The World of Manga -- Gollancz Releases
by John Berlyne
Review by John Berlyne
Essay ISBN/ITEM#: MangaArt05
Date: November, 2005 / Show Official Info /
Manga, it seems to me, has such a presence and popularity in Japan that it now informs a significant portion of their modern culture. In a country where advertising is perhaps even more important to commerce and industry than it is in the west, the Manga style of depicting images is ever present - it certainly seemed that way when I visited Tokyo some years ago and I can only imagine that it has increased since. For us westerners, our equivalent comic book culture has equal influence, exacerbated by the merchandising industry and, of course the power of the Hollywood studios. Comic book adaptations are now ten a penny - some of them are even quite good too! And as technology continues to improve, these adaptations get better and better.
Even if comic books are not your thing, their presence in our culture is undeniable and inescapable, so what of my first encounter with Manga comics? Well, Gollancz has chosen four of Manga's most popular series with which to test the waters and each one has a slightly different angle and appeal.
Dragon Ball, a rather madcap offering that features the adventures of a tiny, naïve boy with a monkey's tail and super strength has sold around eighty-five million copies worldwide, and dipping into it, it's not hard to see its appeal. This is, perhaps the most fun of the four Manga on offer from Gollancz - Son Goku, the lead character begins the series in the wilds of his homeland, happily going about his business when he encounters the beautiful Bulma, a spunky young girl on a quest to gather together the seven ancient "Dragon Balls" - once she's got them, she'll be granted one wish - which given the level on which this story works, its not surprising that all she wants is a good looking boyfriend. She recruits Goku and together they set off, picking up other characters along the way - one of which is a tiny pig-man shapechanger who is obsessed with women's panties! This indicates the humour level in Dragon Balls - there's a lot of breast and genital fascination in the sub-text here and were I a psychologist rather than a book reviewer, I'd be interested in getting to the bottom of it - if you'll pardon the pun! At face value however, it seems to be good, clean fun and Akira Toriyama's wonderful, quirky artwork imbues this bizzarely eccentric story with a great sense of fun, thus I came away thinking that if this is what Manga is all about, I'd happy get hold of more. Gollancz have seven volumes of Dragon Balls (and indeed, of all the Manga featured here) scheduled through to January 2006 and I gather that this represents only the tip of the iceberg as to the wealth of material available for publication. Indeed the Dragon Balls Official Website tells us that the term "Dragon Ball" is currently one of the top searches on Lycos and it was there that I discovered a real treasure trove of available Dragon Ball relegated info. Am I the only person on Earth who didn't know this was a super-popular Anime series?
Less to my taste was Fushigi Yugi - The Mysterious Play, a Manga begun in 1988 by female artist Yuu Watase. At the heart of this whimsical romance is a secondary world plot. Miaka is, I assume, a fairly typical Japanese schoolgirl - crisp uniform, eating disorder, pressured by her mother to achieve academically, obsessed by dreams of finding the perfect boyfriend &etc. Less typical, I assume, is how she enters a world resembling ancient China via a book she finds in her school library. Once there she finds herself the centre of a legend involving prophecies and priestesses and whatnot and to find her way out of this strange situation, she must gather together seven celestial warriors so that she can summon the power of the god Suzaku and thus find her way home. It may due to my not having an awful lot in common with this protagonist or her situation, but I found myself unable to get into this story. The artwork is less than impressive, a hotchpotch of styles that tends to fudge an already unclear narrative. However it is not hard to recognize the internal themes of self-empowerment that underpin Miaku's adventures in spite of the often rather bizarre actions that the comic depicts. Is it really necessary to throw in so many images of Miaka in her underwear or (often) out of it? And then there are the periodic panels that appear from time to time which display the thoughts of the author - these are rarely to do with the story itself, rather they read more like the journal entries of those who might read this kind of Manga - full of chit-chat and random thoughts. In truth, there's not much in Fushigi Yugi for a reader like me to latch onto, so unless you're a young teenage girl, this probably isn't for you. As with Dragon Ball, this long running series has a fair bit of bandwidth devoted to it - check this site out for further details. This Manga too went on become a long running anime series.
