Confessions of a Texan in Tokyo

Confessions of a Texan in Tokyo cover

In lieu of a rich sugar-mummy, or a win on the lottery, my main source of life in Japan has been following the many blogs and vlogs of foreign residents living in and experiencing that far away country, with one of my favourites being American born Grace Buchele – Mineta and her Japanese husband Ryosuke Mineta’s “Texan In Tokyo” Youtube series and blog site that covers their life and times as a multinational couple living in Japan.

Its the later writings and 4 panel cartoons that have been gathered together over the last 2 years and published as a series of books with this, “Confessions of a Texan in Tokyo”, being her third release.
As with her previous work [ and a definite boon for anyone coming into her work for the first time with this volume] the book starts with a basic introduction of grace and Ryouske [ and Graces imaginary friend Marvin, who serves as one part graces sounding board, one part straight man].

Interspersed throughout the 4 panel comics are some of her writings from her Texan in Tokyo blog [and her posts from both gaijinpot and Metropolis Magazine] which cover a wide number of subjects from the serious [ like how she manages negative feedback to her posts, and how her health prevents her ability to ] to the informative [want to know what a Tsundoku suru hito is? How to live in Tokyo on a budget?which street light colour means go?] to the insightful [how grace dealt with culture shock while living abroad] all of which are written with a clear sense of knowledge and experience that you don’t get from a quick wikipedia search.
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So are there there any faults to this release? well the art style, while legible and entertaining might not be to very-ones cup of tea. Also, apart for the posts about negative posts, the book never really goes into the dark side if you will about life as a foreigner living In Japan – and im sure they have experienced their fair share – instead simply writing about the generally lighter side of their life and times.
There is also the fact that, as the majority of these posts and comics have been published online [either on her Texan in tokyo blog or on both the aforementioned gaijinpot and Metropolis Magazine’s own website], that your affectively paying for free content – however as neither websites contain a complete collection of her work and not all of them have been published in book format as yet [this and her previous 2 collections being more of a “best of” of her work so to speak] it could be argued that this is an easier way of seeing them all them in one place.

So have I tempted you? Or made you at least curious about her? then your in luck as Grace has, as a promotion of this new book, arranged so that from the 21st to the 23rd of this month it’ll be free to download from Amazon, with a physical release available afterwards

ryouske and grace

[Guest article] On Otaku, Kantai Collection and the Gaze of the Hermetic Consumer

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On Otaku, Kantai Collection and the Gaze of the Hermetic Consumer

By Devon Fisher

[note: The following is an edited version of the original article, with the images and edits done by myself. Also please be aware that this article was originally written in April 2014, prior to the release of the Kancoll anime series]

Japan’s so-called “lost decades” have continued unabated since the collapse of the 1980s bubble economy left the nation in a state of recession; the post-war dream of guaranteed lifetime employment has not been a feasible reality for the majority of Japanese men for multiple generations now. No longer able to believe that making their way through the notoriously harsh system of exams one has to take to get into a Japanese college or university will guarantee a comfortable future as it once did, the young men of Japan in the post-bubble years have opted to withdraw from the system in alarming numbers.

Some choose to become “freeters”, working part-time jobs to sustain themselves as they pursue their passions free of the responsibilities and attachments that a career brings with it. Others, particularly the so-called “NEETs” (persons Not in Employment, Education or Training), withdraw from society entirely, opting instead to lead hermetic existences with far less engagement with society than even the most detached freeter. The term for these predominantly urban, male hermits is “Hikikomori”, and in the past decade Hikikomori have provided a very lucrative market for entertainment in Japan; by catering to the desires of these disenfranchised consumers, feeling robbed of the lifestyle their ancestors were promised, new genres of consumer media have arose out of Japan.

Coinciding with the rise of the Hikikomori has been the similar increase in numbers of Otaku, once a barely-noticeable niche group that has become a serious force amongst Japanese consumers, as their often-fetishistic tastes and obsessive approach to media consumption guarantee that, once an Otaku is hooked, usually by strict adherence to the fetish culture that particular Otaku subscribes to, they will continue to make the company money long into the future.

While the contemporary Otaku is not necessarily a Hikikomori, nor is the Hikikomori guaranteed to be an Otaku, the intersection of these two groups’ interests has been a very lucrative sector for profit-minded publishers such as Kadokawa Shoten. While Kadokawa had long been a company that had dealt more generally with properties that had “across the board” appeal, even attempting (without any success) to break into the North American film industry during the early 1990s, in recent years their approach has been strongly focused on this Otaku/Hikikomori overlap -The Hikikomori desires the life they were not given by the society they reject, whilst the Otaku desires the perfection that only works of fantasy can provide – and the patterns of consumption favoured by this joint audience can be referred to as a kind of “hermetic consumerism”.

