My Week in Manga: November 14-November 20, 2016

My News and Reviews

Nothing except the usual My Week in Manga feature was posted last week at Experiments in Manga. I was hoping to have my random musings on Ichigo Takano’s Orange ready for November, but the month has been particularly stressful and energy-draining so at this point it looks as though December will be far more likely. Hopefully, I’ll have an in-depth feature of some sort to share soon. I also have my list of notable release from 2016 to work on, too!

There is one thing from last week that I’m very excited for–the most recent Sparkler Monthly Kickstarter! The campaign is raising funds to support the print edition of Heldrad’s highly-amusing send-up to shoujo manga Orange Junk. I greatly enjoyed the first volume of Orange Junk, which I’ve previously reviewed, but the series gets even better as it goes along. Never read any of Orange Junk? Give it a try over at Sparkler Monthly and if you like what you see please consider contributing to the Kickstarter!

Quick Takes

Ajin: Demi-Human, Volume 3Ajin: Demi-Human, Volumes 3-8 by Gamon Sakurai. For a variety of reasons, while I’ve continued to stockpile Ajin, I’ve been rather lax when it some to actually reading the manga. The eighth and latest volume in English was released relatively recently, so I figured it was probably about time that I finally got around to catching up with the series. In retrospect, I’m actually kind of glad that I had a whole stack of Ajin to read all at once. The manga generally tends to be very quickly paced so it was nice to be able to move directly from one volume to the next in succession. Ajin is best, both in art and in storytelling, when there’s action going on. Sakurai’s fight sequences are tremendously dynamic and exciting. The use of the demi-humans’ immortality and black ghosts can actually be quite clever at times, too. While the series continues to be exceptionally violent and brutal, it doesn’t seem to be as gruesome and grotesque as it once was when the demi-humans were shown to be the subjects of live experimentation. The story can be a little heavy-handed, especially when it comes to government corruption and the revelation of everyone’s tragic backstories, but the psychological elements do tend to be handled well in spite of this.

Happiness, Volume 1Happiness, Volume 1 by Shuzo Oshimi. I’m not especially interested in vampires and they seem to have been so overdone lately that there often has to be some sort of extra impetus for me to actually pick up a vampire manga. In the case of Happiness, the additional push that was needed came from the fact that Oshimi is also the creator of The Flowers of Evil, a manga series which left a pretty big impression on me. Oshimi is incredibly skilled at establishing the mood and atmosphere of a series. Happiness is about Okazaki, a bullied high school student who survives being attacked by a vampire only to become one himself. The pacing of Happiness is leisurely, showing only the first few days of Okazaki’s new existence as he struggles to adjust to his emerging symptoms. Given how the first volume unfolds, Okazaki’s descent into vampirism can easily be read as a metaphor for puberty and sexual awakening; it will be interesting to see if the manga continues in that direction. Happiness has an underlying sense of eroticism mixed in with its horror which, at least in my opinion, is exactly how a vampire story ought to be. There is also a fair amount of angst in the manga, something that I’ve come to expect from Oshimi’s work.

Kitaro, Volume 2: Kitaro Meets NurarihyonKitaro, Volume 2: Kitaro Meets Nurarihyon by Shigeru Mizuki. I am still absolutely thrilled that more of Mizuki’s Kitaro manga is being released in English. However, I was a little sad that the second volume of Drawn & Quarterly’s new series didn’t include the same sort of bonus activities that were present in the first. Those were fun. But then again, Kitaro Meets Nurarihyon is plenty of fun in and of itself. In addition to an opening essay and a closing set of yokai files by the series’ translator Zack Davisson,  the volume collects seven of Mizuki’s short Kitaro manga, most of which are from the latter part of the 1960s although one is from the late 1970s. Generally when I think of yokai, I think of traditional Japanese folklore. However, the term can also be applied more broadly. In Kitaro, Mizuki doesn’t limit himself and incorporates mythology, urban legends, and popular culture from both within and outside of Japan. For example, in Kitaro Meets Nurarihyon, a descendant of Dracula plays a very important role in one of the stories. Sometimes the results are more cohesive than others, but I particularly enjoy and find it interesting how Mizuki is able to meld seemingly disparate elements and traditions together.

