Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Blog ending agian

Sorry for the abrupt nature of this post, but the thing is... I'm writing for a monthly publication now.  As  I wish to remain anonymous, I will refrain from telling you which, but it's local, not some fancy Otaku USA or ANN gig. However, I would like to thank my reader(s) and blogger for providing me an opportunity to improve my craft. While the blog may be going down, don't give up hope, Cat Demon Spirits fan(s)! In a year or two, you may see something new on this site. Now, to conclude...
Thank you.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Review: The Quest for the Missing Girl

One of the greatest problems with Japanese comics today is the  lack of graphic novels. I don’t mean the phrase in a pretentious, “everything-should-be-serious” sort of way, but I’ve found that many recent manga appear almost reluctant to tell a story. Characters have been reduced to types and plot has been marginalized, turning the medium into what can at best be called TV on paper. It’s not that these TV-books are bad, mind you, it’s just that I don’t always want that. Sometimes I want to read a comic with a plot that begins and ends, relatable characters with complex motivations, and maybe even some meaning beneath the surface. A novel told in graphics, if you will. As uncommon as they are, the Japanese graphic novel is not impossible to find. There are many dependable and unique artists with plenty of work in translation who tell stories worth immersing oneself in. One of these artists is Jiro Taniguchi. Best known on these shores for quiet, restrained comics such as A Distant Neighborhood and The Walking Man, both of which are excellent and worth reading, Taniguchi has also done a number of genre stories with an emphasis on action and conflict. The Quest for the Missing Girl is one of these stories.
Twelve years ago, a mountaineer named Shiga declined an offer from his best friend, Sakamoto, to join an expedition to climb a mountain in the Himalayas. Sakamoto died on that expedition, and Shiga, feeling guilt over his friend’s death, has rarely left the mountains since, but vowed that if Sakamoto’s wife and daughter were ever in danger, he would return to the city and protect them. When Sakamoto’s teenage daughter, Megumi, goes missing, Shiga leaves the mountains for Tokyo to find for her. However, Shiga soon discovers that life in the city is more complex than it once was, and the teenage Megumi may not be as innocent as the young girl Shiga knew.
Despite being very different from many of Taniguchi’s other translated work, Quest was actually originally serialized around the same time as titles such as A Distant Neighborhood, and features many familiar themes. In fact, like in A Distant Neighborhood, a central theme of the story is of youth viewed through adult eyes. This theme was presented quite literally in Neighborhood, with the middle-aged protagonist time-traveling back to high school, experiencing his past with new insight. In Quest, the theme is more metaphorical, shown through Shiga’s investigation in Shibuya, the biggest shopping district in Tokyo. The area is crawling with teens, mostly delinquents, going to nightclubs, shopping with “borrowed” money, being “bad”. On the surface, these teenagers are liberated and completely independent of adult authority, perhaps even to a worrisome extent, but in reality these people are confused, lonely, and afraid to look for help. That’s how life is for a teen, and for better or worse, that will never change. This message is conveyed through a number of interesting characters, such as Yoshio, a man whose observations on youth culture inform much of the story, and Maki, a Shibuya frequenter who was Megumi’s best friend and may have unintentionally caused her disappearance. However, one of the most important characters in this story is the missing girl herself. While Megumi makes few actual appearances, her presence is felt throughout the entire narrative. Her personality, the choices she made, and her connections to the other characters are central to the unfolding events. Without the missing girl, there would be no quest.