Much more accessible is Yu-Gi-Oh!, a 1996 Manga series by Kazuki Takahashi. Our hero Yugi is a tenth grader obsessed with games and puzzles - perhaps this is fed by the fact that he lives with his grandfather above the game store he runs. Yugi is a pretty normal boy apart from this interest in puzzles - he worries about not being popular and as he's only little, much of his school day seems to involve avoiding the attentions of bullies (which one might think from this is very real problem in Japanese schools.) Yugi's prized possession is a three thousand year old puzzle from ancient Egypt (which his old gramps, one must assume, just had knocking about his stock-room). Yugi's been working on this puzzle for eight years and though he's not completed it, he has translated the ancient hieroglyphs that adorn its box. From this he's leant that whoever completes the puzzle will be granted a wish. It's not a huge giveaway then to tell you that Yugi (of course) solves the ancient puzzle, and the net result is that he finds himself possessed by the King of Games, a spirit that lives within the puzzle. Through Yugi, the spirit challenges evil doers to shadow games, puzzles which if not solved, almost always have grisly consequences. Yu-Gi-Oh! has a harder edge than the previous two Mangas I've discussed - it seems that dark Yugi is happy to entrap the bully boys in his shadow games when often the result is their horrible death or permanent madness. How cool (and convenient!) that he never remembers these events once the spirit has left him. Nevertheless Yu-Gi-Oh! has an awful lot of "cool" about it and had I been reading it at, say, thirteen or fourteen, I would have thought it very cool indeed. See the official Yu-Gi-Oh! web site for more info on this Manga and the huge anime TV show that it spawned.
The final Manga that Gollancz has released in this experimental batch is Case Closed (1994), and it is perhaps the one that resembles western comic structures the most. Jimmy Kudo is a precocious high school student who is also a famed amateur detective. Son of a famous mystery writer, young Jimmy often saves the skins of the (apparently clueless!) Japanese police force by using his incredible deductive skills to solve the seemingly endless murder and abduction cases that abound. He's even something of celebrity. Nevertheless, this schoolboy sleuth still worries about whether his best friend Rachel fancies him. However, Jimmy's curiosity gets him into trouble, for whilst out on the hunt for criminals, he is forced to ingest a chemical which regresses his body to that of a seven year old! In this new juvenile form, Jimmy cannot return to his former existence for fear that those who did this to him will return to finish the job (they intended to kill him) and he fears for his nearest and dearest. He recruits the help of his neighbour, a mad inventor and with his help he finds himself temporarily adopted by his former would-be girlfriend. It's clear that Manga stories are nothing if not unapologetically fanciful, but then that is one of the main attractions of this genre. In short, Case Closed features the adventures of this junior Jimmy as he works to find a way to restore himself to his former glory. Along the way he solves any number of bizarre and far-fetched cases and author Gosho Aoyama's wonderful artwork offers his readers a lot of enjoyment and adventure along the way. As with the previously mentioned manga, Case Closed went on to become a hugely successful anime series - after four hundred episodes and nine movies, it is still running in Japan today. See this web site for further details.
As an introduction to this massively popular form, the Gollancz Manga releases are a resounding success. Their colourful production and reasonable price (each volume is only £4.99) will certainly wet the appetites of British readers and the fact that they read right to left - as in the original Japanese - gives us a real feel of authenticity. It's like being let into a secret and very cool club! To get the most from them, one must be fully prepared to suspend one's disbelief and also bear in mind exactly who the target audience is. These graphic tales are not profound, nor do they attempt to be - instead they offer a welcome dose of easy escapism to the reader, one where no demands are made on us other than to simply enjoy ourselves. With the rights for perhaps hundreds of further volumes available - and that's only for the four series talked about here - Gollancz Manga releases could be with us for years to come. Let's hope so!