Yotsuba & Sunflowers

Yotsuba said I should cancel my dental appointment and take her to play with the sunflowers.  Who am I to question Yotsuba?

Keep Jumping

Weekly Shonen Jump, a predominantly manga-filled weekly magazine targeting young male readers, celebrated it’s 40 year anniversary last year.  Though the Weekly Shonen is now just tip of the iceberg when it comes to serialized weekly and monthly manga anthologies, it’s generally credited with starting the burgeoning trend of serialized hodge-podge comic publications. A little bit of sports, a little bit of cars, some bikini girls (or character art), period stories, mecha, romantic comedy, supernatural, horror, and most any incongruent pairing you can imagine all sleeping under the same cover.  The target audience is quite literally all boys.

Though they often feature comics I enjoy reading, the incredibly small snippet of story that you can glean from any given publication is quite often not worth the effort – call me a lackluster fan.  In most cases, it pays to wait for a bound edition of the manga to reach publication, foregoing weekly cliffhangers (monthly and bi-monthly for the true masochists), not to mention Bible-esque bulk full of other comics.  However, if they are gifts, found abandoned on trains or whatnot, there’s little harm in succumbing to the temptation of reading one.  Just looking at all the pretty colors, cool character art, and occasional extras detailed in commuter train ads has nearly broken this perseverance more than once.

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So basically, that brings me to the Sept. 18 edition of Young Magazine Weekly.  I was interested in the new Rozen Maiden story arc, and it was a very thoughtful gift from Maru.  I hadn’t read or purchased a serialized manga publication in over a year, and thus quickly became informed of my ignorance in regard to some interesting technological advances that have occurred in the time elapsed.

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As I mentioned, the bikini girls are something of a staple, but why on earth do they have a cell-phone frame?  The title reads “For the first time in history! Gravia and movies together via cell phone! Pitacchi.”

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A comic-style illustration to the side explains the optimal way to view photos, scanning QR-codes to download supplementary photo and video data, and then using your cellphone display as a window into the 3D world.  Silly naughtiness such as looking through their nurse uniforms, changing the angle of their provocative stare, listening to dialog… nothing serious.  Some videos are to be played as you pan across the photo, creating something of modern “x-ray glasses” effect, as long as you follow the script, attempting to play into voyeur fantasy.

The photos themselves are perhaps more salacious when left to the imagination, foregoing the models’ occasional annoying demeanor and bad acting. But on the other hand, the additional content was included in the cover price, and expresses a unique merger of digital and analogue worlds.  For the uninitiated, let these images serve as a brief introduction to the world of gravia and “idol factory” culture.

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Fist of the North Star Celestial Wedding – Are you seeing stars?

What a better way to celebrate the 25th anniversary and new release of what promises to be an eternal series than a “spiritual wedding” of two main characters? This is probably what monthly publication Comics Punch thought when they approached wedding planning corporation Wedding GyaO, or even more disturbingly the other way around, with the idea to hold an event spiritually connecting Ken Shiro and Julia from the Fist of the North Star series.

Though it doesn’t have much in the way of English releases, much like Doraemon, Pokemon, Galaxy Express 999, Cutey Honey, and even more recently Evangelion, Fist of the North Star one of the staple anime whose marketing has so saturated these small islands that you’ll be hard pressed to find someone who isn’t at least casually familiar with the series. Which makes it even more interesting when you consider that only 777 guests will be allowed to attend the ceremony, to be held at Nippon Seinenkan on September 13.

There are three ways to get your hands on one of the invitations. First, you can enter a lottery via purchase of the upcoming Comic Punch. Second, you can enter a lottery via Wedding GyaO. This includes planning your wedding through the company. Third… well, let’s not worry about it. Suffice to say that unless you’re direct kin or a close friend of the happy couple and Ken Shiro hasn’t beaten the crap out of you, resulting in a visceral explosion of all internal organs, chances are you probably won’t be able to make it.

However, all angst aside, why not send Ken and Julia an electronic congratulatory message using this reception site. According to the input form, there is a chance that your words will appear somewhere at the wedding, on the DVD, or on other nebulous related materials. And, hey, if you think about it – that’s about as much as they’ll actually be there, too.