Nekogahara: Stray Cat Samurai, Volume 1Nekogahara: Stray Cat Samurai, Volume 1 by Hiroyuki Takei. Best known as the creator of Shaman King (which I somewhat surprisingly haven’t actually read yet), one of Takei’s most recent manga series is Nekogahara. Story-wise, it’s a fairly familiar tale of a ronin wandering the country, doing good deeds while trying to outrun past tragedies. There are numerous manga, novels, anime, and film that follow a similar premise. What makes Nekogahara stand out from all of those is that all of the principal players are literally cats. Granted, they’re cats dressed in kimono, carrying swords, and so on. Humans exist in Nekogahara, too, more or less as the daimyo, though they are generally discussed rather than seen. The lead of Nekogahara is Norachiyo, a scarred tom who was once a kept cat but who is now living his life as a stray. He is an extremely capable fighter and legend has it that he once even killed a person. Both the story and the visuals of Nekogahara rely on chanbara tropes. The actual flow of movement and action can sometimes be difficult to discern, but overall the artwork and character designs are rather stylish. Nekogahara is played fairly straight, but the characters’ more cat-like behaviors do bring levity to the manga.

The Black Cat Takes a Stroll: The Edgar Allan Poe LecturesThe Black Cat Takes a Stroll: The Edgar Allan Poe Lectures by Akimaro Mori. Bento Books doesn’t release very many titles, but the publisher’s books tend to be interesting so I make a point to keep an eye out for them. The Black Cat Takes a Stroll is one of Bento Books most recent releases. In addition to being the first volume in Mori’s Black Cat series, it was also the winner of Japan’s inaugural Agatha Christie Award for mystery fiction. The book collects six largely episodic but related short stories featuring the Black Cat, a young but respected professor specializing in aesthetic truth, told from the perspective of his personal assistant, a female graduate student whose research focuses on Edgar Allan Poe. I really wanted to like The Black Cat Takes a Stroll more than I actually did. I love the series’ basic concept and all of the literary and cultural references found in the stories. Sadly, the mysteries come across as trying too hard to be intellectual or overly academic and their solutions are frequently convoluted and coincidental. In addition to that, despite having a few charming and endearing quirks (such as his fondness for strawberry parfaits), the Black Cat tends to be infuriating more than anything else, misusing his intelligence in a way that is deliberately cryptic and intentionally manipulative of both the narrator and readers.

Ajin: Demi-Human, Volume 2

Ajin: Demi-Human, Volume 2Creator: Gamon Sakurai
U.S. publisher: Vertical
ISBN: 9781939130853
Released: December 2014
Original release: 2013

I tend to enjoy darker-toned stories about immortals, so I wasn’t particularly surprised that I enjoyed the first volume of Ajin: Demi-Human. The manga series was conceived of by writer Tsuina Miura and artist Gamon Sakurai, but by the second volume it appears as though Sakurai has taken over the story of Ajin as well. (Although, it should be noted that Miura and Sakurai’s pilot chapter for Ajin, “The Shinya Nakamura Incident,” is also included in the series’ second volume.) Ajin: Demi-Human, Volume 2 was originally published in Japan in 2013 while the English-language edition of the manga was released by Vertical at the end of 2014. The first volume of the series established an intriguing premise—immortal beings, considered to be less than human, who are persecuted and subjected to cruel experiments—as well as an exceptionally dark atmosphere, and so I was particularly interested in seeing where Sakurai would take the story next.

Kei is on the run. Recently discovered to be an immortal demi-human—only the third to have been officially confirmed to exist in Japan—he is trying to avoid capture by the Demi-Human Control Commission and hoping to find allies in other immortals. When he is contacted by two rogue demi-humans, Sato (also known as “Hat”) and Tanaka, it seems as though Kei’s hopes have been answered, except for the small matter of the two men having taken his sister hostage. But with a little bit of effort and some unexpected theatrics, Sato is able to readily explain away the kidnapping and even manages to earn Kei’s trust in the process. Though Kei is unaware of it at the time, that misplaced trust will have severe repercussions for him. Sato and Tanaka are very interested in the young man. Not only is he a demi-human, just like the two of them Kei is a variant immortal capable of manifesting and controlling a black ghost. However, it is a power that he has yet to understand or to completely control.

Ajin: Demi-Human, Volume 2, page 61Despite being a large focus of the first two volumes of Ajin and around whom much of the manga’s plot revolves, currently Kei is actually one of the least compelling characters in the series. The people and events surrounding Kei tend to be much more engaging. Sato in particular is a tremendous presence. It is easy to see why he instills such fear among those in the Demi-Human Control Commission—he cannot be controlled. Sato is a coldly calculating and ruthless strategist with extraordinary combat skills and the ability to manipulate both the people around him and the situations in which he finds himself. He is terrifyingly effective in the execution of his plans. At this point only some of those plans have been completely revealed, but it is obvious that Sato is willing to sacrifice anyone in order to accomplish them. In comparison, Kei seems to be incredibly weak-willed and naive, lacking a strong sense of self. Granted, almost anyone would when compared to Sato, but it’s also somewhat understandable since Kei’s entire worldview has been shattered. With his new-found immortality, he is still trying to understand who he is.

