Thursday, October 20, 2011

Nakamura Hikaru: St. Oniisan (2007-present)

A student of mine turned me on to this manga.  I turned my wife onto it, and she turned some friends onto it.  So we have a regular little St. Oniisan fan club here on the banks of the Willamette.  But I never got around to reading the whole series until a couple of weeks ago when I was sick and it was the only thing I felt like reading.

The author is Nakamura Hikaru 中村光.  The title in Japanese is Saint Oniisan 聖☆おにいさん, but it comes with its own author-specified English title, which shows up on the cover:  Saint Young Men.  I actually hate it when manga do this:  the pre-supplied English titles are almost always geared toward the Japanese audience, meaning they work for people with only a vague grasp of English (sometimes they work quite well from that perspective), but they're lousy when read by a native English speaker.  "Saint Young Men" is a lousy title.  Anything would be better.  How about "Holy Bros"?

But that's the only thing about this series that misses.  Everything else is pure comedy gold.

The gimmick is that, shortly after the millennium, Buddha and Jesus decide they need a vacation, so they come to earth - Tokyo, to be exact - and take an apartment together.  If that sounds like a variation on a classic joke set-up - "so Buddha and Jesus walk into a bar, and Buddha says..." - that's because it is.  It's a killer premise, legendary from the start - be honest, you smiled the second you read my explanation of it.  Already you're imagining the possibilities.

And it gets better, because he's imagined Jesus and Buddha not just as fish out of water, divine personages in modern Japan, but freeters - dudes in their early twenties, aimless and underemployed.  There's a wicked subtext about the superfluousness of religion in contemporary Japan, and the sheer numbers of young people falling through the cracks in the system, and oh yeah, the witty observation that Jesus, as traditionally depicted, kinda looks like a modern hipster - skinny, long-haired, with a wispy beard.  Buddha, too - looks surprisingly convincing in a puffy North Face coat.

What's amazing about this series is that it lives up to the premise.  Nakamura's six volumes in, and so far he's managed to keep coming up with new jokes.  A lot of them are of necessity variations on familiar themes, but still he's managed to introduce a new twist every time you think the well's about to go dry.  It helps that he's willing to introduce new characters - we get Jesus's homey Uriel and Buddha's boy Brahman, for example, each one of whom brings in train a whole new set of associations to exploit.

I guess what I'm admiring is the craftsmanship.  Nakamura had an inspired idea, but what's making it work is his mastery of all the comic techniques you could think of.  This series is like a textbook of comedy, everything from complicated visual puns to low comedy, character-driven humor and off-the-wall gags.

What it's missing is a hard edge, but I don't think that's a bad thing.  There's plenty of blasphemy in here, but it's all so good-natured and light-hearted that it's hard to imagine anybody getting too het up about it.  Maybe Rick Santorum, but nobody sane.  In fact, somewhat surprisingly given that it's about young men in their early twenties (well, not really), there's been no mention at all of sex.  Nakamura's keeping it family-friendly.  Which ends up giving the whole series this really benign glow.  I'm not saying it's exactly faith-promoting, but it's not trying to grind any axes either.  It's just fun.  Endlessly fun.

EDITED 11/26/11:  I refer to Nakamura Hikaru as a "he."  In fact Nakamura Hikaru is a "she."  Imagine my embarrassment.  Feel free to doubt anything I write about anything from here on out.

1 comment:

Matt said...

I like this one too, but one thing I find is that I can't read a whole book in one sitting. (This isn't a criticism of the series itself, though, since it was pretty clearly designed to be episodic, and not a sustained novel-like narrative.) The setup-payoff see-saw just gets to be too much, even though each one tends to be quite clever in its own right.

(My all-time favorite has got to be the sequence dealing with Buddha's embarrassment over having said "天上天下, 唯我独尊" immediately after he was born. Great example of how Nakamura integrates the wildly varying [implicit] theological perspectives on what kind of person Buddha was into a single convincing character.)

"There's plenty of blasphemy in here, but it's all so good-natured and light-hearted that it's hard to imagine anybody getting too het up about it. ... the whole series [has] this really benign glow."

This is really true. You can imagine a much darker comedy with basically the same premise expanded a bit: "Jesus and Buddha live in an apartment together... meanwhile, human trafficking, child soldiers, flooding, and famine." I can't help but feel that this is how it would shake out in the English-speaking comics world. That'd be edgier. Nakamura is more about the honobono aesthetic than edginess.

It isn't only that, though... I think that most of the warm glow comes because Nakamura tends to *assume the best*. For example, there's no cop-out on Jesus: he doesn't harp on it or anything, but whenever it comes up, he really does act as if he loved and cared for literally everyone. But there is a sort of cop-out on the afterlife, to which (it seems) everyone gets to go -- there's no eternal suffering. And if I recall correctly, even major negative figures like Mara (and Satan? Judas? Can't remember if they've come up or not) are depicted as more lonely/awkward/misguided than seriously malevolent.

We have this series the shelf at my wife's cafe (along with "Kino nani tabeta?", the only other manga to receive such honors) and they are the most read books there.