Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Grinding the AX: Too much to take in all at once

I may be late to most of the discussion that has occurred around Top Shelf's AX anthology of "alternative manga" (notably the great tweet-fest that happened back in September, which I would have loved to participate in if I had gotten to the book by then), but it's still something that begs to be written about, even if just to point out all the neat stuff contained within.  I'm finding it too overwhelming to do all at once though, so it looks like this will be the first of several posts, covering a few stories at a time.  Take that, coherent structure!

"The Watcher"
By Osamu Kanno

This first story certainly kicks things off with the weirdness, seeing a couple watching from their house as a drunk/homeless guy with a knife stuck in his head gets pissed on by a dog.  She then proceeds to strip naked and dance while the man acts as an announcer, or something.  It's kind of hard to tell, since the art, which might be "bad-good" or just plain bad, consists mostly of their oversized heads wobbling atop stiff bodies as they stand around and don't do anything.  There's probably some sort of message here about Japanese society and people's tendency to ignore the bad things going on in the world in favor of their own dumb interests, but it's just strange and kind of gross, without being very appealing.  Not the best way to start off this anthology, but luckily, things get better pretty much immediately.

"Love's Bride"
By Yoshihiro Tatsumi

Now this is more like it.  Tatsumi has kind of become the leading art-manga personality on this side of the Pacific, so a collection like this wouldn't be complete without him.  This story is kind of typical for him, if a bit less bleak than he can get, seeing a guy heartbroken after a breakup, with the only comfort being his weird relationship with a monkey in the local zoo.  The usual inability to communicate leads to some awkwardness and a humorously profane implied ending, with the best scene being the one where the guy tries to show his feelings for his girlfriend by imitating the monkey's mating call:

Like most Tatsumi, this can be really depressing stuff if you let it, all about the grind of modern life (or Modern Times, a reference seen in the guy working in a factory filled with gears) reducing people to unhappiness and isolation, our very progress de-evolving us back into animals.  But really, it's a funny bit of deadpan humor, with our hero finding happiness in the only person who will accept him, who just happens to be non-human.  Heartwarming!

"Conch of the Sky"
By Imiri Sakabashira

And we're back to the weird and surreal.  This seems to be a dream scene (or possibly a drug trip) in which a narrator describes people aging, nightmares and tentacles infecting the denizens of a house, a train running through different parts of his body, and people and creatures running around in chaos, all illustrated with plenty of strange imagery surrounded by lots of black.  There's some pretty striking stuff going on here, like an opening image of, well, read the caption:

Or a train emerging from a tunnel of guts and innards, or monsters intermingling with people and modern technology, or, you know, any panel in the story.  There seems to be a feeling of anger at old people, perhaps showing an antipathy toward an older generation, or just authority in general, but it's mostly just a bunch of strangeness that is, nonetheless, kind of arresting in its unique freakiness.  These early stories seem to be setting the mood for the bizarre, along with the somewhat mundane.  It's apparent that this anthology can contain all manner of stories; you never know what's going to come next.

"Rooftop Elegy"
By Takao Kawasaki

See, here's something completely different.  This one sees two hapless fellows stumble upon one another on a rooftop, one being a suicidal salaryman and the other a Golgo-13-style hitman.  When the latter indicates that he'll kill the former, he suddenly gains a new appreciation for life.  But there are several more twists and turns to be had in a short space, such that it all seems like a parody of hard-boiled tough-guy stories, with the art that combines shadowed realism with awkward proportions, wacky faces, and goofy poses only exacerbating this feeling.  Whether this was meant to be the case, or if it is just a bit of off-kilter badassery crammed into a few pages, it's pretty entertaining stuff.  And, you know, there's the usual commentary about the meaningless of modern life and whatnot; that seems to be a developing theme here...

"Inside the Gourd"
By Ayako Akiyama

This one is kind of hard to parse, possibly being a magical-realist love story, or a fable of some sort, but it's interesting either way, and there's something romantic and poetic about the tale of a lonely guy who watches a caterpillar grow inside a gourd, seeing it as a girl growing up in a little house, and eventually being led to the actual house to meet the girl he had been viewing.  What does it mean? Anything?  Or is it just a neat little cyclical tale of love (and voyeurism)?  One suspects that it might be another comment about the inability to connect to people, forcing worried mothers to rely on magical ends to find wives for their sons, but it's a pretty gentle version of that trope, rather than a savage satire.  I'll keep an eye out for the Disney movie.

By Shigehiro Okada

Ah, more about the disaffection caused by today's society, or something.  This one is still comedy though, with a weird guy wearing women's clothing (as an attempt to "embody how the existence of the self is lost", or possibly just due to mental illness) wandering the streets and being mistaken for a performance artist by another strangely-dressed young girl, who proceeds to seduce him and then totally get skeeved out when he spouts a bunch of philosophical nonsense afterward.  It's pretty funny, with some art that's reminiscent of mainstream manga style but just a little bit dirtier and grimier.  But damn, these stories about modern life grinding people down to nothing are starting to run together already; it's probably best to not read these all at once to keep from getting either suicidal or contemptuous of those whining Japanese.

"Push Pin Woman"
By Katsuo Kawai

This one might be my favorite story of the volume so far, or at least the one that has stuck in my mind through its simple way of combining symbolism and plot.  The story is about a woman whose boyfriend left her for someone else, so to punish him, she pushes a series of push pins into his back, eventually making it look "like the scales of a beautiful snake".

He takes it, saying that the pain is "nothing compared to how I've hurt you", and then he leaves, his new lover removing the pins and leaving them scattered across the space between them, preventing the push pin woman from ever trying to reconnect with him.  I don't know why this resonates with me, but I love the way the plot is presented as if it is a real incident, but everything is symbolic, even her symbol of the push pins.  He may regret hurting her, but his new love can ease the pain, and that same purposely-inflicted lesson is what prevents the push pin woman from trying to win him back.  That's all there is to it, but it's so exquisitely simple (due, in large part, to the thin-lined, backgroundless art) that it becomes sort of profound.  To those of us who are easily impressed, anyway.

"A Broken Soul"
By Nishioka Brosis

I don't mean to be a broken record, but this certainly seems like another "modern life is soulless" sort of story, about a guy whose soul has broken, leading him to install a crank in his head as some sort of fix.  It doesn't make much sense, although the point seems to be that even though he is fundamentally damaged, he continues with his life, going through the motions as if nothing is different, and he continues to do so without any change after he has been "fixed".  You know the routine by now, right?  Eat, work, fuck, repeat, life is meaninless, etc.  There's not really anything new to say here, but the art is pretty fascinating, long, thin-limbed people holding the same poses, defined by stippled textures.  It might not be an interesting message, but it looks quite pretty.

"Into Darkness"
By Takato Yamamoto

And we're back to the "freaky dreamscape" template of story, this one seeming to be an erotic-grotesque thing about a young woman being tied up and possibly raped, or at least fantasizing about it happening to her. But the thing that sets it apart is the art, which consists of intensely-detailed swirls of mossily organic, slimy  imagery, demon faces and skulls peeking out from amidst the chaotic tendrils caressing her body, flowers and symbols of life mixing with death and decay, all wrapping around the core of orgasmic ecstasy.  Yikes.  Like a lot of this sort of story, I don't know what it means, but it's pretty amazing to behold, and it certainly leaves an impression.


And that's it for this session.  Back for more soon, hopefully.  Like I said, this is too much to handle in one go, so we'll see how much I can process for next time.