Friday, September 9, 2011

Kusaka Riki: Kumarajiva (2009-present)

The title of this shows up as "Kumara jiva" (from the original Sanskrit), クマーラジーヴァ (a Japanese phonetic rendering of same), and 羅什 (the Chinese equivalent of same);  often two or three of these elements appear together, and in seemingly miscellaneous order.  Anyway, the point is clear: this is a manga bio of Kumārajīva, the Indian monk who went to China and translated the Lotus Sutra into Chinese, thus making it available ever after to the entire East Asian tradition.  It's by Kusaka Riki くさか里樹 (there's a nice pun in her name), and it's been serialized in the weekly newsmagazine Ushio since 2009, although there was a long lag between the start of serialization and the appearance of the comic in book form.  The first volume came out in July of this year, and it's all that's out so far, and it's all I've read.

It's probably worth mentioning that Ushio is put out by the publishing arm of the Soka Gakkai.  I don't think that necessarily means that this comic is going to be mere hagiography;  not only is Ushio a seemingly fairly mainstream publication, but they're the same publisher that did Tezuka's Buddha, although it ran in a different magazine.  The pedigree doesn't seem to have prevented that work from being taken seriously.  So I'll take this seriously.

Tezuka's life of the Buddha is the obvious precedent for this, and the thing I couldn't help but compare it to even before I noticed that they were from the same publisher.  After only one volume it's not going to be possible to say much, but we can start with the art.  This is a lot less distinguished, artistically:  I doubt anybody would disagree.  But visually, I like it a lot more.

Here's what I mean by that.  Tezuka famously never managed to leave behind his Disney-influenced art style.  His characters always had that roundness;  they always looked like they were rubber bendy-toys.  And his backgrounds, his things, weren't much different - they could boast a high degree of detail, and he could do atmosphere, but they always looked cartoony.  I've written about how for me that ruins some of his more ambitious work.  That's more or less my take on his Buddha.  In it he takes his cartoony style about as far as it can possibly go - I can recognize that he's really pushing himself there, and he does achieve some marvelous effects.  But in the end it's still rubbery, and it's off-putting to me.  I just can't get around this.  I don't love Buddha.

I find myself much more at home in Kusaka's art.  But the thing is, objectively I would probably rate it lower than Tezuka's.  She's drawing in a quite typical contemporary seinen-manga style:  utterly typical.  I'd be hard pressed to cite anything at all about the art in this volume that sets it apart from any other average manga aimed at your average late teen or adult.  It's reasonably well executed, but artistically unambitious.  Undistinguished.  As opposed to the great ambition, care, and skill evident in Tezuka's work.

So why do I prefer Kusaka's?  Idiom.  It's simply that the seinen style, even when executed in an uninspiring way, feels more appropriate to this story, this kind of story.  It's somehow more effective at conveying adult emotions, adult thoughts, than the cartoony style of Tezuka, no matter how well executed.  At least, that's my impression.  This story, even though the characters are shallow, begins to move me, reflexively, in ways that Tezuka's didn't.

Maybe the best way to get at what I'm trying to say is this.  I tend to think of the art in manga as being equivalent, in some ways, to the words that it's replacing:  and artistic style can be likened to prose style.  In that metaphor, Tezuka's art in Buddha is the visual equivalent of:  a story in short words! aimed at a boy with a fifth-grade reading level!  with lots of exclamation points!  There's a lot you can do with that! kind of writing! sure! but it still has! lots! of! exclamation points!

Whereas Kusaka's art is the visual equivalent of adult prose, aimed at adults.  Certainly not the most eloquent prose, but at least it only has a few! exclamation points.

I feel like such a heretic now.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Urasawa Naoki/Nagasaki Takashi: Billy Bat (2008-present)

Here's an entertaining take on the opening of the first volume of this manga.  Complete with affectionate hardboiled-pastiche prose.

So:  Billy Bat ビリーバット, by Urasawa Naoki 浦沢直樹 and Nagasaki Takashi 長崎尚志.  It's been serialized in Morning モーニング since 2008, and the book version is up to Volume 7.  It's the first thing I've read by Urasawa, but it won't be the last.  For at least the first couple of volumes, I was convinced this might be the greatest comic ever written.  It loses a little intensity when it decides to spend a full volume on a ninja story, but it's still pretty cool.

For the first couple of volumes it's following a Japanese-American comic-book author named Kevin Yamagata who, in immediate postwar LA, has a hit series called Billy Bat.  Billy Bat, the comic-with-a-comic, is a furry story with a bat as a hardboiled detective.  It's black-bat noir.  Kevin's proud of his creation, but a visiting cop makes an offhand remark that he saw a similar comic as an Occupation soldier in Japan.  This gives Kevin the Anxiety of Influence, since he himself is an Occupation Vet;  he rushes back to Japan to find out whether he has unconsciously plagiarized someone or something.  Once in Japan he gets caught up in a conspiracy to subvert the democratization of Japan by assassinating an industrial leader.  And, oh yeah, Billy the Bat starts talking to him...