As much as these reflections on adolescence are intriguing, the most memorable element of the story is its protagonist. While Shiga’s search for Megumi may be the stuff of pulp, his single-minded determination to atone for his guilt over his friends death is genuinely moving, real stuff. As the story progresses, we’re really given a sense of why Sakamoto was such an important person to Shiga, and why Shiga wants to help the people around him. Shiga isn’t superhuman, but a man deticated to being part of something larger than himself. Taniguchi does a fantastic job examining his character over the course of the story, particularly in the gripping final chapter. Many thrillers, both good and bad, build to a climactic metting between the hero and villain, either a conversation, a fight, or both. The important thing is that the two meet, and only one walks away. And while there is a hero and a villain, rather than have them confront each other, Taniguchi crafts a tale of Man Vs. Himself, a tense spectacle of pure motivation. We see Shiga for who he truly is, his hopes, his regrets, his desperation, made physical in beautifully drawn and downright architecturally designed pages as thrilling as the fiercest of battles. Unfortunately, this leaves little room to truly develop the villain as more than a cardboard cutout, but that hardly matters, as the comic already features some extremely powerful graphic storytelling.
Of course, Quest could have easily been a straight-forward exercise in genre, which, in a way, it is. However, Jiro Taniguchi is above that sort of thing. Taniguchi has been a working cartoonist for a good 30 years now, and over those years has refined his style, becoming a genuine auteur of the medium. Taniguchi’s style is very dynamic and realistic, dating him as a member of the Gekiga movement (Gekiga= Dramatic Pictures; a bit like the term “graphic novel”), but at the same time the art has a certain warmth, a “cartoonish” quality, reminiscent of early Osamu Tezuka. These different styles become one under Taniguchi’s penmanship, creating a mood of somber nostalgia. At the same time, the work is never boring; Taniguchi can really draw a fight scene. Often, a scene with two characters sitting and talking in a café will be a tense and exciting read, and action sequences have a hint of brooding and restraint. The world presented in Taniguchi’s work is both consistent and unexpected, and always worth reading.
In conclusion, The Quest for the Missing Girl is an excellent addition to the Taniguchi canon. The comic features many of Taniguchi’s trademark nostalgic themes and styles, but is unique for its portrayal of modern-day urban life. As I alluded to earlier, a handful of characters are poorly fleshed out, but most of the central characters are extremely well-written. The final chapter is especially well-executed, and is easily one of Taniguchi’s finest sequences. For those who found A Distant Neighborhood too culturally specific, The Quest for the Missing Girl is a great introduction to this extremely productive artist’s works.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Review: Omega the Unknown

In the last fifteen years or so, comic books have undergone a bit of a renaissance. We’ve seen Art Speigelman get the Pulitzer, book stores sell manga, and an explosion of talented artists working and finding success in a variety of genres. However, the once prominent super hero genre is slowly dying a painful death. Sure, movie adaptions are box office juggernauts, but how many can say they bothered to give any Iron Man comics even a try after seeing the movie? Nobody, that’s who. See, current cape comics are not written for normal people. These comics are made exclusively for the man-children who grew up with only these heroes for friends, and now continue to follow their lives, just in a kind of creepy way. For every great comic like Runaways, we get 10 things like the recent Redhood and the Outlaws, which has become controversial for its portrayal of female-empowering Teen Titans character Starfire as a bikini-clad nymphomaniac. And indeed, like other modern cape capers, Omega the Unknown is mainly for teens and adults who grew up on capes, and inappropriate for young children. But unlike comics like Outlaws, Omega is a genuine super hero story, a charming, thoughtful tribute to the comics we all grew up with.

Loosely based on an obscure ‘70s Marvel comic of the same name, Omega the Unknown is novelist Jonathan Lethem’s first and only foray into the medium, with art by indie cartoonist Farel Dalrymple. The story centers on Titus Alexander Island, a neurotic fifteen-year-old prodigy who lives with his parents in isolation from the rest of the world. When his family decides to pack up and move to New York, a fatal car crash kills Alexander’s parents and changes everything. Before blacking out, Alex sees something very strange. Impossible even. He wakes up in a hospital in New York a few days later with bizarre Ω-shaped burn marks on his hands. He is then attacked by a group of robots, but is protected by a mysterious caped figure, the titular Omega. While Alexander is trying to adjust to the city and understand the strange events surrounding him, a super hero named The Mink® commercializes his name at the expense of whatever morals he once had. Meanwhile, Omega continues to pursue the robots the attacked Alexander while working at a street vendor in front of Alexander’s school.

