Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Last of the Great Manga?

Before we go any further let me just make it clear that there are certain aspects of manga that do make me feel uneasy. Firstly, the excessive gore and violence in MPD Psycho, both in the manga and the TV series (I have some details in this older blog post) is certainly not going to be to everyone's liking and I'd have to admit, might be fodder for a certain type of individual to put forward as an influence for their own dark deeds. Having said that, I like the mood of the thing and whilst I'm not advocating censorship, I do find it difficult to envisage the sort of youngster the work would appeal to. However, as the work comes clearly labelled "adult content", I feel that should be enough of a heads-up for the average supervising adult. I'm telling you this so that you are aware that I didn't just read the series and watch the TV show without registering some disquiet - I'm not ever what you would call a passive viewer.

Even more disquieting for me though, on a personal level, is not the violence in some manga, or even the porn manga, which I personally don't bother with, much, but a technique used in a lot of manga to signify embarrassment or belittling, literally, by drawing the adult characters, or one of the adult characters, as children or a child. I find this very unsettling when it happens in a story where I've accepted the characters as adults. Oh, I know it's a technique some Japanese illustrators use, but I personally dislike it very much, especially if it happens in a manga that includes, er, bodily interaction or those frequent up-skirt angles. Heck, I don't even like it in the more mild knicker-showing stories like Change123 - which is otherwise fun.

Hopefully it's clear then that I do find fault with some manga, and I'm not blind to the fact that there is as much pap-manga as there is superpower-pap indie-pap and pap-graphic novels.

Anyway, that said, I got to thinking about the amount of posts out there hypothesizing about the death of manga, or at any rate those suggesting that there is no new great manga being created. The posts reminded me of a phenomena that the poet and critic Tom Paulin pointed out at the turn of the Millennium, when quite a lot of writers began to produce a lot of work that focused on sleeping. It is sort of zeitgeist moment, coupled now, as it was then, with a sort of quasi-New Testament panic about a possible end-of-days. It struck me that such thinking is understandable, because we do seem to have come to the end of a particular cycle, with the likes of Death Note, and Monster, and MPD Psycho, completely finishing. After all, in one form or another, whether available only from Japan or as scanlations following their publication in the weekly or fortnightly or monthly Japanese comics, these titles were around, literally, for decades. And now, having finished their run in Japan, and having been removed from scanlation sites as they appeared in full volumes here in the West, there is something final about their disappearance.

Not that the genius behind Monster, Naoki Urasawa, has stopped producing work, he has followed 20th Century Boys and Monster and Pluto, with Billy Bat, which I wrote about at some length on a post below. I've been keeping up with the story and there is little doubt in my mind that "the god of manga" has created another classic, although it was a safe bet that he would. In a sense, although it is, strictly speaking, less so than than the current manga that explore the job of working as a mangaka, it is also very self-referential in that it is a story based around a fictional comic book character, and a manga creator.

Just as Urasawa has a new title that is developing nicely, so to does the team behind Death Note, Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata. Unlike Billy Bat, Bakuman deals directly with the business of aspiring to become a mangaka, bringing us the story of Moritaka Mashiro, a high school student and the nephew of a man who was himself a mangaka.

So, exactly why, with new titles by some of the leading figures in manga really getting into their stride, and with some great new titles out there, is there so much gloom about the art form? Well, I suppose, at least partly, it has something to do with the self-referential nature of some of the stories. Manga is often very, very, imaginative, very out-there, and seeing so many titles looking inward may have caused a sense of panic in some circles - maybe. And of course there is the steady decline in manga sales in Japan, that might have added to the sense of foreboding; but then surely that downward trend is counterbalanced by the increase of sales of manga on phones and handheld readers. Then there is the increasing cherry-picking by some publishers who seem to conduct their research and development by hanging around the scanlation sites and the comics scene, to find out what is hot. As soon as they step in and option a title, the thing gets pulled from the scanlation sites (a gentleman's agreement that most scanlation groups adhere rigidly to) and so the reader who has already gone to some lengths to find the thing ends up with a hiatus between the most recent scan, and the first western publication which covers the story the reader has already consumed, and invariably the interest in the title drops. I mean to say, how long have we had to sit and wait for the Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service volumes to trickle out?

I suppose, to be honest, that there must also be a certain amount of disenchantment involved in these posts. After all, many of these writers discovered manga like Death Note years before it appeared in the West, and then became ubiquitous as merchandise and anime and as live action movies, and they wrote a great many posts extolling its virtues and the virtues of manga in general. And perhaps there is no need to do so now, or at least they may feel there is no longer any need to do so, now that the mainstream press is sniffing around. It is, perhaps, not so much that there is no new great manga being produced, but that there is no longer any great need to try to impress upon the reading public that manga is great. They are preaching to the converted, not only that but they are preaching to those whom they themselves converted, and the converted have all gone their separate ways.

