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.

The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan

The World of the Shining PrinceAuthor: Ivan Morris
Publisher: Kodansha
ISBN: 9781568360294
Released: June 1994
Original release: 1964

Several years ago I read the entirety of The Tale of Genji, a novel written by Murasaki Shikibu in the eleventh century. It was a pretty big undertaking, but absolutely worth it. I love the novel. Ever since finishing The Tale of Genji for the first time, I’ve been meaning to read Ivan Morris’ The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan. The volume takes its title from the hero of The Tale of Genji who is referred to as the shining prince due to his exquisite visage and exceptional character. In many ways, The World of the Shining Prince serves as a companion to The Tale of Genji as Morris explores the historical reality of the aristocracy of Heian-era Japan. The World of the Shining Prince was originally published in 1964. Beginning in 1994, later editions of the work also include an introduction by Barbara Ruch. I recently read and was rather impressed by another of Morris’ works, The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan, and so was looking forward to reading The World of the Shining Prince even more.

In addition to the introductions, preface, appendices, bibliography, and topical index, The World of the Shining Prince examines a number of different aspects of tenth-century Japan, Heian court society, and The Tale of Genji within it ten chapters. Morris begins with a broad overview of the era in the first chapter, “The Heian Period.” Though the Heian Period lasted from 782 to 1167, The World of the Shining Prince largely, but not exclusively, focuses on the 900s. The next chapter, “The Setting” looks at Heian architecture, city planning, and geography. From there Morris delves into more detailed analysis of Heian culture in the chapters “Politics and Society,” “Religions,” and “Superstitions.” Next, attention is specifically turned to the Heian nobility and aristocracy. “The Good People and Their Lives” details day-to-day activities, amusements, and ceremonies while “The Cult of Beauty” looks at the particular aesthetics of the era. The eighth chapter, “The Women of Heian and their Relations with Men” outlines household and family structures as well as the place of romantic liaisons. The World of the Shining Prince concludes with chapters devoted to Murasaki Shikibu and to The Tale of Genji itself.

Although written more than five decades ago, The World of the Shining Prince has held up remarkably well. Admittedly, it is nearly impossible to write a completely objective cultural study—Morris’ analysis is informed and influenced by his own cultural subjectivity. In the half-century since The World of the Shining Prince was written, Western thought and scholarly approaches to cultural analysis have also changed. (For example, as Ruch mentions in her introduction, views on gender politics and the relationship between religion and superstition has shifted over the years.) The World of the Shining Prince is a product of its time, but that doesn’t at all diminish its value as a resource on Heian-era Japan, and more specifically on Japanese court life in the tenth century. Additionally, the volume is written with a general audience in mind. It is quite approachable, even for the average reader, and is engagingly written. Granted, the subject mater of The World of the Shining Prince is fascinating to being with.

Although Morris does provide some important general context within which he situates The World of the Shining Prince, the volume’s scope is relatively narrow, concentrating on a very specific part of Heian society. However, this specificity also allows him to explore that subject from several different perspectives. Information about the Heian Period is somewhat limited, especially in regards to the lower classes, which is another reason that The World of the Shining Prince is so focused on the era’s nobility. The Tale of Genji is a major source for Morris’ study of the Heian-era Japan, as are other works of contemporary literature—The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon especially features prominently—as well as diaries and court records from the time period. The World of the Shining Prince is an extremely informative and absorbing work. It’s more than just a companion to The Tale of Genji and reaches beyond its literary connections. The volume should appeal to anyone interested in learning more about classical  Japanese history.

Japan Sinks

Author: Sakyo Komatsu
Translator: Michael Gallagher
U.S. publisher: Kodansha
ISBN: 9784770020390
Released: September 1995
Original release: 1973
Awards: Mystery Writers of Japan Award, Seiun Award

Sakyo Komatsu is considered to be one of Japan’s masters of science fiction and is highly regarded as an author. Probably his most well-known and influential work was Japan Sinks, an earthquake disaster novel that he wrote between 1964 and1973. Published in Japan in 1973, Japan Sinks earned Komatsu both a Mystery Writers of Japan Award and a Seiun Award. The novel has since inspired a sequel (which Komatsu coauthored with Kōshū Tani), two live-action films, a television series, and even a manga adaptation by Takao Saito. Michael Gallagher’s abridged English translation of the novel was first published by Harper & Row in 1976 and became the basis for translations in eleven more languages. Kodansha International brought the novel back into print in 1995 with an additional author’s note from Komatsu. Unfortunately, that edition has gone out of print as well and Japan Sinks is now somewhat difficult to find—a shame for such a notable work.