As you can tell from the above paragraph, the Omega the Unknown is a very complicated comic. In fact, the above paragraph barely even touches on the 2nd issue of this 10 issue series. In the hands of a less competent writer, Omega would be a confusing, pretentious mess. However, Lethem (and his collaborator on the book, Karl Rusnak) is far from incompetent, and handles the convoluted story with charm and grace. The author smartly takes cues from the book’s title, and leaves much of the plot in Omega the Unknown unexplained. This can sometimes be infuriating to read, but it’s never actually confusing. Unlike many mysterious sci-fi or cape stories, we aren’t being tricked into a poorly planned Swiss cheese of plot holes, as Omega is a story that knows exactly what is happening and why. But rather than explain how everything works to us in boring chunks of text, we are shown what happens, with small hints and visual nods to the reasons for what we see. I imagine that were I to read Steve Gerber’s original, I would discover that many moments in that story are the basis for much of the action in the new Omega, but nonetheless I am certain the surreal vision in this story would remain wildly original. For the first time in ages, I have a superhero comic that doesn’t make me roll my eyes or fall asleep, but allows me to revel in the magic and fantastical nature of the genre.

But as fantastical as it may be, the world presented in Omega is one firmly rooted in reality. Even as spandex-wearing vigilantes are fighting evil alien robots, the real focus of the book is the people, people who live in a real world and sometimes see the worst of it. The adolescent characters in this comic aren’t a whitewashed group of nice-guys a la Archie, and the New York we see is no shining metropolis like the ones seen in most contemporary cape comics. Alexander and his friends are some of the most realistic young adults to appear in a superhero story since Peter Parker first learned of power and responsibility. They’re a diverse, slightly awkward group of individuals who don’t try to be fit any heroic Objectivist expectations, and sometimes make mistakes. A particularly memorable example of the comic’s realism is a subplot involving a chubby kid with glasses named Hugh who is routinely roughed up by a group of bullies led by a punk calling himself Roofie. One day, Alex tries to intervene, and Roofie gives Hugh a gun, leading to a moment neither can ever turn back from. Later, in a moment of unreality called the Nowh-area®, Alex sees Hugh again, and they have a conversation that moved this reviewer to tears. What makes this part of the story such an emotional read is that Hugh and Roofie are not shown as good or evil. Sure, what Roofie did was awful, but there are strong implications that he was a victim of peer pressure. Hugh easily could have been portrayed like many other geeks in popular culture, saints who are simply bullied because they are smart and unique, but he isn’t. He has a tragic flaw. He made the unfortunate choice to accept his unpleasant surroundings, and suffered as a result. It’s a human tragedy within a super-powered adventure that the main characters, and the people reading about them, can learn from.
The story and characters of Omega the Unknown may have stuck with me long after reading, but in any story told in comics, words only tell half the story. The comic also serves as a great showcase for Farel Dalrymple’s incredible artwork. While far from a household name, Dalrymple has proven his awesome talent for visual storytelling in this work. Using a sketchy, almost grimy, but overall mundane style, he captures the feeling of being in New York for the first time, that combination of bewilderment and exhaustion as you try to understand how people accept the place as normal, placing the colorfully dressed supermen on the same level as loudmouthed Brooklynites. Dalrymple is fully aware of how strange and surreal the story being told is, but chooses to ignore it in the telling, letting the reader discover exactly how messed up and bizarre everything really is on his or her own, thus allowing us to savour the oddness longer. Dalrymple also shows great skill at conveying the characters emotion on the page. In one scene, Omega is trapped alone in a giant maze. As he wanders through the maze, the panels get smaller and smaller, while the gutter space (gutters = the empty space between one panel and the next) increases. Through this panelling technique, we are forced to empathize with Omega’s growing desperation and isolation. Dalrymple’s name may never become a household one, but work like this makes his name one that will be fondly remembered by those who can appreciate the craft of cartooning.

