Death Note and Irregular Detective Fiction

1 01 2010

Happy New Year and a very belated post… Hopefully I can provide more musing (and not a dire example of procrastination) in 2010.

It seems counterintuitive that an audience that appreciates the detective genre’s analytical rigor could be reconciled with fantastic or absurd narrative elements but the popularity of the fantasist detective manga Death Note is not unprecedented. Death Note shares many elements with a unique genre of Japanese popular literature established in the early 1920s – irregular detective fiction.

Death Note (Desu nōto) is a 12 volume manga written by Tsugumi Ohba and illustrated by Takeshi Obata. It was serialized in Weekly shonon jump in Japan from late 2003 to mid 2006 and subsequently complied into a run of 12 tankōbon. Between 2005 and 2007 the tankōbon were translated into English and published in North America by VIZ Media‘s Shonen Jump Advance  imprint. Both an anime television series and a series of live action films based on the series have been produced in Japan as well as “guide books”, light novels and a series of Nintendo DS games that further explore the mechanics of the eponymous death note/s.

In the 1920s, in the nascent years of Japanese science fiction and detective writing, a genre emerged that combined the influence of Western detective and mystery literature with a distinctly Japanese stylistic approach and a culturally-specific focus on political and social concerns. The genre is referred to as henkaku tantei shōsetsu (irregular detective fiction). It’s an apt description for narratives that employ the rationalist, objective detective novel template and its investigative methodologies while also incorporating elements of the fantastic, gothic and postmodern absurdity.

A collection of Edogawa Rampo’s writing provides a sample of early irregular detective fiction . In 1956 Hirai Taro’s Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination was first published in English translation by the Charles E. Tuttle Company under his pen name, Edogawa Rampo. (The collection is still in print, ISBN 0804803196.) In the preface, translator James B. Harris briefly recounts Rampo’s beginnings as a writer. With the acceptance of his short story “Nisen-dohka” (The Two-Sen Copper Coin) to the publication Shin seinen (New Youth) in 1923 Rampo became Japan’s first modern writer of detective fiction.[1] Up until that point, mystery was not an established genre in Japanese fiction and detective and mystery fiction were considered specifically Western.

Rampo developed his own style and, in founding the Japanese Mystery Writer’s Club, encouraged other Japanese writers to take an innovative and adaptable approach to writing mystery and detective fiction. While this new genre was inspired by the works of Western writers like Edgar Allen Poe and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Rampo wanted to advance the genre and imbue it with specifically Japanese sensibilities rather then adhering to the established template set by Western writers.[2]

Just as with the beginnings of the gekiga movement there was a desire to explore challenging themes within the confines of a popular genre. Certainly, Rampo himself excels at taking the sublimated psychological implications like those expressed in Edgar Allan Poe’s Berenice (1835) and following them to extreme and lurid conclusions in stories like Imomushi (The Caterpillar, 1929) and Ningen isu (The Human Chair, 1925). This bold, psychologically revealing, fantasist and often viscerally excessive quality began to be described as ero guro nansensu (erotic grotesque nonsense) and was associated directly with the literary movement being established by the writers who were published in Shin seinen. “The erotic-grotesque-nonsense texts were targeted mainly at adolescents and seen as avant-garde and trendy. In other words, a huge consumer market for the bizarre…”[3] This seemingly outré popular fiction appealed, at the time, to a mass audience and Rampo became a well known public figure based on his expertise on the topic.[4]

While Ohba’s shinigami (death gods) and their meddling in the mortal sphere contribute the obviously fantastic elements of the plot of Death Note there is also a resonance between Rampo’s star detective, Dr. Kogoro Akechi, and Ohba’s idiosyncratic sleuth, L. In Rampo’s short story Shinri shiken (The Psychological Test, 1925) Akechi devises a way to entrap a precociously intelligent and entitled student who has murdered an old woman for her money. Some of the interior and spoken dialogue in “The Psychological Test” is entertainingly evocative of L and Light Yagami’s exchanges in Death Note.

“Now, had you been an ordinary criminal, you would not have answered my questions as you did. You would have tried to deny knowing anything about anything. But I had sized you up from the beginning as being a real intellectual, and as such, I knew you would be as outspoken as possible so long as you did not touch on anything dangerous. But I anticipated your moves, and played my hand accordingly.”[5]

– Dr. Kogoro Akechi, “The Psychological Test”

There are a number of other very interesting Japanese writers who published their work in Shin seinen in the 1920s but it is difficult to find their work in English translation. Miki Nakamura’s excellent historical and thematic analysis of the work of Yumeno Kyūsaku and some translated excerpts of his  fascinating novel Dogura magura (1935) can be found in Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams: Japanese Science Fiction from Origins to Anime (2007, University of Minnesota Press) ISBN 0816649731.

We can anticipate an English translation of manga based on Edogawa Rampo’s work. Ryan at Same Hat! Same Hat! posted in June 2009 that Last Gasp has announced it’s intention to publish artist Suehiro Maruo’s interpretation of the Rampo story Panorama-tō Kidan (The Strange Tale of Panorama Island, 1926). Maruo’s style is the very epitome of ero guro so this should be an inspired interpretation. This manga was the winner of the 2009 Annual Osamu Tezuka Cultural Prize, New Artist Prize.[5]

Maruo is currently working an adaptation of Rampo’s short story Imomushi from which, again, Ryan at Same Hat! Same Hat! has graciously provided some images. (Please do check out this excellent blog – certainly a great source for erotic grotesque nonsense.)

Irregular detective fiction could resonate with the wider international audience that have embraced Death Note. Death Note is a nice introduction to some of irregular detective fictions themes because while it does have elements of “irregularity” it isn’t too deep a plunge into the wider genre’s potential for oppositionality to established social norms. Light Yagami may be a sociopath but his behaviour is predicated on a pathological and assiduously preserved sense of distance from other people. His deviance is expressed in a very cold and clinical way that avoids some of the messier and more potentially lurid possibilities explored in more ero guro examples of irregular detective narratives.

