Aside from video games, my experiences with Japanese pop culture recently have centred around manga; picking up drawing as a hobby has led to a renewed interest in the sequential art of both east and west. In light of that, I intend to give a round-up of some of the noteworthy manga I’ve dipped my toe into as of late.
Akira (by Katsuhiro Otomo)
Otomo’s legendary manga has long been one of those things that I’ve always intended to read and always have put off, intimidated by the rather hefty size of its volumes. But when I did, I tore through the first two very quickly. Akira’s story of post-apocalyptic Japan where a juvenile delinquent becomes the guinea pig of shadowy government figures seeking to exploit his latent psychic powers (among other things) is well-known to a lot of otaku through its movie adaptation. The manga offers a more lucid, fleshed out counterpoint to the movie’s fever dream. But there’s another reason for those thick volumes: Otomo loves drawing action in an almost slow-motion manner. Something which another artist would cover in a single page is often stretched out to several here. The result is a rich, detailed feeling which feels unique to Otomo’s work.
JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure by Hirohiko Araki
True to its name, I have trouble placing this manga. It’s a seemingly campy shounen battle manga that has been mashed up with some over-the-top gruesome horror, and the result almost always feels tonally off to me. Araki’s, how shall we say, “interesting” interpretations of the human body in his character designs doesn’t help either. Anyway, JoJo tells the generational story of the Joestar family’s battle against the forces of evil (vampires, zombies and other sundry undeads), with each story arc featuring a new titular JoJo to do all the punching. Having read up to partway through the second arc, all I can muster is a shrug. Then again, the manga is most well-known for its third arc, so it may be that if I hold out until then it’ll finally click.
Uzumaki by Junji Ito
Here’s where things get really weird. Uzumaki is a horror story about a town that has become cursed by…spirals. It unfolds in a largely episodic manner, with each chapter doing a variation on the the theme, whether it be people turning into snails or evil curly hair. At times its genuinely creepy and at other times its risible, but it’s almost always interesting. Running only three volumes long, I’ve already been able to cover the whole thing; it manages to tie things together in a manner which, inasmuch as Uzumaki is an exercise in extremely bleak Lovecraftian cosmic horror, can’t really be described as conventionally satisfying. But it’s at least fitting for what it is in a very “feel bad” sort of manner. All this is abetted by Ito’s rather naturalistic art, making the weirdness feel more grounded in reality. While it’s not particularly gruesome, the easily spooked should take note that grotesque and unnerving imagery abounds.
Ranma 1/2 by Rumiko Takahashi
Depending on your age, Takahashi’s name is likely to bring up either immediate associations of Ranma 1/2 or InuYasha, whose TV show incarnations have been the gateway drug to otakudom for many. Yours truly is ju-u-st old enough to fall into the former camp in this regard. In spite of that, I haven’t bothered much with the manga original until now. The back of Viz’s omnibus describes Ranma 1/2 as “the all-time greatest manga series!” While I wouldn’t go so far, the first two volumes have been as charming and funny as the early episodes of the show were – in fact, they’re almost identical.
The premise, for those who don’t know, goes thus: Ranma Saotome is a teenaged martial artist whose father is pushing him into an arranged marriage with Akane Tendou, whose family runs a Dojo. Neither of them are too keen on the idea. Ranma also happens to have run afoul of a weird curse where contact with cold water turns him into a girl (hot water reverses the effect). What ensues is a pretty unusual mingling of Dragon Ball-style martial arts antics and Tsundere-inflected romantic comedy. Part of the Ranma’s charm is the anything goes attitude it takes to its situations (martial rhythmic gymnastics? Why not?). Takahashi’s draftsmanship is admirably uncluttered and crisp, lacking the busy feel that some shounen manga have. Reader do note that there’s some casual nudity sprinkled about.
That about covers my recent notable reads. I hope that this experiment in subject matter bears fruit and leads to some more in-depth excavations in the future.