The Early Cases of Akechi Kogorō

The Early Cases of Akechi KogorōAuthor: Edogawa Ranpo
Translator: William Varteresian
U.S. publisher: Kurodahan Press
ISBN: 9784902075625
Released: November 2014
Original release: 1925-1926

Edogawa Ranpo, the pen name of Hirai Tarō, was an extraordinarily influential author in Japan, especially when it came to the genre of detective and crime fiction. His influence can still be seen to this day and his work continues to inspire other creators. One of his most famous characters is the detective Akechi Kogorō. Previously, only a handful of stories featuring Akechi had been translated into English: “The Psychological Test,” found in Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination; The Black Lizard, which was collected in a single volume along with Beast in the Shadows; “The Stalker in the Attic,” published in The Edogawa Rampo Reader; and The Fiend with Twenty Faces. I have always wished for a volume entirely devoted to Akechi mysteries and so I was very happy when Kurodahan Press announced The Early Cases of Akechi Kogorō. Published in 2014 with translations by William Varteresian, the anthology collects four of the earliest Akechi stories written between 1925 and 1926.

After an excellent and informative introductory essay about Edogawa Ranpo and Akechi Kogorō, The Early Cases of Akechi Kogorō opens with Ranpo’s very first mystery featuring Akechi, “The Case of the Murder on D. Hill,” a short story about the death of Akechi’s childhood friend, the wife of an owner of a secondhand bookshop he frequents. Ranpo hadn’t initially intended for Akechi to become a recurring character in his fiction but readers liked him. The second story in the volume, “The Black Hand Gang,” is narrated by the same protagonist as the first, a relatively new acquaintance of Akechi, and the two of them become involved with an investigation into the disappearance of a young relative. In “The Ghost,” Akechi doesn’t appear until rather late in the story to deal with a peculiar case of a wealthy man suffering from a rival’s deep-seated grudge. The volume concludes with The Dwarf, a short novel well-received by the public but apparently disliked by Ranpo himself in which Akechi is faced with an increasingly complicated murder mystery with numerous twist and turns.

All four stories in The Early Cases of Akechi Kogorō were written towards the beginning of Ranpo’s career. As is noted in the introduction, Ranpo largely wasn’t very happy with them. Although The Dwarf became fairly well-known in part thanks to its film adaptations, the cases collected in the volume are generally not examples of Ranpo’s best or strongest work, lacking the polish of later stories. An important component of “The Black Hand Gang” doesn’t even translate very well into English since it relies on a cryptographic method based on the Japanese writing systems. Overall, the included mysteries are still enjoyable but somehow not quite as compelling as many of Ranpo’s other tales. He would, however, reuse, rework, and refine many of their elements in subsequent writings. One of the things that makes these four stories particularly notable, and the reason that they have been collected together in the first place, is that they reveal Akechi very early on in his development before has become Ranpo’s iconic detective and even before his character has been firmly established.

I’ll admit, I like this early Akechi in all of his eccentricities. In “The Case of the Murder on D. Hill” he begins as a well-read and intelligent young man with a particular interest in and fascination with detective and mystery fiction. The small apartment that he rents is so full of books that there’s barely any room to stand, let alone sit or entertain guests. He’s a flashy dresser and an eloquent speaker with a fondness and flair for the dramatic. By the time of The Dwarf, Akechi has begun to transform into the master detective that he will later be remembered as. He is no longer just an amateur sleuth seeking out strange cases in his spare time as some sort of hobby; Akechi has become a skilled and famous investigator with contacts in the judicial and police forces and a cohort of men working under him. I enjoyed The Early Cases of Akechi Kogorō a great deal specifically because it provides a glimpse of the earliest incarnations of Ranpo’s great detective. I do hope to have the opportunity to read even more of Akechi’s stories in translation in the future.