While the mechanics of the main characters relationships are quite strictly heteronormative, wider social order is not restored at the conclusion of Death Note despite the presence of incisive intellect, rational methodologies and ethics. As with irregular detective fiction it is the ascending peculiarity of chaotic and subjective reality that prevails.

[1] Rampo, Edogawa and James B Harris (translation). Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination (1956), English ed., Charles E. Tuttle Company. pg. ix.

[2] Rampo, Edogawa and James B Harris (translation). Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination (1956), English ed., Charles E. Tuttle Company. pg. xi.

[3] Nakamura, Miki. pg. 9. Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams: Japanese Science Fiction from Origins to Anime (2007, University of Minnesota Press) ISBN 0816649731.

[4] Riechert, Jim. Deviance and Social Darwinism in Edogawa Ranpo’s Erotic-Grotesque Thriller “Kotō no oni”, by Edogawa Ranpo and Jim Reichert Journal of Japanese Studies © 2001. pg.114

[5] Rampo, Edogawa and James B Harris (translation). Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination (1956), English ed., Charles E. Tuttle Company. pg. 61.

[6] Anime News Network retrieved July 7 – 09

[7] Yoshikuni Igarashi. Edogawa Rampo and the Excess of Vision: An Ocular Critique of Modernity in 1920s Japan. positions: east asia cultures critique 13.2 (2005) 299-327 Duke University Press. pg. 302.

More About After School Nightmare

25 11 2008


After School Nightmare is a shojo manga written and illustrated by Setona Mizushiro and licensed in North America by Go! Comi.

The series is complete at ten volumes and is rated OT (older teen 16+)

Mizushiro Setona began her career drawing dōjinshi and was published for the first time as part of a dōjinsh circle in 1985. She continued to work on dōjinshi until she debut as a mangaka in 1993. [1] She has worked on nine other manga series (shojo, sports, yaoi genres) since 1998.

The translation and positive critical reception of Mizushiro’s After School Nightmare, and other manga for a 14+ and 16+ female audience, does seem to indicate a conceptual shift towards exciting, complex and challenging comics for young women that transcend the conventional North American genre expectations. The market for manga for young women has now become sufficiently established in North America that the medium and genre doesn’t need a reference point to the North American comic market. Manga for young women now exists so sufficiently in it’s own sphere that works like After School Nightmare can be assured of reaching their target audience. This is enabled through the inclusion of many shojo titles in bookstores and libraries and a reading public that knows where to access these works.

After School Nightmare is about a school whose students participate in a class that compels them to descend into a dream world where their most essential psychological selves are manifested. Once in the dream world the students must compete to locate a hidden key that will allow them to graduate from the dream class – but what awaits them upon graduation is shrouded in mystery.

The protagonist Mashiro Ichijo is a character who is struggling to live his life as a young man despite manifesting increasingly evident female sexual characteristics. When Mashiro is initiated into the dream class he manifests as a young woman – his hidden self.


A possible inspiration for After School Nightmare is Chiyo Rokuhana’s 2003 Kodansha award winning josei series IS: Otoko demo Onna demo nai Sei (IS stands for InterSexual, the subtitle “neither man or woman”). The stories in the manga are fictionalized retellings of the experiences of intersexual people Rokuhana has interviewed. Another possible influence could be Takako Shimura’s Hourou Musuko (Transient Son), which also began in 2003, about two gender-ambiguous school children though this is a lighter, slice of life, narrative.

The issue of the protagonist’s sexuality aside, Mizushiro seems as influenced by European gothic fiction narratives. Mashiro is a perfect template for an unreliable narrator as instability and lack of self-awareness are integral to gothic literature’s psychologically complex themes. While well intentioned, Mashiro’s failure to master his/her feelings is damaging to the other characters on repeated occasions and in a very literal sense in the dream world where much of the story takes place.

The suspense and horror elements of the text heighten the complexity of Mashiro’s struggle with self-identity. The horror comes from the way the internal monsterousness of the dream world’s participants is manifested – again drawing on the gothic themes of the shadow self and dédoublement.

The narrative structure of After School Nightmare is takes good advantage of the potential for suspense that the serialized publication format provides but the page layouts and sequencing are also carefully designed to save surprising or frightening visuals until subsequent pages. Following moments of intimacy or intense conversation between characters Mizushiro often visually pulls back on the follow page to reveal that there is an observer participating in the scene from a distance. This cinematic, suspense building effect is used in scenes in both volume one when Mashiro sees Sou in conversation with young woman through a series of courtyard windows and later in volume three when Shinbashi sees Mashiro and Sou in an unguardedly intimate moment.

Mizushiro uses the the very minimalist and cold architecture of the school itself to emphasize mood, disjuncture and isolation. The building where the story takes place is very present in the visual language of the story but often in such a nuanced way that it’s easy to overlook.


Mizushiro generally uses a very light and consistent line weight even in sequences that represent a lot of action. This restraint allows her to use black very effectively to give particular scenes added psychological emphasis or to quickly evoke a sense of dread. The dream scenes that depict Fujishima’s enraged dream form, tragic past and the reason for her hatred towards men are full of inky blacks that are generally absent from most other scenes.


A seminal scene in volume three where Mashiro literally confronts a full manifestation of his feminine side takes place in a vacuum with an almost completely black ground. This atmospheric use of negative space conveys Mashiro’s isolation both from others and facets of his inner self.

After School Nightmare is so visually and textually full of symbolism that one begins to strongly suspect that the entire narrative will resolve into metaphor. Each character’s dream self manifests as visual symbol of their inner turmoil and each dream participant enters the dream wearing a series of three orbs that, shattering under duress, signal the end of the dreamer’s strength and precipitate their return to the waking world. One of the more resonant symbols is a key that must be located within the story’s dream world. Locating the key allows the finder to finally graduate from the haunting psychological landscape of the dream classroom.


