Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Cross Game and The Artistic Subtleties of Mitsuru Adachi

Mitsuru Adachi has a simple, if not unique art style. It is soft, round and easy to take in and comprehend. His panelling is quite conventional, but because of this, the story flows expertly. These small things together make it obvious of how much a veteran Mitsuru Adachi is. But there is one aspect in particular that I love about Adachi as an artist. He is all about subtlety and the unspoken. I mentioned that he has a simple style, and he does, but somehow, in that simplicity, he manages to convey so much while saying so little. Mitsuru Adachi has serialized sixteen original works, several adaptations, and many short stories, but today I'm going to look at his 2005 baseball manga, 'Cross Game'. A story about loss, love, and of course, baseball, 'Cross Game' perfectly embodies the art of subtlety in all its aspects.

Here we have main character Ko Kitamura noticing a hat floating in the water. The second panel that is zoomed in on the profile of his face is very powerful in the context of the story. In that eye is a world of emotion. Ko is remembering his dead childhood friend Wakaba. Adachi could get all sappy here and add a thought bubble of Ko revealing his emotions, but Adachi restrains himself and allows the reader to bask in the subtlety of that page. No words need to be spoken. No thoughts need to be revealed. This technique of showing a character wide-eyed, in profile, lost in thought is used several times throughout the manga with much versatility and it never gets old.

In this example, we have Aoba, who never gets along with Ko, cracking a faint smile and Ko barely catching the sight of it. Ko's team had just lost a hard fought game and Aoba's sister, Ichiyo told her to make sure she is smiling when she sees Ko next. But in the context of the story, you can tell that this simple smile is not forced at all. Aoba would never patronize Ko just to make him feel better about a loss. Ko earned that smile through his hard work on the mound and genuinely impressed Aoba. This is one of the subtle turning points in the manga for these two characters' rocky relationship. It's little moments like this that make the long, slow advancement of Aoba and Ko's relationship throughout the entirety of the manga so incredible.

On this page we have everyone reacting to Aoba getting hit with a line drive. Just moments before, Ko had warned her to use a net, but she refuses. At first glance, it would seem that everyone has similar expressions of disbelief. And they do, but the  reader knows that Ko's concern is the strongest. Having already lost one Tsukashima sister in his life, another would be too much to bear. This is just one example of Ko's caring for Aoba showing through despite how they appear to not get along.

Though Adachi's character art lacks realism and detail, the character's faces are surprisingly expressive. Again, with just a light touch, a change in eyebrow angle here, a change in mouth shape there, he can do so much with such uncomplicated faces. And these subtle changes in expression aren't arbitrary. They are so dynamic and move so smoothly within the context of the story. It really brings the characters to life. As I said, the way he conveys so much with such an understated art style is almost more impressive than a style that uses realism. He is somehow able to do more with less. All the while, not leaving it up to the reader to wrack their brain with interpretation. His work is obvious and subtle at the same time, which is both perplexing and incredible.

It just goes to show that Mitsuru Adachi is a master of his medium. More than thirty years in the manga industry really shows in these subtle touches that may even go unnoticed. Reading 'Cross Game' has taught me to slow down and appreciate the little things in the manga I read. It's kind of poetic that a manga that I appreciate for its subtle charms has seemingly made very little impact on the American manga industry. As I understand it, 'Cross Game' wasn't exactly a blockbuster. Which is sad, because it is an amazing series in more ways than just the ones I describe here. If you want to experience all things subtle, understated, light-touched, and simply charming that is 'Cross Game', you can get all eight omnibus volumes in digital and print from Viz Media. I couldn't even begin to describe the nuances of 'Cross Game', so I implore you to check it out for yourself.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Ooku: The Inner Chambers vol. 1-7

Some of the most interesting stories come from real life history. Truth is often stranger than fiction. But, a little artistic license can go a long way, and that's why I think Fumi Yoshinaga's most excellent retelling of the Tokugawa Shogunate, 'Ooku: The Inner Chambers', is the perfect read for the History Manga Moveable Feast.

It was during the Edo Period that the traditionally patriarchal society of Japan was flipped upside down. A new disease called "The Redface Pox" was ravaging the country, attacking mostly young men, and bringing the male population to one fifth of the female population. High and low class alike, the Redface Pox didn't discriminate, and took even the life of Shogun Iemitsu Tokugawa. With the Shogun dead, danger of reverting back to the bloody times of war and power struggles led the former Shogun's beloved wet nurse, Reverend Kusaga to do something that would change Japan as we know it. In the name of continuing the peaceful Tokugawa reign, Reverend Kusaga put in place measures that would allow Iemitsu's daughter to become the first female Shogun....Five female Shogun's later, Japan is a very different place. Women do all the work, including governance, while the men valuable only for their seed, are pampered and protected. The eighth Tokugawa Shogun, Yoshimune, is sharp and frugal, and wary of the luxurious and wasteful ways of the inner chambers that houses her harem of male concubine. The Ooku. Wanting to know just how things came to be as they are, Yoshimune seeks out the elderly chief scribe, who reveals to her the true history of the Ooku, and the way things once were, but now forgotten.