Earthquake and tsunamis are not unusual occurrences in Japan. They are something that the country has faced for centuries and has made preparations to deal with. But an increase in seismic and volcanic activity has many scientists concerned, especially when an entire island off the southern coast of Japan disappears over night. An investigation is subsequently launched into the incredible event. As hard as it is to believe, the island has sunk. What is even more terrifying is the discovery of unprecedented tectonic plate movements that will result in increasingly violent and destructive earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. It is theorized that within a few years the entire Japanese archipelago will be lost. The real question is what can be done about Japan’s impending doom. The geological event cannot be stopped, but no one wants to believe that it will actually happen, either.

The narrative in Japan Sinks is a bit disjointed, particularly early on in the novel. I assume this is at least in part due to the abridgement, but I’m not entirely sure how much or even what was cut from the original Japanese edition of Japan Sinks. The beginning of the novel seems like a sequence of scenes that aren’t directly related, but most are eventually revealed to be needed for the story as a whole. It’s as if the connecting material is missing, though. However, as the novel progresses, the disparate story elements are tied together. By the end of Japan Sinks the only things that seemed tacked on and largely unnecessary were the romantic subplots; I can only imagine that these were more thoroughly developed in the original, but once again I’m not certain. For the most part, the unconnected nature of the storytelling was only a minor annoyance.

Although the narrative is somewhat fragmented, there is one thing that Komatsu excels at in Japan Sinks—he takes into consideration all aspects of the impending crisis in a very realistic way. The story is solidly based in real science, which makes it all the more terrifying. Komatsu explores the political maneuverings, both national and international, that are involved in dealing with the disaster as well as its economic implications. The scope of Japan Sinks is both global and personal, but I found the novel to be most engaging when it focused on the experiences of individuals. Granted, these sections were so effective because they took place within a greater context. Widespread death and destruction takes on more significance when it is known what it means for a single person as well as for a country as a whole. Japan Sinks addresses all of these issues and as a result the novel is a chilling account.

Remote Control

Author: Kotaro Isaka
Translator: Stephen Snyder
U.S. publisher: Kodansha
ISBN: 9784770031082
Released: October 2010
Original release: 2007
Awards: Honya Taisho Award, Yamamoto Shūgorō Award

Remote Control is the first and so far only novel by Kotaro Isaka to be translated into English. The novel was first published in Japan under the title Golden Slumber in 2007 before Kodansha International released Stephen Snyder’s English translation in 2010. Like several of Isaka’s other works, Remote Control was the subject of a film adaptation: Yoshiro Nakamura’s Golden Slumber, also released in 2010. As far as I know, only one other work written by Isaka is available in English, “The Precision of the Agent of Death,” which was collected in the international mystery and crime short story anthology Passports to Crime. However, some of Isaka’s novels are the basis of Megumi Osuga’s manga series Maoh: Juvenile Remix. Isaka is a popular author in Japan and has been nominated for and has won many awards. In 2008, Remote Control earned him both the Honya Taisho Award and the Yamamoto Shūgorō Award.

When a bomb is detonated during a parade in Sendai, Japan’s newly elected prime minister Sadayoshi Kaneda is killed in the blast. Comparable to the John F. Kennedy assassination, the event shocks the nation. Soon after, the media reveals the identity of the prime suspect in the case—Masaharu Aoyagi, an ex-delivery truck driver who had become a hero when he saved a local celebrity from a botched burglary attempt. Despite all of the evidence that points to Aoyagi as the culprit, his friends and family can hardly believe he could be capable of such a serious crime. And they would be right; Aoyagi has been framed, the victim of a vast conspiracy. With no hope of proving his innocence, all he can do at this point is run, a particularly difficult task since Sendai has been filled with state-of-the-art surveillance and security technology.

