Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The many marvelous monsters of Shigeru Mizuki's Kitaro

Shigeru Mizuki's Kitaro is a classic manga that's tons of fun, even though it's kind of an odd read. The pacing is strange, and it seems as if Mizuki was making up the stories as he went along, which sometimes means that Kitaro, a boy who interacts with yokai (traditional monsters and creatures from Japanese folklore), has powers that can easily defeat threats, and other times he gets taken out rather easily. Some stories wrap up in a few pages with semi-abrupt endings, while others drag on for much longer than is really necessary. That may be related to the era in which these stories first appeared; comics from the 1960s don't follow the same rhythms that we're used to these days.

But whatever the case, the comic is worth reading just to see all the crazy monsters that Mizuki included. Here are some of my favorites:

I like this hair monster, especially the way it seems to grow a pair of eyes as it's attacking Kitaro:

A collection of monsters welcoming some criminals to "hell":

I think I see a kappa in there, and I like the guy with the long neck. And also the regular human-looking fellow just hanging out in the back; he seems hilariously out of place among all the other freaky things.

I like the bipedal weirdness of this cat demon, as well as Kitaro's Plastic Man-style method of fighting it:

There's a story where Kitaro assembles a baseball team of monsters, who make a formidable bunch:

And the game's umpire is even crazier; he has tons of eyes, so he's a perfect choice to call the game:

Another memorably weird one is this eyeball/centipede guy:

In another case of "regular guys being freaked out by encountering spooky stuff", some guys end up boarding a train for dead spirits, who reveal themselves as creepy, sometimes inhuman skeletons:

Another interesting (if overlong) story sees Kitaro fighting a bunch of "Western yokai", which include a witch, a wolfman, Frankenstein's monster, and Dracula:

But their leader is this crazy guy named Backbeard:

Another long but enjoyable story sees Kitaro encountering this prehistoric ancestor of whales:

This one gives Mizuki a chance to create some giant monster action, which eventually leads to a fight between the creature and a huge robot:

Here's an amusingly goofy group of monsters who decide to rent out some office space:

I really like this giant head guy:

And this lady, who has prehensile snakes for hair and a gross mouth on the back of her head, kind of freaks me out:

I love the inventively bizarre illustrations that Mizuki came up with here, and even if the stories themselves aren't all that amazing, it's worth a read just to see what fantastically weird things will pop up next. If you like this sort of thing, I definitely recommend checking it out.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

A Bride’s Story: Thanks for the mammaries

A Bride’s Story, Volume 7
By Kaoru Mori

Wow, I never expected a female centered comic like this to contain so much nudity. Naked bodies have shown up in this series before, but never to this extent. I’m not sure exactly which genre this manga fits into in Japan (that is, whether it is published in a magazine aimed at men or women), but based on the subject matter, I’ve always considered it to be a josei (women’s) series. The emphasis on naked women here, and especially large, shapely breasts, has me wondering though.

The large increase in nudity in this volume comes from a plot centering around women’s bathhouses. Since portions of the series follow the English journalist Mr. Smith as he travels back home, Kaoru Mori uses this conceit to have him meet various women along the way and explore their stories, making for a rich look at the various cultures in Central Asia and the Middle East in the 19th century.
Actually, Mr. Smith never meets the main character of this volume, even though he spends a month staying in her house. The culture in this area (part of Turkey, I think) hides women away from public sight, with them wearing head-to-toe coverings in public and only removing them in the presence of their husband or other women. We meet Anis, who is married to a rich man and living what she supposes is a happy life, but she’s very lonely, with only her baby boy and his nursemaid to keep her company.

The plot kicks in when Anis learns of the concept of “avowed sisters”, women who pledge themselves to each other as best friends and confidants for life, taking vows that seem to be as serious as marriage. She resolves to go to the public baths to try to meet someone who could be her avowed sister, and that’s where we get lots and lots of nudity. These scenes have so much flesh on display, with such pointed emphasis on sexual characteristics, that there must be at least some intent to attract male readers. The combination of this copious nudity with a plot emphasizing mutual female yearning even lends a lesbian subtext to things, which can’t be accidental.

