I read more manga: GYO

I talked about my experiment with, and affection for, Junji Ito’s Uzumaki a few days ago, and that led to me ordering two more collected editions of his work, including the above, called Gyo. And … uh … well, I have one more left and I guess we’ll see how it goes, because Gyo is … kinda bad? Like, “about fart monsters” bad. The big scary beasts in the book are literally fart monsters. There are lots of lovingly detailed drawings of fish, people, and various other living things with tubes implanted into their asses to harvest their internal gases. That’s not a joke. It’s not even a humorous exaggeration. They’re fart monsters. Their farts might be sentient. It’s unclear.

Fart monsters are not scary, no matter how you try.

Now, there’s definitely some creepy shit in here, and Ito’s art is awesome, particularly the way he ramps up the detail whenever he’s drawing anything particularly horrific, but the problem is that the creepy pictures are connected by story and words and talking, and the words ruin the cool pictures. Not the least because I hate the font this book is lettered in, which makes everyone look like they’re shouting, all the time. And a lot of time they are! There is quite a bit of shouting in this manga. Not always for a good reason.

It also features one of the worst female characters and one of the worst romantic relationships I’ve ever encountered in literature, period. Kaori is terrible in every imaginable way, and is a collection of every misogynist stereotype about women one could write down, and her boyfriend Tadashi is also terrible although not in an especially gendered way. You never for a second understand why these two even like each other because they are both insufferable and their relationship is toxic as hell, and I’m not sure if the book was deliberately written that way, but I don’t actually think it was. Like, she’s worse than him because her shittiness is so explicitly gendered, but they’re both terrible characters.

So, yeah, I didn’t like this one, although I’m still three-starring it, mostly on the strength of the artwork and the two amazing stories at the end of the book. They are both maybe the length of a standard Western comic book, so we’re talking two ten-minute reads, maybe, but the second one in particular, called The Enigma of Amigara Fault, is spectacular. The other suffers from a little bit of The Dumb; there will be some who won’t like it because it’ll fail the smell test right away and it isn’t long enough to win your trust back, but if you get past that it’s a great little short horror story. It also suffers a little bit from being translated into English; I assume the phrase “principal post,” meaning the main support column of a house, doesn’t sound quite as ridiculous when repeated in Japanese as it does in English. Amigara Fault, though, is great, from start to finish. It’s just that I’m not sure those two stories are enough to justify purchasing the entire volume, since Gyo itself is so Goddamned goofy.

One more, though, and then I’ll have to decide if I’m looking for more to read or retreating back into my superhero comics where I belong.

I read a manga!

I’ve said this before— the clearest line of distinction between people who are very late Gen Xers and people who are very old Millennials is Pokémon. If Pokémon played a role in your childhood (or a role in the childhoods of people your age) chances are you’re a Millennial. If you made it to college without ever having heard of Pikachu, you’re Gen X. Along with this comes the idea of being into manga. I can assure you that I was into every nerdy hobby available in the Midwest in the 1990s and I never even heard the word “manga” despite being deeply into Western comic books. It just wasn’t a thing over here yet. Anime, much the same. And while I’ve had plenty of opportunities, I’ve never really gotten into either. Something about the style of most anime (and the weirdly wordy way Japanese seems to translate into English a lot of the time) has always just sort of repelled me, and I’ve never had a good explanation for why I don’t like the stuff, I just don’t.

I bought the collected edition of Junji Ito’s Uzumaki earlier this week for no clear reason– like, I learned it existed and that it was “horror manga” and I bought it, and I’m not sure why– and I seem to have broken that streak finally, to the point where last night I ordered the collected editions of this dude’s other two series. Or, at least, two of his other series? I’m not sure how much he’s actually done. Uzumaki is kinda random and goofy in parts but it’s creepy as hell throughout, and it reminds me of Scary Stories to Read in the Dark in the absolute best way possible and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The idea– and this is kind of a “roll with it” scenario– is that a town is cursed, and the curse manifests itself in spirals. The first eight or ten chapters are all standalone, where some character or another is affected by the spiral psychosis in some way, and then everything knits itself together very satisfyingly over the last several chapters. The whole thing is six hundred pages plus, so it’s pretty beefy, and it’s big enough that the art has space to shine and for all that it’s a quick read anyway. If you’re a manga person you’ve probably already encountered this, but if you’re not and you want an entry point in the genre, this one roped me in, so give it a look.


I didn’t post yesterday, breaking a 200-plus day streak. Why? No good reason, I just didn’t feel like it, and after a while I get tired of the ceaseless WordPress notifications that I’ve blogged X days in a row. My cold isn’t quite gone yet although today was better, so hopefully this will be gone in the next day or two. We’ll see.

