The Black Lizard and Beast in the Shadows

The Black Lizard and Beast in the ShadowsAuthor: Edogawa Ranpo
Illustrator: Kawajiri Hiroaki

Translator: Ian Hughes
U.S. publisher: Kurodahan Press
ISBN: 9784902075212
Released: January 2006
Original release: 1934 and 1928

After being introduced to the works of Edogawa Ranpo through Strange Tale of Panorama Island and Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination, I have slowly been making my way through the rest of his work available in English. Compared to his total output in Japan where he was and continues to be an extremely influential author, relatively little has actually been translated. Happily, in recent years Kurodahan Press has been releasing more and more of Ranpo’s stories and essays. The Black Lizard and Beast in the Shadows became the first volume of Ranpo’s work to be published by Kurodahan Press in English in 2006. Translated by Ian Hughes and with an introduction by Mark Schreiber and illustrations by Kawajiri Hiroaki, the book collects two of Ranpo’s short novels. The Black Lizard, originally published in Japan in 1934, features Ranpo’s famous detective Akechi Kogorō. The second, shorter story, Beast in the Shadows, was first released in 1928 was one of Ranpo’s earlier major works.

In the Japanese underworld the Black Lizard reigns supreme. A woman of exceptional beauty and intelligence, she has become one of Japan’s greatest criminals with an entourage of underlings ready and willing to carry out her schemes and to do her bidding. Most recently the Black Lizard has had her eye on the “Star of Egypt,” the most precious diamond in Japan. Her intent isn’t to steal it. Instead, she has put into motion an audacious plan to kidnap the owner’s daughter Sanae and demand the diamond as ransom. The brilliant private detective Akechi Kogorō is called in to prevent the kidnapping, but he may have met his match with the Black Lizard. The battle of wits between these two opponents in The Black Lizard is marvelous. Both are masters of disguise and both are extremely clever. A large portion of the novel consists of their daring and unexpected tactics as they try to out-think and stay several step ahead of each other. The plot of The Black Lizard take the readers through numerous twists and turns, some of which are difficult to believe but all of which are exciting.

Beast in the Shadows is told from the perspective of a detective novelist who accidentally becomes involved in a case surrounding his fellow mystery author Ōe Shundei. The novelist has fallen in love with Oyamada Shizuko, the wife of a wealthy entrepreneur, and it is for her sake that he begins investigating Shundei. Shundei is a misanthrope and stays out of the public eye so not much is known about the author. However, Shizuko has come to the determination that Ōe Shundei is the pen name of Hirata Ichirō, an ex-lover who has been harassing her and threatening her through letters. Hirata seems to have been spying on Shizuko and her husband and knows things about their private, intimate lives that no one else should. Instead of going to the police, Shizuko turns to the novels as her confidant in order to keep the matter discreet. Though shorter than The Black Lizard, Beast in the Shadows incorporates just as many surprising plot developments if not more, include a fantastic twist ending.

When I first started reading The Black Lizard and Beast in the Shadows I wondered why those two particular novels, other than being some of Ranpo’s better known works of suspense, had been collected into a single volume. But by the end it became clear that there is one particular similarity between the two stories that tie them together thematically. I’m afraid that revealing it would spoil the mystery, though. However, I will say that the Black Lizard isn’t the only incredibly cunning character in the book. Another important element in both The Black Lizard and Beast in the Shadows is the role that fiction plays in the stories and specifically how crime inspires and influences fantasy and vice versa. This is particularly prominent in Beast in the Shadows where two primary characters are novelists, giving them a unique perspective on the investigation. But fiction is influential to The Black Lizard as well, Ranpo’s very own short story “The Human Chair” being a pivotal reference. I already knew that I enjoy Ranpo’s work, but I found The Black Lizard and Beast in the Shadows particularly fascinating because of the power granted to stories in the volume.