Kadokawa’s most successful attempt at cashing in on this lucrative audience to date has been the browser-based trading card battle game “Kantai Collection”, referred to with the short-form “KanColle” in casual use, wherein the user plays as admiral of a fantasy fleet of “Kanmusu”, idealized anime-style representations of Japanese battleships from the World War II era. The concept is nothing new to Otaku media, with artist Fumikane Shimada’s “mecha musume” having laid the groundwork for a previous anime property by the name of “Strike Witches” – wherein attractive young girls were outfitted with mechanical parts and weapons inspired by World War II fighter planes – half a decade prior to the launch of KanColle. Where KanColle differs from its predecessors, however, is in its hyperactive pandering to Otaku sensibilities in all their permutations; while a point can be made for many forms of Otaku-focused media having some (albeit quite limited) mainstream appeal outside of their subcultural audience, the same can most definitely not be said for KanColle – It is, as they say, something of a “fans-only” affair, and unashamedly so.

In his landmark study on Otaku, released in English as “Japan’s Database Animals”, postmodern sociologist Hiroki Azuma defines Otaku as not “narrative consumers”, as fans of a long-running anime or manga series may be, but rather “database consumers.” He writes: “there is no longer a narrative in the deep inner layer, beneath the works and products such as comics, anime, games, novels, illustrations, trading cards, figurines, and so on. In the multimedia environment of the 1990s, it is only characters that unite various works and products”, With the characters he speaks of comprising a “database” that the Otaku consumes. Although he was writing in a past decade, Otaku tastes have only conformed more and more to Azuma’s model in the years since his work was first published, and KanColle is a testament to this very fact. Of the “works and products” described in the Azuma quote, it is only anime that has yet to see a KanColle-themed permutation, but as of the writing of this paper a KanColle anime has been confirmed to be in the works for broadcast later this year.

Kadokawa’s approach to marketing KanColle can be seen as perhaps the purest example of a company catering to hermetic consumers and their patterns of database consumption one is likely to find, and the game that started it has become so popular that new accounts have to be assigned via a lottery system to ease the server load on the game’s website. This is all, as Azuma’s model would predict, possible in a property almost completely void of narrative; the browser game’s mission progression roughly follows the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Pacific campaign of 1941-45, with the Allied forces represented by the monstrous Abyss Fleet (“dark Kanmusu” that appear far more science-fiction than their Axis counterparts, likely more to avoid angering Japanese/American military relations than to actually make any kind of statement about the Allies in World War II), but one could hardly be faulted for not realizing that one was supposed to be witnessing even an abstract representation of military history when reading any of the series’ numerous spinoff manga. A typical story in one such manga shows a Kanmusu shying away from her admiral’s attempts at patting her on the head (a very common action in KanColle media, meant to serve as a visual representation of the player clicking the Kanmusu in the browser game), then cozying up to him after she sees how much the other girls enjoy it – a Japanese answer to They Were Expendable, this is most definitely not.

The lack of anything approaching a definitive storyline canon means that KanColle functions as a naked database, characters and scenarios designed with the explicit purpose of application to any given fantasy the Otaku may possess. Now, if the franchise functions as a naked database largely devoid of structure or pre-established story, solely made up of the characters that populate it, what is it that makes the characters of KanColle so appealing to otaku, then? Azuma’s database model, in its unrefined form as quoted above, explains Otaku as voracious devourers of information, with the large cast of Kanmusu providing a great deal of information for the Otaku to consume, but a deeper analysis is needed to explore both the franchise’s popularity and the Otaku psyche.

Azuma’s contemporary and fellow scholar Saitō Tamaki sought to explain the appeal of female soldiers and warriors in “Beautiful Fighting Girl”, released in English as a companion piece to “Japan’s Database Animals”, where he takes a deep and nuanced look at the myriad ways in which Otaku culture idealizes and fetishizes the female combatant. As with “Database Animals”, Tamaki’s work predates KanColle by a good margin, but seems almost precognitive in its analysis of contemporary Otaku sexuality and objectification. While it is true that there are female consumers of Otaku media, as well as products undeniably identifiable as Otaku-focused and aimed at female audiences, both of these represent minorities amongst the much-larger male-focused Otaku culture that KanColle is a part of. Media such as KanColle is explicitly gendered, with the product identifiably female – the Kanmusu and their countless representations on anything from T-shirts to posters in any of the Kadokawa publishing group’s numerous magazines – and the player/consumer’s avatar a male admiral in control of this all-female fleet. Manga representations hide the Admiral’s face entirely, a move held over from eroge meant to ease the reader into assuming his role in the story.