However, this is still very much a women-centered story, focusing on the characters’ feelings and desires, and it even takes a bit of a melodramatic turn when tragedy strikes almost immediately after Anis befriends a woman named Sherine and achieves her goal of finding a lifelong friend/partner. It’s a good combination of heartfelt yearning and drama, and while it doesn’t reach the satisfying heights of previous volumes in the series (possibly due to its complete lack of questioning the way women are treated in this society), it’s still quite good.

Much of that comes from Mori’s skill, both at weaving good drama and at creating a fully-realized environment for her characters to move through. Her attention to detail is incredible, whether she’s drawing an opulent mansion or a dirty hovel, and whether she’s filling pages with naked bodies of varied shapes and sizes or demonstrating emotions by cramming panels with flower petals or intricate designs. I especially like the little details of human or animal interaction she always includes, like the way Anis’ cat alternately craves and rebuffs affection:

So, if you’re new to this series, I’d recommend reading the other volumes first (that’s the way numbers work), but if you like what you see there, you’ll be glad to know that the series continues to delight. I’m looking forward to the next volume, which promises to return focus to its original characters, and hopefully find a suitable match for young Pariya. If the seven extant volumes of the series have led me to expect anything, it’ll be full of good, moving drama, and hopefully an ending that will make me happy.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

One Piece: Yes, It’s Still Awesome

One Piece, Volume 76-77
By Eiichiro Oda
Published by Viz Media

This many parts into a looooong storyline, it may seem that Eiichiro Oda might start running out of steam, trying to keep his myriad plates spinning as he keeps charging toward a finale that is still in the future. But no, he manages to make it work, as always, checking in regularly with the dozen or so mini-plots and battles that are going on while Luffy and company keep charging toward a final confrontation with the villainous Don Quixote Doflamingo. He even manages to spend a good half volume on a flashback filling in the backstory of Trafalgar Law and his history with Doflamingo, bringing some additional emotion to the fighting. It’s kind of impressive to watch him juggle so many things going on at once; every time you wonder what’s happening with, say, Zolo’s battle with the stone-man Pica, Oda checks back in to see how it is progressing, providing a promise that a larger focus will eventually return to that subplot before zooming off to whatever is currently holding the spotlight.

So, to make an attempt to sum up, the evil Doflamingo has trapped everyone in the land of Dressrosa in a giant “birdcage” and is making them either attack each other or the Straw Hat Pirates, who are trying to fight their way up to the palace on the top of a plateau. Luffy is leading the charge, but he is joined by a large group of gladiators that he helped free from the arena, all of whom get into a huge battle with Doflamingo’s powerful officers. Meanwhile, the kingdom’s population of tiny people, the Tontattas, are trying to break into a factory that Doflamingo uses to make artificial devil fruits in hopes of freeing their enslaved brethren and rescuing their princess. On the surface, that doesn’t seem like too much to keep track of, but it’s only the starting point for these two volumes, and things get substantially crazier and more chaotic as they progress.

How crazy? Well, there’s a big fight involving a bad guy named Gladius, who is attacking Nico Robin, a gladiator named Cavendish, and another pirate named Bartolomeo who is a total Straw Hats fanboy, meaning that he is awed to the point of blubbering tears to get the chance to help out his heroes:

There’s another goofy battle going on between Franky and the tough guy SeƱor Pink, who dresses as a baby. They both act super badass and make manly proclamations about toughness, but when they fight, this is the sort of thing that happens:

Usopp gets a pretty great moment when he realizes that Luffy is about to be turned into a toy by the creepy-cute Sugar, which would make them all forget he ever existed, so he makes an amazing sniper shot from halfway across the kingdom to take her out at the last minute:

And there’s also plenty of really silly comedy, with moments like the elderly kung fu master Lao G facing off against a couple of gladiators and almost dying of old age in the middle of the fight:

But while that stuff all advances the overall plot, the real crucial part here is the flashback, which gives us some insight into Law’s need for revenge against Doflamingo, as well as some speculation about what message about the real world Oda is trying to convey here (if any). It turns out Law was from White Town, in the country of Flevance, where the main industry was mining a mineral called white lead, which was used to make all sorts of luxury items, but was actually toxic, slowly poisoning everyone in the kingdom. The world government let this happen even though they knew the people were dying, and even though the sickness wasn’t contagious, they allowed people to think it was, quarantining the country and eventually killing all of its inhabitants. Law managed to escape, but being infected with the sickness, he faced a certain death within a few years, so he joined Doflamingo’s pirates in hopes of killing as many people as possible in revenge. While he fit in well with the pirates, Doflamingo’s brother, Corazon, who was secretly a good guy trying to stop his brother’s evil schemes, couldn’t bear to see him waste his life, so he kidnapped him and went in search of a cure. This was eventually found in the form of the Op-Op fruit, which gave Law his super-surgeon powers and allowed him to heal himself, but Corazon died getting it for Law, demonstrating the only kindness anyone had ever shown him.