Maka-Maka: Sex, Life, and Communication, Volume 1

Maka-Maka: Sex, Life, Communication, Volume 1Creator: Torajiro Kishi
U.S. publisher: Media Blasters
ISBN: 9781598832938
Released: November 2008
Original release: 2003

There have been relatively few mature, adult-oriented yuri manga licensed in English. One of the best, or at least one of my favorites, is Torajiro Kishi’s Maka-Maka: Sex, Life, and Communication. It’s a short series consisting of only two slim volumes, both of which are unfortunately very out of print. The first volume of Maka-Maka was released in English in 2008 by Kitty Media, the adult and mature content imprint of Media Blasters. Maka-Maka was also released in French as well as in German. The first volume of Maka-Maka was originally published in Japan in 2003. The English edition of Maka-Maka closely emulates the Japanese release. The cover of Kitty Media’s English-language release declares Maka-Maka to be a groundbreaking, critically acclaimed work. I can’t really comment on that, but I do know that the series was generally well-received when first released in English. One of the things that makes Maka-Maka particularly stand out is that Kishi’s artwork is completely in color. In fact, if I recall correctly, Maka-Maka was the first full-color manga that I ever came across.

Jun and Nene are exceptionally close. The two young women attend the same art college–Jun studies graphic arts while Nene pursues fashion design–and they share similar interests as well. When the two of them aren’t working on assignments for class they enjoy spending time together. They both have boyfriends (Jun actually has three), but their most satisfying relationship sexually and romantically is the one that they share with each other. Nene and Jun are friends with benefits, but they are also best friends. They care immensely about each other, support each other, and simply enjoy being together. They relax and have fun, complain about schoolwork and their boyfriends, and are generally just there for each other. Which isn’t to say that they don’t have their disagreements and arguments. Occasionally teasing goes a little too far and feelings get hurt, but in the end both Nene and Jun love each other. Their relationship is one of the most important things in their lives and it is something that neither of them wants to give up.

As previously mentioned, one of the things that sets Maka-Maka apart from many other manga is Kishi’s color artwork, which is excellent. The highlighting does sometimes make it appear as though Jun and Nene have a shiny, plastic-like sheen to their bodies, but otherwise the artwork is quite nice. The shading, textures, and skin tones are particularly lovely and realistic. They also change depending on a chapter’s setting or the lighting of the environment. Whether it’s harsh fluorescent indoor lights, the brilliant noonday sun, cool moonlight, or a warm sunset, Kishi adapts the color palette in Maka-Maka to fit the various moods and scenes. Kishi’s figure work is also very strong. Though somewhat idealized and flawless, Jun and Nene’s appearances aren’t especially exaggerated or unnatural. They are obviously adult women and they have curves. The two of them are almost constantly smiling, too. Their likeable personalities shine through their facial expressions and body language as they enjoy each other’s company.

Maka-Maka is unquestionably an erotic manga and Sex, Life, and Communication is an extremely apt subtitle. Sex, kissing, cuddling, groping, and fondling make up a large portion of the manga. Physical intimacy is one of the ways that Jun and Nene communicate with each other and show their love and affection. The sex between Nene and Jun in Maka-Maka is joyful and includes plenty of laughter. Their close, intimate relationship, of which sex is only one part, simply makes me happy. In comparison, their sexual encounters with men in the manga, at least those that are shown, are much more awkward and can even be unpleasant. Jun and Nene are happiest when they are together. Maka-Maka doesn’t have much of an ongoing story. Instead, the short chapters, each only seven pages long, allow readers brief glimpses into the everyday lives of the two young women and their close, personal relationship. Some of the content in Maka-Maka may be explicit and mature, but the manga is just as much about these wonderful, believable characters as it is about the sex.