Comiket N00bs – Amature Comics for Amatures

Comiket is the biggest event in all of Japan, where over half a million people gather in celebration of grass roots artistic endeavors. It’s held twice a year, currently at Tokyo Big Site, though by most accounts the event has considerably outgrown this venue – due in part to free admission. There are separate areas dedicated to industry, cosplay, and doujinshi. And though doujinshi may be something of the minor league of manga, it tends to have a very healthy fan base, arguably fostered by the rarity, and thus collectivity of the comics. Even within the doujinshi areas there are certain subsets, and circles (meaning artists and dealers) tend to be grouped by theme. This piece of Comiket coverage will look at the people that make circles, the people that buy from them, and the people who are just there. After all, 510,000 is a lot of people.  And seriously, I’m a n00b.

Cruising by Tokyo Big Site on the adjacent monorail at 9am, one hour before the event opens, an unmistakable sea of people swells all around the complex. Some have been waiting since the first train arrived in the morning at 5am. Since then, the cool summer dawn has shattered into a sweltering and sordid day; many attendees drape themselves in towels, and others use cooling strips generally used to reduce fevers for moment of relief. Staff are armed with large spray cans of deodorant, spritzing as necessary without inhibition to maintain appearances. And though covered, with hundreds of thousands of people crowded inside, the other side of the door offers only spiritual oasis.

“You want to get a feel for the atmosphere at Comiket?” asked Mr. Yamaguchi, a slightly disgruntled event concierge who appeared to be in his mid-40s. “It’s crowded. It’s crowded, and it’s hot,” he spouted rhetorically, wandering about the crowded tables arranged in block fashion to facilitate navigation. And though he’s right, most everyone else present is willing to see past these inconveniences to revel in their respective creative, or perhaps consumer, joys.

Even past the entrance lines, which can take hours to navigate, the tables of popular circles have lines all their own. Some have special staff to manage crowd control, but others use a simple sign. The last person in line will dutifully hold the sign, saying something to the effect of, “Table 24-1 A end of line” until the next joining the queue takes position. One patient attendee who declined to give her name said she was waiting to buy a gag-themed doujinshi based on a comic “that was never so popular but was published about 10 years ago and ran for about six years but is now totally out of print.” When questioned as to why she was so interested in this particular rendition of the story, she answered simply, “Because I like it.” And though “because I like it” may not seem like the most sophisticated response at first, it manages to sum up the passion that motivates the event perfectly.

Most of the artists featured at Comiket are not professionals, regardless of the polished quality of their work. Among those interviewed, many had started their circles after “becoming members of society,” ie, graduating from high school or university and entering the workforce. Those with newer circles tended to have paper booklets stapled together, while others with more established presence had soft cover bound books and other character goods. A significant minority of tables offered or displayed relevant handmade goods, such as dolls dressed and custom painted to resemble their doujinshi characters, and gifts for purchasing customers.

Though perhaps a few artists were selling original doujinshi, most gained their inspiration from existing stories, and were grouped accordingly via derivation. The East halls contained the “Japanese” area, including Dragon Ball, Naruto, Bleach, Death Note, xxxHolic, and hundreds if not thousands of others. Though not all doujinshi carry an erotic or homoerotic overtone, due to new regulations, any comics containing sexually explicit material must now be plainly marked for “18 and up” only. Surprisingly, creators at these tables were the most reluctant to interview, and those willing wanted an outline of possible questions before proceeding. However, all were very gracious, even in decline, nonetheless.

“You can photograph, but, please remove my name before publication… I’m a little… embarrassed,” giggled a young doujin author, just starting back in the field after a mandatory two year vacation. As hobbyists, real life tends to cause periodic breaks in creation. “Before this I was in a circle for three years, but the stories were different – nothing special we just did whatever we liked.” The doujinshi she was selling found its inspiration in the anime xxxHolic-Kei, which only recently finished airing in Japan.

Of the two West halls, one was dedicated to music or band inspired work, and the other Japanese and American science fiction. The latter was by far the most surprising, some authors combining the two genres to create hybrids such as X-Men Den-oh, a pairing of Marvel’s X-Men and the Masked Rider Den-oh series. The “slash” genre of fan fiction found a whole new world of vivid depiction, but other artistic creations graced tables as well. Whether it was the general age of creators, which was notably older, the material, or just the heat at the end of the day, circles tended to be much more talkative about their work.