Ajin is a very dark and violent manga. The experiments carried out on the demi-humans are brutal and cruel. Generally, the most graphic moments are implied rather than seen, but that makes the torture no less disturbing. Demi-humans, especially those controlling black ghosts, are more than capable of fighting back, though. For example, Sato’s repeated attacks on research facilities associated with the Demi-Human Control Commission and his complete disregard for life are astonishing. Sakurai’s artwork is particularly effective during action sequences, of which there are plenty in the second volume of Ajin. The second volume also addresses some of the social issues surrounding demi-humans, in particular the fact that not everyone feels that demi-humans should be discriminated against just because they happen to be immortal. So far, Sakurai has been able to strike a good balance between the series’ intense action and horror and its exploration of deeper moral and ethical concerns. I’m certainly looking forward to seeing how the series continues to develop.

Ajin: Demi-Human, Volume 1

Ajin: Demi-Human, Volume 1Author: Tsuina Miura
Illustrator: Gamon Sakurai

U.S. publisher: Vertical
ISBN: 9781939130846
Released: October 2014
Original release: 2013

It was the cover art of Ajin: Demi-Human, Volume 1—a creepy image of disconcerting skeletal figure—that first sparked my interest in the series. When I learned that the manga was at least in part about immortals in addition to being fairly dark in tone, I knew that I wanted to read it. The exploration of immortality and its repercussions in fiction fascinates me. Series like Hiroaki Samura’s Blade of the Immortal and novels like Fumi Nakamura’s Enma the Immortal have actually been some of my favorite works of recent years. And so, I was very curious about Ajin. The first volume, written by Tsuina Miura and illustrated by Gamon Sakurai, was originally released n Japan in 2013. (Later volumes of the series are both written and illustrated by Sakurai.) The English-language edition of Ajin, Volume 1 was published by Vertical in 2014. The production values are particularly nice, with high-quality paper that really shows off Sakurai’s ink-heavy artwork.

Seventeen years ago, the first demi-human was discovered. Immortal, and perhaps something a little more, demi-humans are considered to be less than human—feared, despised, reviled, and subjected to horrific experiments in the name of science and for the advancement of humankind. Demi-humans seem to be rare, only forty-six have so far been identified, but that’s only because they appear to be normal humans, at least until they survive their first death. Most assumed Kei Nagai was an average high schooler, preoccupied with studying for his college entrance exams. But Kei’s hopes and dreams of becoming a successful doctor are shattered when he dies in a traffic accident, his body smashed into pieces. And then he comes back to life. Now he’s on the run, pursued by the general population, the police, the Demi-Human Control Commission, and even other demi-humans. His only ally is his friend Kai, who tries to help him escape, but that simply means that the two of them are in danger instead of Kei alone.

As in many other works about immortality, Ajin shows that living forever isn’t always something to be desired and can in fact bring a tremendous amount of pain and suffering. There’s the physical torment of death and injury in a body that revives again and again, but there’s also the mental and psychological damage to take into consideration as well. Kei has suddenly lost all of his rights as a person, he is being hunted as something not worthy of being human, his family and friends are filled with disgust towards him—of course this is going to have an impact on the young man. It would be exceedingly easy for him to lose his humanity or his sanity. Glimmers of those possibilities can be seen in the first volume of Ajin as Kei struggles to realign his worldview with his newfound reality. Granted, Ajin, Volume 1 largely focuses on the action surrounding Kei’s escape and explaining (not too subtly) the unusual abilities of the demi-humans. Not much character development has happened yet, but the potential is certainly there.

Ajin, Volume 1 is a good start to the series, though there is still room for improvement. In general, the artwork tends to be a little stronger than the writing at this point. The premise is interesting, and promising, but Sakurai’s illustrations are what really give Ajin its effectively dark atmosphere. Particularly chilling are the “black ghosts”—malignant extensions of the self capable of extreme violence which are able to be manifested and controlled by certain demi-humans. (That disconcerting figure from the cover? That’s a black ghost.) Humans are quite capable of shocking violence as well. Several examples of the gruesome experiments that have been conducted using demi-humans as test subjects are shown in Ajin, Volume 1. The methods are tortuous and the repeated deaths are cruel. So far, the only real difference between the two groups is that when bodies are mutilated or torn apart—which is not at all an uncommon occurrence in the first volume of Ajin—for better or for worse the demi-humans actually survive.