Random Musings: Spotlight on Mitsukazu Mihara

For the last two weeks of January 2015, the Female Goth Mangaka Carnival is focusing on the works of Kaoru Fujiwara, Maki Kusumoto, Mitsukazu Mihara, Junko Mizuno, Asumiko Nakamura. While I’ve read and enjoyed manga created by almost all of those women, Mihara is the mangaka that I’ve read the most of and am most familiar with out of the group. (Granted, that may in part be due to the fact that of the five she has had the most manga licensed and released in English.)

The Creator

Mitsukazu MiharaSadly, there doesn’t actually seem to be very much information available in English about Mitsukazu Mihara beyond a few well-established facts. She was born in Hiroshima, Japan on October 17, 1970 and for a long time was based in Osaka. (I believe she may now be working out of Tokyo.) She made her manga debut in 1994 and has been writing and illustrating ever since. Mihara is often credited as being particularly influential in refining the Gothic Lolita sensibility and she frequently served as a featured illustrator for the Gothic & Lolita Bible magazine.

Between 2004 and 2007, Tokyopop released many of Mihara’s works in English, beginning with her series Doll. Mihara is particularly known for her short manga with twists—even her long-form works tend to be fairly episodic—and she frequently employs darker themes and includes heavy psychological elements in her stories. Her manga is influenced and inspired by the problems and issues that she sees in society as well as by her own personal traumas. As she states in an interview from 2008 in the debut issue of the North American edition of Gothic & Lolita Bible, “Often, my greatest work is born during the bad times.”

The Manga

IC in a SunflowerAlthough IC in a Sunflower (1997) contains some of Mitsukazu Mihara’s earliest work, the volume was actually the last of her manga to be licensed in English. A collection of seven unrelated short manga, the volume includes her award-winning debut “Keep Those Condoms Away from Our Kids.” Another of the collected stories, “The Sunflower Quality of an Integrated Circuit,” would later be tied into her series Doll.

R.I.P.: Requiem in Phonybrian While there is some absurdity and black humor in R.I.P.: Requiem in Phonybrian (2000), the volume’s darker elements take precedent. The manga follows the angel Transylvanian Rose who has rescued the soul of a suicide, but he isn’t particularly happy about this turn of events, nor is he particularly interested in his new responsibilities of cleansing other souls. The manga starts out fairly episodic but quickly coalesces.

Beautiful PeopleBeautiful People (2001) is another collection of Mihara’s short manga and includes six unrelated stories. The volume features a range of genres and sub-genres including science fiction, fantasy, magical realism, post-apocalyptic fiction, contemporary drama, and suspense. In general, like much of Mihara’s work, the manga included in the volume tend to be darker in tone, but there are moments of brightness as well.

Doll, Volume 1The manga that Mihara is probably most well-known for, at least in English, is her six-volume Doll (2000-2002). The manga is a series of loosely interconnected stories of androids and angst that are tied together by the end of the final volume. Although the Dolls are an important part of the series, the focus of the manga is much more on the humans and their relationships to the Dolls and to each other.

Haunted HouseBecause it’s primarily a comedy, Haunted House (2002) stands out from the rest of Mihara’s manga available in English. Granted, it still has elements of horror in an Addams Family sort of way. Sabato Obiga is a teenager who desperately wants two things in his life: a girlfriend and a normal family. Unfortunately, the eccentricities and occult interests of his “death flavored” relatives would seem to make both an impossibility.

The Embalmer, Volume 1My introduction to Mihara’s work was through her series The Embalmer (2003-2013) and it remains my personal favorite of her manga. Sadly, only four of the series’ seven volumes were released in English. I’ve actually written a little about the series before, specifically in regards to the main character and the role of embalming in the story. Less fantastic than many of Mihara’s other manga, the series has a strong grounding in reality.

The Themes

Princess White SnowThere are many themes and variations upon them that appear and reappear throughout Mitsukazu Mihara’s work. One of the most prominent elements in Mihara’s manga is the inclusion of families. Even Haunted House, which is so unlike many of her other works, has a family at its core. The families in Mihara’s manga are often broken and in need of healing, but underlying all that turmoil and trauma is an understanding of the immense importance of family and the profound influence, both positive and negative, that a family has on its individual members.