After School Nightmare, Volume 1

After School Nightmare, Volume 1Creator: Setona Mizushiro
U.S. publisher: Go! Comi
ISBN: 9781933617169
Released: September 2006
Original release: 2004

After School Nightmare is a ten-volume manga series by Setona Mizushiro. I first came across the series while working my way through one of my local library’s manga collection which, at the time, was largely shelved alphabetically by title. So, it didn’t take me too long to encounter After School Nightmare. I borrowed and read the first few volumes and on the strength of those alone decided to track down and purchase the entire series which had sadly gone out of print. The manga’s dark, horror-tinged psychological drama and its themes exploring gender and sexuality immediately appealed to me; the series had the potential to be both disconcerting and compelling. After School Nightmare, Volume 1 was originally published in Japan in 2004. The English-language edition of the volume was released in 2006 by the now defunct Go! Comi. After School Nightmare has generally been critically well-received in English, even earning an Eisner Award nomination for Best U.S. Edition of International Material among other honors.

Mashiro Ichijo is an androgynously attractive and well-liked you man, but he’s hiding a secret from his classmates–his body is neither entirely male nor entirely female. This has brought Mashiro some challenges in his life and as a result of his physical condition he struggles with his personal identity and gender. Just how much he struggles is made abundantly clear when Mashiro is requested to join a special after-school class which must be completed in order for him to graduate. In it the students must literally live out their nightmares where they are forced to face their darkest fears and bear witness to one another’s deepest secrets. What’s more is that they aren’t there to offer comfort or support. Instead, circumstances encourage them to strike out against their fellow classmates. And even though what happens in the nightmares isn’t to carry over into the real world, sharing such an intimate experience can’t help but change the young people and how they see one another.

The circumstances surrounding the after-school classes are peculiar. Only the students invited to attend seem to be aware of it. The stairs leading down to the infirmary where the class is held in a basement that shouldn’t exist disappears and reappears depending on the day. The teacher in charge isn’t known by the school’s other faculty. Students who “graduate” quietly go missing and are forgotten. All of these things and more add to the foreboding atmosphere of After School Nightmare and the feeling that something just isn’t quite right about what is going on. The shared nightmares themselves are also ominously disconcerting. The imagery is frightening–a girl whose face and heart are gaping holes, disembodied hands and arms, a cruel knight in black armor–but in the end the students’ psychological torment and distress may be even more troubling and gut-wrenching. The nightmares simply reveal the darkness and confusion that they already carry within themselves.

In the dreams, the students take on their true forms, representative of the issues, abuse, and trauma that they are dealing with. Many of them appear so distorted in the nightmares that its difficult to know their identities in the waking world. That’s not the case for Mashiro who looks exactly the same except that, to his horror, he sometimes is wearing the girls’ skirted school uniform in the dreams. This makes him easily identifiable and a target in the real world. He catches the attention of Kureha Fujishima, a young woman who is afraid of men but feels comfortable around Mashiro after learning his secret. And then there’s Sou Mizuhashi who has a reputation for being a playboy and womanizer but who also seems to have taken an intense interest in Mashiro. Though somewhat conflicted over these developments in his relationships with his classmates, Mashiro largely welcomes the attention from Kureha and is understandably uncomfortable with Sou’s aggressive advances towards him. As the first volume of After School Nightmare shows, reality can be just as terrifying if not more so than any nightmare.

My Week in Manga: December 8-December 14, 2014

My News and Reviews

Two reviews were posted at Experiments in Manga last week. The first was of Frederik L. Schodt’s classic survey of manga originally written in 1983 but slightly revised in 1986 and with a new introduction added in 1997, Manga! Manga!: The World of Japanese Comics. It may be a few decades old, but it’s still a fantastic work that is well worth reading. Last week I also reviewed Hikaru Suruga’s Attack on Titan: No Regrets, Volume 2, the final volume of Attack on Titan‘s short, shoujo spinoff which focuses on Levi and Erwin’s backstories. I wasn’t quite as fond of the second volume as I was of the first, but I did enjoy the series. It’s definitely a must-read for fans of Erwin and/or Levi and I appreciated how it expanded the setting of Attack on Titan.