Also notable is the work of colorist Paul Hornschemeier. I don’t normally notice color in comics all that much, but Omega has a great color scheme. See, many colorists today rely heavily on computer effects, adding energy blasts, heavy shading, and dark, almost monochrome colors not suggested by the original artwork. This style of coloring renders an artist’s unique traits unrecognizable and standard, turns dynamic sequences into muddy, static ones, and encourages new artists to turn in lazier work. Luckily, Paul Hornschemeier is not your average colorist. Using a palette of bright, eye-popping colors, Hornschemeier actually enhances Dalrymple’s artwork, adding a dynamic, exciting element to an otherwise slow-moving story. One could even say that despite the comic’s less traditional style, Omega the Unknown is one of the most traditional-looking cape comics to come out in years. There is little pretension or grayscale here. The comic simply does what it does and hopes you can appreciate it.

As much as I have enjoyed Omega the Unknown, I can understand that it’s not for everyone. While the mainstream loses its subtlety more and more each day, Omega is a story that dares to refrain from hitting readers over the head with a two-ton plot twist, and maybe even let us figure out some of the nuances on our own time. The unfortunate side effect of this is that readers weaned on Dragon Ball and Crossover Events will may find the comic confusing, or worse, pretentious. However, before condemning Omega into the cursed realm of Not My Thing, I would like you to consider this: Is being smart really the same as being pretentious? Does entertainment really need to be disposable? If you answered yes to both these questions, feel free to return to the episode of Glee you paused to read this, because you have every right to stay in your comfort zone. However, there is a whole world of stories that can (to paraphrase a better critic) excite both your mind and imagination, and if you’re looking for a place to start, I cannot begin to recommend Omega the Unknown enough.

Monday, October 24, 2011

October MMF: The Museum of Terror Volumes 1 and 2 - Tomié

Even in an allegedly enlightened and feminist modern world, people hold “beautiful” women as examples of purity, completely untainted by the world, living as nurturing icons of goodness. Be it in American Barbie dolls or Japanese moé pillows, there is still a market for a nonexistent ideal of good in both physical and mental behavior. However, many people agree that the idea of perfection is just that: an idea, and an unattainable one at that. But what if the ideal woman was real? What if there were a woman who naturally possessed both the perfect body and the perfect soul? In his debut work Tomié, manga-ka Junji Ito answers the question as anyone working in the horror genre would: If there was a perfect woman, she’d be pure evil.

It begins as a simple tale of comeuppance theater. Tomié is a very cute sixteen-year-old girl who was killed in mysterious circumstances, her body found cut to pieces. However, a few days after “death”, she’s back at school as if nothing happened. Eventually, we discover the truth behind Tomié’s murder, and she gets her revenge. The end. It’s after this opening story that things get really interesting. See, Tomié isn’t merely attractive. “She” is a supernatural force that drives normal people to obsess over her to the point of insanity. She cannot become ugly, so any time an imperfection (such as a lost limb) appears, her beautiful form regenerates in grotesque detail. She travels around Japan, fickly toying with and ruining the lives of once honest men and women, finding a new way to exploit the most base desires of humanity in every chapter.
Tomié, like all of Ito’s work, showcases storytelling that straddles the line between humor and horror, too bizarre to take completely seriously, yet too nauseatingly human to ignore or make light of. In one story, Tomié herself does not appear, but instead a box full of her silky, still growing hair, which after being found is cultivated and worn by plain school girls who want to look pretty, and then die when the hair shoots out of every pore of their skin. In another, pieces of Tomié’s flesh are dumped at the bottom of a waterfall, growing underwater, as suicides among young men mysteriously increase. Quite obviously, this is the stuff of B-movies. The events that transpire are almost always conceptually implausible, making little to no sense when thought about. And yet, Ito manages to craft the stories with such skill that they make emotional sense, told with such a straight face that one cannot even doubt the author’s sincerity. Unlike artists such as the great Kazuo Umezu (an artist to whom Ito is frequently compared) there is little hyperbole in even the most bizarre stories. Drawn in a moody, realistic style, and paced with slow deliberation, the mood of Tomié is that of building dread. It isn’t quite at the level of madness depicted in the later Uzumaki: Spiral Into Terror, a comic about evil spirals, but it deserves credit for some genuinely rewarding and unlikely chills.