My Week in Manga: April 7-April 13, 2014

My News and Reviews

With all of the various review project that I recently have had going on, it’s been a while since there’s only been two posts at Experiments in Manga for any given week. (Not counting the My Week in Manga feature.) Last week I posted a review of Chōhei Kambayashi’s science fiction novel Yukikaze. Although interesting from the start, it did take me a few chapters to really get into the book, but ultimately I was very impressed with the depth of Kambayashi’s ideas. The sequel Good Luck, Yukikaze has also been translated and released in English. I’ll be making a point of reading it, as well. My other post last week was a part of the Discovering Manga feature which explores some of the ways that I learn about and learn more about manga and the manga industry. This time around I talked about the site Organization Anti-Social Geniuses which has some great manga-related content–not just reviews, but articles and interviews, too. If you’re not already familiar with OASG, it’s definitely worth checking out.

As for other things worth checking out online: Justin Stroman’s most recent guest post at Manga Bookshelf focuses on manga adapters and the history of manga adaptation. Vertical is hinting at a new license. (A huge volume of 1980s manga, possibly in hardcover? Yes, please.) Manjiorin of Manga Connection has started her Swan review project. I recently finished reading all of Swan that was published in English. I absolutely loved the series, so am looking forward to reading her reviews. A Bento Books newsletter is now available for those interested in staying on top of Bento Books and its releases. The Kodansha Comics tumblr weighs in on piracy from a publisher’s perspective. And finally, Ryan Holmberg takes a look at 1930s shoujo manga with his article Matsumoto Katsuji and the American Roots of Kawaii.

Quick Takes

Beast & FeastBeast & Feast by Norikazu Akira. After a somewhat dubious first chapter, Beast & Feast ends up being a rather cute and sweet boys’ love manga, although it does seem a little odd to describe it using those words. Considering the seriousness of the yakuza storyline and the violence (mostly implied rather than seen), the manga can actually be surprisingly lighthearted. This is mostly due to the characters. Despite their differences, and despite the fact that Hyodo is a yakuza and Kazuha is a police detective, the two of them ultimately make a great couple and they care about each other tremendously. There’s also a fair amount of explicit sex. Hyodo’s sexual appetite is insatiable, making Beast & Feast a very apt title for the manga. While I wasn’t blown away by Beast & Feast, it was solidly entertaining in addition to having attractive artwork. I enjoyed the manga and its characters. So much so that I plan on picking up Honey Darling, the only other manga by Akira currently available in English. (Actually, now that I think about it, she also collaborated on Clan of the Nakagamis.)

Bride of Deimos, Volume 1Bride of Deimos, Volumes 1-7 written by Etsuko Ikeda, illustrated by Yuho Ashibe. There is something about shoujo horror that I find irresistible; maybe it’s just that so much of it seems to have close ties to Gothic literature and Romanticism and emphasizes the emotional and psychological aspects of the story. Bride of Deimos is an interesting example of this type of shoujo horror. It’s from the 1970s and so it also has that fabulous classic shoujo style, too. Only seven of the seventeen volumes were ever released in English. However, the manga tends to be mostly episodic, so it’s not as though the story feels terribly incomplete. I do wish more had been translated though; I ended up really enjoying the series. The framing story for Bride of Deimos focuses on Minako, a young woman whom the androgynously beautiful devil Deimos is determined to make his bride. Many of the individual tales in some way involve love and generally end very badly for those involved. Bride of Deimos somewhat strangely incorporates both Japanese and Greek mythology as well other elements of traditional Western horror and the supernatural.

Panorama of HellPanorama of Hell by Hideshi Hino. And then there’s Panorama of Hell, a horror manga of a completely different sort from 1982. As can probably be determined from the cover alone, Panorama of Hell is extremely gruesome, bloody, violent, and visceral. Panorama of Hell is legitimately terrifying and frightening, and probably one of the best horror manga that I have read. But because it is so graphic and disturbing, and because the humor is so exceptionally dark, Panorama of Hell is definitely not something that I would recommend to just anyone. It takes a reader with a strong heart and stomach to really appreciate the manga. Panorama of Hell is the story of an unnamed painter who has an obsession with blood which he uses in the creation of his artwork. The manga explores his paintings before turning to his family, his past, and all of the abuse and insanity which has had a tremendous influence on him. Hino mixes surreal imagery with historic events in Panorama of Hell. The results are hellish, driving home just how terrible reality can be. Some of Panorama of Hell is actually based on Hino’s life, which in itself is terrifying.