Elsewhere online, Kodansha Comics announced the license of Naoshi Arakawa’s Your Lie in April. An Indiegogo campaign was launched to create a stop-motion film adaptation of Moyoco Anno’s The Diary of Ochibi manga. Vertical linked to an older article about Prophecy and how French Manga Fans Inspire the Work of Tsutsui Tetsuya. (The first volume of Prophecy was recently released in English and it’s fantastic.) And last but not least, Muse Hack posted an interview with Mikhail Koulikov of the Anime and Manga Studies Blog. I’ve been following Koulikov’s Anime and Manga Studies ever since I’ve discovered it. The blog is a great resource for anyone interested in the academic pursuit and scholarly study of Japanese pop culture.

Quick Takes

Fairy Tail, Volume 43Fairy Tail, Volume 43 by Hiro Mashima. There was very little Gray in the forty-third volume of Fairly Tail which made me a little sad, especially after the buildup in his character and story over the last few volumes. But with a series like Fairy Tail, which has a fairly large cast of characters who regularly play an important role in its plot, time needs to be spent with those other characters as well. Fairy Tail always seems to have one or two moments of fanservice that, at least for me, detract from the story being told. The clothing and armor choices for the female characters in particular tend towards stereotypical fantasy design–showing more flesh than would be appropriate for battle–but at least the women in Fairy Tail generally have well-developed personalities and are very capable characters in their own right. Often, they’re even stronger than the men. And to be fair, there’s male nudity as well as female nudity in Fairy Tail, though as might be expected from a shounen manga, generally not to the same extent. Fairy Tail is now well into the beginning of the Tartaros arc of the series in which the members of the Fairy Tail guild must face off with a dark guild of demons which is trying to eliminate the entire Magic Council.

Kiss All the Boys, Volume 1Kiss All the Boys, Volumes 1-3 by Shiuko Kano. For the most part I enjoyed Kiss All the Boys more than Kano’s earlier series Yakuza in Love, but ultimately I felt a bit cheated by its conclusion. While in some ways I’m glad that most everything ends happily for the characters, I’m not convinced that that’s really how things would have played out and some of the eventual pairings are troubling. But while Kiss All the Boys may not be the most believable series, at least the convoluted relationships are for the most part interesting even when they are appalling. The series hinges on Tetsuo, a straight thirty-something hentai artist with a fifteen-year-old son born from his youthful indiscretions. At least he’s supposed to be straight. Conveniently for the manga, he soon finds himself entangled in relationships with several other men–his next door neighbor, his best friend and editor, and even the boy his gay son has a crush on. Tetsuo is an asshole, but at least he knows he’s an asshole. He does make some effort to rise above his nature but unfortunately never quite manages to succeed. For the most part Kiss All the Boys is intended to be a comedy and shouldn’t be taken too seriously, but I couldn’t help but worry for the youngsters left with terrible adult role models.

Yukarism, Volume 1Yukarism, Volume 1 by Chika Shiomi. I haven’t previously read any of Shiomi’s manga, but I was looking forward to Yukarism because of its promise of interesting gender dynamics, reincarnation, and historical romance. Although Yukari Kobayakawa is only seventeen, he has already made a name for himself as an author of novels set in the Edo period. He never has to do any research though since he subconsciously draws inspiration from his past life as a courtesan in the era’s pleasure district. Except for that particular twist, at this point Yukari actually isn’t a very interesting character. He’s very reserved, self-absorbed, impassive, and completely unfazed when he begins to slip back and forth between his past life and his current one. Many of the people surrounding Yukari in present-day Japan are reincarnations of people he knew in the pleasure district although they don’t all seem to be aware of that fact. There’s definitely some potential for romance in Yukarism, but after only one volume that doesn’t appear to be the series’ main concern yet. Instead, the mystery surrounding the deaths of Yukari and the others in the past seems to take precedence, although the connections between all of the characters in all of their incarnations is an important element as well. I’ll be curious to see how the series continues to develop.

