Thursday, September 15, 2011

Genkaku Picasso

I first ran across Usamaru Furuya a few years ago via his two-volume series called Short Cuts. These collections of one-page cartoons were loosely themed about the predominance of teenage girls in Japanese pop culture, but on another level they could perhaps be seen as symbolic of that culture in general. In these works Furuyu conveyed a uniquely twisted and independent vision that seemed unlikely to ever cross over to the mainstream. But in his latest series, Genkaku Picasso, Furuyu seems to have accomplished the impossible: a story done for the major commercial Shonen Jump magazine in Japan, with sufficient elements to attract the sympathy of the masses, but without losing the quirky and rather demented qualities that make his work so special.

This story centers on hapless young high school student Hikaru Hamura, a relentless art nerd who continually sketches at his desk rather than interact with any of his classmates. Only his cute classmate Chiaki Yamamoto hangs out with him down at the river during his after school sketching sessions. She might be ready to be more than friends, but never gets a chance as a horrific helicopter crash kills both of them.

When Hikaru awakes, Chiaki has become a miniature angel, in schoolgirl uniform with wings, who hides in his shirt pocket and pops out at inopportune moments. She blithely informs him that she bargained with the Buddhas to return him to life, and they agreed on the condition that he help troubled people when he meets them. Of course, only Hikaru can see this little angel, and his conversations with her just serve to convince his classmates that he's weird.

Neither of them is quite sure just how his gift/curse is supposed to work, but it transpires that he sees a dark aura around people who have serious emotional problems. Thereafter, he is compelled to start drawing, and the resulting scene is a sort of archetypal representation of the inner conflicts of that person. In case that isn't startling enough, Hikaru then gets sucked into the picture, along with Chiaki, and they are trapped inside the subconscious of the troubled person until they find a way to help resolve their problem. If Hikaru ever tries to resist this whole process of helping others, his arm starts to rot, as his body reverts to the decomposed state it would be in by now, were it not for Chiaki's bargain with the Buddhas.

So of course, Hikaru and Chiaki always find a way of helping each person to face some inner conflict that has been holding them back. This element of sudden, heartwarming personal growth runs the risk of making the story too pat and wish-fulfilling for its own good. Fortunately, however, Hikaru remains relentlessly geeky, and a side-effect of his "seizures" is too make him seem even creepier to his classmates.
Over the course of three volumes, Hikaru and Chiaki encounter a variety of people with varied and interesting problems. Before the formula becomes too repetitive, however, Hikaru gets sucked into a psyche even more challenging to deal with...his own! The multichapter epic of Hikaru's inner soul goes to unexpected places, culminating in revelations that are deeply touching. There's something about a comedy with a serious ending that really catches you when you're vulnerable. Don't be surprised if you find tears coming to your eyes before the final page.

The other great joy of this work is Furuya's artwork, which alternates between the crisply delineated everyday world of the school and the softly textured pencil renderings of Genkaku's drawings and the worlds that exist inside them. Furuya also stretches the viewer's imagination with a number of clever homages to surrealism, which form a charming complement to his eccentric storytelling.

Genkaku Picasso, Volume 1

Genkaku Picasso, Volume 2

Genkaku Picasso, Volume 3

Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Worlds of Aldebaran, by Leo

Amidst the barrage of manga titles arriving weekly in your local bookstore, and the onslaught of superhero titles arriving weekly at your local comic book store, it would be easy to go for many years without being aware of the existence of a European culture of comic books and graphic novels. Until recently, Herge's TinTin series was almost my only exposure to this world, and the most recent stories in that immortal saga are several decades old now.

Recently, however, the British firm Cinebook ("The 9th Art Publisher") has set about making many other Euro graphic novels available in English translation. The Blake and Mortimer series was the first of their offerings that I tried, and while carefully crafted, it struck me as lacking the colorful kinds of central characters that enliven the TinTin books. However, the second series that I tried has proved to be a real find.

The Worlds of Aldebaran by Leo is a mind-expanding science fiction series that would make a great movie or TV series. So far, two cycles from this work have been issued in English by Cinebook: the first titled Aldebaran (in three volumes), and the second titled Betelgeuse, which actually begins in the third volume of Aldebaran and proceeds for three more volumes. These are all large-format, full color works that show considerable artistry.

As both a writer and an artist, Leo's greatest strength is in his conception of myriad alien life forms, from the cute but enigmatic Iums, through various reptilian creatures that are as ferocious as they are peculiar. But his most unique conception is a kind of creature called the Mantris: beings of enormous size, but given to dramatic changes in shape and behavior during the course of their lifecycle. At times a single Mantris can even mutate temporarily into what appear to be a multiplicity of independent beings that are acting in a coordinated way, but whose purposes remain a cypher to the human observers.

