Monday, March 31, 2008

My New Book, Sunshine on Leith, Almost Done

Ahhh, the relief.

I am on the finishing straight of Sunshine on Leith, my tale of Sectarianism, Bigotry and the unremarkable cruelty of childhood - it's a comedy.

As I mentioned in the previous post about finishing the Bee-Man, my idea of being finished and the time when I will actually be finished working on the thing are poles apart. It will require tweaking and major tweaking and revision, and stuff, but it will eventually fall into its final shape. I am, at least, kind of finished working on it.

The title actually has nothing to do with The Proclaimers (how that became The Pretenders I don't know, but I am also incapable of remembering the name of the legal drama that I watch every Monday on BBC1, except that it begins with 'D' - perhaps something is starting to go a little wrong - anyway, I wouldn't have spotted that I'd written The Pretenders, my son Anthony noticed it and informed me and so did ol eagle-eye himself, Royston Robertson), it is to do with the phenomena of the sunshine hitting the vast open space at the foot of Leith Walk, Edinburgh's widest street, when viewed from the shadowed streets branching off from it. On a sunny day, it looks like a giant pot of gold is sitting somewhere in the distance.

For a brief minute, as you can see from one of the shots below, after finishing the layers in Photoshop I transferred it to Paintshop Pro where I toyed with the idea of laying half-tone dots on the cover, but it made the sunlight look less pure.

P.S. Gianfranco, if you are looking in, I finally remembered that link to AFNEWS, it's over there ->

Bringing my Manga-Stories Blog up to date

I've managed to get a couple of things onto the manga blog, Manga-Stories (Imanga), now. So it looks a little more respectable. As I have always said, its a very self-indulgent blog and it's really about manga I enjoy, rather than new releases, although there will be some.

For, instance, The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service is currently very popular in the West and just about the hippest manga out there. It's written by the guy who wrote MPD Psycho, which is also reviewed in depth on the blog, but look out, it's very, very, graphics heavy.

I've also added a post about two very different works by Jiro Taniguchi and the first of these, Walking Man, is used to draw parallels with another post and old favourite, YKK, or Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou, by Ashinano Hitoshi.

With Monster, like YKK, Death Note and MPD Psycho, I have been able to look at the story's appearance on other media and the animation, screenshots of which I've posted, is mind blowing.

In addition to stills from both Death Note movies and the anime, I've added graphics from the first ever Death Note one-shot.

Last night I was preparing some new posts for the blog and Black and White, in particular, was just astonishing me all over again.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service, The Hippest New Kids on the Block

I don't suppose you can escape from comparisons with Scooby Doo when you are a bunch of pesky kids racing around in a mystery mobile solving crimes...

The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service has what I tend to think of as a suitably crazy manga-plot. It is a brilliantly inventive, daring, knowing satire on horror manga, whilst still, itself, being a horror manga - but one not without humour.

Written by the author of MPD Psycho, Eiji Otsuka (who introduces an old favourite as a guest in Volume 4 in the series), The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service sees a bunch of five hard-up misfit students at a Buddhist university, Kuro Karatsu - a student Buddhist monk with the ability to "speak" with the recently deceased, Makato Numata - a dowser for the dead, Ao Sasaki - skilled hacker and general computer expert, Yuji Yata - who wears a felt puppet on his hand that channels an alien intelligence, and Keiko Makino - a licensed embalmer, who are interested in communicating with the dead, channeling, dowsing, and all things supernatural form the Kurosagi (a Black Heron-their ominous bird logo) Corpse Delivery Service:

Whether suicide, murder, accident, or illness, we'll carry your body wherever it needs to go to free your soul!

Thrown together while attempting to earn extra credit at University by helping the police search a popular suicide-spot in the forest for corpses, the the newly-formed group soon develop into just the people you want to see when a corpse keeps turning up in your wardrobe.

The illustrations are superb throughout and in the expertly balanced pages, drawn by Housui Yamazaki, the pesky kids look the part - not just like someone idea of how youngsters might look. The entire thing has a very modern feel to it and just hits the right note, with the zombies and other assorted horrors carrying just the right mix of horror and humour, without lapsing into pastiche. Any resulting anime and live action movies will be warmly recieved, I have no doubt.

The overall design of the books from the covers by Bunpei Yorifuji to the Black Heron logo is perfect without being arch. It could all, of course, be perfectly designed with one-eye on merchandising, but it doesn't feel like that, it feels as if it has been designed that way for maximum fun and enjoyment.

If brilliantly written, brilliantly drawn, slightly macabre humour is your thing, then this is for you. Trust me, it's a joy.

The work of Jiro Taniguchi

As I said in the previous post, I was looking around for manga that had that same languid quality as YKK and several posters put me onto Jiro Taniguchi's Aruku Hito, or Walking Man.