 From reading a description, one may be left with the impression that Tomié is a “femme fatale” or “bad girl” type character, a glamorized (and sexualized) depiction of a beautiful, man-hungry woman who ruins the lives of good men, simply taken to the furthest extreme possible. While this is a valid interpretation, and may even be what the author intended, I would argue that Tomié transcends the concept of femme fatale.  To demonstrate, I would like to compare Tomié to a character from Koshun Takami’s controversial Lord-of-the-Flies-meets-Kill-Bill franchise Battle Royale, Mitsuko Souma. Mitsuko uses her sultry body (as well as her trademark scythe) to win “the game,” only to die near the end. For most of the story, Mitsuko is portrayed as either being sexy, evil, or both, but in a later chapter Takami attempts to humanize her with an almost comedically dark flashback sequence. It does not work. Instead of making us think of Mitsuko as a real human being, the ideal of beauty is actually enforced. The reader is manipulated by the horridness of her past into thinking, “If only Mitsuko had never been tainted by those bad men, she’d still be pure. If only she’d met some good people to restore her faith in beauty and goodness, like me.” Unlike Battle Royale,Tomié never falls into this trap. For better or for worse, the very idea of humanizing Tomié has been thrown out the window, because Tomié is not sympathetic, not human, and certainly not a femme fatale. Instead, she is a force of nature, one that destroys lives by toying with the weak, lustful, obsessive side of human nature. We are meant to sympathize not with her, but the people around her and I think that is for the better.

I realize now that I have given the impression that Tomié somehow transcends the format of short horror stories, growing organically from simple vignettes of comeuppance theater into something far more meaningful. It doesn’t. While much of Ito’s manga does edge into unknown territory (or should I say, terror-tory), Tomié stays within the boundaries of genre work. Tomié  is simply a series of self-contained stories with the same central character and themes. Many of the stories are excellent, some are just OK. Having seen what Ito has done in later work such as Uzumaki, this is almost disappointing. There is so much complexity to Tomié and the world she inhabits that is never quite delved into for the sake of format. We never, for example, see Tomié at a moment of true weakness, or in fact, at any level of nuance beyond pure evil. Yet even though Tomié could have been much more, what there is remains impressive. Taking a fascinating premise, Ito crafts stories that follow a deceptively simple template that once repeated enough becomes secondary to the author’s vast imagination. Sometimes we laugh, like in Moromi, the chapter where ground up bits of Tomié are stirred into saké by madmen, sometimes we cry, like in the surprisingly poignant Little Finger; but with the stories in Tomié, and all of Ito’s comics, we also scream. 

Saturday, October 1, 2011

This Month: CDS 2.0 - This Time It's Personal!

"I'll get those Cat Demon Spirits!"

It's almost that time of year, everyone! Everyone's favorite blog to not read (after Colony Drop) returns to the internet, now with better proofreading. Mark your calendars for October 24, because that will be the day the first new post goes LIVE! Yay...

Monday, September 5, 2011

Cat Demon Spirits Returns...ish

As it turns out, the rumors of this blogs closure have been greatly exaggerated. After clearing my head for a bit, I realized that, dangnabbit, I do enjoy writing for this stupid website. However, this is not the same Cat Demon Spirits as before. From now on, reviews will only be posted once or twice a month, to ensure that they are actually well written and interesting for once. The blog will still be updated weekly, with short reviews linkblogs, and other nonsense. (And obviously, no more Japanese Spiderman. For now.) The first new post is currently planned for October in honor of that month's MMF, but may appear  earlier depending on how I react to Sailor Moon and other uncertainties. Till then, please enjoy my Roundhead cartoons to sate your thirst for all things N.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

I'm Done

This blog has been too much work. I am very busy now, and can no longer fully dedicate myself to writing, so I have decided to end Cat Demon Spirits. I will try to do the occasional MMF post, and Roundhead Lives will continue, but otherwise, it's sayonara time. I'm sorry. I'm done.