Similarly, there is an intense longing for love and connection that pervades Mihara’s work. Her characters are searching for someone they can be close to, someone they can trust, someone they can reach out to. Sometimes this is found within their families, and sometimes they are forced to look outside of them to satisfy those needs. Love takes on many different forms in Mihara’s stories, and its potential to end in tragedy is just as real as its potential to end in redemption.

Maturer themes dealing with sex and sexuality have been present in Mihara’s work since the very beginning. Her debut manga “Keep Those Condoms Away from Our Kids” (collected in IC in a Sunflower Circuit) tells the story of a near-future Japan in which the birthrate has plummeted because younger generations have completely lost interest in sex. In the post-apocalyptic vision of “World’s End” (collected in Beautiful People), a peculiar twist of fate means that a lesbian and a gay man may be the only survivors. Perversion, fetishism, bondage, and sadomasochism can be seen in much of Mihara’s work as well, but perhaps most obviously in Doll.

Although frequently viewed through the lens of speculative fiction, Mihara isn’t afraid to look at the harsher realities of life and the darker sides of human nature. Abuse, obsession, sexual violence, and other harmful deviant behaviors can all readily be found within her work. Many of Mihara’s characters are suffering, whether from the actions of others or from their own personal demons and psychological disturbances. There is tragedy, sadness, and pain in both their lives and their relationships. Life isn’t always pretty, and Mihara doesn’t shy away from that fact in her manga.

People can be cruel and are capable of terrible things. As is seen again and again in Mihara’s work, it takes a human to be inhumane. The monsters in her stories are often the ones showing the most empathy and caring for others. Sometimes those monsters are literal—like the vampire in “Blue Sky” (collected in Beautiful People). Sometimes they are beings of human design—like the clones in “Alive” (collected in IC in a Sunflower) or the Dolls. And sometimes they are other people who are for one reason or another shunned, abandoned, or reviled by the rest of society. But there is some hope in humanity that remains—people are changed, often for the better, by their interactions with those “monsters.”

The EmbalmerDeath and dying are themes that frequently make an appearance in Mihara’s work, but at the same time an immense respect and reverence for life can always be seen. Matters of life and death are most realistically examined by Mihara in The Embalmer, the series focusing on those left behind to grieve the deaths of their loved ones. The characters must respond to that loss of life in a very personal way and their relationship with death is constantly changing as a result. Requiem in Phonybrian and many of Mihara’s short manga take a more fantastic approach to death and the afterlife, but emotionally it is all still very real.

Mihara’s manga deal extensively with dualities. This is visually epitomized in the Gothic Lolita aesthetic which Mihara frequently incorporates into her work, but it is also present in the narrative themes that she explores. Light and darkness. Beauty and ugliness. Innocence and perversion. Love and hate. Purity and corruption. Human and inhuman. Hope and despair. Life and death. They are pairs of concepts that are so closely intertwined that it is simply impossible for them to be separated from each other.

They are all also qualities that exist simultaneously within a single person or a single story. Although often viewed as positive or negative characteristics, Mihara’s work shows that they aren’t necessarily inherently good or bad. Rather, it’s a fixation on a particular ideal or other imbalance in those qualities that truly causes harm. Mihara’s stories, just like individuals, contain many complexities, contradictions, and layers. They can be shocking and surprising and may often have more depth to them than might first appear.

My Week in Manga: November 19-November 25, 2012

My News and Reviews

I was traveling for the Thanksgiving holiday last week, but I managed to post a review before heading off to my folks’ house. More specifically, I took a closer look at Kotaro Isaka’s award-winning novel Remote Control, which was published under the title Golden Slumber in Japan. I had high hopes for the book, and it started out great, but ultimately I found it to be rather frustrating. Last week was also November’s Manga Moveable Feast—A Thankful Manga Feast, hosted by Matt Blind at Rocket Bomber. I ended up getting a little more personal than I usually do here at Experiments in Manga, but I was happy with my contribution—Random Musings: A Note of Thanks for Wandering Son. (To be completely honest, posting it was a little nerve-wracking for me, too.) I believe next month’s Feast will be focusing on Yumi Hotta and Takeshi Obata’s series Hikaru no Go (which I love) and other game manga. I’m looking forward to it.