Sunny, Volume 2Sunny, Volumes 2-3 by Taiyo Matsumoto. Sunny is another manga that draws inspiration from the creator’s life. Set in Japan in the 1970s, Sunny can be almost overwhelmingly melancholic. Although there are heartwarming moments there are just as many scenes that are absolutely heartbreaking. Sunny follows the lives of the children at the Star Kids Home. Some are orphans, some have been completely abandoned by their parents, and some have only been temporarily separated from their families. The story also follows the adults in their lives, both those who are positive influences on the children and those who have caused them harm. The people at Star Kids Home, the children and the adults, form an odd sort of family with all of the benefits and disadvantages that that entails. Out of all of the manga by Matsumoto that has so far been released in English, Sunny is the most realistic and therefore probably the most readily accessible for a casual reader. It lacks much of the surrealism present in his other works. Instead Sunny relies even more heavily on the complexities of the characters and their relationships with one another.

Discovering Manga: Organization Anti-Social Geniuses

Organization Anti-Social GeniusesIn 2010, around the same time that I started writing at Experiments in Manga, another blog also came into existence, Organization Anti-Social Genuises (OASG). Originally co-founded by Justin Stroman (the current Editor-in-Chief of OASG and an occasional guest writer at Manga Bookshelf) and the now retired LCMoran, the site is currently a team effort with a group of writers (mostly from the United States and France) working on features, articles, interviews, and reviews of Japanese pop culture, including manga, anime, video games, and more.

The site’s associated Twitter account, OrganizationASG sums it up pretty nicely: “We’re anti-social geniuses that try and highlight those people behind the scenes in anime and manga.” I’ve more or less been following OSAG since its beginning, so why am I making a point of featuring it now? I’ve always enjoyed OSAG, and it did a fantastic job hosting the Naoki Urasawa Manga Moveable Feast back in February 2013, but recently I’ve been particularly impressed by the manga-related content that the team has been posting.

I’ve already repeatedly mentioned hat OASG is a team effort. So, who exactly is writing about manga at OASG? Justin does a ton of writing for OASG in general and is also one of the site’s most prolific manga writers. He conducts interviews, reviews manga, and writes many of the manga articles. Maggie has earned her title of manga reviewer while Manjiorin (who also has her own blog, Manga Connection, which I quite enjoy) is another of the site’s primary manga columnists. Naru mostly writes anime reviews at OASG, but she also posts manga reviews from time to time. As for past writers, LCMoran wrote some manga-related content and from 2011 to 2013 Sweetpea had the more or less weekly manga column Bookmarked.

When it comes to manga, OASG is largely divided into two main categories. There are the Manga Articles and there are the Manga Reviews, which can also be browsed by demographic: Shounen, Shoujo, Seinen, and Josei. (Sadly, there’s no index to the reviews. An excellent index has been added!) However, those categories aren’t the only places to find manga-related material on OASG. One of the other places where manga content regularly shows up is in the site’s section for Interviews. Justin talks with all sorts of people from the manga industry: translators, letters, editors, publishers, critics, bloggers, and so on. OASG also maintains a list of the year’s US manga releases organized by release date and publisher. The list specifically focuses on the six major manga publishers in the United States: Digital Manga, Kodansha Comics, Seven Seas, Vertical, Viz Media, and Yen Press. Explore OASG further and manga content can be found all over the place.

