Guest Post: An Examination and Appreciation of the Works of Usamaru Furuya

As the host of the Usamaru Furuya Manga Moveable Feast, I am delighted to welcome Jim Hemmingfield to Experiments in Manga as a guest writer. I am absolutely thrilled that Jim agreed to contribute to the Feast!

Jim Hemmingfield is a manga fan who lives in London. He’s been collecting manga since the early 90s and is mainly interested in the more alternative artists. He would like to blog more but hardly has any time. Occasionally he posts to the Same Hat Tumblr. You can also find him on Twitter @jimhemmingfield.

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A page from Palepoli

Out of all the manga-ka to see the light of day in the US, Usamaru Furuya is certainly the most idiosyncratic; or, at least, the most versatile in his idiosyncrasies. He also seems to be one of the more successful of the alt-manga crowd in the US due to a recent resurgence of titles being released. It would, however, be an injustice to simply tag Furuya as an alt-manga artist. Instead, Usamaru Furuya is a unique creator, as happy to work in the mainstream as he is in the underground. It’s fairly common for manga-ka to produce works for different demographics (Shonen, Shojo, Seinen etc.) but I’m not sure that many have pushed the boundaries like Furuya; and, if they have, they haven’t made it to our shores. I’d go so far as to say, without learning Japanese (or possibly French?) you would be hard pressed to find such a versatile and individual manga-ka as Furuya. The only travesty is that we still haven’t had a chance to witness some of his finest moments.

A bit of background on Furuya is necessary to understand how he managed to achieve this standing. In the book Manga (published by Taschen, edited by Julius Wiedemann and Masanao Amano) there is a DVD which includes an interview with Furuya, detailing both his background and career. Whilst at Elementary School and Junior High, Furuya enjoyed drawing manga and began to submit illustrations to magazines. Unlike so many manga-ka’s stories who begin cartooning early and never stop, Furuya’s interest in manga dwindled throughout High School and College. Furuya states at this stage became less interested in manga and had little exposure to it.

Instead, he developed an interest in fine arts and theatre. He majored in oil painting at College and began to act in theatre at the same time. From here he became interested in dance, taking his inspiration from Saburo Teshigawara. His interests at this point, he says, were using his body to express. He also became interested in mono-ka, an art movement that I can find no information about online, which Furuya says is similar to the Italian Arte Povera. This is a type of 3D art, such as installations, and that was the type of art Furuya was most interested in creating around that time.

These interests continued after College. Furuya would continue to perform experimental dances which would incorporate less and less movement, to the point that they could hardly be described as dance. He would also display 1 or 2 3D pieces per year in galleries. As creating these pieces took such a long time, Furuya began to take on additional work, doing illustrations for text books, such as drawings of insects and plant photosynthesis. When he started doing this Furuya’s love of drawing was reignited. He believes that when he went to college drawing is what he really wanted to do but he was distracted by the new ways of expression he discovered and was possibly influenced by peers and tutors to pursue them leading him away from illustration. Whatever the cause, if not for the uncommon path Furuya travelled, his manga would probably not be as unique and interesting as they are.

Furuya was 24 when he began producing his first manga, Palepoli, which was serialised in the seminal underground manga anthology Garo. Palepoli was my second exposure to Furuya’s work, in the sadly now out of print Secret Comics Japan (published in 2000 by Viz). Palepoli is a Yonkoma style manga, generally a gag strip, always consisting of four panels. Furuya started with this format as he was only starting out and was nervous about creating a longer narrative. He says that he also tried to take the fundamentals of art to create a manga and that he would take an entire day to draw one frame, meaning each page would take four days to complete. Unlike traditional Yonkoma, which consist of four horizontal panels that read top to bottom, Furuya had Palepoli set out like a four panel grid. Furuya’s art background, coupled with the amount of time he spent on each page, meant that, although some strips would ape traditional manga styles, most of the strips had a unique, highly detailed and stylised look. The gags, although funny, dealt with a variety of dark, disturbing and occasionally grotesque subject matter. Also, some of the formalism on display, such as the trick drawings which look like one thing close up but another from further away, makes for some breathtaking artistry. I’m surprised one of these strips didn’t make it into Secret Comics Japan. A lot of Palepoli has a very unique Japanese-ness to it but the surreal-ness and artistry of the work overall makes me think it would be accepted and appreciated by both mature manga readers and the art comix crowd. Out of all of Furuya’s unpublished works Palepoli is the one I would like to see the most. I’m lucky enough to own a Japanese copy which, although I don’t understand, gives me tremendous enjoyment to look through but the idea of owning a fully translated copy would really make my day.

Another of Furuya’s earlier experimental pieces was Plastic Girl, which is also high on my list of Furuya titles I would love to see licensed. Plastic Girl is unlike any other manga I’ve seen and, like Palepoli, would go down well with the alternative, art comix crowd. Unlike most manga, Plastic Girl is a full colour book, published in a large size and clocking in at a slender 46 pages. Again, Furuya employs his art background to craft an amazingly beautiful book, using a variety of different styles and utilising different materials for each section including painting on wood, cloth and canvas. The book has 23 different chapters, each spread over two pages and Furuya employs different styles for most (occasionally some are repeated). My personal favourite is one that is painted to look like 2 stained glass windows. All of it is gorgeous and, from what I can gather, the narrative is symbolic, surreal and occasionally disturbing, like many of Furuya’s works. (There is a review from someone who can read Japanese at Completely Futile). Unfortunately, though the imagery is fairly tame for the most part, I can see this being a hard sell in the west as it differs so much from the general perception of manga. I definitely can’t see it being picked up by any of the major manga publishers.

“Emi-chan” from Garden

Palepoli and Plastic Girl are probably Furuya’s most artistic and experimental books, but that’s not to say his other works aren’t also worth exploring. There are several unlicensed works that look like they would be far more interesting than the majority of manga licensed in the US. His short story collection Garden, which contains several stories of differing length, collected from alternative publications Comic Cue and Manga Erotics, is possibly more conventional in terms of the art and layout overall, although Furuya continues to switch up his style for each story. He also continues to explore the darker side of the human psyche as well as inserting comical stories and ones that look as though they are more fantasy orientated. The last story in particular, although I have only seen it in its original Japanese, plumbs some of the darkest depths of Furuya’s mind. It makes for a disturbing read (even without being able to understand the dialogue) but the shaky line Furuya uses fits the mood perfectly. The story is so extreme that in the original tankobon the pages are sealed together. The reader has the choice as to whether or not they wish to cut open the pages in order to read it. It is broke up into several sections so if it gets to extreme you do not need to continue. I’m unsure if this was Furuya’s choice or the publishers but it is an interesting choice. I have actually seen this in one other book, King Terry’s Heta-Uma Dictionary, although the sealed pages are no more shocking than the rest of the book (i.e. not really shocking at all) unlike the work in Garden. All in all, there are at least three stories in Garden that make it un-publishable in English which is a real travesty. A review of Garden can also be found at Completely Futile.

After Garden (and another short story collection called Wsamarus 2001 that I have no information on) Furuya began to work on slightly longer form narratives and began to work for more varied magazines. Saying this, Short Cuts, one of Furuya’s series that has been published in English (out of print but fairly cheap to get hold of) was serialized in Young Sunday not long after Palepoli and around the same time the stories in Garden were appearing in much more underground/niche publications. In the DVD interview, Furuya gives his reasons for working for a variety of publishers. He states that he wants to create a wide variety of works and that each one is dependent on certain rules and regulations. In other words, Furuya likes the restrictions that will be placed on him by some publishers, allowing him to create something within those set boundaries. This is why he is happy to work for a broad spectrum of magazines. Two of his more recent works, Genkaku Picasso and Lychee Light Club were published in Jump SQ (part of Shuiesha’s Jump line of Shonen magazines) and Manga Erotics F respectively, two distinctly different publications (both titles are available in English from Viz and Vertical), showing Furuya is still happy to take his work to wherever it is best suited.

Out of all of Furuya’s works I believe his longest is called Pi. At nine volumes long it could still be seen as a fairly short series in comparison to many manga. Pi was published in Shogakukan’s Big Comic Spirits, a fairly popular Seinen anthology. I know little about this title except that it revolves around a man obsessed with finding the perfect breasts. Along with Genkaku Picasso (I’m not a big Shonen reader), this is the Furuya title that appeals the least but, artistically, it is up to Furuya’s high artist standard.

Along with the titles mentioned earlier, the Furuya works I would most like to see are his darker ones like the recently released Lychee Light Club (published in US by Vertical). This is Furuya’s adaption of the Tokyo Grand Guignol play so it combines two of Furuya’s interests. In style and content it is similar to another one of my favourite manga artists Suehiro Maruo. Furuya has acknowledged by dedicating the book to Maruo as well as the TGG troupe leader Norimizu Ameya. I would say that Furuya incorporates more black humour in Lychee Light Club than I have seen in Maruo’s work. Still it is treads fairly dark territory and has several gory moments. Furuya is currently working on a prequel to Lychee Light Club which he is serialising online.

Trick drawing from Palepoli

Another title I would be eager to read, that does not seem to mine the darker side of Furuya’s psyche, is The Music of Marie. This title is described as a fantasy epic that revolves around a world where men are watched over by a mechanical goddess in the sky called Marie who brings them contentment with her music. It sounds like an enchanting story that seems to evoke early Hayao Miyazaki works, especially Nausicaa. At only 2 volumes long I would see it being an ideal choice for Vertical if they wish to publish more Furuya after they have finished No Longer Human, which I would highly recommend. I have also heard many people say that Furuya’s art in The Music of Marie is arguably his best. For those of you lucky enough to be able to read French, the series has been published by Casterman.

These are only a short selection of Furuya works that deserve some more attention. There are many more fascinating titles by Usamaru Furuya, all of which I feel would easily find an audience in the west and this is without mentioning those already available, all of which are worth your time and money. As I said to begin, Usamaru Furuya is a unique and visionary artist; probably one of the finest artists you will find working in comics today and I hope this feast helps to spread the word.