One of my favorite things about this series is that with a little imagination, it could very well be presented as an untold, true history. It shows how a cover up took place in order to preserve the Tokugawa Shogunate and prevent more war. And it explains that the period's isolationist policies were put in place so that they didn't alert the outside world of the dwindling male population and invite invasion. It's all fascinatingly plausible if you aren't familiar with the actual history like me. I found it very fun to get lost in the fantasy, and at the same time, I became very curious about the real history of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Surely, that alone embodies the spirit of a manga moveable feast about history.

On the topic of history, while it is obvious that much artistic license was taken here, many real world people and events are featured in detail. It's a bit of an alternate history, where the timeline breaks off from the real world that we know at Iemitsu's death. From there, most every piece of history that is public knowledge goes on as told, but with the unique twist of swapping gender roles. Chronicled within in detail are famous events like "The Revenge of the Forty-seven Ronin", a violent mark on the largely peaceful era, and the notorious "Ejima-Ikushima Affair", which was the biggest scandal to ever hit the Ooku. If real history buffs can look past the obvious inconsistencies and just have fun with it, I think that they could relish in what a simple twist turns real history into a most imaginative piece of historical fiction.

Another interesting aspect of 'Ooku' is the politics and government. The constant warring of the Sengoku period may have come to an end, but all was not sunshine and butterflies for the Tokugawa Shogunate. On the face of things, most everyone was elegant and polite, but in reality, the Tokugawa period portrayed in 'Ooku' was rife with behind the scenes political battles that wouldn't be out of place in 'Game of Thrones'. Even exchanges of politeness and courtesy can be a contest. In fact, more often than not, playing the part of the good guy gets you farther than revealing your ruthlessness. I found this round-about, subtle, chess match-like way of getting ahead a lot more entertaining than the unseemly, more straightforward and sometimes messy approach. But the political aspect isn't all petty power struggles. There is actual governance displayed, and I quite enjoyed seeing how the different Shoguns went about running the country. We get to see the process of coming up with policies, the policies being put into place, and the result of those policies, which don't always go as planned. Some Shoguns were very popular and govern well, and others are hated, mocked, and largely manipulated by their advisers. A very dynamic governmental period to behold. One may think that the times of war before the Tokugawa Period would be a more interesting and exciting time in Japanese history, but the Edo Japan presented in 'Ooku: The Inner Chambers' was equally as interesting in my book.

If politics and history aren't your thing, no worries. That isn't all 'Ooku' has to offer. For me, the main appeal of this series was the character interactions. My favorite interaction between characters has to be the well developed relationship between forced concubine, Arikoto, and Lady Iemitsu, who took her father's place as Shogun. What was at first a rocky relationship, turned into a true, yet unconventional romance. Having genuinely bonded, Arikoto became Iemitsu's sole concubine...that is, until he failed to get her pregnant. With that, their relationship became more complicated. She was forced to take more men to her bedchambers in order to produce an heir, as was her duty as the Tokugawa Shogun. Needless to say, this brought both Arikoto and Iemitsu great pain, but they never stopped loving each other. In a manga that can be very cold and calculating, I found this storyline to be very sweet and heartfelt. This true romance in the sea of political relationships formed only to best stay in power, stood out and made both more enjoyable for it.

If I'm going to talk about character interactions, I have to mention the sheer amount of dialogue in this series. The speech bubbles are filled with paragraphs, not sentences, and it took me more than twice as long to read a single volume of 'Ooku' as it did for average manga books. The enormous amount of dialogue, combined with just the right amount of narration, make this a story so epic in scale, that it felt like I had just read 70 volumes instead of 7. Ooku truly is dense with content. It's surprising how much historical detail was put into just seven volumes. Eighty-plus years of history and so many important players, you would think the story would read like a drab history book, but Fumi Yoshinaga managed to both convey the history, and the in depth personal lives of these complex characters. You really feel like you know the characters, which feels like a privilege considering the secrecy and high status of most of them. The incredible word count and the masterful pace are unforgettable for me. Without a doubt, this is one of the most rewarding manga reading experiences I've had. There is just so much to grasp, that even though this is my second read through of this series, it still felt fresh and new. I can barely comprehend all the information that has been given. I suspect it will take several more read-throughs to fully appreciate everything presented, and I value that greatly.

Speaking of dialogue, the way characters in 'Ooku' talk is unique among manga that I have read. The faux-Shakespearian style takes some getting used to, but it rather grew on me and helped set the mood greatly. It takes a little more mental work to decipher this unfamiliar way of speaking, but really creates an interesting reading experience. Quickly, I found myself seeing this fancy way of speaking quite charming, and I can't imagine the story working properly if these characters were using modern speech. At first glance, it may sound silly, but I think it is either this, or read it in its original Japanese(which I can't). I really have to hand it to the translator, Akemi Wegmuller. It's almost as if she had to translate twice. Once to English, and then to the faux-Shakespearian. I can only imagine it took forever and to keep it up throughout the books was impressive. I know this adaptation choice has its critics, but I for one, am a fan. Some may see it as a burden, but I see it as a bonus.