It’s probably obvious in the way I’ve written about After School Nightmare that I haven’t finished reading the series. Initially I found some of the themes and the way they were emphasized a bit off-putting. Subsequent reading has revealed that, while the story has remained entertaining, there is a lot happening in the text and an early judgement would inevitably be an inaccurate one. When I look back at my earlier comments on volume 1 I feel a bit of chagrined at how flippant I sound but I’m glad that I chose to write about a manga that’s so interesting and surprising.

The characters are really starting to become engaging – perhaps I’m being seduced by the complex and brooding gothic ambience (or am I really just thinking of Sou when I say that?). I really like Mashiro and I’m eager to find out how the situation resolves for this interesting and sympathetic character.

I also had an opportunity to be politely corrected in my description of Mashiro as transgender. Looking back, I have to agree that there is textual evidence that Mashiro is intersexual. This lead to research (not only to make sure I properly knew what it means to be intersexual) into other manga that have intersexual characters. I’ve mentioned two already but there are a few others (Nabari no Ou? I have to follow up on that…). Needless to say, I’m learning a lot.

Mizuhiro, Setona (w,i) and Christine Schilling (translation). After School Nightmare v1(Oct. 2006), English ed., Go! Comi. ISBN-10: 1933617160

Images: Color panel, cover art for After School Nightmare v3, panels from After School Nightmare v1

[1] Go! Comi (2008). Creator Bio. Go! Comi. Retrieved on 2008-11-11.

Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicles

25 11 2008


Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicles is a shonen manga by CLAMP, a collective of four Japanese women – Nanase Ohkawa, Mokona, Tsubaki Nekoi and Satsuki Igarashi – who work collaboratively on art, writing, formating and character design.

The English translation of this title is licensed in North America by Del Rey – it’s rated T 13+ (Mild material. Suitable for all audiences, teenage and older).

Historically, the latest volume of this series will place within the Top 20 titles on the monthly BookScan listing of bestselling U.S. graphic novels (the 2008 archive can be found at The series began publication in North America in 2004 and is ongoing.

Warning! After this point I want to talk about the narrative in way that contains SPOILERS!

Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicles is the story of Syaoran and Sakura, young sweethearts compelled to traverse time and space in an effort to rescue one another from an ambiguous threat from a mysterious villain with unrevealed motivations. The story transfers the role of active rescuer and emotionally inaccessible rescuee back and forth between the two characters through a series of plot twists of varying intelligibility. They are deeply devoted to each other and it’s complicated – both emotionally and in a time/space-continuum-convolution-made-worse-by-cloning sort of way.

While they are adorable, the question of whether Syaoran and Sakura will eventually save each other from whatever dread fate awaits them may not the burning question in the minds of many T:RC readers. Their traveling companions Fai (erstwhile secretive mage) and Kurogane (erstwhile stoic samurai) are described explicitly in the text as the “mommy and daddy”, respectively. They have been antagonizing/flirting(?) with each other throughout the series and their willingness to suffer on each other’s behalf grows more intense with each volume. It remains to be seen if CLAMP will make manga’s hottest interracial couple canon or end up dispatching one, or both of them, before anything can be consummated.


Up to this point Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicles has succeeded as the attractive and imaginative episodic adventures of a party of charming and well designed characters. More recently the fun and buoyant series has turned very dark, complex and angsty and there is little end in sight for the grave and somewhat morbid tone currently being set. CLAMP’s ability to formulate successful lengthy and complex plots that are strongly character-driven has to be acknowledged. Interestingly, having reached the 19th (most recently translated into English) volume, very little has been revealed about most of the characters’ pasts but this doesn’t seem to have hindered audience identification. T:RC is an deft example of serialized storytelling balanced with a narrative ambiguity that has allowed CLAMP to introduce surprise plot developments and cliff hangers that have kept readers’ curiosity and investment at a sustained pitch.

The new Infinity Arc that started with volume 18 utilizes CLAMP’s collective skills to great effect with waves of terrain-smashing art deco influenced action lines and beautifully balanced double splash pages. CLAMP’s aesthetics and character design attain new heights of melodrama and visual hysteria as Syaoran furiously battles a svelte little cyborg and Fai loses it and trashes the place all Dr. Strange style in response to yet another shocking plot development.

CLAMP (w,i) and William Flanagan (translation). Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicles v1(April 2004), English ed., Del Rey Books. ISBN-10: 0345470575

Moon Boy

25 11 2008


Moon Boy is a shojo sunjung (thanks Suzu!) manhwa written and illustrated by Lee YoungYou.

The first three volumes were published by ICE Kunion but the series, starting with volume 4, has now been picked up by Yen Press. (A number of manhwa titles from the, now dissolved, ICE Kunion publishing house have found a new home with Yen Press. *thanks*)

This title is rated T (13+).

Moon Boy is a fantasy adventure about a young woman, Myung-Ee who finds out that she is not actually human but an Earth Rabbit – a descendant of a race of Moon Rabbits who enjoyed a happy rabbit life on the moon until they were chased away from their home by the ravenous Moon Foxes. Now the Moon Rabbits and Moon Fox engage in covert battles on Earth. The Moon Rabbits fight to protect their society and the oblivious and helpless Earth Rabbits from the hungry and aggressive Moon Foxes. Both Moon Rabbit and Foxes look like regular Earthlings except in certain circumstances when the Rabbits grow cute ears and the Foxes show their carnivorous fangs.

