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The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
Miscellanea and Ephemeron

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12/06/2004 Archived Entry: "Manga reviews: "From Far Away," Revolutionary Girl Utena" and "Princess Mermaid""

From Far Away Vol. 1
Story and Art by Kyoko Hikawa
First published in Japan by Hakusensha, Inc. 1992
Adapted and translated edition published by VIZ, 2004

Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Adolescence of Utena
Story and Art by Chiho Saito
First published in Japan by Shongakukan, Inc. 1996
Adapted and translated edition published by VIZ, 2004

Princess Mermaid
Story and Art by Junko Mizuno
First published in Japan by Bunkasha, 2003
Adapted and translated edition published by VIZ, 2004

Review by Kelly Taylor

What do comic books do? I mean other than produce that enchanting odor of molding paper that permeates so many of our closets, attics, and basements? Do they express forbidden hopes? Fears? Dreams? Aggressions? Desires? Reading Japanese comics (called manga) always makes me wonder about the true functionality of American comics. In Japanese hands, what is familiar about the genre becomes defamilarized. What is natural and normal becomes exotic and dreamlike. Transplanted from their cultural context into ours, Japanese comics make a reader like me aware of the subtle nuances of the process of consuming this category of entertainment artifacts and our collective motivations for producing and collecting picture books for grown-ups.

If you have never read a manga -- and I'm going to assume you haven't -- you're in for a veritable sushi bar of cultural oddities. Viz has chosen to print two of the books I'm reviewing in Japanese page ordering style. The books read from back to front. The pages scan from right to left instead of from left to right. It's a dyslexic's nightmare. Starting at the back of the book was no challenge, but remembering to begin on the right was beyond me. I found myself trying to grasp the entire page at once. Whether or not the artist intended for me to, I saw each page as a collection of simultaneous images broken into bits and clusters of overlapping dialogue. The stories seem therefore more cinematic, more like stories about groups instead of individuals.

Japanese onomatopoeia are different than American ones. In From Far Away a falling monster goes "zashaa" upon impact. The hero runs away -- "fwoosh, woosh, woosh." The monster follows -- "guoo." The hero stops -- "scpt." The monster pounces -- "guau!" You can't really say that these Japanese approximations of sound are any more far-fetched than our own. For instance, if you ever get punched in the face and your head makes a noise that sounds like "biff!" you'd better hope you've got some major medical coverage.

Noticing strange onomatopoeia made me reflect on the whole issue of sound in comic books. It's easy when presented with pages packed with luscious graphics to forget that American comic book artists, like their Japanese counterparts, go to some trouble to create a soundscape to accompany their visual feast.

I was struck by how quiet these three manga were. Not only is the Japanese protagonist more likely run to the tune of "fwoosh, woosh, woosh" than "thumpa, thumpa, thumpa," he or she is also likely to be seen in more panels that feature silent moments of emotion. American comics are full of bulging muscles and breasts. Manga are full of glances packed with mystery and silent foreboding. An American comic book hero is frequently shown with fist clenched, muscles straining in determination or outrage. In manga, there are more pictures of faces. A male character will glance over his shoulder, his features beautiful but unreadable. A heroine's large eyes go wide with embarrassment or glitter with feeling at a moment of epiphany. Epiphanies seem to be very important in manga. Perhaps that's why the monsters go "zashaa" instead of "blap." Everyone's being quiet so they can think.

Two of the manga, From Far Away and Revolutionary Girl Utena, are produced by a company called Shojo. Shojo provides a definition of its own name inside the back -- no, front -- cover of each book. Shojo is 1) manga appealing to both male and female readers, 2) exciting stories with true to life characters and the thrill of exotic locations, 3) connecting heart and mind through real human relationships.

Can you imagine D.C. or Marvel introducing their products in such a manner? Would adolescent American boys (heterosexist proto-pigs that they are allowed to be) be caught dead reading anything that was supposed to appeal to girls as well as boys? Would even the creators of The Uncanny X-Men and Spiderman boast of "connecting heart and mind through real human relationships" instead of touting their "pulse-pounding action?" Manga come from a different world.

Speaking of coming from a different world, From Far Away begins with a premise familiar to any reader of amateur Science Fiction. A young girl, the daydreaming daughter of a Science Fiction author, is swept into an alternate dimension where she is a terribly, terribly important person. There's a dark edge to this Mary Sue adventure, though. The dark, mysterious, emotionally unavailable, supernaturally gifted warrior/mage who rescues her thinks he might have to kill her in order to save his world. I'm betting that he doesn't, but stay tuned for part II.

Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Adolescence of Utena starts out as such a wild, inarticulate, mish-mash of Eastern and Western metaphor and iconography I was actually disappointed when it started to make sense. The book begins with Utena's first day at a high school that looks like an upscale shopping mall. You may figure out that something symbolic is going on when you read that the "princes" of the school have sword-fighting duels in a rose garden suspended above the school grounds -- unless they did a lot of that sort of thing at your school... Winning a duel with the reigning champion gives the victor possession of the oh-so-willing Rose Bride. Don't let yourself be too titillated by the brief cross-dressing and continuing threat of imminent hot two girl action, though. This is serious After School Special about how hard it is to grow up.

Princess Mermaid, my pick for best of the three, is a gothic fairy tale. The Neo-Deco-Retro Pop art style is relentlessly cute, but serves as an unsettling counterpoint to the unrelenting ugliness of the plot and the black hearts of the characters. Like all good fairy tales, Princess Mermaid is about seduction, betrayal, murder, madness, and death.

To go back to my original question, what is it, then, that comic books do? Like I said earlier, epiphanies are important in manga. Even though all three of these plots feature relationships, I wouldn't categorize them as Romances. These stories are not about overcoming obstacles in order to live happily ever after. They are about learning (or not learning) about oneself from interaction with an Other.

Bracket for a moment all the adolescent fascination with sex and violence. Comic books in both cultures are coded ways of exploring reality. In the same way American comic books are about metaphorically defeating that which frightens or angers us, Japanese manga let the reader play detective in the great human mystery -- discovering your true self.

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