Quick Takes

Beautiful People by Mitsukazu Mihara. I’m rather fond of The Embalmer, so I figured I should look into the other works by Mihara that are available in English. Beautiful People is a collection of six short manga: “Princess White Snow,” “World’s End,” “Electric Angel,” “The Lady Stalker,” “beautiful people,” and “Blue Sky.” While the stories are technically unrelated, they all share a sense of melancholy and poignancy with just a touch of darkness. Mihara also tends to incorporate intriguing little plot twists into most of the stories. The six manga in Beautiful People range from magical realism and fantasy, to science fiction and post-apocalyptic settings, to stories that are grounded more in reality. It’s a fairly solid collection.

Blue by Kiriko Nananan. I had previously read a couple of Nananan’s short works, “Heartless Bitch” and “Painful Love,” which were collected in Secret Comics Japan; both pieces, and particularly Nananan’s artwork, left an impression on me. Blue is currently her only full-length work available in English. It’s a fairly simple story of first love: Kayako Kirishima is fascinated by Masami Endō, the girl who sits in front of her, and the two of them eventually become more than just friends. They obviously care for each other, but their relationship is troubled by jealousy and their inability to be completely honest and open with each other. Nananan’s artwork is simple yet striking. Blue has a reflective, poetic, and almost lyrical quality to it.

A Place in the Sun by Lala Takemiya. I’m not exactly sure what I was expecting from A Place in the Sun, an anthology of five short boys’ love manga (“Topping Boys,” “Dustbin Space,” “Afraid to Love,” “My Manga Sensei,” and the titular “A Place in the Sun”), but I was pleasantly surprised. I wasn’t previously familiar with any of Takemiya’s work, but I enjoyed this collection. There’s not much external action in A Place in the Sun; most of the drama consists of the characters’ inner turmoil. The stories are unrelated but all feature quirky characters (which I tend to favor) and generally bittersweet endings. I appreciated that the resolutions to the stories were more complex than a simple “happily ever after.”

Worst, Volumes 1-3 by Hiroshi Takahashi. It’s cruel that only three volumes of Worst were published in English; I doubt that any more of this thirty-volume and still ongoing series will be released in translation. Worst is a spinoff from Takahashi’s series Crows but stands completely on its own. I love Hana Tsukishima, Worst‘s protagonist. He’s seriously the nicest, most endearing guy that will ever beat the shit out of someone else. Worst is a quickly paced manga, moving from one story arc to the next without any hesitation. There is some humor, but the plot mostly focuses on the school and gang wars. The series is violent and the fights are actually pretty realistic. I liked Worst but there are a lot of characters and hierarchies to keep track of.

Random Musings: Dealing with the Dead in The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service and The Embalmer

Out of all the unusual talents that the characters in Eiji Otsuka and Housui Yamazaki’s horror manga The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service hold, the skill that is considered to be the strangest also happens to be one of the more realistic. Keiko Makino is an embalmer, an oddity in Japan where bodies are generally cremated soon after death, largely rendering their preservation unnecessary. In fact, the only other embalmer that I have ever encountered in a manga as a main character is Shinjyurou Mamiya from Mitsukazu Mihara’s series The Embalmer. (Granted, there are several important secondary characters in both of these series who are also embalmers.)

Because Makino and Mamiya share the same profession, they also happen to share a few other things in common. It is now possible to study mortuary science in Japan, but both Makino and Mamiya traveled abroad to America in order to study embalming. I’m not sure if Makino’s school is ever specifically mentioned in The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service, but Mamiya attended the Pittsburgh College of Mortuary Science (a real place, although it’s now known as the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science). Mamiya and Makino also both have ties to American military bases in Japan. Mamiya’s father was an embalmer in the American military and their family lived on a base for a time. In Makino’s case, her skill as an embalmer is occasionally called upon by the Americans when they are shorthanded. Because there are so few embalmers in Japan and because embalming is an unfamiliar process there, both Makino and Mamiya are seen as rather odd and strange. They, and their profession, are often misunderstood and in some cases even reviled.

Embalming primarily serves three functions: the preservation of a body over time (slowing its decomposition), the restoration of a body’s appearance, and the sanitization and disinfection of a body to help prevent the spread of disease. All three of these functions are seen to varying degrees in both The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service and The Embalmer, but for vastly different purposes. Generally, Makino is mostly concerned with preservation—the corpses need to last long enough for their souls to finally be put to rest—and public health (or at least the health of her and her cohorts). One the other hand, Mamiya places an emphasis on the actual restoration of the body. For the most part, embalming in The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service is done for the corpse’s sake while embalming in The Embalmer is done for the sake of the loved ones left behind. It’s an interesting distinction between the two series, basically amounting to revenge versus comfort. Both approaches bring closure but in very, very different ways. After all, The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service is a supernatural horror manga and The Embalmer is a more realistic, psychological drama.