Moon Boy interprets some familiar manga and adventure tropes slightly differently. It’s enjoyable to see the terribly tired “the one” narrative with a female protagonist who, manifests her talent in largely unexamined and sporadic manner. This characterization stems from Myung-Ee’s temperament as a bit of a loose-canon and a pervert. She is very similar to the unmotivated, unselfconscious young boys that appear in shonen manga and YoungYou doesn’t over burden the character with a lot of complexity or extra attention to her inner life. It hard to explain – and in someways the character could seem underwritten – but it actually just feels like a bit of a relief to read a female character who just crashes through situations and doesn’t worry about it too much.

Much of the tone and humor (and there is a lot of humor) in Moon Boy draws its influence from high school comedy manga/manhwa. The drama and adventure elements are fodder for almost constant humorous riffs on pop culture, battle tropes, high school normative behavior and obsession with video games. It’s fun and refreshing but enjoyably textually complex.


The art has a unique heavy line weight and energy and the pages are loaded with expressive and funny detail that incorporates a lot of stylistic approaches. The page design is quite bonkers – really, really busy – but very fun to read. YoungYou’s covers and color art are quite beautiful and vivid. (Manhwa has a slightly different set of stylized visual conventions from manga but this doesn’t impede reader comprehension.)

A few good moments throughout the series… Myung-Ee’s elegant new combat trainer show up to practice dressed as Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady – and proceeds to kick her ass. (Trust me – it just looks really hilarious.) In another episode a spy-spell is placed on Myung-Ee so that everything she sees will be conveyed to her opponents. Turns out Myung-Ee spent the whole day constantly checking out boys. Now, that’s a convincingly relatable young woman.

YoungYou, Lee (w,i) and HyeYoung Im (translation). Moon Boy v1 (Nov. 2006), English ed., ICE Kunion. ISBN-10:895274604X

Vampire Knight

25 11 2008


Vampire Knight is a shōjo manga written by Matsuri Hino and published in North America by VIZ Media on the Shojo Beat imprint.

It is rated OT – Older Teens, Age 16+.

Vampire Knight is a shojo title that stands out in popularity amongst the most successful shonen or seinen titles in both Japan and North America.

Vampire Knight has a visual extravagance which greatly contributes to its appeal. The very lush and elaborate pages represent a culmination of past and present shojo stylistic tropes manifested at their most gratifying. There is so much care put into the dream-like settings that they seem positioned to suggest pop culture archetypes more so then actual physical places. No bedroom scene lacks for massive blots of flowing fabric and adjacent balconies that overlook wooded gardens with stone pools and columns. Clothing has elaborate detail and draping and characters’ hair drifts around them in glossy tendrils, intertwining with filigreed decorative and expository detail work. Every feature of this manga is represented to excess. It’s all very symbolically saturated and, accordingly, rewarding for the reader with a sensibility for this sort of thing.

The huge, fathomless eyes of the heroine, Yuuki Cross, dominate the pages. Hino draws her characters’ giant shojo eyes to resemble deep, shaded pools rather then sparkly orbs – the effect can be quite intense. In many ways Yuuki is textually indistinguishable from other shojo heroines – determined, loyal and resourceful while being a bit naïve – but for all the acute emotion and limpid sadness in her face which is carried entirely in the artwork. As Yuuki moves further away from childish things her expression – when it seems it couldn’t possibly become more so – grows increasingly haunted. This visual characterization attains a perfect realization of how shojo is supposed to function emotionally and what its aesthetics are supposed to convey.

The plot is much concerned with the two beautiful young men who are rivals for Yuki’s loyalty and affection. Elegant and impetuous, often glaring at each other seethingly, they alternately clutch on to Yuuki as though hungry hyenas on a bone. If neither the adeptly swoon-inducing character designs of the Byronesque Kaname or the more flintily modern and perennially shirtless Zero appeal to you there is a large cast of other charming creatures to engage the audience. Regardless of the reader’s proclivities (as long as they tend towards the excessively pretty and melancholy) they can find a character to adopt as a personal favorite.

Ravishment (usually invited, thankfully) is a strong thematic and aesthetic trope in Vampire Knight. Most vampire narratives can be read as thinly veiled euphemisms for carnal knowledge. There’s really nothing to suggest that is the case here…


There has been a lot of debate regarding Vampire Knight’s artistic and narrative merit but the tone is often biased and a bit unfair. This series has everything to offer its intended audience and the uninvited should quietly amuse themselves elsewhere. Lianne at Sleep is for the Weak has written a funny and insightful editorial on the popularity of Vampire Knight.

Matsuri, Hino (w,i). Vampire Knight v1(Jan. 2007), English ed., VIZ Media. ISBN-10: 1421508222

Tekkonkinkreet – Adaptation

29 10 2008

I’m not going to focus on any plot or sequence changes between the Tekkonkinkreet manga and the anime. I generally felt that the storyboarding decisions made by Studio 4°C were very successful in distilling the manga into an entertaining film. I’m more interested in a few more expansive thematic and aesthetic changes.

Taiyo Matsumoto’s representations of the two boys make them look like little goblins most of the time. They’re all teeth, bandages and runny noses.

One thing that really stands out for me about the anime is that Black and White are much cuter and (I think) look more like real children. I can understand Michael Arias impulse to sentimentalize the children. I love both Black and White (as, I think, Arias does) and it doesn’t seem a disservice to make then more appealing and, well, human.

I also appreciated that Arias did not overemphasize the dichotomy between Black and White. There seems to be a tendency in reviews and critical commentary on Tekkonkinkreet to focus on a reductionist body/mind duality between the two characters. Black is often framed as a reactionary, violent thug despite his cunning and the deep well of emotion and thoughtfulness that clearly motivates his actions. “Nebuchadnezzar II built Babylon.”(!?) [1]

White is usually described as a pacifist idiot savant but there are many points in the narrative where White’s behavior defies that expectation. While the boys do express a symbiotic duality during points in the manga it’s not the sum of their characters. I think a thorough reading of the manga reveals a lot more nuance in the characterization and I appreciate the acknowledgment of that in the anime.