Even when moving outside the realm of the game itself, KanColle has no room for competing visions of masculinity; there is only the reader’s substitute in the Admiral, and the rest are all female. This puts full focus on the beautiful fighting girls (to use Tamaki’s term), the lovely armada of idealized femininity at the consumer’s disposal. Tamaki describes the fundamental appeal of the beautiful fighting girl in the most basic of terms in Beautiful Fighting Girl when he says “Let us . . . remember that popular fiction, be it film, television, or manga and anime, is sustained by relatively simple principles of desire. Namely, sex and violence,” identifying fighting girls such as the Kanmusu of Kadokawa’s franchise as the most basic representations of what makes for popular entertainment.

The violence in KanColle may be rendered somewhat trivial and ridiculous by virtue of its patently absurd setting, but it remains at the heart of the scenario regardless. The life of the hermetic consumer is one almost completely devoid of both sexuality and direct violence (disregarding self-inflicted manifestations of both), and so these idealized versions of beautiful fighters provide him with these two missing ingredients in spades. With fighting as a given, the girls of KanColle serve to cater to every possible fetish and taste preference the consumer may have, with Kadokawa’s marketing teams more than happy to do the heavy lifting in that respect.

Of course, this is a hermetic work first and foremost, so the obvious catch is that it caters to every possible fetish and taste within the framework of the Otaku’s hermetic consumerist mindset. This is a vital consideration when evaluating works such as Kantai Collection, as, while the essential truths of Tamaki’s beautiful fighting girls are transferable to works completely outside of Japanese pop culture (see the protagonist of the “Tomb Raider” video games, for example), the more nuanced sexuality of the hermetic Otaku is decidedly not.To understand the sexuality of the hermetic consumer, one has to first make peace with the seemingly-paradoxical nature of said sexuality; in its portrayal, the sexuality of the Otaku’s beautiful fighting girls is at once both overt and covert, shoved in one’s face just as it is left unacknowledged.

kancoll 1An illustrated extra packed in with the February 2014 issue of Kadokawa-published pinup magazine “Nyantype” exemplifies this dynamic; depicting the ostensible KanColle mascot Shimakaze,[see image above] an incredibly young-looking Kanmusu with platinum blonde hair and dark grey eyes (typical of anime art styles, no discernible ethnic traits are to be found amongst the Kanmusu), in a state of undress depicted as entirely accidental – an implausible scenario involving her robotic companions the Rensōhō attempting to climb up her for whatever reason, colliding and in the process snapping the side off her scandalously low-cut thong underwear as well as lifting up her shirt to expose the majority of her pert breasts. While Shimakaze’s costume bears all the earmarks of blatant sexuality, with its thigh-high stockings, ludicrously short micro-skirt and excessively impractical high heels, official art never depicts her intentionally showing off her figure in any deliberately provocative manner; rather, the viewer is supposed to believe that she is unaware of her own sex appeal. The depictions of the Rensōhō robots inadvertently exposing her body are likewise cases of plausible deniability; their innocence provides a part of Shimakaze’s appeal as they allow her to be shown in blatantly sexualized situations without the presence of any hostile male sexuality that might interfere with the Otaku’s identification of himself as her admiral and only true lover. In comparison though the Western counterparts to these idealized anime lovers and wives of the hermetic Otaku consumer are often depicted with much morevoracious sexual appetites and a keen awareness of their own sexuality and appeal – Spider-Man’s supermodel girlfriend Mary-Jane Watson famously introduces herself to her future boyfriend (and later husband) by saying “face it, tiger, you just hit the jackpot”, as one of the tamer examples from Western pop culture – the Japanese equivalents are sexually naive to an extreme.

Manga author and sometime cultural critic Ken Akamatsu in an interview [“Opinions on Moe: A Response to Akamatsu Ken”] relates this to a “maternal” impulse in the Otaku consumer, saying “’Moe is a ‘maternal affection’ . . . it is a pure love which does not include any sexual action and is an exceedingly peaceful desire.” – Note though that he specifies sexual “action”; this is far from an accident of word choice: as the illustration of Shimakaze shows, there is nothing that says the object of desire cannot be sexualized, only that she cannot be a willing participant in a consensual act of deliberate eroticization.