It’s probably not too surprising, but there is more of a focus on embalming in The Embalmer than there is in The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service. This does make a fair amount of sense seeing as Makino is part of ensemble cast while Mamiya is a primary protagonist. The Embalmer explores many different aspects of embalming, including Mamiya’s training and schooling. Of the two series, The Embalmer comes across as a more serious portrayal of the profession. Embalming plays a critical role not just as part of Mamiya’s life but as a part of the entire series. In The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service, Makino’s skills almost come across as a gimmick, which is keeping perfectly in line with the tone of the series as a whole. Often her knowledge of embalming is somehow applied to an entirely different trade, such as serving as a makeup artist on a film set. Although the depiction of embalming isn’t as thorough in The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service, the realistic aspects of the profession are still incorporated into the manga. While the group doesn’t always take full advantage of her knowledge, Makino and her skills are vital assets to the Kurosagi team.

The Embalmer and The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service are two completely different series, but their inclusion of embalmers and embalming creates some fascinating parallels. I find it incredibly interesting how similar themes can be used in entirely different ways to create manga that are so divergent but that still share crucial elements.

This post is a part of The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service Manga Moveable Feast.

My Week in Manga: August 1-August 7, 2011

My News and Reviews

The first week of the month is always a slow one here at Experiments in Manga. I announced the Ghost Talker’s Giveaway Winner, which also includes a few recommendations for absurd manga. Interestingly enough, most of them have something to do with food in one way or another. I also posted July’s Bookshelf Overload. Since I purchase most of my new manga from Borders, which is now undergoing liquidation, I expect that the lists for future months will be somewhat shorter for the most part. Otherwise, I don’t have much to report this week.

Quick Takes

2001 Nights, Volumes 1-3 by Yukinobu Hoshino. 2001 Nights is probably the best science fiction manga that I’ve read. I absolutely loved it. Granted, I’m already a fan of Golden Age science fiction—the likes of Asimov, Clarke, and such—and 2001 Nights is definitely an homage to that tradition. The manga is a collection of nineteen interconnected stories, many of which can stand alone. But read together, they form a magnificently layered narrative. The first volume takes place in the near future, at a time that humanity is just starting to explore deep space, and each volume takes them further and further. It really is a pity that this series is out of print. If you enjoy science fiction, I highly recommend 2001 Nights.

East Coast Rising, Volume 1 by Becky Cloonan. East Coast Rising is one of the unfortunate victims of Tokyopop’s fiascos dealing with their original English-language properties. Only the first volume of the series was ever published, but not because it’s a bad comic. In fact, it was nominated for both an Eisner Award and an International Manga Award in 2007. There’s not much character or plot development in this first volume except for what can be gleaned from how individuals interact with one another. However, there is plenty of action and humor. I think East Coast Rising is fantastic, the art is great, and I am deeply saddened that we’ll probably never get to see the rest of the series.

The Embalmer, Volumes 3-4 by Mitsukazu Mihara. I have come to really like this series; each volume seems to get better and better. Tokyopop only published the first four volumes of The Embalmer, but from what I can tell it’s up to at least six volumes in Japan. However, the series is fairly episodic, so it makes it hurt a little less that it’s not available in its entirety in English. Although, I would really like to know how things turn out between Shinjyurou and Azuki. I particularly enjoyed the third volume since it delves into Shinjyurou’s backstory. I really like Shinjyurou and there is a lot more to him than first appears. In some ways, The Embalmer reminds me of the film Departures, and that is not at all a bad thing.

Gravitation Collection, Volumes 1-4 (equivalent to Volumes 1-8) by Maki Murakami. This is a reread for me—I realized that I never actually finished reading Gravitation and I wanted a quick refresher before I read the last collected volume. This is a series that could easily give a reader whiplash. Most of the time Gravitation is over-the-top insanity and craziness, thanks mostly to one of its leads—Shuichi, a budding rock star. But from time to time it will suddenly turn overly melodramatic and serious. Usually, when the plot has something to do with the other lead—the romance novelist Eiri Yuki with whom Shuichi has fallen in love. Admittedly it’s not the greatest series out there, but for the most part I do find it entertaining.