DevilPartTimerThe Devil Is a Part-Timer! directed by Naoto Hosoda. I’ve been meaning to watch The Devil Is a Part-Timer! for quite some time now, but I was recently reminded of that intention when Yen Press licensed both the light novel series by Satoshi Wagahara on which the anime is based as well as at least one of its manga adaptations. While the anime is entertaining, the ridiculous premise is more hilarious in theory than in execution–The Devil Is a Part-Timer! is actually played fairly straight. But it’s still a fun and consistently amusing series. I particularly got a kick out of Satan diligently working in the fast food industry as a way to take over the world (he takes his job very seriously) and the portrayal of Lucifer as a hikikomori with an online-shopping addiction. For the most part, The Devil Is a Part-Timer! nicely balances its comedy with its drama. Although it has a conclusion, the ending of the series lacks finality and some of the characters introduced were never really put to good use, as though additional seasons were initially planned for but never manifested. (At least I haven’t heard anything about a second season.) Overall, The Devil Is a Part-Timer! is funny series and a nice change of pace from all of the anime centered around high school or middle school students. I might just give the original novels a try when they’re released in English.

Attack on Titan: No Regrets, Volume 2

Attack on Titan: No Regrets, Volume 2Creator: Hikaru Suruga
Original story: Gun Snark

U.S. publisher: Kodansha
ISBN: 9781612629438
Released: October 2014
Original release: 2014

Attack on Titan: No Regrets, Volume 2 is the final volume of Hikaru Suruga’s manga adaptation of the A Choice with No Regrets visual novel written by Gun Snark. No Regrets is one of the many spinoffs and adaptations of Hajime Isayama’s immensely popular Attack on Titan manga series. It focuses on the backstory of one of Attack on Titan‘s most beloved characters, Levi, and how he became an exceptionally skilled and valued member of the Survey Corps. The second volume of the No Regrets manga was originally released in Japan in 2014, as was Kodansha Comics’ English-language edition. The volume also includes two short, largely comedic, No Regrets side stories as well as a special interview between Isayama and Suruga discussing the story and characters of the Attack on Titan franchise. I rather enjoyed the first volume of No Regrets and so was looking forward to reading the conclusion of the series.

At one point they were considered to be some of the most notorious criminals in the Underground, but now Levi, Isabel, and Furlan have been coerced into joining the Survey Corps, which may very well be a death sentence. Initially they weren’t well-liked by their fellow soldiers, and the three of them weren’t particularly happy with their situation, either. But during their first expedition outside of the walls, Levi and his crew leave quite an impression by handily dispatching an abnormal Titan with seeming ease. Levi and the others still don’t fit in with the rest of the Survey Corps members, but at least their remarkable skills, especially Levi’s, are recognized and admired. The extra attention they receive after defeating the Titan isn’t exactly welcome, though–Furlan is trying to coordinate a covert mission that will either lead to the three criminals’ ultimate freedom or to their deaths. They have been hired by a high-ranking political figure to steal back incriminating documents from Erwin, one of the Survey Corps’ most promising young leaders, and to end his life in the process.

What I particularly liked about the first volume of No Regrets was that it expanded the setting of Attack on Titan in addition to providing valuable background information about Levi, Erwin, and their relationship to each other. Sadly, the second volume doesn’t add much more that is new; I felt like I had already seen many of the scenes play out before and it was very clear how some of the events were going to end. The second volume of No Regrets spends a fair amount of time explaining the long-distance scouting formation, for example. While it’s noteworthy that No Regrets shows the first time that the maneuver is ever attempted, anyone familiar with Attack on Titan should already be quite aware of how the formation functions and its importance. Likewise, as is to be expected, encounters with Titans never tend to go well. Because in many ways No Regrets serves as a prequel to Attack on Titan, the deaths of major characters in the series are not at all surprising and lose some of their impact as a result.