The fetishistic costumes and provocative posing that characterizes many depictions of the Kanmusu are easily explained away as either accidental or otherwise unintended, and their desires for their admirals are portrayed as childishly innocent to a ridiculous extreme; the manga versions of the Kanmusu do their very best to please their admirals in the hopes that he might let them sit on his lap, pat them on the head, or – most scandalously of all – do both at the same time.

While Akamatsu’s declaration of “pure love” may hold true for the way the Kanmusu are portrayed in official media, his assumption of “pure love which does not include any sexual action” however certainly does NOT apply to the multitude of fan works that have been spun off from KanColle. In a phenomenon unique to Japanese media, copyright holders for anime, manga and video game franchises knowingly turn a blind eye to copyright infringement on a massive scale. Tokyo’s “electric city” of Akihabara, revered as Japan’s greatest tourist attraction for traveling otaku, is home to countless stores selling “dōjin goods” that place characters from a multitude of diverse settings in any number of scenarios – many of them highly sexual – free from the ire of copyright holders who know fully well that the minimal financial gain from prosecuting such infringements would be more than counterbalanced by the hit their credibility would take with their key Otaku demographic.

kancolle-doujinIt is when one looks at the wealth of KanColle dōjin goods available that one can see just how the idea of “pure love” is, functionally, nothing more than a smokescreen: the teasing, reluctant sexuality of the official goods fuels a demand for more explicit content, the covert feeding desire for the overt. Sexually explicit dōjinshi, such as Yuki Ameto’s Kanmusu Collection, show an admiral having sex with multiple Kanmusu, willing and ready to receive far more than a pat on the head (which, as Kanmusu Kongō can attest, “feels amazing”) – a stark contrast to the chaste official manga, but one that KanColle’s publishers are more than aware of.

Part of the appeal of this model for Otaku is how it provides a sense of community for the socially isolated and fundamentally hermetic consumer – if other lovers of the same media property they obsess over are creating dōjin goods, it leads to a feeling of kinship with the authors of these works. The Otaku may be fundamentally hermetic, perhaps never leaving the comfort of his own room (it is entirely possible to order KanColle goods, official and otherwise, online – I acquired the entirety of the Japanese-language research materials for this paper from Japanese hobby website AmiAmi, myself), but Kadokawa’s allowance for the production of dōjin goods lets that Otaku feel as if their actions allow them to participate in a greater community. Just as the Kanmusu serve as surrogate lovers for the disenfranchised and socially disconnected, the producers of dōjin works afford them access to a similarly ersatz community.

kancoll cosplayAn interesting permutation of this phenomenon has been the rise in popularity of excessively risqué cosplay featuring the Kanmusu, with some cosplayers even going as far as to include full nudity in their photo shoots – flesh and blood women turning their own bodies into dōjin works. Cosplay shoots differ from other dōjin products only in the fact that the women being put on display are photographed instead of drawn; the prevailing message is still the female as packaged product, the consumer’s eye assumed to be one with a heavy male gaze. While the appeal of the beautiful fighting girl, as seen by Tamaki, was inextricable from the violence of her situation, the dōjin world of KanColle is a peaceful one. The cosplay versions of Kanmusu are ones stripped of all but their sexuality, existing only to provide answers to questions like “what would the kanmusu look like in the flesh?” – and to provide costume fetishists with a variety of interpretations on the outlandish designs from the original game.

On the surface, it seems incredibly unlikely that Akamatsu’s “pure love” ideals could even be proposed as a possible explanation for the popularity of suggestive cosplay, particularly as the plausible deniability afforded to the purely fictional Kanmusu and their obliviousness to their own eroticism cannot possibly be applied to a living, breathing cosplay model. When Cosplayer Remika Tachibana poses dressed in the majority of Shimakaze’s uniform– minus both skirt and underwear, bare crotch only just covered by some careful use of camera angles – no argument could conceivably be made that she is somehow ignorant of the provocative nature of such a display. Yet, Otaku follow her on Twitter, read her blog, and eagerly anticipate new erotic cosplay photo sets; which would seem to serve as the final nail in the coffin for Ken Akamatsu’s idea of the maternal otaku, but things are not necessarily what they seem in this case.

In her collusion with the otaku gaze and desire to give them erotic interpretations of their beloved characters, Tachibana functions as the dōjinshi artist does; that she herself represents the product is nothing more than a side effect of the chosen media. The cosplayer is not the character, the character is one in the same with the costume she wears.