Whether you or I think it is a great manga or not, a title like Antique Bakery deserves its place in the manga firmament. It is a popular manga, and it is well drawn and to be honest, it is just another one of those ideas that at first glance seems unlikely to appeal to us in the west, and actually turns out to be a complete joy. To dismiss work like this out-of-hand because we don't like the way the eyes are drawn or for some equally idiosyncratic reason, is just plain silly, it is clearly work executed by an expert hand.

What I'm trying to say, in a round-about way, is that it is no coincidence that the much-missed titles are all Seinen manga, and what the writers who miss some of this Seinen manga seem to forget is that a diet of nothing but Seinen manga may not be everybody's cup of tea. The reader may well have have been turned on to manga by one gateway Seinen title, like Death Note or Monster, but they may well, by now, have moved on and decided that they prefer Shonen titles. In fact I'm sure we all hope they have moved on and discovered what a broad church manga is.

The fact that the much-missed titles all seem to be Seinen manga, actually got me thinking that this worry, that the really great manga has come to an end, might actually just be a perceived problem for male readers of a certain age - of which I am one (both a fan of Seinen manga and a male reader of a certain age). After all, one look at my previous manga-related posts over the years, is a clear illustration that I veer toward Seinen titles:

However, if you are familiar with those old posts, or if you clicked them, you'll know that I don't just read Seinen and horror manga, and that is what has given me, I think, a particular perspective on these events. For this perspective, I give the credit, or blame, to Dirk Deppey's deep knowledge of manga, and his championing, in particular, of Ashinano Hitoshi's dream-like, post-apocalyptic, sci-fi, romance, manga, Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou (YKK). My exposure to this story, created over a period of 12 years and still not optioned in the west so the scans are still available (here), helped position me, I think, to appreciate a wider range of work like Nana, Honey and Clover, and Walking Man, and brought me to a slow appreciation of manga's huge sweep and broad canvas. It also helped me to realise that the titles some of the critics' miss so much, are not necessarily the titles that the majority of manga readers actually read. In fact the current "crisis" has probably not even registered with the readers of manga that coexists in both the East and the West, such as Nana. And those who have just started reading manga titles like Soul Eater, or Spray King, or Moyashimon, or Oshinbo, or Astral Project, have probably never seen or read anything so exciting.

No, the great manga has not stopped, it continues in an unbroken chain that eventually winds its way to our shores, and it takes different forms and slips between genres of manga. YKK is a great manga, a great voluminous sprawling epic that meanders peacefully towards its final chapter. It is nothing like Monster, which is nothing like Death Note, which is nothing like Nana which is nothing like Billy Bat which is nothing like Homunculous which is nothing like Mushishi which is nothing like Until Death Do Us Part (UDDUP) which is nothing like Moyashimon: Tales of Agriculture. In other words the great manga is still out there, if we don't recognise it that says more about us, than it does about the state of manga. I mean, be honest, if someone suggested that you might like a manga called Tales of Agriculture, you would be a little skeptical, until you actually caught a glimpse of the fantastic artwork and then started to read the thing that is.

To be honest, I also think there is something else going on, an undercurrent if you will; a subtext, perhaps one that the authors of the pieces are themselves unaware of. It just might be that Tom Paulin's observation can be applied here, and the blog writers are all displaying a end-of-days style panic, based not just on fact that a few great stories have come to an end, but also on the fact that printed comic books are being replaced by digital comics. To people of a certain generation, and again I am also one of those, that really does represent the end of an era. There was always something elemental about making marks on pulped wood with a liquid that itself came from deep beneath the earth. Perhaps, and I'm only surmissing here, the bloggers concerned cannot with any certainty look 10 years down the line and see any future at all for comic books, let alone "great" status for a title like Detroit Metal Blues.

Then again, perhaps I am just reading too much into it. After all, I noticed a reply to a post on the TCJ forum that more or less suggested that the "big-eyed manga", as the poster called it, is the wrong kind of manga. Which informs us that the poster is either completly unfamiliar with manga classics like Black Jack and Astro Boy, or has probably only ever read a limited amount of Seinen manga, and decided that is the only style of manga that counts. It is, I think, to be sure, befuddled way thinking, but it may be no more than a failure on the part of some people to embrace titles that look a little different from the ones they usually pick up. Perhaps, it really is no more than that.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hello Rod.
I like the look of that agriculture manga.