The sequence where Black very literally confronts his darker psychological tendencies is very beautiful in both the manga and the anime. The “psychadelic freak-out” qualities of the scene are reminiscent of many anime where, at the conclusion, a dissolution of conventional narrative is replaced by visual symbolist sequences that, at best, speak directly to the right side of the brain or, at worst, dissolve into unintelligible nonsense. (To list a few other examples of this trope… Akira, Howl’s Moving Castle, Paprika and, perhaps most famously, Neon Genesis Evangelion.)

Without adhering to closely to the manga Arias really does a nice job of translating Matsumoto’s abstractions into a visually lyrical sequence that maintains a sense of narrative as well as appealing to emotional logic.

I think it should be evident by now that I really love both the manga and anime of Tekkonkinkreet. I feel lucky that I read the manga first – it is one of my favs of all time – but the anime illustrates how adaptations can transcend reductionist fidelity. Having read and loved the manga increased my enjoyment of the anime as both a reverent homage and a creative departure from its source material.

[1] Matsumoto, Taiyo (2007) Tekkonkinreet: Black and White. San Francisco: Viz Media. page. 71, panel 3.

Media: Tekkonkinkreet anime, onsen scene (thanks to thelostroom1880) [copyright 2007 by Sony Pictures]

Images: screen capture from Tekkonkinkreet anime [copyright 2007 by Sony Pictures], panel from Tekkonkinkreet manga [copyright 2007 by Viz Media], more screen captures from Tekkonkinkreet anime [copyright 2007 by Sony Pictures]

Taiyo Matsumoto and Michael Arias – Tekkonkinkreet Influences

29 10 2008

Image: character art from Tekkonkinkreet, manga [copyright 2007 by Viz Media]

Taiyo Matsumoto’s style is consistently described as having a European aesthetic but an explanation of what that means is rarely provided. Based on his work and the few interviews with Taiyo Matsumoto that are available in translation one can establish a sense of his level of interest in and study of European comic artists.

Thanks to a comment thread in response to a “public service announcement” posted in April 2007 by Christopher Butcher on, an interview with Matsumoto that appeared in the webzine Tokyo Cool was dredged up and does offer a bit of information on the time he spent in Europe in 1989 when he was 22. Based on the interview, Matsumoto does express admiration for Mœbius and Enki Bilal when prompted but is otherwise unspecific. Matsumoto says he was in France covering the Paris-Dakar Rally so any studying done at that time may have been informal. To quote Matsumoto, “drastic change in my drawing may be the result of those comics I came across at the bookstores” and “The number of great comic artists were less than I had anticipated, but those who were great were exceptionally marvelous. They had tremendous impact on my work.”[1]

In July 2008 Christopher Butcher later re-posted and edited Kansai Takita’s Tokyo Cool 1995 interview and appended it with a comprehensive bibliography.

This a quick review of the artists that are directly referenced by Taiyo Matsumoto in interviews and a few others that have styles that resonate with Matsumoto’s. I also want to address the points where Micheal Arias’s influences, explictly stated in the Tekkonkinkreet anime’s commentary or otherwise, are apparent and the points where they occasionally intersect with or diverge from Matsumoto’s.

Image: series of panels from Cauchemar Blanc by Jean Giraud [Mœbius] [copyright 1978 by Jean Giraud/A. Michel]

The work and career of French bande dessinée artist and writer Jean Giraud is accomplished and varied. He began his career doing expressive but representational work but by the early 1960s, at the time of his adoption of the pen name Mœbius, Giraud was beginning to experiment with surrealist and science fiction narratives and styles. By the mid-1970s Giraud moved almost exclusively towards science fiction with the establishment of the ground breaking magazine Métal Hurlant. Just prior to that transition in 1974 Giraud published a short narratively and artistically unique bande dessinée called Cauchemar Blanc (lit. White Nightmare) in L’Echo des Savanes under the name Mœbius.[2] While Matsumoto seems to draw influences from many of Jean Giraud’s works there is a particularly striking congruence not only in technique but in aesthetic themes around urbanism and social dissolution between Cauchemar Blanc and Tekkonkinkreet.

Matsumoto’s 2002 series No.5 is a general stylistic homage to the science fiction works Mœbius published in Métal Hurlant. As Michael Arias mentions in the commentary track of the Tekkenkinkreet anime, the Assassins wear helmets reminiscent of Arzach’s, a character from an ongoing series of stories in the magazine. Arias ‘s knowledge of Mœbius seems general and a bit ill-defined and it seems unlikely, both based on this comment and the aesthetics of the anime, that Arias himself would consider Mœbius a strong influence. Regardless and despite other decisions to change Matsumoto’s character designs (the Apache street gang being one example), Arias did decide to keep the helmets as part of the Assassin’s wardrobe out of deference to Matsumoto’s original design.

Image: screen capture from Immortal (Ad Vitam) directed by Enki Bilal [copyright 2004 by Enki Bilal/Téléma]

The Yugoslavian-born, French artist and writer Enki Bilal is frequently mentioned as a potential European influence on Matsumoto’s work. During the time of Matsumoto’s trip to Europe two volumes of one of Bilal’s most famous and aesthetically resonant works the Nikopol Triology were already published – La foire aux immortels (The Carnival of Immortals, 1980) and La femme piège (The Woman Trap, 1986). (The third book, Froid èquateur (Equator Cold, was yet to be published in 1992.) A collaboration with writer Pierre Christin, Coeurs sanglants et autres faits divers (Bleeding Hearts and Other Stories, 1988), a series of sinister global narratives, had also recently been published. It very likely that Matsumoto would have come across one or all of these works while in France. Bilal shares with Matsumoto an interest in urban complexity and their works share themes of deep seated urban decay and social chaos but there doesn’t seem to be a strong aesthetic or narrative link between the two artists beyond respectful acknowledgment on the part of Matsumoto.