The premise of the story is simple, a man takes a walk, or a couple of walks, sometimes with his dog. It is such a fantastically obvious idea that I can't believe nobody else has thought of it. Then again it is such a simple idea that it really demands an exquisite eye to bring carry it off and Jiro Taniguchi has just that. His architectural details and backdrops are marvelous. His drawings of trees and foliage, wonderful, his depiction of animals and birds, first rate but it is the body language of his characters the sly glances the suggestion of a look here and a stance there, that really excels. His silent drawings suggest so much. His protagonist is a stocky man, he has a meaty build, you would that were this a different story entirely, that the guy could handle himself. This is not just any walk, this is an heroic walk, and like YKK this walk is a celebration of the simple joy of just being alive. In an article entitled Manga Mon Amour, Andrew D. Arnold suggested that the work achieved a sort of 'contemplative beauty'; it would be difficult to disagree with that.

Although it was a relatively new type of manga to us, with many coining the phrase 'nouvelle manga', the story saw the light of day in the early 1990 so when I looked around for more work by the same author I was pleasantly surprised to find that he had been very, very, busy. By far my favourite of his other work is far removed from the gentle silence of Walking Man, it is the Jinpachi Mori story Benkei in New York. Although, having said that, there is the same solid-bodied determination in the protagonist that I saw in the central character of Walking Man. Perhaps, it is just that the characters that Taniguchi draws appear to think as they work there way, often in complete silence, through his landscapes.

I suppose Benkei in New York could be termed manga-noir. The main protagonist, Benkei, a Japanese artist living in New York, is also a hitman, and a master forger, and his world is a very, very, dark place. This ominous tale opens with a pall of thunder and a downpour that sends the inhabitants of Manhattan scurrying, like rats, for shelter.

YKK, Alpha at the end of the world.

With Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou by Ashinano Hitoshi, I'm going to start some way into the story and work backwards. I'm doing this not just because the art in YKK improves over time, but because I think that improvement is a good example of one of the strengths of the Japanese method of producing comics.

Rather than featuring a single character in a the 32-page monthly comic book, that needs a complete independent story every month, and sinks or swims on its own, the Japanese market produces anthology magazines that feature the adventures of several regular characters and contain hundreds of pages, weekly, bi-weekly or monthly. This is a method that both helps a popular feature develop a large fan base and allows a slow-burner to gather momentum over time. The characters do not feature in their own volumes, or graphic novels, until they have developed a fan base. The Japanese anthology format is actually very like standard British comics, same cheap newsprint paper with a colour cover (better quality than the old British covers) and the odd colour pages inside, but Mandy, Bunty, Judy, etc, all merged together with some characters dropped and others given more pages. The anthology YKK appeared in can contain almost 1,000 pages, with very few adverts, and sells for just a couple of pounds. And of course the characters are owned by their creators rather than by IPC and DC Thomson.

Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou is often abbreviated to YKK or known as Quiet Country Café, Cafe Alpha or by its more literal translation as Record of a Yokohama Shopping Trip. The story, all 14 volumes of it, ran in Kodansha's Afternoon magazine from 1994 through to 2006.

I'm pretty sure it was Dirk Deppey who pointed a bunch of us at it and it is the work I consider most influential in my conversion to a fan of wider range of manga. It wasn't so much the story, which I came to enjoy, or the artwork, of which my appreciation grew, but the pace of the story I immediately enjoyed. There was something tranquil about its leisurely pace that appealed to me. I actually sought out similar works and I was surprised to find posters online suggesting similarly slowly-paced stories because it was not really a quality I had ever even considered a quality before.

In 2007, Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou won the Seiun Award for best science fiction comic. At the heart of the story, you see, is a small humanoid robot, an android, called Alpha Hatsuseno, looking after a cafe, Cafe Alpha, on Japan's Miura Peninsula, on a planet that has suffered an environmental disaster that has seen sea levels rise dramatically and the human population largely disappear, in a time regarded as the Twilight of the Human Age, and she, an immortal, is waiting for her maker, the man who owns her, to return.

That is the overriding arch, but the story largely depicts Alpha either alone, deep in thought, with the occasional customer, making coffee, taking photographs, or on trips through the countryside or into Yokohama for supplies. Whole chapters of the story have very little or no dialogue and can be taken up with Alpha just relaxing or sight-seeing, or taking photographs. It is an essay in enjoying the childlike wonder of everyday life, and as the children from the area do what Alpha cannot do, grow old and move away, the story evokes the tradition of mono no aware.

I actually changed the way I thought about my work because of this story. I am from the western tradition of comic writing and I had a particular view of how a tale should unfold and of what dramatic events should illustrate the story. I think, or at least I thought in terms of getting from A to B with a set of significant leaps, you know, leaving a long trail of ellipses. After reading YKK though, I made some drastic changes and oddly enough it made me think about Joyce having Stephen collect epiphanies, not because this story caused me to have one, but because the epiphany isn't one thing it can be a series of events that have no significance at all, at first glance, either to the reader or to the characters in a story. Here was a story unfolding over as long as it takes to tell the tale, an illustrator forgoing big artistic statements to show the significance of drawing a passing cloud. Here was a story that would reveal an event in chapter 4 as a significant event only when the reader got to chapter 137. This was a real revelation to me.

I have to say, I was becoming increasingly irritated watching the YKK anime. Eventually, I just muted the sound and started the thing again. Not because of the voices, but because of the music. There is a peacefulness, a tranquility about the manga, ironically it just the silence of desolation, but it is none the less a quite story and the music was getting right up my conk. I will let you look at some stills from it in silence: