Grotesque Anatomy
Thursday, December 11, 2003
  Manga Misfires
OK, now that I've shown that I don't hate all superhero comics, let's go in the other direction and show that I don't love all manga.  Here are some manga that fell flat for me:

Sanctuary 3Sanctuary 2-4 by Sho Fumimura and Ryoichi Ikegami (Viz • ~316 pages • $16.95/$17.95)

After thoroughly enjoying the first book of this series, I was very disappointed in the next three volumes.  Part of that was due to repetition--after a while, the pattern of the story became much too familiar:  Hojo is backed into some unwinnable situation; Hojo easily resolves unwinnable scenario in his favor; flashback to Hojo and Asami's horrific and formative past; cut to close-up scenes of modern-day Hojo and/or Asami exclaiming "Sanctuary!" (yes, I know that's the book I'm reading, but I really don't need the constant reminders).  Another disappointment was that the quality of the art seems to have gone down a bit from the first installment.  I don't know if this is because of issues with the reproduction of the art, or if the original manga suffered the same dropoff, but the art in these volumes seemed less detailed (perhaps more rushed or loose?) than before. 

But the biggest reason Sanctuary now leaves an unpleasant taste in my mouth is the repugnant, excessive misogyny in the comic.  Although it seemed obvious from the first volume that this would be a "manly man's man" manga, I was hopeful that the series would have some gender diversity thanks to Deputy Police Chief Ishihara, who seemed like a strong female character.  Boy, was I off.  Instead of providing a formidable opponent for Hojo on the side of law enforcement, Ishihara is reduced to yet another measure of Hojo's charisma.  Ishihara is depicted as literally weak in the knees when she thinks of Hojo, at one point squeezing her own breasts because she's so aroused by Hojo's skill at beating his adversaries.  Mind you, she's doing this while at work, in her office, in full uniform, with her male partner sitting only a few feet away in the same room.  Because, you know, women get so turned on thinking about "bad boys" that they can't contain themselves or concentrate on their work.  Nice adolescent fantasy.

Even worse, shortly thereafter, Ishihara declares that she's willing to give up her entire career in law enforcement in order to follow Hojo.  Never mind that she has no idea what Hojo's ultimate plans or motivations are.  None of that matters because Hojo is hot.


Also repulsive:  The way that women are depicted as objects for Tokai to rape while lightheartedly declaring his homoerotic attraction to Hojo.  Ha ha!  It's funny, you see, because Tokai really loves Hojo, but he can't bring himself to consummate that desire, so he rapes nightclub workers instead.  Ha ha!  Charming!!


I don't think I'll be reading the rest of this series.  I know the series is about individuals choosing to operate outside the law, so it's bound to be unseemly to a degree, but the pervasive sexism in this series crosses a line for me.

Berserk 1Berserk 1 by Kenturo Miura (Dark Horse • 224 pages • $13.95)
All style and no substance.  I imagine this manga might appeal to fans of the original Image-school of comics (the protagonist Guts sports a sword even bigger than any weapon ever wielded by a Liefeld character -- see below) but there's not much beyond some detailed renditions of people losing their heads (or limbs or torsos) to hold the reader's interest.  I know that mysterious characters with dark pasts often make for engaging entertainment, but after reading this, I simply didn't care what Guts' background or motivation might be:  By making Guts so thoroughly unlikable throughout the book, Miura squanders whatever goodwill readers might extend to the character.  Others might disagree, arguing that Guts' gruff exterior heightens the mystery, or adds to his anti-hero air, but I need some hint that a character has some redeeming (or at least intriguing) traits to capture my interest. Perhaps such traits will be revealed in forthcoming volumes, but I also lack the patience to wait for something that may never come.  In the meantime, I have no desire to read about a selfish, thuggish, unsympathetic character, even if his sword is ridiculously big.

BERSERK 1 sample panel

Ring 1Ring 1 by Hiroshi Takahashi and Misao Inagaki (Dark Horse • 304 pages • $14.95)
I was going to write more about this, but Bill Sherman beat me to it with his excellent review.  I'll just quickly summarize what I see as the two main failings of this book:
(1) It's a movie adaptation, in the worst sense of that tradition.  If you've seen The Ring (either the Japanese original or the American remake) you're already familiar with the basic storyline, and this manga only seems concerned about hitting the basic plot points ("Yep, now she'll watch the tape.  Yep, now her ex-husband will watch the tape.  Yep, now her kid will watch the tape...."); it offers nothing new or different to distinguish it as a work worth reading in its own right. 

(2) The art in the manga simply isn't scary, which means that it works against the story it's trying to serve.  The art isn't horrible in it's own right, but it's simply mismatched for the material:  The open art fails to establish a sense of dread or unease--it's simply too comforting and relaxed for a horror story.  Example:

Ring sample page

So the protagonist sees...what?  A tiny, faceless doll?  How is that frightening?  And then when she turns, the room appears bright and open.  How is this disturbing or unnerving?  Imagine if Junji Ito had illustrated this scene and you can begin to appreciate just how spectacularly Inagaki's art fails.