As much as I enjoy the manga reviews at OASG, my favorite posts tend to be the manga-related interviews, columns, and articles simply because I don’t know of many other sites that feature that type of content. OASG’s Resources page collects links to some of the site’s most helpful posts, including plenty of manga-oriented material. Occasionally, OASG will have an ongoing series of manga articles, as well. For example, Justin just very recently launched The Manga Artists Who Stopped By and Left Forever which I’m looking forward to a great deal.

So that was the long of it. The short of it? Organization Anti-Social Geniuses is a great site for manga-related content, some of it not found anywhere else, and you should really consider checking it out.

Yukikaze

YukikazeAuthor: Chōhei Kambayashi
Translator: Neil Nadelman
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421532554
Released: January 2010
Original release: 1984
Awards: Seiun Award

Chōhei Kambayashi is an award-winning, well-respected, and popular author of science fiction in Japan. His novel Yukikaze is one of his best known works and has even been adapted into a short anime series. It is also his first book to be translated and released in English. Originally published in Japan in 1984, Yukikaze would go on to win a Seiun Award in 1985. Kambayashi revisited and slightly revised the novel in 2002 in preparation for the volume’s sequel Good Luck, Yukikaze. Neil Nadelman’s translation of Yukikaze, published by Viz Media’s speculative fiction imprint Haikasoru in 2010, is based on this 2002 edition. Haikasoru’s release of Yukikaze also includes two very interesting essays about the novel by Ran Ishidou and Ray Fuyuki. Haikasoru also released an English translation of Good Luck, Yukikaze. Kambayashi has written a third volume in the series, Unbroken Arrow, which has yet to be translated.

Rei Fukai is one of the best pilots that the Faery Air Force has, surviving numerous encounters with the JAM, an alien force threatening humanity’s very existence. It has been more than three decades since the JAM first appeared on Earth. They were quickly pushed back to the planet from where their invasion was launched, however the prolonged war against the JAM continues with no obvious way to secure a complete victory. Survival is Fukai’s primary order and goal. A member of an elite squadron associated with the Special Air Force, his mission is to collect and record massive amounts of data about the JAM and their tactical capabilities. He is to return with that information no matter what, even if that means leaving his comrades behind to die. Because of this, he and the others in his squadron have earned the reputation of being cold-hearted bastards. Outside of himself, the only thing that Fukai believes in, cares about, or trusts is the Yukikaze, the highly advanced fighter plane that he pilots.

Kambayashi addresses several themes in depth in Yukikaze: what humanity’s purpose is within the context of war, what it means to be human or inhuman, and perhaps most strikingly what the impact of the convergence of human intelligence and the technology it develops could be. Yukikaze is an engaging war story, with kinetic and hazardous air battles that have terrifying implications, but like all great science fiction the novel is also incredibly thought-provoking. The members of the Faery Air Force, and especially those in the Special Air Force, are primarily made up of criminals, those with anti-social tendencies, and other people who are unwanted or have no place back on Earth. They are treated more like expendable resources than they are like human beings. The war and the fighting is so far removed from those living on Earth that they are mostly oblivious to what is occurring on Faery. Protecting Earth is a thankless task for those engaged in the war, people who have very few ties to the planet left but who have no better options other than to fight.

Considering all of this, it isn’t that surprising that Fukai and some of the other pilots would prefer their planes to people. I’ll admit, as unsociable as Fukai can be, I did like the guy. It did take me a couple of chapters to really settle into Yukikaze, but by the end of the novel I was completely engaged. A large reason behind that was because of Fukai and his development as the novel progressed as well as the evolution of the Yukikaze. In the chaos of war, Fukai’s relationship to his fighter is one of the only stable things remaining in his life, but even that begins to change. The members of the Faery Air Force are often called inhuman and compared to machines. At the same time those machines are becoming more and more advanced, raising the question of whether humans are even necessary anymore. The war against the JAM that humanity is waging may not be the only battle of survival that it should be concerned about fighting. After an interesting but somewhat clunky beginning, I was actually quite impressed with the depth of Kambayashi’s ideas in Yukikaze. I look forward to reading its sequel.