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Just as the conflict between pure love and eroticism – with the final result being the woman as product either way – is one of the central tenets of Otaku identity, so is the tension between the internal world of the hermetic Otaku and the near-mythical holy land of Akihabara. Often held as the definitive Hikikomori narrative, the protagonist of Tatsuhiko Takimoto’s darkly comedic novel “Welcome to the N.H.K.” describes something of a half-truth in an imagined conspiracy involving Japanese broadcaster N.H.K.: “by broadcasting such interesting anime, N.H.K. mass-produced anime Otaku, thereby essentially creating Hikikomori on a large scale.”

However, with this idea of Otaku as Hikikomori comes the difficulty of dealing with events such as the twice-annual Comic Market (Comiket in colloquial usage) and the year-round popularity of Tokyo’s “electric city” as a tourist attraction for Otaku. Takimoto’s protagonist barely leaves the confines of his apartment complex (although the later manga and anime versions would go on to feature scenes where he and his neighbour Yamazaki visit both Akihabara and Comiket, for the purpose of this essay these episodes shall be considered apocryphal) – the Hikikomori of Welcome to the N.H.K. is, by design, a far purer representation of the hermetic consumer than one is likely to see in more popular media.

The reality of the situation is that these tourist attractions serve a dual purpose for Otaku that counterbalances any social reclusion they may otherwise prefer. First, in these places one can find a very real sense of Otaku history; for example, the so-called “electric city” was a hub for early Otaku hobbyists to pick up transistor radios and other such hard-to-find electronics in the post-war years, thus lending the area a sense of historical gravity. Second, it is only in these situations that an Otaku is likely to be able to enjoy the sight of girls in cosplay, inviting them (on at least a superficial level) to indulge in fantasy on a somewhat more personal level than that afforded by their video games and anime.

It is argued However by the writer of “Akihabara: Conditioning a Public ‘Otaku’ Image” Patrick W. Galbraith, who could be referred to as the foremost expert on Akihabara in the English language, that the Otaku appeal of Akihabara and, by extension, Comiket and its sea of cosplay idols, is actually false. “Akihabara became a place to be seen, and so the real Otaku left and were replaced by youth performing ‘Otaku-ness’ for the cameras”, he writes, making the argument that, as a part of the Japanese government’s “Japan cool” arts stimulus initiative, Akihabara was to be taken from a safe haven for the “weird”, socially withdrawn Otaku and turned into a tourist attraction where people could see something fun and different without having to deal with “unpleasant” Otaku. This transformation in image is shown by the aforementioned Welcome to the N.H.K., where the darker original novel lacks any pandering to the supposed appeal of maid cafes and crowded manga shops, but the mass-marketed anime devotes whole episodes to both Akihabara and Comiket.

While comparatively mainstream media, fuelled partially by Japan’s intentions of pushing Akihabara as an international tourist attraction, is quick to short-sell the essentially hermetic nature of the true Otaku, it is with analysis of works such as KanColle that one is easily able to see these tactics as a mere smokescreen – indeed KanColle itself is not the only Japanese media property of its kind, not by any means. Its creators built upon patterns set by Otaku-focused works decades earlier, and the open pandering to hermetic attitudes is similarly nothing new. What makes it special is just how pure of an example it is; every single Kanmusu designed for maximum appeal, the lack of any male presence save for that of the viewer’s stand-in, the girls’ all-consuming desire for their master’s attention coupled with a naïve unawareness of their own respective sexualities.

The Otaku gaze is as the male gaze, amplified to the highest power, and hermetic consumerism is here to stay so long as there are those who reject society in favor of the “2-dimensional world” of Otaku media.

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Devon Fisher is a British Columbia native who, as well as working as a freelance writer for the Japan times, also writes about Japanese music and Shibuya-kei on his blog Memories of Shibuya.

Kaoru Mori’s Anything and something

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As I mentioned in my artist spotlight, despite the number of Kaoru Mori’s titles that are available in the west, I was disappointed that, due to their length, many of her short stories were unavailable legally – That is until the recent release by Yen press of Anything and something, a collection of her short stories that she has had published in Fellows magazine, along with many of her various illustrations and sketches from the last 10 years, as well as artwork of both her earlier works Emma and Shirley and her most recent work brides story.

As the title suggests the titles presented cover a large swathe of subjects including –

Welcome to the mansion, master – where a young delivery boy suddenly finds himself the less than willing owner of a of less than scrupulous maid and butler.

