Nijigahara Holograph

Continuing Fantagraphics’ program of bringing notable manga to English in deluxe presentations — titles so far include important historical shojo The Heart of Thomas and Moto Hagio’s Drunken Dream as well as the cross-gender series Wandering Son — their newest release is Nijigahara Holograph.

Author Inio Asano isn’t new to U.S. readers; his previous works Solanin and What a Wonderful World! were released by Viz four years ago. Nijigahara Holograph has the same strong focus on character, but with much more emphasis on the creepy and violently destructive.

The 300-page, single-volume hardcover is larger than most manga and allows the reader to sink into the world in one setting. I admit, I’m having trouble describing what it’s about, because I’m not sure I comprehend everything the author is showing us, but I found it compelling and involving nonetheless. The reader must be willing to engage with the work, interpreting the gorgeously drawn, detailed images, and must be comfortable with uncertainty and implication. The recurring butterfly motif, for example, suggests that the flying creatures may be symbols of life or souls or indicators of transitions or significant moments of change.

Early on, a boy sits by his unconscious father’s hospital bedside, before discussing dreams with another patient:

It makes me wonder if what I’m seeing now isn’t really just a dream. Each day, the dreams become more and more real. And yet… in the end… you wake up, and you are yourself. Isn’t that the way it always is?

I found that passage important and useful to keep in mind for the rest of the book. There are two time periods covered. The first is a flashback to the characters in the same class as children, 11 years ago. One girl is bullied into a coma after she’s pushed down a well by the others. They’re afraid of the story she was telling about a monster in a bridge tunnel. The children are cruel, taunting a larger boy to jump out a window and threatening and even attacking each other.

A new student has just arrived after time in the hospital, after he’d previously tried to jump off the roof. The teacher has even been injured, with a bandage over one eye. She’s given up on trying to stop the bullying, although she despises herself for feeling that way.

These chapters alternate with scenes of the characters more “grown up”. They’re still as uncertain, though, and even more violent. The teacher is getting divorced. One of the students is studying art, although her paintings are undistinguished. Another seems to have become a psychopath — or maybe he always was — lying without effort to others. There’s child abuse and murder and rape, all told in a dreamy, remote fashion, all stemming from selfish bullying.

These events and images are suggestive as much as denotative. The complex, multi-layered storytelling rewards attention. I found the book worth reading, but I’d find it even more so if there was a book group I could discuss it with, to be sure what I interpreted and help me hook up more of the connections. I was left thinking about isolation and the need to belong and how much childhood traumas could shape the adults they became.

The publisher has posted preview pages. Sarah Horrocks has written two insightful analyses of the book, one on the nature of memory and the other on the use of violence. (The publisher provided a review copy.)


Win Say I Love You Before You Can Buy It

A mailing mixup means a new contest! I enjoyed reading Say I Love You, a new shojo manga series about a high school romance between a loner and a popular boy, so since I wound up with an extra copy, I’d like to give someone else a chance to enjoy it as well. The book will be available to buy at the end of the month, but before then, you can enter to win a copy of book 1.

To enter the contest, please leave a comment below telling me your favorite shojo manga and why. A winner will be picked randomly from all entries on Friday, April 18.

(U.S. addresses only, please. Winners will be emailed to confirm address. If email is not answered within 24 hours or a valid email address is not provided, a replacement winner will be selected. Your email won’t be used for any other purpose.)


Say I Love You Book 1

Say I Love You is a common type of shojo manga love story — loner high school girl is picked out and romanced by popular boy — that’s made special by art with josei touches.

Mei won me over the same way she did Yamato. She’s been neglected by those she thought friends and bullied by other girls in her class, so she becomes a loner, trusting no one. Finally, when harassed by Yamato’s friend, who’s pulling up her skirt on a staircase, she turns around and kicks Yamato in the face. It’s a gutsy move, and it confirms Yamato’s interest in her as someone different and unusual.

As with many other shojo, the art focuses on faces, the better to convey emotion. The characters, shown full figure, often without backgrounds, have the exaggerated limbs and angular body language I associate with fashion design. Mei’s eyes go beyond the usual big shiny pools; they’re dark pits of despair. Yamato, meanwhile, could be a male model. He’s pursued by random girls in the street, he’s so attractive. That contrast — someone who gets attention without working for it and someone who doesn’t want any attention because of the pain it’s brought her — makes for an intriguing relationship with plenty of dramatic potential.