I've got to say, as a manga reader, I am really thankful that the topic of this Manga Moveable Feast is history. It led me to revisit this amazing series, to read new volumes that have come out since my last read, and to appreciate aspects I may have missed at first glance. But whether you like history or not; If you just want to read good manga. Good stories. You can't go wrong with 'Ooku: The Inner Chambers'.

Thursday, March 14, 2013


I'm not very smart or educated, but oftentimes, I have thoughts too big for my head. I think about space a lot and its vastness and what that means for us humans who are seemingly an insignificant speck in the grand scale of things. Taking a trip to my local library, I decided to give one of my favorite manga of all time another reread. That manga is 'Planetes' by Makoto Yukimura, and I think it embodies those "big thoughts" I often have perfectly, while still being down to Earth enough just to enjoy as an interesting sci-fi story.

In the not too distant future of 'Planetes', humans have begun colonization space. With a permanent settlement on the moon and numerous space stations, the private sector has even made its way into the final frontier. And wherever humans go, we seem to leave a trail of our garbage in our path. That's where the crew of the DS-12 "Toy Box" comes in. Fee, Yuri, and the young Hachimaki are its crew and their job is space debris collection. Basically, space garbage men. Hachimaki doesn't really like his job, and his dream is to one day have a spaceship of his own so he can explore space in complete freedom. To do that, he has to save up a lot of money, so he decides to join the first manned mission to Jupiter. It won't be easy. For any of the crew of the DS-12. Yuri must come to grips with the death of his wife from an accident caused by space debris. Fee has run ins with anti-space colonization terrorists while worrying about her family back home. Hachimaki is willing to trade in his humanity for the sake of his dream. Space is hostile and unforgiving, and in 'Planetes' we take a look at the daily lives of people trying to make the best of it.

I think one of the most fascinating sub-genres is slice-of-life. There's just something about a form of media that just focuses on the daily lives of people. Even the seemingly mundane aspects can interest me. People just talking or doing their jobs. 'Planetes' captures this aspect really well. The manga doesn't depend on a complex, overarching story, but instead focuses on building interesting characters and showing their daily lives. Some days are business as usual, with character interactions as a highlight, and some days are as exciting as things can get. That's not to say there is no story at all. Hachimaki's goals are the most notable driving force of the story. But it's interesting. I think even he realizes in the end that it's the simple things, like the friends he has made, that make life(and this story) worthwhile. It's almost as if as a character, he wants to be in a story driven manga, but in the end, he finally sees the appeal of slice-of-life.

I mentioned in my opening paragraph that this manga can have "big thoughts" if you want it to. A lot of the time, I'm not smart enough to understand them, but I think with philosophy, just trying to understand is what it's all about. You don't really have to come up with a concrete answer. Thinking is the key, and this manga certainly gets you thinking. Some questions are thrown right in your face and are woven in to the very fabric of the characters. Yuri contemplates where the Earth's atmosphere ends and where space begins. He at first tries to explain this with science, but eventually comes to realize that these boundaries and limits are made up by us humans. We are in outer space right now. Space Ship Earth. Other questions are a little more subtle. The manga, through the characters, asks the hows and whys of love, war, discrimination, life and death. But knowing that I don't understand a lot of what is being asked and told, I can tell you that this philosophical aspect is a bonus layer, and that you can just sit back and enjoy a great sci-fi read too if you like. No need to get all deep and wrack your brain if you don't want to.

The print quality is pretty standard. It does include some nice color pages though. Tokyopop gets a bad rap, but if they only did one thing right, it was licensing 'Planetes'. Too bad it went out of print even before the company shut down it's U.S. division. I don't think it sold very well in the first place. Even though the market was still growing at the time as compared to the currently declining U.S. manga market, I think it would sell better now in this environment. I believe more adults are reading manga now, and it wouldn't get buried beneath the endless piles of mediocrity that Tokyopop was releasing at the time. Not to mention, if the hype surrounding the license of 'Vinland Saga' is anything to go by, more people know about Makoto Yukimura and his work. I really hope 'Vinland Saga' does well. Maybe then, Kodansha U.S.A. will do a 'Planetes' reprint, and this wonderful series will be able to reach the people who missed out the first time around.

Like I said, this manga is out of print, so I'm not even sure there was much point in me "reviewing" this series. You may be able to buy some overpriced volumes on EBay or Amazon(I love this series, but some of the prices people ask for out of print manga are ridiculous). I was lucky enough to have a local library that stocked this amazing title. Do yourself a favor. Search your library's database, and if they have 'Planetes', check it out immediately, because it is the best use of twenty six chapters in manga history.