In Remote Control, Isaka has created a compelling, highly-monitored, near-future society. This provides plenty of opportunity for pertinent social commentary on the state of society today. Isaka explores concerns of public safety versus personal privacy and the role the media plays in the portrayal and investigation of crimes. Along with the creation of a realistic future, large parts of Remote Control also look to the past as Aoyagi and other characters reminisce. Isaka easily shifts between the different time periods, employing a technique that uses similar phrases and scenarios to naturally trigger the change from the present to the past and back. I appreciated the importance of these memories and reminiscences; Aoyagi’s actions and thoughts as he was avoiding capture were often informed by his past experiences and it showed the importance of his friendships.

Remote Control starts out strongly but unfortunately falls apart about two thirds of the way into the novel. Up until that point, I was really enjoying the work. But suddenly the engaging, suspenseful narrative was overwhelmed by too many convenient coincidences; my suspension of disbelief was shattered. Too often Aoyagi would receive help just when he needed it and in far-fetched ways. But more problematic, I was never completely convinced by the nefarious scheme to frame Aoyagi. So much effort was put into the plan when a less convoluted approach would have been more effective. Every good conspiracy theory, no matter how outlandish, needs at least some sort of logic and reasoning behind it. Despite some vague speculations, Remote Control left me wondering why Aoyagi was being targeted. While there were aspects of Remote Control that I greatly enjoyed and found entertaining, unfortunately I was ultimately frustrated and largely disappointed by the novel.

Ninja Attack!: True Tales of Assassins, Samurai, and Outlaws

Author: Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt
Illustrator: Yutaka Kondo

Publisher: Kodansha
ISBN: 9784770031198
Released: November 2010

Ninja Attack!: True Tales of Assassins, Samurai, and Outlaws is the second Attack! book by wife and husband team Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt, although this time they are working with a different illustrator, Yutaka Kondo. I read and thoroughly enjoyed the first Attack! guide, Yokai Attack!, finding it to be both entertaining and informative. In fact, I liked Yokai Attack! so well that I was immediately interested in Ninja Attack!, first published by Kodansha International in 2010. While Yokai Attack! looked at traditional Japanese creatures from folklore and urban legend, Ninja Attack! primarily focuses on real-life figures from Japanese history. As is explained in the books foreword, “Actual, historical ninja are fascinating enough subjects without needing to muddy the waters with fantasy.” Yoda and Alt go on to prove that to be true.

Like Yokai Attack!, Ninja Attack! is organized thematically as opposed to chronologically which might be expected with a book dealing with history. Ninja Attack! features thirty-one important or notable historical figures divided into six groups: “Ninja’s Ninja,” those who served as role models, epitomizing what it means to be a ninja; “Ninja Gone Bad,” which is just what it sounds like; “Ninja Magic,” those that seem supernatural in their abilities; “Ninja Rivals,” samurai and lawmen who interacted with ninja; “Ninja Masters,” those who made good use of and employed ninja; and “Ninja Destroyer,” which is pretty much just Oda Nobunaga. Additional information and fun facts are given throughout the book in the form of sidebars, sections called “The Illustrated Ninja,” in which the authors talk about ninja and ninjutsu more generally, and a brief history of Japan. A glossary, bibliography, and index are also provided, as well as a foreword and an “About This Book” section.

Although there is some variation, most entries in Ninja Attack! consist of five major parts: a full-page, color illustration; a quick fact sheet about the person; a section called “The Man” (or “The Woman” where appropriate), which is a brief biography or introduction of sorts; a section called “The Moment of Glory” which describes an exploit for which the person is known; and a section called “The End” which explains how things ultimately turn out. Some entries have additional sections and in a few cases may be missing some of the ones just listed. One of my few complaints about Yokai Attack! was that the color pages were dropped partway through the book. So, I was very happy to see that this was not the case with Ninja Attack!, which continues to alternate between color and black and white pages from beginning to end.

As much as I loved Yokai Attack!, I think I enjoyed Ninja Attack! even more. The very informal, conversational tone that Yoda and Alt adopt make the book extremely approachable. Even readers who don’t consider themselves history buffs should find Ninja Attack! interesting and probably won’t be scared off. Readers who already know some Japanese history will most likely recognize a number of the people mentioned, but there were plenty who at least I was previously unfamiliar with. A few important fictional ninja are also included in the book, but for the most part Ninja Attack! focuses on historical figures who are known or are believed to have existed, exploring the truth behind the myths and legends that surround ninja even today. Ninja Attack! isn’t the definitive source for its subject area, but it makes a fantastic introduction. Ninja Attack! is lighthearted, thoroughly engaging, and very informative. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the book.