by Iou Kuroda; adapted by Kelly Sue DeConnick
published by Viz; $19.99 US
Review by Ed Sizemore
David Welsh has organized the Manga Moveable Feast, a chance for various reviewers to focus on one work from different perspectives. Here is my contribution.
Sexy Voice (real name Nico Hayashi) is a 14-year-old girl who works part-time for a telephone club. This is a service where men go to a phone bank, pay a fee, and are able to talk to women. It’s similar to the 976 phone numbers you see advertised on late night TV. Robo (real name Iichiro Sudo) is a twentysomething adult male who starts out as one of Sexy Voice’s clients, but ends up becoming her lackey. Nico’s adventures give us an off-the-beaten-path tour of modern Tokyo.
In some aspects, Sexy Voice and Robo reminds me of Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s gegika manga, such as Abandon the Old in Tokyo and Good-Bye. There is the surface similarity of the artwork: both men use thick lines and a streamlined drawing style. Beyond this cosmetic similarity, Kuroda and Tatsumi are both telling stories that focus on changing social realities in the wake of radical technological shifts in Japan. Both authors choose the disenfranchised and working class poor for their main characters. For the most part, their stories take place outside the famous shopping districts and corporate centers. Instead, we are given a tour of Tokyo’s side streets and red light districts. It’s on this thematic level I find the comparison of the two authors most fascinating.
Gegika chronicled the new social realities of the post-World War II industrial revolution in Japan. In particular, gegika focused on the underbelly of Japanese society that emerged as a result of Japan’s swift transformation from a rural and agrarian economic base to an urban and industrial one. By contrast, Sexy Voice and Robo‘s neo-gegika explores the unseemly side of Japanese society that emerges in the wake of the computer revolution in the 1990s and 2000s. Japan is now shifting from an industrial economic base to a computerized one.
The fundamental differences between these two revolutions explain some of the fundamental differences between Tatsumi’s works and Kuroda’s manga. The industrial revolution was a radical break with Japan’s past that seemed to happen overnight as it ushered in factory jobs and new urban landscapes. It was a noisy, dirty revolution that introduced the harsh realities of the assembly line, pollution, overpopulation, and changing familiar relationships. Gegika stories reflected this new darker, gritty realty. Tatsumi’s stories had a nihilism that reflected the hopelessness of the new working class poor this revolution created.
The computer revolution was much quieter and cleaner. It ushered in home computers, cell phones, the internet, and digital media. Computers are built in clean, well-lit, air-conditioned factories. Computer jobs are in similarly pleasant office environments. In general, there is a positive attitude toward the social changes that computers bring. They are perceived as liberating and empowering. Sexy Voice and Robo reflects this optimism.
Tatsumi and Kuroda are a study in opposites. While Sexy Voice and Robo was written after the Japanese economy collapsed, there is no hint of pessimism in the book. Kuroda instead chose to focus on the positive side of the technology revolution and see the potential it had to offer. Tatsumi wrote as the Japanese economy was beginning to recover from the effects of World War II; he chose to focus on the devastation that the industrial revolution was causing. Both wrote stories that dealt with the gritty side of life, but Kuroda infuses those stories with hope. There is always an underlying message that we have control over the direction and outcome of our life. We have the ability to lift ourselves out of the gutter; we simply have to muster the will to do so.
These opposing reactions to social change are best illustrated in the reader’s attitude toward the protagonists in gegika and neo-gegika. In Tatsumi’s work, we pity or are disgusted at the main characters. They are people beaten down by life. Some believe themselves trapped and act out of desperation, hoping to improve their circumstances only to make them worst. None of the stories in Abandon the Old in Tokyo or Good-Bye have a happy ending. The reader is left feeling sad and empty.
In Sexy Voice and Robo, Nico is the hero of the manga. She is someone we are meant to admire. She is smart, independent, has street savvy, and her future is filled with wonderful possibilities. She revels in the new social realities and is adept at riding the flux like a champion cybersurfer. She has all the skills need to succeed in a computerized world. She is good at gathering, analyzing, and handling information. She is gifted at reading and manipulating people, too. The reader is left feeling upbeat and good at the end of the book.
But it’s not all sunshine and puppies in Sexy Voice and Robo. Several of the people that Nico meets are isolated and lonely. We encounter a few people that would fit well in a Tatsumi manga: the kid who steals from the local yakuza, the systems engineer who realizes the network he’s built is unstable, and the hooker with no apartment who jumps from friend’s couch to friend’s couch. People trapped by their own bad decisions that need someone to help them find a safe way out of their dilemmas.
Kuroda’s most desperate character is Iichiro. He is portrayed as slow-witted and naive. Early on in the manga, Iichiro loans his car to a woman whom he has only known for 24 hours. Needless to say, he doesn’t get the car back in one piece. I wondered how he was able to afford and buy the car in the first place. Iichiro is so socially inept, it’s tempting to call him socially dysfunctional. How is he able to live on his own? I honestly thought he would be better off living in a special needs, assisted living community.
Iichiro is a man-child and this seems to be Kuroda’s opinion of otaku in general. If Nico is the exemplar of the new cybercitizen, then Iichiro is one of the people that will be swept under by the changing tides. His collecting robot figures is seen as futilely clinging to relics of the past. He is willfully used and taken advantage of by Nico. Where Nico’s future seems bright, Iichiro seems to be part of a dying breed. However, Kuroda says that no one will mourn the passing of the otaku. They will simply be an odd footnote in history.
Finally, we need to address the huge gulf that exists in the artistic abilities of Tatsumi and Kuroda. Both may use styles that have similar qualities, but a quick glance through the books will reveal that Tatsumi is a master of the manga medium and Kuroda is a novice. Kuroda’s art is enjoyable, but crude. It collapses under analysis. The lines are of uneven thickness. At times, items appeared to be quickly sketched instead of carefully drawn. There are frequent small mistakes, like characters suddenly becoming cross-eyed. Kuroda is an effective, if not accomplished, artist. Tatsumi is flawless in everything he does, and students of the comic artform should be studying his work.
I found Sexy Voice and Robo an enjoyable but flawed work. Kuroda’s optimism struck me as naive and maybe even a bit pollyannaish. Nico had more than her fair share of good luck surviving some of the circumstances she jumped into, just for the sake of adventure. Tatsumi may be a master storyteller, but his works are too nihilistic for my taste. I can only reservedly recommend either author. I’ll stick to cautiously optimistic slice-of-life stories.