So there’s the latest heartbreaking backstory, and it works fairly well, although it seems like ground that we’ve trod before. The stuff about rich governments exploiting people’s suffering is interesting though, calling into mind the way the diamond trade destroys lives in Africa. Whatever Oda is going for, I expect it will make for some compelling emotion as the final battle plays out, with Luffy demonstrating his brotherhood and compassion for Law by kicking Doflamingo’s butt.

In the meantime, we’ve got some definite awesomeness, like in this move, when Law uses his powers to move Luffy into place for a decisive punch against Doflamingo:

That one actually happens pretty early in the fight, and things go in some unexpected directions from there, but as the various battles occurring elsewhere begin to wrap up, it’s clear that we’re heading for a finale (which will probably still take at least a volume or two to get here). That only means that Oda is going to start piling awesomeness upon awesomeness, so I expect what’s coming next to really knock my socks off. Don’t let me down, One Piece!

Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Divine: It's pretty wicked

The Divine
Written by Boaz Lavie
Art by Tomer Hanuka and Asaf Hanuka
Published by First Second

This is kind of an odd graphic novel, and not just because it's full of all sorts of weird shit. No, what's especially odd about it, and probably the biggest knock against it, is the pacing. The story involves an American getting in crazy adventures in a small island country in Southeast Asia, but it spends nearly a quarter of its page count getting there. Instead of grabbing the reader and jumping into the action, we are slowly introduced to the main character, an explosives technician named Mark who lives in Texas with a kid on the way, seeing him forced to listen as a colleague brags about the money he made working for the government on a job in some tiny country called Quanlom. We get to see Mark worry about getting promoted at his job, his relationship with his wife, some odd dreams that he has, and maybe a hint of ennui that leads him to accept his friend's offer at the spur of the moment. It's possible that all this material is supposed to give you an idea of Mark as a person before plunging him into unknown territory, but there's really not much there; he's only slightly less of a blank slate than if the book had simply elided this entire opening section.

Once we get to Quanlom, things still take a little while to get going, as Mark and his Ugly-American friend Jason go about setting an explosives charge in the local volcano, for not-very-well-explained purposes that I think have something to do with mining. They are supposed to wait a day or two, set off the bombs, and head home, but Mark notices a young boy who fell climbing the mountain, and over Jason's objections, he decides to help him, bringing him to get patched up by their medic and then escorting him back home to his family. And that's where things finally get interesting, as Mark ends up going alone with the kid on foot due to an uprooted tree blocking the road, at which point he is attacked by a group of kids wielding guns and machetes, tied up, tortured, and told he has the choice to either help them disable the explosives that he had just set or die. And finally, we're off on a crazy adventure!

Things take a turn for the bizarre when we meet the leaders of the kid gang, a pair of brothers who claim to have magical powers that they got from a dragon that lives in the volcano. That seems pretty nuts, but when one of them starts to demonstrate telekinetic abilities, all bets are off. And sure enough, things get pretty wild when the kids end up facing off against the country's army (who Mark and Jason had been working with) in a battle that involves ancient giant magical soldiers and people getting their insides forcibly separated from their bodies.

This section is where the book really shines, due to what one would expect to be incredible artwork by the Hanuka brothers. They fill scenes with awe-inspiring imagery that recalls Akira and European sci-fi comics alike, while still nailing the personal details, the facial expressions and body language that demonstrate awe, fear, hatred, or determination. The color scheme is especially well done, with the inclusion of pinks and reds among the greenery of the jungle to make things seem unsettling and wrong even before things go nuts.