It's a wacky story, when you put the elements of it down like that.  And it just gets wackier:  it jumps back centuries to follow the fortunes of ninja clans in Iga, ahead decades to encompass the moon landing and the JFK assassination, way back to Jerusalem in Jesus' day;  and I think they're going to work their way up to 9/11, too.  In addition to Kevin we get a host of other characters, from cops to other comics artists to cowboys to Lee Harvey Oswald.  We also get excerpts from episodes of Billy Bat, both Kevin's version and that of his successor (his assistant, who usurped the series)  And then, of course, there's the bat:  it pops out of the page from time to drop cryptic clues about good'n'evil and the destiny of man...

So the series is, among other things:  an occult alternate history of the world in which comix artists (cave painters, picture-scroll makers) are the oracles of a Manichaean struggle between good and evil, light and darkness, creation and destruction, the avatar(s) of which are bats;  a commentary on the uneasy relationship between American comics and Japanese manga in the postwar period;  an elegy to the betrayed postwar promise of both America and Japan;  a meditation on Disney;  and a hell of an adventure story, presented in art and writing that manages to have all the dynamism it needs to keep you turning the pages swiftly and an almost gratuitous subtlety that makes you want to linger over every composition, every facial expression.

This guy's a genius, and I can't wait to see where the story goes from here.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Norwegian Wood (film) (2010)

I expected this to suck.

The Tanuki loves Murakami Haruki 村上春樹.  That won't really be apparent from this blog, because this blog only covers the last three years of the Tanuki's engagement with cultural production, and it just so happens that the Tanuki hasn't been reading a lot of Haruki in the last three years.  That's because the Tanuki damn near OD'd on Haruki in the previous sixteen years since first encountering him.  Murakami's works hold a deep and abiding importance for the Tanuki, for more reasons than can be discussed in this post (so I won't try). And the novel on which this film is based, 1987's Norway no mori ノルウェイの森 (Norwegian Wood), happens to be my favorite Murakami novel.  The one that turned me on to him. The one that pretty much decided my career path.  And so I expected this to suck (=to fail to satisfy the Tanuki's very personal requirements for a treatment of Murakami's work).

And:  I know Tran Anh Hung's pedigree - I saw and loved The Scent of Green Papaya - but that still didn't give me much hope that he'd get this right (=please me, selfish git that I am).  Not necessarily through any fault of his own.  Murakami somewhat famously has refused permission to film his novels, but a few years ago he made his first exception, for Ichikawa Jun 市川準's Tony Takitani トニー滝谷;  the result merely confirmed for me that Murakami's first impulse, to keep his novels on the page and in his readers' minds, was the right one.  I don't know that Murakami's novels are any more difficult to adapt to the screen than most;  I just know that in his case, I don't want to sit through any more failures.  I expected this to suck.

Mostly it doesn't.  Mostly, in fact, it's a great movie.  It might even be all the way a great movie, but you'd have to get that opinion from someone with a little more distance on the source than me.  But even for me:  it gets the novel about three-quarters right.

That, of course, is not all it does.  The visuals are, as one would expect from Tran, amazing, and they're amazing in a way that largely captures the wide-eyed romanticism of the novel.  The contrast between the natural settings and the cityscapes, the period detail in costume and interiors, the thoughtful, unblinking camera work all contribute to a film that's gorgeous to look at, simply intoxicating.  The score, by the Radiohead guy, is equally impressive, with bold dissonance that reaches verges on noise, but in a very romantic-tragic way.  (I have my quibbles, inevitably, with the songs interpolated into the soundtrack:  Can, with their Japanese lead singer, has a certain metafictional appropriateness, but there were any number of Japanese psychedelic/early prog bands that could have been used, too: couldn't they have found room for somebody like the Mops?  The Flower Traveling Band/The FlowersThe Tempters?)

And it gets two of the main characters right.  Matsuyama Ken'ichi as Watanabe-kun is pitch perfect:  his delivery of "mochiron" is just how it should be, a wary rapprochement with the world that just happens to be cool to the point of near-arrogance.  And Kikuchi Rinko realizes Naoko with all the ethereal, waifish beauty the role requires:  the character needs to be barely there, and yet emotionally dominant, and that's how she is here.  The parts of the movie that focus on this relationship are fine.

In the novel, however, Naoko's character is perfectly balanced by Midori, who is Life to Naoko's Thanatos, earth to Naoko's otherworldliness, Body to Naoko's Spirit;  and Mizuhara Kiko doesn't quite bring it.  Maybe she's just too physically insubstantial, or maybe she just can't shake the passive flirtatiousness that is required of so many Japanese starlets, but her Midori fails to provide a counterbalance to Naoko, which means the movie ultimately fails to spell out the crossroads that Watanabe finds himself at. 

The film also fails with the all-important secondary character of Reiko.  Her dazzling monologue about her piano student is eliminated, meaning we really have no idea of her past, why she's hospitalized, or even what kind of person she is;  and although her sex scene with Watanabe at the end is preserved, in the film she comes across as a weak older woman begging for the young phallus.  Which is not what she is in the book at all.  I'm not really sure why they kept this scene in the film, actually.

All of which means, I suppose, that I think this film really does fail, ultimately;  it just fails in a very seductive way, I guess.