There is a stronger, though probably indirect, aesthetic link between Bilal’s work and the anime of adaptation of Tekkonkinkreet. Bilal’s art has contributed to the visual template for futurist urban dystopia. Elements of the anime which fuses historical Showa Era buildings styles with speculative architecture are very reminiscent of Bilal’s intense fusions of dissolute traditional and culturally specific urban signifiers and slickly insidious technology. As an example of this juxtaposition artist/architect Lebbeus Woods is referenced specifically in the Tekkonkinkreet anime commentary as the inspiration for the coldly technological but surrealist headquarters of Snake, the story’s amoral urban developer.

Image: Underground Berlin 1988, Lebbeus Woods [copyright 1998 by Lebbeus Woods]

In the context of the Tekkonkinkreet manga, Bilal’s influence seems much less concrete then that of Jean Giraud or Hugo Pratt. Italian comic artist and writer Hugo Pratt is know for his complex narrative approach to historical adventure and his strikingly simple but highly evocative line work. Pratt’s most extensive series, Corto Maltese, ran from 1967-1992 but Pratt’s expressive and very aesthetically balanced black and white work on the series Jesuit Joe, which was collected and published in the 1980s, seems a possible influence on Matsumoto.

Images: series of panels from Jesuit Joe by Hugo Pratt [3] [copyright 1984 by Hugo Pratt/Pavillon international de l’humour = International Pavilion of Humour]

While echoes of a comic artist like Pratt can been seen in the Tekkonkinkreet manga, the anime more frequently turns to architectural references. In the anime commentary, explaining the aesthetics of the Kiddie Kastle amusement park, Arias attributes the park’s superficially jovial but disorientingly futurist look to the photography of Bernd and Hilla Becher, specifically their photographs of industrial water towers.

Images: photographs of water towers b. 1931-1934, Bernd and Hilla Becher [copyright 2005 by Bernd und Hilla Becher, Düsseldorf], background art panel for Kiddie Kastle from Tekkonkinkreet, anime [copyright 2007 by Sony Pictures]

The confluence between the work of Matsumoto and Arias is an interesting one. Taiyo Matsumoto is an “artist’s artist” and takes a very self-aware and experimental approach to his medium. He is interested in the aesthetics of other comic book artists and has an knowledge and enthusiasm for their work that informs his own art.

At the time of the making of the Tekkonkinnkreet anime Micheal Arias was not a comic book reader. “…Tekkonkinkreet is for all intents and purposes the only manga I’ve ever read. I wasn’t using other manga for reference or thinking about it in the context of the history of manga.”[4] At the time of the making of Tekkonkinkreet he was a CG animator – in many ways removed from actual animation drafting process – who loved live action film technique and architecture and wanted to translate those interests into his adaptation.

It’s encouraging to consider that the process of adaptation – in this case nurtured by Arias’s commitment to his source material – could yield such thematically faithful and spectacular results despite disparate influences. The unifying theme between Taiyo Matsumoto and Michael Arias seems to be a fascination with and love for urban environments in a complex process of adaptation and decay. They also share a sensibility for the core humanist narrative that unfolds as we all make our way through these environments and the ways they nuture, shape and vex us as individuals and communities.

Image: Tekkonkinkreet, anime [copyright 2007 by Sony Pictures]

[1] Butcher, Christopher. (2007-04-05). “Taiyo Matsumoto: Public Service Announcement” Comics 211. Retrieved on 2008-10-20.

[2] Sadoul, Numa (1976) Mister Moebius et docteur Gir : Jean Giraud. Paris: A. Michel.

[3] Pratt, Hugo (1984) Hugo Pratt : en hommage à l’artiste choisi par ses pairs le cartooniste de l’année 1984 = Hugo Pratt : as a tribute to the artist chosen by his peers the cartoonist of the year 1984. Montréal : Pavillon international de l’humour = International Pavilion of Humour.

[4] Alt, Matt. (2007-10-17). “As Immersive as Possible: The Michael Arias Interview” Otaku USA. Retrieved on 2008-10-26.

Tekkonkinkreet – Anime

29 10 2008

MIchael Arias’s 2006 adaptation of Taiyo Matsumoto’s Tekkonkinkreet was released 12 years after the completion of the manga and, while imbued with a great respect for the source material, changes the visual style dramatically.

Arias, in interviews and the anime’s audio commentary, credits the Fernando Meirelles film City of God and its scenes filmed in Rio De Janeiro using handheld camcorders with providing much of the visual and stylistic inspiration. Arias’s Tekkonkinkreet visually translates Taiyo Matsumoto’s complex, black and white, two-dimensional images into an urban-baroque, colour saturated and kinetic film.

In order to mimic the style and pace of live action filming the production team at Studio 4°C created out of focus images and blurred visual effects. In chase scenes the “camera” pans about wildly and changes of perspective are often executed in wide, sweeping panoramic shots. Visual conventions that are typical of live action are introduced as constructs that, while existing separately from the actual process of animation, are an intuitive part of visual film language.

The decision to represent Treasure Town as awash in color further distances the anime from Matsumoto’s original but, while the anime is colorful, there isn’t a pop, reductionist approach to the palette. The color used is rich and subtle and meant to further communicate the faded glamour of Treasure Town.

As Arias stated in a interview with Otaku USA in 2007 “Matsumoto’s artwork is fantastic, revolutionary even. But I wanted to do something that that was three-dimensional and felt as solid as the world outside your window. I wanted to make it feel like a documentary shot inside a hand-drawn, handpainted world. And I don’t think just taking Matusmoto’s style of artwork—black lines on white paper—and just filling in colors would be enough.” [1]

Studio 4°C attracted a number of very talented contributors to this project including art director Shinji Kimura, who won “Best Art Direction” 2007 Tokyo International Anime Fair for his work on Tekkonkinkreet, and animation supervisor Shojiro Nishimi.