Soon enough, Mei is fighting jealousy over Yamato’s easy connections with other girls, but at least she asks him about them instead of stewing to extend the volume count of the series. The supporting character of Asami is also interesting — she’s got large breasts, so the other girls call her “Melon Monster” and jealously make fun of her. (Thankfully, she isn’t drawn for fan service.) Mei stands up for her, explaining how complicated teen emotions can be.

Say I Love You Book 1 concludes with Mei and Yamato’s funny, mixed-up attempt at a first date. This is a strong introduction to a new series I’ll be following, since the romance feels authentic, and I’m rooting for the two of them. The book also includes an interview with author Kanae Hazuki, a short piece about her goals for the series, and a few translation notes. (The publisher provided a review copy.)


Happy Marriage?! Book 5

Now that Hokuto and Chiwa have done the deed (spoiler for book 4), she’s trying to be the kind of wife she’s learned about — cooking her husband breakfast; packing him lunch; making sure he’s got everything he needs before he leaves for work — although he doesn’t want that kind of fussing. One particularly memorable scene early on has him planting a kiss on her before yelling, “Stop acting like my mother. You’re my wife!”

Of course, neither of them seem to know what that means. Since their relationship started so strangely, they don’t have the usual history or feelings to rely upon. Mostly, they don’t know how to talk to each other, which is how they end up in the situations that drive this manga forward, fitfully and episodically.

In this volume, Chiwa gets a job — because her ne’er-do-well father is in trouble with gambling debts again — which leads to a terrible argument between the two. There’s a decent message in there, when she thinks about how “after we fell in love, I thought everything would just magically work”, but any message about a real relationship taking effort is lost in the two either flirting with or yelling at each other.

It doesn’t help that when she finally tells him how she feels and what she wants, a major step, he calls her names. I think it’s supposed to be bemused and in loving fashion, but this manga risks being thought too shallow for that to be apparent. There’s too much jealousy in this manga for me to really love it, that and the sex substituting for communication. I can see a lot of couples finding that realistic — that there’s still a physical connection even when the verbal/emotional one is messed up — but it makes me uncomfortable in fiction.

At least in this volume, Chiwa’s not the only one screwing up. The two take what’s supposed to be a romantic weekend together, but when Hokuto bumps into a client’s daughter, the hidden nature of their marriage gets in the way. He introduces her as his sister to avoid damaging a business relationship, a stupid thing to do when they’re trying to build trust. Also, Chiwa takes an important step with Hokuto’s estranged family on her own, which I appreciated seeing. (The publisher provided a review copy.)


Insufficient Direction

I’m amazed that Insufficient Direction made it into the translated English market, because it is SO geeky. Sure, lots of readers will identify with the idea of a nerd couple sharing their passions, but the specific references will be unknown to all but the most devout anime fans. Although I was quite surprised by an early mention of Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp — that 1970 TV show for kids featuring dubbed monkeys indicates the level of obscurity prized here.

There are plenty of endnotes, though, explaining the references. At times, I was overwhelmed; I found it difficult to focus on the universalities, like arguing over how much space to dedicate to statues of cartoon characters, because of all the specifics I’d never heard of. An argument can be made that the details are unnecessary, but I got the impression that they were such fans that the references were carefully chosen, so I did feel a bit left out, not understanding the subtleties of their enthusiasms. The lesson, I suppose, is that there are always people geekier than you are. And that plays into the specific relationship on display here.

The chapters are short, six-page episodes in which Rompers (the woman, a 30-year-old manga artist, drawn as a baby, an odd choice) shows how she and her husband, an anime director (drawn as an adult man), conduct their activities, which range from shopping for wedding attire to taking care of each other when they’re sick. They go outside to get some needed fresh air and try to lose weight and debate how often one should bathe (a particularly nerdy stereotype). Their couple-dom is the attractive part of the book, as most people in relationships can relate to the everyday squabbles and concerns.

I was a little put off by how throughout Rompers is insecure about whether she’s enough of a nerd to be a good otaku wife. She clearly knows a ton about this stuff, so his early statement that he wants “to spend the rest of my life educating you as an otaku” plays into all those horrible stereotypes of how geek girls aren’t really geeky enough. It seems to me that this series may have been sold on his fame, as director of Neon Genesis Evangelion, so perhaps that’s why he’s treated as the star and she’s portrayed as more of an acolyte or apprentice to his geekiness. She also, at one point, talks about trying to pretend to be “normal”, while he seems to have embraced his otaku-ness more wholeheartedly.

