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

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