Burrow Gentlemen’s club – One of the many contemporary period stories included in this book this tale, told in the first person, introduces us to a hostess club waitress who may be more than she seems….
Oh, did I forget to mention that she’s also a bunny girl?

Miss Claire’ s ordinary, everyday life – Despite the title of this 2 part story Claire, the sole renaming servant to the always broke Baron Heinz, has anything but an ordinary life, from see through glasses, to burglars, to even a gramophone built into a Victorian telephone [beating bill gates by 100 years!]

But by far my favourite part of the book was that Velvet blossoms, the story drawn by Kaoru and written by Satoshi Fukushima, and which I covered in my artists spotlight on Kaoru Moris works, has been included in this book [although retitled for the western release as “Sumires flowers”].
The story of two female art club members, one more interested in her art than social interaction, the other who uses the art club as a mean to “socially interact”, and how the two eventually come to understand each other and bond through art still stands in my mind by far as the one title that makes this book a must buy – In fact out of them all I think both Sumires flowers and Claire had the potential to be developed into their own [albeit short] series in their own right.

In all this series is an absolute must for fans of Kaoru Mori, whether through her recent work Brides story or [like me] through Emma.

Osamu Tezukas Barbara

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When I started Chou -Dori back in 2009 if you had told me that a manga company Would bring out a manga title by the pure power of Crowd sourcing I would have wondered what you were drinking – and would have promptly ordered a double of it.

And yet In 2011 American manga company DMP [Digital Manga Publishing] set out to achieve just that – and now I hold the result of that project.

First and foremost Osamu Tezukas Barbara as a manga shows itself to be a work of its time – when published in 1973 Japan was still enjoying the euphoria of a culture addicted to the next big thrill – be it Drugs, art, sex and social and political revolution – and yet at this time it was clear that the party was coming to an end as political corruption was rife, and students of Tokyo university protested over the Japanese government signing the Security Treaty with the United States, a treaty that allowed American to place Air force bases on Okinawa.

Into this mix we are introduced to Yosuke Mikura, a relatively famous Author and social darling, with offers both political and matrimonial landing on his lap, all of which he casually casts aside, confident with his own talent and hubris – That is until the day that He find the young Vagrant, and the title character of the book, Barbara – whose otherwise foul mouthed, heavy drinking surly attitude towards Youske and his talents hide a gift that is both an unexpected boon to him and also a curse that will destroy him utterly….

In its execution this work shows the classic signs of a Tezuka manga , from the artwork to pacing to the script, with artist and philosophical quotes aplenty throughout the series – but don be fooled by this – even when compared to many of his other more adult works like supernatural series “Ode to Kirihito” and the murder mystery “Mu”, Barbara attempts to go into directions much darker still, dabbling into themes of the occult, physical abuse, drug taking and psychosis as we discover that Youskes own personal demons and……interests leave him to be less of a hero of this piece.

Indeed as we watch Youskes take for granted the good fortune that Barbaras presence seems to give to him I couldn’t help but be reminded of the endless line of talent show “celebrities” all desperate to reap as much as possible from their less than hard earned fame. It could also be seen in another way as an analogy of drug addiction itself, with Yosuke’s obsessive desire for both Barbara and for fame resulting in his eventual spiral towards inevitable loss and self-destruction.

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Also the pacing of the series left me disconnected at times and while this could be attributed to the series being released episodically by the manga magazine “Big comic”, the episodes themselves felt at best only loosely connected – indeed some, like chapter 5 ,“the demon on the dune”, where Youske returns to an island where he met his first love in a younger time but which turns out to be much, much more – felt more like a short story in format that had been wedged into the series.

As a result this work could be seen as Osamu Tezuka’s attempt to both compete with the rising Gekiga movement, [whose series that were focused on violence and sex scenes gave us series like Kazua koike’s samurai series Lone wolf and cub] But also His attempt to remain relevant as a mangaka at a time when, despite the fact that he is known now as “the godfather of manga”, by the 70’s he was struggling to remain relevant to an audience that was increasingly looking for more darker and edgier works to whet their pallet’s.

Indeed it could be argued that, while trying to appeal to the more adult readership, it feels like Tezuka has deliberately handicapped himself, with his plots and characters seemingly pantomime like and one dimensional in their personalities and backgrounds – it felt like he was hesitant to take the story too far into the darkness that others [like kazua koike] were wholesale plunging into for fear of alienating fans of his more light-hearted, child friendly series.

