America is a weird and wonderful place…I love all of it’s many contractions, especially concerning arts and entertainment. Violence of every kind is rife in our popular culture, which seems all well and good to the powers-that-be where movies or literature is concerned. But pen a comic that is not only violent, but also features children being violent, and THEN turn it into a film…and there is a great tidal uproar. Hence the backlash against “Kickass,” which I’ve frankly never understood. I suppose it has something to do with comics still being seen as a child’s medium in the US, strange if you look at “Avengers” ticket sales. In Japan, though, that line has long since been blurred. Regardless of the target audience, there are adults who read “manga” for the younger set and younger people who do the reverse. And the topics are far-ranging and often appalling to Western audiences. Let’s look at just a few!
The popular “Gantz” franchise involves a group of young people who have died for various reasons, ranging from stupidity to suicide, and are brought back from the dead, fully armed, to fight for…whatever. I must confess that my personal reading of “Gantz” only got as far as the first volume, where you literally see someone’s head loped off by a train within the first few pages. According to my friends in the know, the author of this manga is famous for treating his characters to gory, unexpected deaths. The manga is drawn in a sort of “American style,” although I can’t imagine so much blood showering the pages of most mainstream US comics. C’mon, I was floored by Batman’s “The Killing Joke” when I first read it, OK?
Shingeki no Kyojin
In this dystopian story, people eat people without even bothering to turn them into Soyent Green first! You heard me right: Cannibalism is the name of the game here, and the comic doesn’t bother to hide that fact in any way. There is even a Game of Thrones style, how-the-hell-could-you-kill-that-character moment early on that had fans in a snit. Fans, you say? A comic like this would only be read by a very few, hard-core people, you say. Well, a few bestselling volumes and a popular anime program based on “Shingeki no Kyojin” would beg to differ with you. To the fans I would say, “Eat your heart out!”
If tasked with manga that might be viewed as overly sexy or even pornographic in the US, I would have to sit in front of this computer for years, tapping endlessly without food or water, making my wife kind of worried about me and such. So instead, I’ll just pick one where sex pops up in unexpected places–like in the Kosaku Shima series! Kosaku Shima started as a lowly “salaryman” working for a big electronics company during Japan’s bubble era and he has moved up the ranks–and the years, all the way up to the present–and is still insanely popular 30 years after his debut.
Kosaku is an ordinary guy who does what he’s told–reasonably good-looking, reasonably capable, trying not to stick out too much. Except that he somehow gets picked for all the plum assignments abroad and has more sexual trysts than Don Draper! There are scenes where he has his pants around his ankles while trying to negotiate a business deal, where women he barely knows corner him in the backs of taxis…it’s the male (businessman’s) gaze, amped up times ten. Kosaku’s saving graces as a colleague are many, and he WAS divorced…although he’s married in the newest incarnation, not to mention a lot older. Something tells me neither of these things will stop Kosaku Shima from having affairs to remember.
Saint Young Men
OK, so enough with sex and violence for a minute, let’s tackle religion. In this light comedy of a comic, Buddha and Jesus are roommates. I guess that Jesus is the more lighthearted of the two, while Buddha is a bit more strict…their various personality quirks and differing ethical codes are explored as they wonder around Japan observing humanity. Wikipedia tells me that the comic has managed to be published in a few other places, and the anime version has also found distribution, but of course there are no plans to publish it in any form in America right now. Can’t say I’m surprised, but I am disappointed.
In “Ikigami’s” near-future scenario, Japanese people are implanted with small chips at birth. These chips are harmless if left alone, but lethal if activated by the government–who keeps a close reign on the population by selecting 1 in every 1000 people to die at preset times. It is the job of our man character, Kengo Fujimoto, to issue ikigami (“death letters”) on behalf of the government 24 hours before a given death is supposed to occur. Not surprisingly, while he first believes that his government is helping people appreciate life by doing this, he gradually comes to have misgivings. The manga was made into a film (pictured) in 2008, so I guess it’s pretty popular; I liked it, but I stopped reading ’cause it’s just too sad for me.
You may say rightly that we already have the “Ikigami” equivalent, Logan’s run, as proof that such a comic would be published in the US. But even though LR started as a series of novels and branched out into movies and comics, let’s be realistic about what it is–it’s a cheesy parable set in a glittery future whose socio-political implications have been lost over time. “Ikigami” dares to set it’s story in a society precisely like the present, with one variable thrown horribly off-kilter. There is also no age-restriction: Anyone can die at any time, which means that young people of yet unflowered potential as well as older, wiser people can also get the premature boot. Worth a look if you can handle it.
I first came across this chronicle of one boy’s life just after the bombing of Hiroshima in a closet where I first stayed in Japan–It was the very first manga I read, and the only one that still haunts my dreams. The portrayal of poverty is shattering enough without the no-holds-barred look at radiation sickness, with charred people rising like ghosts out of the river. Penned by someone who was there, this is a manga that some schools IN JAPAN have chosen to ban, ridiculous considering how valuable it is as a historical learning tool. If you can get your hands on an English copy, I highly recommend it. Not for the faint of heart, though.