Samurai Champloo, Episodes 1-15 directed by Shinichirō Watanabe. Samurai Champloo is one of my favorite anime series. In fact, I think it’s the first series I ever purchased volume by volume. Samurai and hip hop make an excellent combination. Despite Samurai Champloo‘s obvious anachronisms, for a very long time this series formed the basis of my knowledge of Edo period Japan (don’t worry, I didn’t stop there). Samurai Champloo has style and a great sense of humor. I adore the characters of Jin, Mugen, and Fuu and enjoy getting to know them as they get to know each other. The trio’s constant bickering can’t hide the fact that they’ve become very important to one another.

My Week in Manga: November 8-November 14, 2010

My News and Reviews

I stayed home sick from work for two days this past week. I ended up sleeping for most of the time, but I also got some manga reading in and finished watching Moribito when I could sit up again. I was also able to get a couple reviews written. One, Tourism in Japan: An Ethno-Semiotic Analysis, was written as part of the 2010 Green Books Campaign. I had the chance to participate in this event last year, too. The second review (and my first in-depth manga review for November) was for Yumiko Shirai’s Tenken, which won the 2007 Japan Media Arts Award Encouragement Prize—it’s a gorgeous manga if nothing else.

I also made a few updates to the Resources page. Two publisher pages have been added: Manga University and DrMaster. In the “News and Reviews” section I’ve included MangaCast, run by Ed Chavez and Khursten Santos; Manga Views, which includes a nice aggregator feed among other things; Manga Report, the manga specific site of fellow librarian Anna from TangognaT (who also runs Manga Views); and Slightly Biased Manga which has a lot of great manga reviews.

Quick Takes

A Drunken Dream and Other Stories by Moto Hagio. I wasn’t originally going to pick up this collection, but then a lot of people whose opinions I respect started raving about it. I’m very glad I bought a copy. There’s a lot of depth to these short stories, sometimes more than what first appears. It’s a great selection spanning Hagio’s entire career so far. I’ve not previously read any of Hagio’s works, but after reading this collection and the included interview I really want to. Not much is available in English by this influential mangaka yet, but I hope that changes. I’m particularly interested in reading her science fiction and boys’ love pieces.

The Embalmer, Volumes 1-2 by Mitsukazu Mihara. I came across this manga mostly by accident, but I’m glad I gave it a shot. The second volume is even better than the first, so I’d definitely like to read the rest of the series as well. Shinjyurou is an enigmatic and charismatic character and I want to know more about him. At first he seems only to be a good looking playboy, but it’s soon apparent he’s deeper and more complex than that. He faces a fair amount of discrimination as an embalmer in Japan but believes in his chosen profession and the peace it can bring to the living. So far, the manga seems to be fairly episodic although there’s an underlying story and romance.

GTO: Great Teacher Onizuka, Volumes 21-25 by Tohru Fujisawa. It’s outrageous, over the top, and completely unbelievable, but I do love this series and was very happy when I was able to find the last few volumes. By this point some of the plot elements seem a bit repetitive, some purposefully so, but Fujisawa never fails to surprise me. He also found a way to end the series that works and I’m not sure that it could have been sustained for much longer. Onizuka is a great character, granted a bit of a lecherous bastard, but he’s honest with himself and others and forces others to be honest with themselves. He gets into all sorts of trouble in the process, but always manages to pull through for his students.

Loveless, Volumes 1-8 by Yun Kouga. This series goes to some really dark places and the characters are twisted and damaged, but I care immensely about them. The loneliness, betrayal, and rejection that they have to deal with is heartbreaking.There is a lot that is left to be explained and a lot that I don’t understand about the world-building, but at this point I don’t care, hoping all will eventually be revealed. It’s a complex story with great art and I want to see where Kouga goes. I really hope that Tokyopop or another publisher is able to bring over the rest of the series (it’s up to at least nine volumes in Japan) because I am completely engrossed in this manga.

Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit, Episodes 13-26 directed by Kenji Kamiyama. What a wonderful adaptation! I loved the original story and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this series, either. There were a few episodes that felt like filler to me, but for the most part the anime is marvelously done and the animation is beautiful. The second half of the series includes Balsa’s backstory which is just as tragic if not more so than Chagum’s. Chagum really grows throughout the series, from a spoiled child prince into a fine young man. It’s definitely a show that needs to be watched in order to get the full impact and you don’t want to skip any episodes, but it’s great.