Comics Underground Japan

March 10, 2008

Like I said, I finally cheated this out of my roommate, and it makes me very happy. I read it again in celebration. It’s certainly worth reading, and it’s a really cool volume, but there’s some disturbing things mixed in with everything else.

One of the more interesting things about it is the lengthy essay in the front talking about Underground Comics in Japan and basically detailing the history of Garo and Japan’s Underground movement starting with that magazine. It explained its definition of underground comics and some of the common links between the stories in this volume (which, aside from one, are sort of negative views of human nature, some are more severe critiques than others). In the back, there are a few paragraphs about each of the artists, all of which are extremely interesting. I found out more about Suehiro Maruo than I ever thought I would, I was a little disturbed that the girl that had drawn some of my favorite of the stories in the volume had killed herself before she turned 30, I found out more about Kazuichi Hanawa than I did by reading “Doing Time,” which is astounding (also notable is that this volume came out just before he went to prison, so it tells another version of the events that led to that), and I even found out a little extra bit about Hideshi Hino which hadn’t been covered elsewhere, which I thought was impressive.

The essay in the front talks about heta-uma, or art so bad it’s good, which is a style that’s used in American underground comics as well. To tell you the honest truth, a lot of these stories have a lot in common with American underground comics, both art and story-wise. I’m not a very big fan of intentionally bad art. Well, that’s an understatement, I really hate it, but that’s a conversation for another time. Only one of the stories in here (Don Quixote) totally fails for me for that reason, but there are a handful of others with some pretty bad art that put me off.

I didn’t really like the way “Steel Pipe Melancholia” was drawn, and I kind of didn’t like the way it was done in an almost stream-of-consciousness style either, but I was won over by the fact that the main character is tricked into keeping his hand on a pipe so that the town wouldn’t fill with explosive gas while his wife had sex with another guy about ten feet away.

“Future Sperm Brazil” by Takashi Nemoto and “Planet of the Jap” by Suehiro Maruo were thematically linked. The former had really terrible, offputting art, but the premise was extremely compelling. There is a colony of Japanese people living in Brazil who don’t know that WWII has ended, and one of their sons is sent to swim across the pacific ocean in order to be drafted for the cause. The man decided to do this after having a dream where the Emperor personally drafts him in order to win the war. Lots of weird stuff happens, and I suppose it is sort of a sad and sick story, but… it was quite entertaining, honestly, and I kind of wished for the rest of it after I finished what was there, since it was just an excerpt. “Planet of the Jap” is in much poorer taste, as you may have expected from Suehiro Maruo. In that story, Japan conquers America and the soldiers wind up raping women in front of their children before bashing their brains out on a wall in the frank, matter-of-fact way Maruo has with his stories. It starts off by going through alternate versions of history that are at least a little interesting, but I have to say the ending kind of made me never want to read it again.

“Mary’s Asshole” was one of my favorites in the book, which is just about what appears to be an Office Lady having spontaneous fantasies throughout the day. All were things you can sort of relate to, because who hasn’t thought about what they wished they could do to the annoying guy who keeps asking them out?

I also really liked the two “Bigger and Better” stories by Muddy Wehara. I couldn’t tell you why other than the fact I think the realistic, almost non-cartoony image of salarymen riding to work on giagantic tortises and frogs is very compelling. “Cat Noodle Soup” was an extremely sweet story despite having some kind of offputting art… maybe one of my favorites. The two stories included by Carol Shimoda were also kind of cool. Both the stories and art were kind of bad, but the joke/parody against shoujo manga certainly hit its mark, and I definitely liked it.

Probably the two best stories in the volume were “Laughing Ball” by Hideshi Hino and “Mercy Flesh” by Kazuichi Hanawa. “Laughing Ball” could definitely be argued otherwise, but I’ll include it with the other since I like Hino a lot and I thought this was a pretty good short story with a suitably gruesome ending and moral. “Mercy Flesh” is just spectacular though, and it makes me want to read more by Hanawa. It’s a mix of a really compelling story (a little girl inexplicably trapped in a cage with a living Buddha and forced to take care of the bizarre creature) and some really bizarre visuals and ideas. I absolutely adored it.

A lot of the stories are easy to critique, but it is indeed a very, very cool collection. I also very much like the cover.