Battle Royale 3Battle Royale 3 by Koshun Takami and Masayuki Taguchi with English adaptation by Keith Giffen  (Tokyopop • 224 pages • $9.99)

Geez, it's like a completely different comic suddenly.  Some possible explanations for my shift in feelings regarding this series:
Once again, thanks to the perils of pre-ordering, I'm locked into the next two volumes of a series I suddenly have no interest in.  My only hope is that Tokyopop continues to delay this book, thus leading to resolicitations, thus giving me an opportunity to bail.

Buddha 1Buddha 1 by Osamu Tezuka (Vertical, Inc. • 400 pages • $24.95)

This really surprised me.  So many reviewers I respect raved about this, I really expected to enjoy it.  I suppose part of my disappointment can be chalked up to "the backlash effect" (most recently seen with Blankets), but I swear I'm not just trying to be contrary:  I really thought Buddha was a substandard work, and I'm left wondering why everyone else seems to love it.  I'm fine leaving it at "I don't get it," but I figure I may as well lay out my two main complaints, if only to offer an alternate opinion:

The Art.  What constitutes "good" comic art is an area where differences in opinion have been known to get heated, so I'll do my best not to slip into objective-sounding pronouncements about Osamu Tezuka's art.  With the comics blogosphere now seeming to have come down from DEFCON 1, I'm wary about setting things off again, so please let me make this very clear:  WHAT FOLLOWS IS ONLY MY OPINION.  Anyway, I think my complaint with the art in Buddha resembles the problem I had with the art in The Ring:  It just doesn't seem to fit the material.   I'm not opposed to Tezuka's style per se, but it doesn't seem to work with the historical setting, especially those scenes that call for a less cheery approach (such as depictions of extreme poverty or class stratification).  I don't feel like I'm reading about history (or a story based loosely on historical events); I feel like I'm reading a Disney comic that decided to use historical characters to give the story gravitas.  (And, yes, I'm aware of the influence Disney had on Tezuka.)

Aside from matters of style, which obviously involve issues of taste, I also have problems with some of the mechanics of Tezuka's art.  In this sequence, for example, Tezuka breaks the 180-degree rule, and there seems to be no reason for composing the scene this way:

Sample page from BUDDHA #1

If Tezuka had drawn the page with the characters lining up on the same side consistently, it would have been much easier to follow the flow of events.  (Interestingly, the top portion of this sequence was featured in Greg McElhatton's review of Buddha, but he omitted the page's final panel.)

The Parable.  Toward the end of the book, a monk is punished for failing to grasp the full meaning of a parable--the Riddle of the Self-Sacrificing Rabbit.  In the tale, a monk (Master Goshala) traversing a difficult mountain pass collapses from hunger and fatigue.  Three animals come across the monk:  A bear, a fox, and a rabbit.  Each creature goes off in search of something for the monk to eat.  The bear returns with a pile of fish he caught in a nearby stream.  The fox returns with some berries that he found by digging in the snow.  But the  rabbit returns empty-handed (empty-pawed?)  Meanwhile, the monk has revived, and now builds himself a fire, presumably to prepare the fish.  Once the fire is burning, however, the rabbit suddenly throws himself onto the flames, sacrificing himself so that the monk may eat.

So what is the point of the tale?  In the beginning of the book, the other monks appear bewildered by the tale.  One monk even objects that the story cannot be true.  The monks are reassured by a different master (Master Asita) that the tale is true, for it was told to him by his master, none other than Goshala himself!  Furthermore, Asita tells his pupils that "there are but few who can solve the riddle; he who can has the power to become a god, or ruler of the world."

At one point in the story, yet another monk (Naradatta) thinks that he has come to understand the riddle when he witnesses the selfless sacrifice of another character:
Master Asita!!  O teacher!  I grasp the meaning of your tale!  Master Asita!  This child has shown me the way!  Until now, I've only considered the human world.  That is why I could not understand why a rabbit sacrificed itself to save a human... In nature, humans and beasts, even snakes, are all kin.  Helping each other is the law of the living.
Later on, however, Naradatta is reprimanded by Master Asita for sacrificing several animals to save one human:
To save just one human, you mindlessly harnessed numerous beasts to an impossible task...and killed them one by one!  The beasts you bent to your purpose all suffered greatly and died cruelly!  You believe that human lives are sacrosanct while animal lives are worthless?! .... Life is sacred whether or not it is human!
OK, fine.  All life is sacred.  That still doesn't explain why the rabbit was justified in immolating itself simply to feed Master Goshala in the original tale, especially since the bear and the fox had already found food for the monk.  Maybe the rabbit should have held off a bit to see if the food they had found was enough for the monk before committing suicide.  And even if the monk had needed more food, why should the rabbit die to save the monk if all life is sacred?  The riddle seems structured to lead to the conclusion that human life is more valuable than other life, so I'd say Naradatta learned the lesson of the parable perfectly well.

It may seem as though I'm nitpicking on this point, but the Riddle of the Self-Sacrificing Rabbit is obviously supposed to be of central importance in the narrative, so it's a little annoying that it isn't treated consistently.  Or perhaps I just don't get the riddle, either.  I have been known to have a bit of a blind spot when it comes to religion.

So there you have it:  Five whole manga I wasn't crazy about.  Tune in next week when I suddenly develop an appreciation for the writing of Brian Michael Bendis and the art of Rob Liefeld.
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by John Jakala

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