story, but one where opting not to act is as important as actually doing something. It warmly depicts a number of relationships without relying on sentimentality. It's beautiful to look at and fun to read as the reader gets a sense of true cultural history; the yokai are merely reflections of human fears and neuroses. It's great for English-speaking readers that this comic has been translated, even if some of the lettering transpositions are a bit clunky. D&Q will be printing some of his classic genre work in upcoming months, and I'll be curious to see how those hold up.

D&Q's first translation of Mizuki was his 1973 book, Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths.  This is one of many virulently anti-war books that he's written, based on his own experiences in World War II as a member of the Imperial Army. It's a brutal, unflinching and unrelenting account of what it was like to be a grunt whose life was in the hands of a group of officers who treated their men worse than animals. While Mizuki clearly has little use for concepts like patriotism and glory, much of his critique is built around the Japanese practice of suicide attacks. The book details his attachment of troops as they are sent to an island in Papua New Guinea and told to hold their position while several hundred thousand other troops were on other nearby islands. Their commanding officer (drawn as a cross-eyed simpleton fanatic) orders a suicide attack on the Allied troops after they start to lose ground. When another officers suggests that if their goal is to hold their ground and buy time, then the sensible thing to do would be to retreat to higher ground and use guerilla tactics, forcing the allies to come to them. The superior officer won't hear of it, essentially sending hundreds of men to their death for no reason.

The officers do little to earn the love of their men. Rookie soldiers are beaten mercilessly and for no reason; indeed, one sergeant even says that a rookie is like a mat: it's better the more you beat it. Thus, the soldiers are put in a position where they are told to die for no good reason, by men who have done little to instill loyalty and refuse to go down with them. The point Mizuki is making is that it's one thing to go all-out to protect one's home or go down fighting as part of a group of men whom have shown you loyalty, but it's quite another to fight for men who would treat you worse than the enemy. As disturbing as that initial suicide charge is depicted, what happens after a company of men manage to survive is even worse. That's because they were already reported as dead during a suicide charge (a charge that higher-up officers regarded as obviously stupid and wasteful), and having survivors would only set a bad example to other troops. It's a story so incredible that it has to be true, but it provides an interesting and much more humane look at the Japanese armed forces in the war.

My father was in the American navy in the war, and his assignment was to be a landing-craft gunner in the planned invasion of Japan. Despite the Americans firebombing any number of cities, it wasn't until they dropped the atomic bombs that Japan surrendered. Invading the mainland was something no American had any stomach for, given the Japanese predilection for preferring death to surrender. Mizuki's book reveals that this honor-driven system had limits, and that ordinary soldiers may well have been intensely loyal to their country, but they had little patience for the hypocritical and senseless bullshit from their commanding officers. Like in any war ever fought that wasn't directly tied to protecting someone's home, the enlisted men were simply fodder for the machinations of megalomaniacs, the privileged and those who let abstract ideas interfere with the very basic precepts of humanity. The ways in which the commanding officers used guilt to make the lower-ranked officers commit suicide as a way of atoning for their retreat and then sent the enlisted men back out on another suicide mission was awful in every sense of the word. It's hard to even understand in one sense, but when one crosses the line into thinking of people as things, then it makes perfect sense. War demands that we treat others as objects-at-hand in the Heideggerian sense, but this is an extreme rarely seen in the history of armed conflict..

The main problem with this book is that the cast is simply too big, and Mizuki's character design too simplistic, to coherently tell the full story. It's hard to keep track of characters because the designs are often too similar, simple or under-drawn. I get that Mizuki was trying to show the sweep of destruction and the sheer capriciousness of their environment (one man died by choking on a fish that he was trying to swallow whole), so that any character introduced could be dead on the next page, but it made for a highly diffuse reading experience. Mizuki does try to focus in on a few key characters (a medic, a sergeant, an enlisted man who lives until the very end of the story), but the interchangeability of the characters in the first half of the book weakens the impact of the second half. At 362 pages, Mizuki blunts the impact of the experience with the length of his account, especially since so much of what happens in the first half of the book is so repetitive. The trademark use of simplified characters and detailed backgrounds is not always entirely effective, in part because so many of his character designs feel undercooked to me, in sharp contrast with the memorable designs in Nonnonba. Still, Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths possesses enough unique qualities to make it one of the best anti-war books I've ever read and a fascinating document of a desperate and unraveling military force willing to do anything to keep its troops in line.

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