Friday, 25 February 2011

The Journey of Shuna / シュナの旅

How can you write about a book you cant read? It seems like a fools errand, but Im going to try anyway!

The Journey of Shuna is one of the few manga written by Ghibli film director Hayao Miyazaki. His works are in high demand, but for some reason Journey of Shuna has never been published in English, and frankly Ive no idea why. Maybe the storys rubbish or something, but its not really something I can comment on.

What I can talk about however is how beautiful this thing is. Its around 150 pages and small in size (think Lone Wolf and Cub small) with all the hand drawn and watercoloured artwork being printed in full colour. Yes: Colour! This isnt your average black and white manga, but more an illustrated novel with few speech bubbles with a narration running over the artwork. Theres a low panel count per page count, mostly 2 or 3 if not a full spread, so you really get to see Mayazaki in his element. Story be damned - this is top notch stuff!

Originally published in 1983, this is pre-Ghibli Miyazaki. A time when the Nausicaa manga had only been partly serialized in Animage and the movie was still in the works. The style echoes not only Nausicaa, but the later Princess Mononoke making it especially interesting to see how his recurring elements interchange between works. Everyone knows what happened once the Nausicaa movie came out and then Ghibli subsequently starting up, but much of what Miyazaki and his associates were making before then isnt really talked about, at least not in English speaking territories. But it should be.

If you see this writing as just an elaborate way to say this book has pretty pictures’… then youd be right. Over 25 years on and the books still in print in Japan. It isnt bank-breakingly expensive and is easier to find online that youd expect. Miyazaki and Ghibli completists need this, as for anyone who appreciates a bit of honest old-school illustration.

Saturday, 12 February 2011


Believe it!

For a title to reach its 50th volume is a pretty big deal. Only the most popular manga get to even double figures in Japan, but its even rarer for this success to translate to the western market (aside from Inu Yasha and One Piece I can’t actually think of any others). Viz has done well to make Naruto one of the biggest titles in the western market, and while connoisseurs might turn their nose up to something popular or mainstream, it must be doing something right!

You probably know the story of Naruto - the wannabe outcast ninja who had a evil fox-demon’s spirit fused with him at birth. It’s the typical shonen thing about ‘doing your best’, proving yourself against your peers, having a tournament and beating the bejesus out of bad ninja. And that’s pretty much how things proceed for many, many volumes.

There’s probably something to be said about a society which is happy to send 12-year-olds out and off into the battlefield, but Naruto is a fun, goofy character who is accompanied by a vast number of easily identifiable cast members. True a couple will annoy the hell out of you, but Naruto knows what it wants to do and it does it well. Nothing wrong with that!

Having sucked an entire generation of fans into his world by following the well-trodden path, the story then jumps a couple of years into the future and kicks the franchise off into new directions. The characters are already developed and pre-installed, so the series can cut the crap and go off into one long sprawling saga. And by scale I don’t simply mean just Kamehamehas or Spirit Bombs, but more characters, secret organisations, political coups and a plotline that feels like it has actual direction as opposed to being an excuse to create more merchandising opportunities.

Yes it still essentially boils down to ninja vs. ninja action, and for many that’s reason enough for many potential readers to hide the bargepole. It’s certainly not perfect, but given half a chance Naruto will totally suck you in.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011


So far there’s been a distinct lack of shojo-styled manga on this blog - time for a change of pace! That said perhaps not, as this is one of the more disturbing titles I’ve ever had the ‘pleasure’ of reading.

Ayumu’s an everyday high school girl with average grades and modest personality. Her best friend Shinozuka is the top of the class and they decide to study together to help bring her grades up. All intentions are good and Ayumu’s grades steadily raise, but things are a little too close for comfort for Shinozuka who begins to feel her position as the better student threatened. Only Ayumu passes her finals, causing the two to go their separate ways, but not before Shinozuka’s bitter resentment is passed on, causing Ayumu’s confidence to nose dive… and there ends chapter 1.

If by the title we’re to assume that this manga really represents ‘Life’, then I’d be terrified to ever go to a Japanese school. Early volumes contain scenes of self-harm, public humiliation, kidnappings and sleazy blackmail - even a scene where a group of girls try to force Ayumu into swallowing needles. It’s pretty grim stuff. What makes Life so difficult to read is that there’s no real reason for Ayumu to be so perpetually victimised aside from the insecurities of the absolute psychopaths that she seems to attract.

From volume 6 the age rating jumps up to the 18+ mark and goes further with the intensity. Our heroes are kidnapped again, tied to a bed, sexually assaulted and left for dead with the building on fire. School kids don’t do this! The drama is so overblown that is risks becoming pure melodrama, which to be honest would offer real respite to the horrendous sequences of events. But that it is able to reign in its intensity makes this uncomfortable and gripping reading throughout.

Unfortunately, and somewhat mercifully, Tokyopop wasn’t able to publish beyond volume 9 when Kodansha pulled all their licences from them. Some sort of resolution or sense that there could possibly be a happy ending to all this suffering on the way would be very heartening. But without this conclusion this series exists as one of the most twisted and venomous titles out there. You have been warned…

Friday, 4 February 2011

What's Michael?

A bit of an old classic this. Cat lovers unite!
Michael is a cat like any other, but as any owner knows their cat is like no other. Each 6-page self-contained chapter puts Michael in a different setting, with new owners and perhaps the ability of being able to speak to fellow animals, and just some good clean fun. Life of everyday situations such as cat fights and clawing up the furniture are covered well alongside more unusual activities such as playing baseball or having a judo match. It's a mixed bag of content, but the consistently silly sense of humour allows it to all blend together.
The best thing about the series is how well observed the humour is. Mannerisms such as how cats tuck their paws in when sitting down as well as their natural pride no matter how stupid they're acting are recognizably portrayed. Even funnier are the human characters where the true-to-life depictions of the allergics, the lovers, the haters, and those who simply care for the cats far too much are totally identifiable.
Sadly these books appear to be mostly out of print. I did hear a rumour a while back that Dark Horse were considering printing compiled volumes, but there's nothing forthcoming for the moment. Get them!

Tuesday, 1 February 2011


Picturebox is a specialist publisher that deals in cutting edge graphic works. They have a quite an interest in the more avant-guard art methods, and are involved with quite a few Japanese artists. Sadly access to them is mostly via limited runs of posters artbooks, so for them to publish a book like this is positively mainstream!

Despite its heightened availability, Travel is still a pretty unusual manga. There is no dialogue, no sound effects and to describe it as having a story or narrative would be a stretch. Travel depicts the sensation of moving on a train from one destination to another, and that's pretty much it. Going through the ticket barrier, finding your seat, watching the buildings and scenery go by, staring at other passangers, watching the rain run down the window - all the little things that add up to make the complete experience.

There's no much else to say really. Yokoyama's backgrounds are extremely angular, with his humans being stoic throughout. The commentary at the back of the book detracts from the experience and is best avoided so you can absorb the book and make what you will of it. It's not exactly a manga you can describe as having enjoyed, but if you want 200-odd pages of something out of the ordinary (high-brow even) then this neglected curio might tickle your fancy.