Let it be said that this is not the typical Sci-Fi work that neglects the shear difficulty in recognizing an alien intelligence, let alone communicating with it. There is no miraculous Universal Translator a la Star Trek to enable you to be instantly understood by the latest batch of strangely humanoid aliens.

The cast of characters changes somewhat from the Antares cycle to the Betelgeuse cycle, but several favorites recur. The character of Kim, who is a sidekick to the narrator of the first story, goes on to be the center of the next one. In the process, she matures dramatically from a bratty and impulsive thirteen year old to a truly intrepid heroine, without ever becoming a mere "action girl" fantasy figure like so many Buffy wannabes on the market these days.

Leo's view of human society seems to be fairly bleak, as the human settlements in both the Aldebaran and Betelgeuse systems revert to being repressive dictatorships when they encounter hardships. Doubtless Leo's youth in Brazil has informed his vision of how dysfunctional human governments can become, as well as providing examples of how those in power are able to rationalize all their actions. The relegation of women to near breeder-slave status is one of the more disturbing developments, but one that seems eerily plausible in the circumstances depicted here.

This wouldn't be the first Sci-Fi story to use aliens to shed light on the shortcomings of our own species, but happily, the Worlds of Aldebaran prove too expansive to be reduced to a mere political parable. Through the sheer strangeness and fertility of his conceptions, Leo invokes the sense of wonder that is at the heart of all worthwhile science fiction.

I was disappointed when the series came to an end, but recently have discovered on the French publisher's website Les Mondes d'Aldebaran, that there is a third cycle called Antares. Hopefully Cinebook will also bring out an English edition of Antares, and we can learn more of the doings of the Mantrises, of Kim, and of her lately acquired alien paramour.

The Catastrophe: Aldebaran Vol. 1

The Group: Aldebaran Vol. 2
The Creature: Aldebaran Vol. 3

The Survivors: Betelgeuse Vol. 1

The Caves: Betelgeuse Vol. 2
The Other: Betelgeuse Vol. 3

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Moyasimon: Tales of Agriculture

So did you ever play that game with your friends where you ask, if you could have any superpower, what would it be? Chances are that if you did, nobody said "I wanna see germs with my naked eye." But such is the fortunate or unfortunate ability of Tadayasu Sawaki, the protagonist of the brilliant new manga Moyasimon: Tales of Agriculture by  Masayuki Ishikawa. For reasons unexplained (at least in the first two volumes), he can see the germs everywhere he goes. They all look like a variety of happy-faced cartoon characters with exotic hairstyles, but that doesn't stop the bad ones from packing a punch.

Sawaki, it seems, is the son of a professional koji maker who supplies cultures for use in fermentation, and the title Moyasimon translates roughly as "mold man." His best friend Kei Yuki is the scion of a sake brewing family, so they are natural allies. The story commences with their arrival at an unnamed agricultural university, where Sawaki is swiftly adopted by a number of eccentrics who hope to exploit his strange power. Chief among them are Keizo Itsuki, a cryptic and visionary scientist who extols the greatness of agriculture and the wonders of fermented foods, as well as his fierce lab assistant Haruka Hasegawa who has a fondness for wearing bondage outfits and grosses out the other characters with her habit of wearing shoes indoors!
At first I thought that Sawaki's strange ability would just be a pretext for depicting college students getting themselves into amusing predicaments. But no: the germs themselves are central to many of the storylines, and if you're not careful, you might find them sparking an interest in microbiology. At the very least you will be amazed to learn of so many bizarre types of fermented foods (and drinks!).

As a bonus, volume 2 gives us a storyline involving the school's Spring Festival. Not having attended a Japanese university, I have no idea how accurate this is, but it makes American fraternity hazings look like a walk in the park.

Occasionally there is also a glimmer that there may be a serious theme buried in here somewhere. A chapter from the germ's-eye-view shows them forming grandiose plans for mutual cooperation, only to be swept away by a mop moments later; it's enough to make you wonder how germlike we ourselves might appear to a higher Being. Not to mention how one each of us humans is, essentially, a colony of micro-organisms bonded together in mutual cooperation. Isn't life weird? This manga makes it a pleasure to contemplate just how weird our existence really is.

Moyasimon: Tales of Agriculture, Volume 1

Moyasimon: Tales of Agriculture, Volume 2