#Review: African Samurai, by Thomas Lockley and Geoffrey Girard

I have talked a couple of times about how recent trends in my video game habit have led to a minor fascination with the Japanese language and Japanese history. Specifically, I have the Nioh games and Ghost of Tsushima to blame for this, both of which hang very fictional video game storylines on top of actual people and actual events in Japanese history. Yasuke, a (real) African who rose to be a samurai in the service of the (real) sixteenth-century warlord Oda Nobunaga is actually someone you fight in both of the Nioh games. The real Yasuke did not have lightning powers or a magical bear spirit that fought with him, but he was a real dude who actually existed.

I’ve gone looking a couple of times for a recent biography of Nobunaga in English, a book that does not seem to actually exist, but during one of those searches I happened upon this book, and it languished on my Amazon wish list for quite a while until it finally came out in paperback a bit ago and I ordered it. And considering what the book turned out to be, it’s really interesting that I only know about Yasuke through heavily fictionalized accounts of parts of his life– because while African Samurai is definitely a history book, it’s not at all like any of the books about historical figures that I have read in the past.

Thomas Lockley, one of this book’s two authors, is an American historian currently living in Japan. Geoffrey Girard, on the other hand, is a novelist, and while I didn’t delve into his background too deeply it doesn’t seem that he has any particular academic training in either history or Japan. While there are contemporary sources that attest to Yasuke’s existence– he is depicted in artwork and there are a handful of letters from a very prolific Jesuit monk who lived in Japan that discuss him, among a small number of other sources– there really isn’t enough information about him out there to fill up a 400+ page book without finding some way to provide more detail. And this book handles that dearth of source material in two ways: one, by making this a book that is nearly as much about Oda Nobunaga as it is Yasuke (which was a treat for me, since that’s what I was originally looking for) and two, by making the book almost more a piece of historical fiction than it is a traditional history. It is clear, in other words, that a novelist had his hand in writing this, and if I had to guess I’d suggest that the majority of the words on the page are Girard’s and not Lockley’s– although, to be clear, I would be guessing.

How is it historical fiction? Because far more of the book is about Yasuke’s thoughts and feelings and day-to-day life than the extant evidence we have about him would ever allow. For example, we know, because the Jesuit monk talked about it, that Nobunaga granted Yasuke a house on the grounds of his home and provided him with a short sword and a couple of servants. That’s factual, or at least as factual as a single secondhand account from five hundred and some-odd years ago can be presumed to be. But that’s all we know, and the two-page scene where Nobunaga summons Yasuke and then surprises him with the house, and Yasuke falling asleep on his new tatami in his home and awakening to find his new servants bowing at his feet, is pure invention. It’s not necessarily unreasonable invention– there was no point in the book where I thought that the authors were going too far in constructing a narrative out of what they had, and they only very rarely go so far as to utilize actual dialogue anywhere, but the simple fact is that that whole sequence is fictionalized, and the book is riddled with things like that. Yasuke is traveling with Nobunaga, and he reflects upon something-or-another that allows the authors to inject a piece of necessary historical background. We know that at one point Yasuke fought with a naginata, and so there’s a paragraph at one point where he’s thinking about buying one. That sort of thing.

So it’s necessary to be aware of what you’re reading while you’ve got this book in front of you– it never quite crosses over to the fabulism of, say, Dutch, Edmund Morris’ “memoir” of Ronald Reagan that actually literally inserted the author into Reagan’s life and pretended he was a witness to events that he wasn’t there for, but it’s absolutely not a straight work of history. (And while I’m comparing African Samurai to other books, I want to mention Ralph Abernathy’s And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, which is another book that is supposed to be about one person and ends up being someone else along the way.) And there are several places where the authors are forced to bow to simple historical uncertainty: we lose track of Yasuke in the historical record at some point, and we don’t know how or where or when he died, so the authors actually mention multiple possibilities about what might have happened to him after the brief Nobunaga era ended; stories about enormous African warriors (Yasuke was 6’2″, and would have been easily a foot taller than anyone around him in Japan) in places where such people usually weren’t found, but they explicitly paint them as possibilities, of varying levels of likelihood, rather than picking one and ending the “story” with it.(*) But once you internalize that lightly-fictionalized aspect of the book, it’s a hell of an entertaining and informative read on a whole bunch of levels, and I’m really glad I ended up picking it up. I don’t know how big of a group of people I’m talking to when I say something like If you’ve ever wanted to know anything about sixteenth-century Japan, pick this up, but … yeah. Go do that.

(*) I wish they’d gotten more deeply into his name rather than relegating it to a footnote, but as you might have guessed, “Yasuke” almost certainly wasn’t his actual name; it’s likely that “Yasuke” is “Isaac” filtered through Japanese pronunciation, and “Isaac” almost certainly wouldn’t have been his African birth name either, for obvious reasons. So just because we see a story of a similarly large and skilled African warrior somewhere near Japan in the right time frame, knowing that other person’s name doesn’t automatically exclude it from being Yasuke, because Yasuke wasn’t Yasuke, and might have abandoned that name after leaving Japan.

#Review: Attack on Titan, Season 1

I have now watched the entire first season of this … show. This program. This anime. And while I’m neither in love with the program itself nor the format, there are some interesting things going on here.