More than anyone else’s, No Regrets is Levi’s story, but Erwin plays a pivotal role in it as well. Both of the men are exceptionally charismatic leaders, although Erwin is the only one of the two who actually seeks that role. Levi doesn’t want to be responsible for the lives of others while Erwin is willing to shoulder the weight of the sacrifices made in the fight against the Titans. He is extremely intelligent and talented and able to make tough decision. Even at the cost of individual lives, Erwin voluntarily employs dubious methods if he believes that the results will increase the odds of humanity’s survival. His almost fanatical drive and obsession contrasts sharply with Levi’s more reserved and internally focused nature. As is known will happen, eventually Erwin wins Levi over to his cause and gives him a firm direction and purpose, but this foregone conclusion does seem to occur rather abruptly. Still, the exploration of Levi and Erwin’s respective personalities and motivations in No Regrets is probably what the series does best and is what the manga brings to Attack on Titan as a whole.

Manga! Manga!: The World of Japanese Comics

Manga! Manga!: The World of Japanese ComicsAuthor: Frederik L. Schodt
Publisher: Kodansha
ISBN: 9781568364766
Released: January 2013
Original release: 1983
Awards: Japan Cartoonists Association Award

Initially released in 1983 and then again in 1986 in a slightly updated and revised edition, Frederik L. Schodt’s groundbreaking Manga! Manga!: The World of Japanese Comics was one of the first, and remains one of the best, surveys of the history of manga and the manga industry available in English. Written and published at a time when manga was virtually unknown to the average comics reader in the West and when only a very few examples of manga had been translated, Schodt was hoping to provide an introduction to the art form, garner interest in manga, and share his love and excitement for the medium. Manga! Manga! was received very well both in Japan where it earned special recognition from the Japan Cartoonists Association as well as in markets focused on English-reading audiences. Although Schodt would follow up Manga! Manga! with his work Dreamland Japan: Writings on Modern Manga in 1996, his initial foray is considered a classic in its subject area and is still well worth reading.

Manga! Manga! opens with a forward by Osamu Tezuka, who Schodt personally knew and worked with. From there Schodt takes over with the first chapter “A Thousand Million Manga,” providing an overview of manga and its readership in Japan. “A Thousand Years of Manga” addresses the history of manga, tracing its origins and development from 12th-century narrative art traditions through its more contemporary influences. “The Spirit of Japan” looks at the portrayal of the bushidō ethic in manga, ranging from historical fiction to the yakuza and sports genres, while “Flowers and Dreams” reveals the significance of comics created for and by girls and women. Other genres, such as salaryman, specialty career-oriented manga, and mahjong manga are explored in the chapter “The Economic Animal at Work and at Play.” Subjects like censorship, violence, and eroticism are the focus of “Regulations versus Fantasy.” Schodt closes his research with a chapters specifically devoted “The Comic Industry” and “The Future.” (Granted, that future is now in many cases the past, but the chapter is still illuminating.)

The editions of Manga! Manga! printed after 1997 also have a short introduction by Schodt but otherwise are nearly identical content-wise to those that were published earlier. In addition to Schodt’s main text, Manga! Manga! also includes an index divided by general subject, creators, and title as well as a bibliography of both English-language and Japanese-language resources. As is appropriate for a work about manga, Schodt incorporates artwork and photographs throughout the volume–rare is the page which isn’t accompanied by some sort of visual component. Particularly noteworthy is the inclusion of translated excerpts selected from four manga: Osamu Tezuka’s Phoenix, Reiji Matsumoto’s Ghost Warrior, Riyoko Ikeda’s The Rose of Versailles, and Keiji Nakazawa’s Barefoot Gen. These examples are among some of the earliest manga in translation readily available to a general English-language audience. Brief biographies of the four mangaka are provided as well.

Manga! Manga! is a fantastic work. Even decades after it was first published it remains an informative and valuable study. And, as I have come to expect, Schodt’s writing is very approachable and easy to read. Manga! Manga! explores the history of manga within the context of Japanese culture and history, ultimately showing that the two cannot be completely separated. Manga and its development reflect, is influenced by, and emphasizes the changing state of Japanese culture, politics, and social mores. It is an art form and a source of entertainment, but it can also be used for educational and informational purposes and even as propaganda. Schodt outlines the importance of manga in Manga! Manga!, both culturally and historically, and what it has to offer to Japan and to the world at large. Manga! Manga! is very highly recommended to anyone interested in learning more about manga, its history, its creators, or the manga industry as a whole.