One notable exception to the Star Trek norm was the series Neko Trek, actually a doujinshi of a doujinshi. The author based her cat themed gag comic on her own favorite Star Trek gag series, and the two were fortunate that day to sell comics side-by-side. Apparently, a friend of a friend was a bilingual Trekkie and even took the effort to make an English edition, translating the Japanese passages into English printed beside the panels. However, both creators just seemed confused at the notion that the publication mimicked a textbook.

Debu Spiderman, or Fat Spiderman, was another hilarious work that exhibited the author’s extensive knowledge of this web-swinging superhero. “I started making it about five or six years ago, publishing it on the internet, about the same time the Spiderman movie came out in Japan… The cover? Yeah – it gets a lot of inspiration from old style American comics, but you know, Spiderman originally debuted in the comic Amazing Fantasy – hence the name Amazing(ly) (Fat) Spiderman. On this one, well, he’s in the toilet, but you can see comic he’s reading on the floor,” he says, pointing to the Todd McFarlane mock cover.

However, this area didn’t seem to be the most popular, especially among young people. “My daughter bought the CD-ROM catalog as soon as it came out and made an extensive list of everything she wanted to get, including the place, the price, even the bonus gifts if they came with any,” said Mari, a mother in her 50s, showing off her 15 year old daughter’s notes. “Then she made a map of where and how to go.” This is apparently the third time Mari has chaperoned the event.

“At first I was really concerned about what my daughter was getting into. It seemed dangerous – not only because of copyright issues and pornography, but because of the, well, you know… sometimes there are perverts at the events. I was afraid it would be dangerous. But, after going to the first one with her, I realized that most of the creators are women, and the audience, too. Especially private events where you have to pay – they are all, like, 99% women. It really made me feel safe.”

Noting that Friday specializes in comics oriented towards women, but looking around and realizing a sizable portion of men, she added, “This year is kind of different. I guess it’s getting bigger… But, it’s still amazing you can have so many people in one place peacefully.”

In conclusion, Mari said that she felt the otaku of today were safer, incredibly creative and expressive compared to the archetypal Miyazaki incident that defined otaku sub-culture for her generation. Describing Miyazaki as a criminal and pedophile, she even drew a distinctive line between the recent incident in Akihabara and the day’s events. “He is the total opposite of what you will find here. I don’t think you can call him otaku…. The first time I came (to Comiket) I just said, ‘Wow! These people can do this?!’ I couldn’t believe it.” One can only hope that her newfound awe and appreciation – despite still having no real interest – continues to inspire others.

It’s a Rumic World – Rumiko Takahashi Exhibit

In a random and informal poll of junior high and high school aged kids I used to teach, only about 10% knew Rumiko Takahashi by name. But on the other hand, nearly all of them could recognize her work. Though most of her life has been devoted to only four series, it’s the length of those series that really stands out; all have animated adaptions, and all of them garner huge international appeal.

The ongoing exhibit at Matsuya Ginza is a celebration of the manga artist who just finished the Inuyasha series, which had been running in the Shonen Sunday weekly publication for nearly twelve years. This, in addition to Shonen Jump‘s 50 year anniversary, prompted this tribute to the artist, which in addition to her own legacy of work included 50 other mangaka’s rendering of Lum, easily her most famous and influential character.

The exhibit space itself was very nice, well decorated and well arranged with just a few notes at the beginning of each section. It was divided into five major areas, not including the intro room, final artist’s tribute room, or theater. Illuminated doorways, more like four illuminated walls covered with huge comic strips, served as the portals between the areas, transporting the visitor between comic worlds. The gallery itself was predominantly watercolor paintings by Takahashi for comic covers, posters, and calendars, with a few done in colored pencil, oil pastel, and mixed media. In addition to the art, some of Takahashi’s personal collection was also displayed – like a Tendo Dojo signboard, for example – that really tied into each series, and at least for this visitor made the comics and characters really come to life. Most areas were capped off with a few pages worth of pre-published panels, showing just raw ink and paper with pasted dialog to get a feel for manga production.

The cute and funny video intro to the exhibit featured Ataru, Lum, Ranma, Inuyasha, and Kagome inviting you to celebrate 50 years of Shonen Jump in a roughly three minute short. The wall was flanked with two brief messages, one from Takahashi giving a heartwarming thanks to you and everyone involved, and one from the curators describing the exhibit. Displayed in a case to the side were some of her treasured items: a very very worn protractor, a couple aged aprons, and funny “beware of fire danger” emblazoned and rather worn red, black, and white cushion, likely used while she worked. This pretty much set the precedent for the subsequent areas, more or less divided chronologically and by series, and each of which had an artist’s message, original art piece done for the exhibit, and story summary prior to the jump.