The premise of Attack on Titan is that the human race, under assault of giant man-eating humanoids called Titans, has withdrawn behind three concentric walls that, for hundreds of years, have protected them from Titan attacks, but also prevented humanity from going anywhere outside the safety of their walls. In the very first episode, a Colossal Titan, one larger than any ever seen before, shows up and basically wrecks the outer wall, allowing the Titans inside. A full 20% of humanity perishes in the events that take place over the next several months, as the Titans have feasts and the humans try to fight back.

Good stuff:

  • This show does action really well. All of the Titan fights were really cool, and the Spider-Man-esque way the characters get around, via waist-mounted cable guns, never looks anything short of amazing.
  • The designs for the Titans are uniformly awesome. None of them look like any others, but they all really skate up to the uncanny valley and they are all really creepy. None of them move quite right, although some of them move much more strangely than others, and the way some of them have faces that would look perfectly normal on a banker or a grocer when they’re actually man-eating monsters is really something.
  • The actual story itself is pretty cool; I want to know more about these things and more about the world.

Bad stuff:

  • This may be a manga thing or an artifact of how Japanese translates into English– and I should point out that I watched about 80% of the season dubbed, not subtitled– but my God, the dialogue was terrible, and the melodrama off the charts. There was no set of circumstances perilous enough (or exciting enough) that they could not be interrupted for a lengthy philosophical conversation, even if the characters were, say, on horseback and fleeing from a giant, when you wouldn’t expect them to be able to talk. The voice acting in both languages has one volume: screaming. And any individual sentence would always be 20 times as long as it needed to be, with lots of recursive clauses. Even if this is how Japanese sounds to an English speaker when translated literally, you solve that problem by not translating it literally. If you’re going to do a dub, try and make the dialogue sound natural to an English speaker.(*)
  • Character design for the human characters could be better, especially since they tend to be wearing uniforms and thus dressed the same all the time. I had trouble differentiating between a lot of the characters.
  • The flashbacks. My God, the flashbacks. Again, nothing is too exciting that you can’t interrupt it with a five-minute flashback to people talking.
  • Pacing. The episodes are short, at about 22 minutes each, but there’s a couple of minutes of recap and credits at either end of that, so the actual episode length is maybe sixteen to eighteen minutes? I am not exaggerating when I say that most episodes are 14 minutes of talking about what is happening right in front of the characters and carping about philosophy and then four minutes of something actually happening, then a cliffhanger.

So, it sounds like I hated this, but the positive stuff is actually interesting enough to me that I’m probably still in for the second season– especially since the things that are crappy about it lend well to making fun of the show while watching it, which … is a way to enjoy TV, I suppose. I may try out a season of My Hero Academia before I go into S2 of Attack on Titan just to see what things are in common across the two shows and maybe recalibrate my expectations a little bit.

Also, my wife brought home the first two volumes of the manga from the library, and I read the first one, and the anime really does appear to be a scene-for-scene translation of the manga. I have not read the second volume yet and really am not feeling much of an itch to do it, so I think I’ll stick with the series for now.

(*) This may be a good time to remind people that my academic background is in Biblical Studies, and the Hebrew Bible in particular, so I have a lot of Opinions about how to translate things. My lack of facility with Japanese hurts me a bit, but I can go on for a while about this sort of thing.

On Anime

First things first: the power was back on before bedtime last night; technically we ended up not having to stay at the hotel but decided to do so anyway, mostly because the boy was having a ball. As of right now we’re home and everything appears to be fine. Both my school and our son’s school both appear to have the power back on as well; there was some speculation that this might cut into school starting back up tomorrow but that no longer looks like it’s going to happen.

I have been, for some time now, casting about for some new Thing to become a Fan of, and for some reason(*) just before the power went out I’d decided to watch a few episodes of Attack on Titan on Netflix and Hulu(**). I was on the sixth episode of Season One, right at the end of a damn cliffhanger, when the lights went out, and as I’m typing this I just finished the 10th episode. And there are bits about it that are ridiculous, and I’m not sure if they’re manga tropes or something specific to this show (my God, the melodrama; everyone is always screaming) but so far I’m really enjoying it, to the point that I’m considering dipping my toe into…

(shivers)

… the manga.

I mean, there’s 33 volumes. Surely just buying one won’t hurt anything, right?

God help me.

(I’ve got Full Metal Alchemist and My Hero Academia on tap to check out next. Let me know which rabbit holes you think I need to fall into, if there are any.)

(*) a bunch of my current students are major weebs, and I still like to check stuff out whenever I notice a bunch of my kids are into something. It’s not like I’ve never had kids who liked anime before, but this year seems to feature a particularly high concentration of them for some reason. Why Attack on Titan in particular? I dunno, I’ve just always liked the look of the monsters for some reason.

(**) Started on Netflix, but Hulu has all four seasons of the show and appears to have better subtitles as well.