This wonderful article in Pingmag provides great insight into the team behind the anime and their work process.

Official English language website and the Japanese one.

Mainichi Film Awards Best Film Award, 2006

Museum of Modern Art’s Artforum magazine – Number 1 film of 2006

Tokyo International Anime Fair – ‘best original story’ and ‘best art direction’, 2008

Japan Academy Prize for Animation of the Year, 2008 [2]

Media: Tekkonkinkreet opening sequence (thanks to BleachMan954) [copyright 2007 by Sony Pictures]

Images: screen captures from Tekkonkinkreet, anime [copyright 2007 by Sony Pictures]

[1] Alt, Matt (2007-10-17). As Immersive as Possible: The Michael Arias Interview. Otaku USA. Retrieved on 2008-10-26.

[2] Wikipedia. Tekkon Kinkreet. Wikipedia. Retrieved on 2008-10-26.

Tekkonkinkreet – Manga

29 10 2008

In 2007 VIZ Media published Tekkonkinkreet: Black and White (ISBN: 1421518678) which collected and translated, in its entirety, the manga series Tekkonkinkurīto (鉄コン筋クリート) which writer and artist Taiyo Matsumoto had begun in 1993 in the seinen weekly Big Comic Spirits and completed in late 1994.

The story is about two boys, Black (Kuro クロ) and White (Shiro シロ) who live on the streets of a convoluted, decaying and vibrant urban island called Treasure Town (Takara Machi 宝町). Treasure Town gives the impression of being constructed of layer upon layer of urban strata – a chaotic confluence of development, adaptation, public and private desire seething with complexity.

The word tekkonkinkreet is an amalgam of two altered word; tekken which means reinforced steel and konkurito the loan word for concrete. To quote the slip jacket of the 2007 VIZ Media english translation “Tekkonkinkreet is a play on Japanese words meaning “a concrete structure with an iron frame,” and it suggests the opposing images of concrete cities against the strength of imagination.”

Much of the visual impact of Tekkonkinkreet comes from the detail Matsumoto’s puts into his representation of Treasure Town. Matsumoto’s panels in Tekkonkinkreet are strikingly adherent to simple black and white line work with only very judicious use of pale and hand-stippled grey tones. He relies almost exclusively on his distinctive wobbly lines to illustrate the streets and panoramic views of the city. Matsumoto’s control of depth and perspective and the sheer weight of the detail he includes in many of the panels makes the visual language of the city an omnipresent part of the narrative.

The page design is often quite minimal with a classic approach to panel shape and placement. More emphasis seems to have been placed on the arrangement of black and white fields on each page then playing with the panel configuration. This simplicity contributes an equilibrium that balances the detailed content of the panels.

Another aspect of Matsumoto’s technique is his ability to represent coherent physical action. Action sequences and the efficacy the complex interactions of the multiple characters in them are fundamental to comic books. Tekkonkinkreet has many elaborate and visually saturated action sequences but Matsumoto’s page and panel composition can be easily parsed. Regardless of how far chase sequences range – and Matsumoto takes full advantage of the arena Treasure Town provides – or how frenetic the action and the level of surrounding detail the flow of action is clearly communicated.

Matsumoto’s character design, particularly that of the two boys, maintains a balance between symbolic resonance and credible street fashion. Local gang members’ uniforms simultaneously evoke science fiction comics, punk and sports equipment while a menacing foreign investor and his henchmen are – unspecifically but recognizably – imbued with sinister Otherness.

If art alone was the criteria for judging Tekkonkinkreet it could be considered brilliant but the narrative itself is complex, fun and meaningful. While Kuro and Shiro’s symbiotic friendship is at the centre of the story there is also fully realized narrative threads that focus on a young yakuza and his mentor, the odd couple neighborhood cops and the mutation of Treasure Town itself – sentimentalized and reviled – constantly shifting around its inhabitants.

In late 2007 when this edition was first released “Jog” posted a very knowledgeable and comprehensive review on the Savage Critic website. It is, however, full of SPOILERS and comes with the WARNING that if, like me, you get a frisson of bliss-out energy from reading Tekkonkinkreet Jog’s dissection of both its charms and shortcomings may replace your glee with existential angst and self-doubt.

In 2008 the VIZ Media edition of Tekkonkinkreet: Black and White won the Eisner Award for Best U.S. Edition of International Material – Japan.

Taiyo Matsumoto’s homepage on his publisher, Shogakukan’s website.

Images: panel from Tekkonkinkreet (manga), cover image from Tekkonkinkreet (manga), panel from Tekkonkinkreet (manga) [copyright 2007 by Viz Media]

After School Nightmare v.1

21 10 2008

I’m going to leave behind strict adherence to josei series to write about After School Nightmare by Setona Mizushiro which, while it’s considered shojo, gets a 16+ rating (OT) from its publisher Go! Comi.

I read v.1 of After School Nighmare this weekend and it got me thinking about GLBTQ narratives and characters in manga. There are actually a lot of examples to consider which is part of what makes me so grateful for the success of manga in North America. I’m generally happy with any stories about gender ambiguity and non-hetero relationships, particularly for younger readers, but I found some of the themes in this manga a little challenging to negotiate. After School Nightmare is about a transsexual hero/heroine struggling to reconcile themselves with the duality of their gender identification and is recommended by the Young Adult Library Services Association so I was expecting something relatively nuanced. Well…

I’m left with the impression that Mashiro Ichijo is completely female physically but there are a few confusing references to being male from the “waist up” and about his/her tall, lean physique being qualitatively masculine. It’s a bit vexing that such conventional ideas of male-female physical attributes are being adhered to despite this, ostensibly, being a story about gender ambiguity.