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But one thing is clear though – Barbara is by far one of Osamu’s more darker and unsettling titles and you should not go into this looking for the comedy and light-heartedness that is symbolic of much of his other works.

A Distant Neighbourhood

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Hindsight is a seductive thing. It leads us to wonder “what if I’d taken that path instead of the other?”; “What if I’d asked that girl out when I had the chance?”; “What if I’d done more with my life?”

Now imagine if you had that chance to do just that!

This question is posed by A Distant Neighbourhood, from four-times Eisner award nominated Jiro Taniguchi as its lead character, fourty-something workaholic Hiroshi Nakahara, finds himself falling asleep in late 1990s Japan – only to wake up not only in 1963, but also in his own 14-year-old self, with his adult memories and knowledge intact. After a short period of euphoria, and the chance to enjoy life as a schoolboy again, he realises that not only could the opportunity be here to change history, but also a chance to solve a mystery that had plagued him for years… why was this the year that Hiroshi’s father disappeared?

Like the Studio Ghibli film Only Yesterday, A Distant Neighbourhood (which was originally published by Shogakukan in 1998) inadvertently gives us a snapshot of two different time periods. Firstly, within the 1960s we get to see a post-war Japan in a state of transition, with traditional farming and cultural styles making way for more modern, western attitudes and fashions (at that time Japan was only a year away from hosting the Olympic games) and the resulting prosperity bringing hope of a better future for the people of Japan. In comparison though we see the Japan of late 1990s – a time of Japan trying to recover after a long time in recession caused by the bubble crash and struggling through high unemployment and debt to become a superpower yet again.

The writing for this series is told, in part, by Hiroshi himself as he monologues about events and sometimes considers the difference this childhood, with its relative freedom, compares to his stressful life as an adult. “Surely no one can truly become an adult”, to quote part of the series “Deep in peoples hearts their child self remains, [but] because of time people are forced to act like adults, and the shackles we call maturity shut down the free mind of children”.

As for the artwork? What can I say about the artwork for this series? It’s simply stunning is all I can say – with incredibly near-photographic artwork of Hiroshi’s home town of Kurayoshi, both in the 90s and the 60s, in some cases you’ll be spending as much time admiring the artwork as you will the story itself and in fact I could almost imagine myself walking along those same streets and locales, the detail being that thorough.

The only grumble I could lay on this series is the price tag – at £19.99 this can cost a lot more than your usual manga series, yet I felt that the writing and all round execution of this series is more than worth the extra price. A Distant Neighbourhood is one of those rare gems – a well though out, thought-provoking series that will leave you coming back again and again to discover more facets that you may have missed before.

A distant neighbourhood are available from the  Portent mon/Fanfare website  or from all good retailers.

Big announcment – Minamicon

You know, There comes a time in the career of a manga/anime/whatever shiny thing catches their ferret like mind/etc blogger where simply posting on a WordPress blog about obscure or unknown manga series simply isn’t enough – no there comes a time where –

okay that’s sounding hokey I know so lets get to the point.

I will be hosting my very first panel [titled ” I cant believe you havent read this” – don’t tell the reverse thieves] at the Uk anime convention Minamicon on the 16th -18th of March at the Novetel hotel Southampton. [my own panels planned for Saturday, the 15th at 11am – so not ideal for heavy sleepers!]

those of you coming i hope to see you there.

GEN Magazine no.1

In a manga market that’s traditionally the reserve of either big name artists, or large manga publishing companies it’s rare to get access to up and-coming Japanese talent short of travelling to Japan’s Comeket, and bringing a Japanese dictionary
And Yet the American Gen manga entertainment are attempting such an endeavour with GEN – a manga magazine dedicated to releasing stories from writers and artists direct from Japan.

In this, the inaugural issue, we are introduced to four separate stories, and each with their own characters, art-styles – and executed with varying degrees of success.

WOLF [Nakamura Shige]

This first story, a Seinen boxing series introduces us to Okami Naoto, a traveling man with a perchance for getting into fights [and a talent for fighting his out of them] who in this first episode arrives in Tokyo to confront Kurozaki, a former professional boxer and head coach at a gym,
But also a man who abandoned his wife and child for the sake of becoming a boxer.

And now his son – Naoto – has come to confront him – and possibly kill him.

Along the way we are also introduced to Shota Ishizuka, a wet around the ears teenager who, on his way also to Tokyo to train to be a Sumo wrestler, although time will tell as to weither we see more of him as the series progress.