The art is simpler than in Anno’s other books, Happy Mania and Sakuran, as suits what’s more of a gag manga. The characters, particularly Rompers, who has line spirals instead of eyes, are caricatures, which helps emphasize that this is an exaggeration of their lives played for comedy and fan entertainment. The book also includes a bio for Hideaki Anno, as well as 30 (!) pages of annotations and a charming essay by him on his thoughts on his wife’s manga.

You can read the first chapter and the second chapter at the publisher’s Tumblr. Sean Gaffney points out that this is a celebrity example of a common manga genre that we’re unlikely to see more of over here, an interesting insight. (The publisher provided a review copy.)


How Much Tezuka Is Too Much?

I’m late covering this news, which Publishers Weekly wrote about over a month ago, but I had some thoughts about the news that Digital Manga will be publishing previously untranslated works by Osamu Tekuza via their Digital Manga Guild. Specifically, their deal with Tezuka Productions Co. Ltd. aims to “bring Tezuka’s backlist of manga titles, which have not yet been adapted and published beyond the shores of Japan, to the English language market, utilizing Digital Manga’s localizing production strong-arm, the Digital Manga Guild to publish and distribute in digital editions.” (I’m not sure “strong-arm” means what they think it means there.)

Digital Manga Guild Osamu Tezuka logo

There are reportedly over 250 works included. Those named are The Three-Eyed One, Vampires, Metamorphosis, Big X, and Rainbow Parakeet, none of which I know anything about. That “not previously available in English” clause is the problem, since the best-known books have already been published here. Viz is digitally releasing the classic Phoenix, which has been out of print for a long while. Vertical put out nice oversized print editions of Message to Adolf as well as paperbacks of the classic shojo Princess Knight and the lengthy Black Jack pulp adventure. Even some of the lesser-known science fiction books were put out by Dark Horse a decade ago, following their release of Tezuka’s Astro Boy, although they’re now out of print. Using these familiar properties in the promotional image, shown here, may thus be misleading, unless Tezuka Productions plans to give digital rights to DMG when other publishers have print rights.

I have qualms about the method used to bring those works here. Since Tezuka is consider the “god of manga”, with his works widely reprinted (even when they should be left in the time period they were created, in my opinion — see Swallowing the Earth or Apollo’s Song), don’t those works deserve professional, paid translation? The DMG relies on fans working for the potential of some reward, maybe, in the future, if the works sell well. I know that method, with no upfront costs, makes it cheap to put out books that may not have much market here (see previous comment, about the difficulty of selling older works), but I am still concerned about the amount (or lack) of oversight given to these translations.

Then again, how much more Tezuka are English readers interested in? It’s as though everything Jack Kirby ever drew was being offered. There’s a small group of dedicated fans who would love the idea, but most modern readers, even while acknowledging the master’s importance, wouldn’t want to read it all. Although perhaps this plan will include some more enjoyable works than the ones that are historically important but hard to enjoy. Will the market support 10 new releases a month, as planned?

How much of this is Hollywood bait? They’re promising a dedicated section of Digital Manga’s online store, to be called “Tezuka World”, “where Hollywood movie and television directors, script writers, and producers will be able to browse through the Tezuka properties and propose treatments for potential Hollywood projects.” Gotta chase that media money!

The project will begin this spring with digital versions of Tezuka books Digital Manga has already published in print. They also intend to release in additional languages once the English versions are available. The rest of the message sounds like they’re recruiting for a cult:

…it’s the Digital Manga Guild’s privilege, pride, and joy to be able to undertake this huge localization task and to help fulfill every manga translator, editor, and typesetter’s dream to work on such high profile projects. Digital Manga welcomes all localizers, especially Tezuka fans, to join the Digital Manga Guild and participate in the localization efforts to bring these great works to the rest of the world….

All facets of this partnership, from the licensing, production, promotion, distribution, and development of Tezuka’s works, are based on a community driven effort, to not only to bring Osamu Tezuka’s high literary and award winning works to hungry fans, but to bring his message of world fellowship to all borders of the globe. So come and be part of the Digital Manga Guild and Tezuka’s world community!

I’m likely too cynical. If the project doesn’t attract a lot of readers, all anyone is out is time, from the translators and editors who worked for free. If it turns out to be widely successful, hey, great! More classic, well-drawn manga to enjoy.