The true basis for Ichijo’s affinity for the masculine side of his/her persona and body is still a mystery but its hard to fault that decision within the context of the series because being female is framed consistently negatively. (In Ichijo’s case the disconnect between physical and psychological gender is not innate but is continually being examined intellectually.) The story starts with a very literal invocation of what Simone De Beauvoir described as the feminine quandary of being a “leaky vessel”. There are repeated references to the female body and mind being weak, a textual norm reenforced by Ichijo’s interpretation of his/her loss of a recent kendo match as a result of feminine physical deficiency. (One panel in particular really communicates the significance that clutching the bamboo kendo blade has for Ichijo.) I can acknowledge that a lot of these references and even the lost kendo match, specifically, have a greater narrative significance but I still have a bit of trouble getting past all the negative language around being female in a series that’s written for young women.

As old-school gothic horror I think After School Nightmare is a success but for me to have hoped that it would convey anything complex or even positive about gender roles or the transgender experience was a bit optimistic. Mostly the series focuses on the potential sexy outcomes of the creepy attention directed at Ichijo by deeply disturbed and unlikable characters of both genders. Will poor, confused Ichijo ends up with the sociopath misogynist or the sociopath misandrist and will he/she manage to escape from this manga’s take on hentai tentacles?

Perhaps as the story develops some of the themes around gender will coalesce into something a bit more complex and subtle but I’m not anticipating anything more then weird teenage misery-titillation. Not that I have anything against weird teenage misery-titillation.

Despite my reservations about some of the subtext I don’t personally subscribe to the idea that literature for teens needs to be prescriptive. This isn’t the complex gender-ambiguity text I might have hoped for but it has lots of – potentially enjoyable – psychologically convoluted, symbolist-prevy, non sequitur plot elements.

One might prefer a gothic-baroque visual extravaganza a la Vampire Knight or Godchild to Mizushiro’s delicate line work and minimally rendered settings but it’s interesting to see a lighter aesthetic touch applied to this kind of story.

This series seems to be quite popular at my public library (which is where I got the copy I read – yay, thanks public library!) with lots of requests placed on the more recent volumes.

The conclusion

15 10 2008

Well, not a definitive one… I thought it would be worth writing a quick follow up on my seminar.

It’s been an interesting and intense introduction to writing for an audience that may know less about the topic then me (my classmates) and, simultaneously, much more (the online manga fandom community). I struggled with the tone a bit because I was intimidated by the idea that I was setting myself up as some sort of authority on the subject. I have my own predilections and biases and struggle with my inability to read Japanese out of context… Not much of an authority, really.

I would like to know more about manga as both creative and corporate industry in Japan and it’s history as well as the growth and convolutions of both Japanese and worldwide fandom (and fandom is by nature intense and complex, isn’t it?). Most academic writing I’ve found focuses on fandom in the United States but what about the relationship and hybridity, for example, between la bande dessinée and manga in France? It’s a bit of a challenge to talk about manga rigorously and lucidly but still convey the fun, energy and genius of the medium.

As for my classmates, I think many of them were pleasantly surprised to discover that shojo and shonen are not the only manga genres out there. I spent a bit of time talking about the basic aesthetics. It’s easy for me to forget how manga looks to the unacclimatized eye.

For the library geeks – Eva made a great comment based on my survey of a selection of 5 titles and their inclusion in the collections of four large public libraries. Was how they had been integrated in to each library’s collections and if the way they were cataloged an indication of how they were perceived and selected?

Vancouver Public Library had current and complete series of volumes of Nodame Cantabile, Nana and Suppli. Nodame Cantabile has been cataloged with a “YA FIC” call number and added to the “Young Adult Graphic” collections while Nana and Suppli were both given a “FIC” call number and placed in the “Adult Graphic and “Popular Reading Graphic” collections.

Toronto Public Library had current and complete volumes of Nana, Nodame Cantabile and Paradise Kiss and all were in the “Teen Graphic Books” collections with a “FICTION” call number.

New York Public Library didn’t have very comprehensive series coverage for any of these titles. Nana only seems to go up to v.6, Nodame Cantabile has a curious holdings gap between v.2 and v.14 and only v. 2 of Paradise Kiss is in the catalogue. Nana was included in both the “YA Graphic Novel” and “Graphic Novel” collections under the call number “GN FIC Y” and Nodame Cantabile was also in the “YA Graphic Novel” collection but with the call number “GN FIC N”. The single volume of Paradise Kiss was in the “Pop General Fiction” collection with the call number “GN FIC Y”.

Los Angeles Public Library has the greatest number of the titles from this survey in their collection. The only exception was Tramps Like Us. The volumes for each series were current and they are all given the Dewey call number “740.9999” (740 is “drawing and decorative arts” but I don’t know what the subfield 9999 stands for) with a Cutter number for author. I’m not that familiar with Dewey so I’m probably missing some of the cataloging methodology at work here…

Vivianne commented that the Winnipeg Public Library had copies of Nana, Paradise Kiss and Tramps Like Us(!). Nana and Paradise Kiss were current and both in the “Adult Graphic Novel” collection. However, only v.1 and 2 of Tramps Like Us were in the catalog – oddly, in the “Young Adult Graphic Novel” and “Adult Reference” collections(?) Again, I may be missing something in the methodology here…

Based on this review I find it hard to draw any definite conclusions. Each library seems to have dealt with manga, and graphic novels in general, slightly differently. It does seem that the more solid and comprehensively applied a library’s methodology for purchasing and processing manga the more likely it is that there will be a large, diverse and complete collection. Makes sense.

It was great to get so many helpful and friendly comments from the wider community – thanks everyone! It’s really encouraged me to do my best to keep posting!

Images: panel from Yotsubato! by Kiyohiko Azuma, character art from Usagi Drop by Yumi Unita