So, I would say this does end up being pretty good overall, even though it takes too long to get going. The afterword, in which writer Boaz Lavie talks about how he was inspired by a photograph of two Taiwanese child soldiers, kind of gives the game away. The magical twin characters are the heart of this book, the only ones that really come to life as more than ciphers or stereotypes, and trying to build the narrative around people who are much less compelling doesn't really work. I wish the whole thing had focused on them, rather than spending so much space getting to the point where they can appear. But even with those faults, this is still worth checking out, if only just to see the eye-popping images that the Hanukas create. Once they get going, they can grab the attention like few others.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Fragments of Horror: Junji Ito Is a Weirdo

Fragments of Horror
By Junji Ito
Published by Viz Media

It's not exactly news that Japanese horror can get pretty weird, but if you're looking for another example to reinforce that stereotype, here's a new collection of short stories by Junji Ito, who has created lots of strange, creepy manga like Uzumaki and Gyo. These stories are a little bit mixed, ranging from kind of silly with occasional grotesque imagery, to pretty weird and disturbing, to stuff that probably makes more sense to a Japanese audience.

On the silly side, there's "Magami Nanakuse", about a girl who is a fan of a quirky author who gets a chance to meet her literary hero, only to discover that she is a cross-dressing creep (Ito doesn't seem to be making any sort of statement about transgender issues here; when the girl meets the author, her first thought is "She's a man...") who berates the girl and tries to get her to display "tics" that will inspire her to write her next book. It all leads up to a sort of jump scare that's really more funny than creepy.

"Blackbird" kind of fits into this category as well, following the story of a hiker who falls and breaks his legs in a remote location, being kept alive for a month by a strange, bird-like woman who feeds him raw meat and blood by chewing it up and spitting it into his mouth. The eventual reveal of where the meat is coming from doesn't really make much sense, but Ito's depiction of the woman is pretty creepy.

There's also "Dissection-chan", about a girl who is obsessed with dissecting animals, and even ends up wanting to be dissected herself, to the point that she tries to imitate a cadaver that medical students train on. It's goofy as hell, and it leads up to a crazy reveal that occurs when she finally dies and gets dissected for real.

On the WTF side of things, "Wooden Spirit" starts off interestingly, with a father and daughter who live in a historical house getting a visit from an architecture student who professes a love of the building and manages to worm her way into their lives. But once she starts humping the walls and the beams and floorboards all sprout eyes, it ends up just being strange, seemingly reflective of Japanese folklore. It's creepy, but I feel like it would be more so if I really understood how it fits into those sorts of legends.

The same goes for "Tomio - Red Turtleneck", which has a marvelously icky premise in which a boy falls in love with a fortune teller who tries to remove his head by wrapping one of her hairs around his neck, which ends up severing it, forcing him to hold his head in place to keep it from falling off. It's gross and strange and horrific, but the WTF part comes in when he and his girlfriend end up facing off against the fortune teller and killing her, after which her body turns into three childlike figures who call him "Daddy" and climb all over him, forcing his head to finally fall off. It's a real head-scratcher of a moment, and one that makes me feel like I'm missing something.

On the genuinely creepy end of the spectrum, I enjoyed the first story, "Futon", about a woman whose husband refuses to get out of bed because he sees monsters everywhere. She thinks he's crazy, but when she starts seeing them too, the reveal (and its eventual explanation) is pretty great:

"Whispering Woman", the books' final story, is kind of creepy as well, although it ends with a twist that didn't really grab me. It's about a young woman who can't make any decisions for herself, so her father hires a caretaker who shadows her and gives her constant instructions. The creepy part comes from the way the caretaker slowly wastes away, putting so much energy into the girl in her charge that she becomes a husk of a person, simply following behind the girl and whispering instructions into her ear. That's a great image, but Ito had to try to bring in some other plot threads to give it a bit of a shocker of an ending, and I didn't find that to work all that well.

The one story that I thought did work pretty effectively is "Gentle Goodbye", which also happens to be the least creepy and grotesque one here. It's about a young woman who marries into a rich family and discovers that they have a tradition of creating "afterimages" of their dead family members, sort of ghosts that hang around for a couple decades until they fade away, allowing the family to come to terms with their deaths. As the story proceeds, various characters are revealed to be ghosts, and it's strange and sad and pretty effective. Probably my favorite story in the book, even though it's the least out-there.

Overall, this is a fun read, especially if you enjoy the craziness of Japanese horror and culture, or if you like seeing Junji Ito come up with bizarre, grotesque imagery. I can't say it's great (if I was recommending an Ito work to check out, I would probably suggest Uzumaki), but it has its moments. If weird Japanese horror is something you enjoy, you'll probably like it.