The first area, Urusei Yatsura, contained perhaps the most work, but the paintings had by and large not been well preserved. This isn’t surprising, considering their age and composite material, but still left sort of a bad first impression. It made one wonder if Takahashi wasn’t a poor housekeeper, or if the whole exhibit was going to be works warped with time. Nonetheless, even these early pieces show Tahashi’s seemingly simple character design splashed in a wealth of immaculately detailed scenery and signature comedic edge.

Next up was Maison Ikkoku, a series I’m not too familiar with, but it was still impressive. After a winding room of art, the gallery is suddenly a doorstop and house facade – complete with lawn and dog house. Walking through the door, the next area contained a remake of a room interior; probably Kyoko’s, the manager of the boarding house which serves as the setting for the series. Adjacent to this was a 1/50th scale replica of the boarding house, complete with furnishings and moving windows, though only Kyoko’s room was illuminated, providing a nice juxtaposition.

The Ranma 1/2 area was particularly nostalgic for me, as I could recognize quite a few of the paintings from comic covers, published in bi-weekly installments by Viz in America. It was the first manga I ever bought, and without really knowing what I was getting into – the cover art looked so cool to my slightly-ignorant-barely-teenage mind. In reflection, it was without doubt no mistake. The Ranma 1/2 area had on display the aforementioned Tendo “Anything Goes” Dojo signboard along with a big kettle.

The fourth section, Inuyasha, her final and most recent series to date, had a huge reproduction of Kirara in demon form flying at the ceiling near a large torii gate that stood over one of Takahashi’s katana. The gate itself was speckled with one sticker reading “Kagome” on either side and an “Inuyasha” on top, perhaps symbolizing how Inuyasha is the arc linking Kagome to the two worlds she inhabits.

The last section was dedicated to Takahashi’s shorter miscellaneous works, such as the Mermaid Forest series, and Half Pound Gospel among others. Again, as much detail was paid to chronology as personal flair, and various well-worked boxing implements were on display.

The theater area featured a lot of seating, but compared to the other areas of the exhibit which were relatively uncrowded and easy to navigate despite the crowd, it was simply packed. After one episode of Ranma 1/2 – which had immaculate video and sound quality – I was nearly trampled by the stampede of people both leaving and rushing to get a seat. It was still well worth it though, and I even experienced a little jolt of joy when the “Mommy, can we see it again?!” kids received smiling approval.

In finale to her lifelong legacy – though who knows, she hasn’t retired yet – 50 different manga artists whom she lovingly refers to as sempai, or upperclassman, regardless of age, drew their rendition of character Lum for an area entitled simply, “My LUM.” This was the second most crowded area, even during movie screenings, and there’s no question why. It’s hard to describe what original twists were added, but needless to say it was very easy to identify who did what. Seeing various alternate versions side by side was quite intriguing, as some choose to draw out more of her sexy side, while others focused on other aspects of her character, and each one came with a commentary by the artist about their exposure to Urusei Yatsura and/or creating the drawing. Some of the contributors included: Mine Yoshizaki (Sgt. Frog), Taiyo Matsumoto (Tekkonkinkreet), Gosho Aoyama (Case Closed), Kagami Yoshimitsu (Lucky Star), and Kiyoko Azuma (Yotsuba&!) among many others.

Like any good Japanese exhibit, the souvenir area past this was huge, but also included a vast selection of all Takahashi’s manga. Various stores in Matsya Ginza, which is a huge designer shopping mall, also offered limited edition theme goods. Though all of them seemed to be chocolate, it still had a real artistic and inspired quality about it that made dropping 5,000 yen seem reasonable. I visited one of said retailers to see how popular these chocolates were, and witnessed a whole group of giddy ladies marveling but not thinking twice as they reached for their wallets, giggling amongst themselves.

Overall, the exhibit was fantastic, and I’ll definitely visit again before it ends on the 11th. There was a lot of care that went into presentation which makes the experience incredibly interactive if you’re familiar with her work. Apparently, this is the first exhibit of it’s kind, but here’s one hoping that it won’t be the last.