While the characters themselves are intriguing I couldn’t help but feel that this seemed like one of many a shounen fighting manga – the cocksure newcomer, whose enthusiasm outmatches his talent, but who over time strives to become the best at boxing. Also the artwork, while detailed enough to convey the plot and scenes portrayed, they seemed just that – detailed enough and nothing more – it seemed at times the artist either didn’t have time [or just didn’t bother to] draw more than what was necessary, and even those rare times you see any detailed background in these scenes end up looking like cardboard scenery from an amateur dramatics production.
…and yet something about this – either the plot [ what price ambition, and what price revenge?] or the fledgling characters, make me want to see how this develop, so i’ll give it the benefit of the doult and move on to….

VS Aliens [Suzuki Yu]

This manga follows Kitaro Iguchil, whose otherwise normal high school life is interrupted by the appearance of Aya Segawa, who asks for his help in proving whether or not fellow high school-er Sana Sakuma is an alien.

Yes, that’s right, an alien – Just…go with me on this.

Whilst rading this I got a definite Haruhi Suzumiya vibe from this story and indeed throughout my own opinions, a well as Kitaro’s, as to whether Aya was indeed an alien or not changed all the time, right up to the ending which, without hopefully not giving too much away, easily leaves an opening for more episodes in the future.
Finally the artwork, while not as devoid of background details like “Wolf”, still feel sketchy and incomplete – like something a mangaka would scribble in his notebook prior to drawing properly.

All in all a B for effort, but needs improvement.

Kamen [Mihara Gunya]

With a potential to be a great Seinen series “Kamen” opens up with our protagonist awakening seemingly in a strange land, a mask [ which in Japanese is “Kamen”, thus the title] strongly attached to his face,and a mysterious voice telling him that he’ll die if he try’s to remove it.
The episode was almost entirely setup – with the masked man [who strangely reminded me of Ken from SF2, but with Vegas face mask] stumbling on a prison convoy, containing a motley group of prisoners and guards, again with little real clue as to who they are at this time.
Also out of all the titles in this magazine Kamen has by far the best artwork, with interesting and well drawn backgrounds, and even the simplest of props and items, like swords and the saddles and bridles of the horses that appear here.
My only real grumble I can really lodge against this is, at 24 pages, its a lot shorter than the normal 30 pages traditional Japanese manga chapter would be, and as such It felt incomplete, with the plot suddenly just ending, with no real clue as to what is really going on!

Which leaves us with the final story

Souls – Empty shell [chapter one] [Karino Arisa]

My mascara gives me super powers!!

It is a dark, stormy night and at a traditional Japanese house, home to an overly strict mother and her browbeaten daughter, a strange woman arrives – and her revelations will tear the families world apart.
What is the secret of the family? Why do neither the daughter or the mother acknowledge the mysterious door – and just who is knocking from behind it?
This series definitely makes itself out as a dark, supernatural horror, with the mysterious woman [whose name is never mentioned] acting as some kind of combination investigator/medium, whose role is to placate restless spirits.

……And yet despite trying to create this suspense and drama the small page count yet again stymies the story flow – Karino could have easily take this episode to develop the story more slowly, and then give the big reveal next episode.
Also I found that the artwork really let this story down – from the characters with the EXTREME eye-liners, to the backgrounds that seemed in one hand unfinished, and in another too simplistic, with little or no consideration for light and shade, and rooms that seemed all too flat and two dimensional – if I didn’t know better I’d say they’d been put together within the space of an hour with MS paint!

See what i mean?

Sorry, but bad artwork and poor pacing bring down what could be a good series.

Conclusion

I’m in two minds about this.
On the one hand to be fair this is a first issue, with all the stories as such only starting here, and as such there has to be some leeway to be given for it – time for artwork to develop. Storyline’s to develop and properly explain themselves etc.

And yet, going by what I’ve seen, hardly any of the plotlines these titles present seem like they’re breaking new ground – many of the plots have already been done by more mainstream manga companies and mangka, and to much greater success!
At the end of the day, and Considering that this magazine touts itself as presenting [and I quote] “indie manga from the Tokyo underground”, it feels at times like the kind of thing you’d expect from Tokyopop’s now Defunct OEL manga line.

All I can tell you reader is to follow the old addage – “LET THE BUYER BEWARE”.

GEN magazine is available for $2.99 after this first free edition either as a digital download or [albeit with a limited run] as a physical publication. Both can be ordered from their main website: http://genmanga.com.