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The Prescience and Divergence of Disaster Manga

So, here we are, closing in on two months since the earthquake and tsunamis caused so much damage and chaos in Japan.  Honestly, it has taken me this long to shake off the dread and discomfort of what happened enough to comment on the topic of today’s Animanga Viewpoint.

The reality is, no matter how horrific the quakes, tsunami, and aftershocks were, the Japanese knew they were coming.  Japan is a first world nation and proud inhabitant of one of the most active seismic and volcanic zones on the planet.  They have had cities wiped out before because of these things and they know they will again.  Hell, they even lived through Curtis LeMay’s policy of firebombing cities from low altitude at night, let alone having two cities nuked.

The Japanese know disasters happen, both natural and man-made.

Knowing doesn’t make it any easier to actually live through, though, especially after a generation or two.

Which brings me to the subject of today’s manga discussion.  You see, disasters – man-made, natural, or alien-induced – are one of the more fundamental backdrops used by manga and anime creators in their world building.  I want to share an overview of three currently running manga, each of which has an eerie tie-in in form if not fact to the recent Japanese calamity.  These manga are: Kanojo wo Mamoru 51 no Houhou (51 Ways to Protect your Girlfriend),  The Meteor, and Coppelion.

All of these manga are not yet available via US distributors.  They can, however, be accessed at mangareader.net and other online readers.

We’ll start with Kanojo wo Mamoru 51 no Houhou by Furuya Usamaru.  The main characters are Mishima Jin, a young man seeking his first job with a Tokyo TV station and Okano Nanako, a young woman from Jin’s past who happens to be in the same area of Tokyo Odaiba when Jin arrives for his interview.  There are a host of other characters, as well, but I’ll just mention Jin and Nanako (who is referred to by her last name, Okano, in the manga).

So, the basic set-up is that fate has brought these two together again after some rather scarring incidents happened during their high school years.  They briefly meet in the street but the changes that have occurred in the intervening years immediately present a wall that Jin can’t cross even to just talk to Okano.

Time slips by, Jin finishes his interview, but on the way out of Odaiba, he runs across Okano being bullied by other groupies of the rock group she follows.  He chases off the abusers and then finally gets a chance to glimpse into the weird world that Okano has fallen into after the trauma she endured in high school.  One thing leads to another and Okano ends up stalking off in a huff.  After a moment’s reflection, Jin runs off to find her.

He catches up to her in the middle of a bridge, lost in praying to her made up rock-n-roll gods.  His memories and regrets catch up to him and he tries to apologize for not defending her in the past, but that’s when it happens.

Tokyo gets hit dead center by a major (8.0 or higher) earthquake.

This is where the story really begins.  Now, understand that Jin and Okano’s reunion is a backdrop, the empathy-building background we need to care about whether or not our viewpoint characters survive.  However, what Kanojo 51 is really about is showing a plausible extrapolation of what could happen to Tokyo and the people living there if the city were out and out smacked by the god-hammer.

The author has obviously done his research.  Liquifaction, structural distortion, fires, disruptions of key services, all the factors that go into what makes a disaster like an earthquake in a major city so horrible are all there.

Then he goes after the societal break down.  Once people start to realize that the strictures of society are gone, the abuses start.  Theft, murder, and especially rape start to run rampant.  I think, frankly, that the author focuses too much on rape.  In fact, my impression is that the author honestly has little to no belief in the ability of human beings to attempt to do much good for each other and it comes out in the story.

Then again, he’s not exactly alone.

The Meteor, by Hayashi Fumino, is another cataclysmic disaster manga, this time set in an undesignated city in the mountains of Japan.  This story is different from Kanojo 51 in that the cast of characters is better defined at the beginning.  The titular main character is Kawana Tomoko, a girl currently being ostracized within her school due to a relationship she had with a  teacher.  She does her best to ignore the rumors and jibes directed at her, but just as her temper grows short and she turns to snap at her tormentors, something massive falls out of the sky and smashes their city.

The structure of The Meteor is one of a mixture of personal back stories mixed with current events in the plot line.  Each character has a tale to tale preceding the event and their stories move forward within the framework of the disaster that the whole group must overcome.  The result is a noir adventure story with every viewpoint character’s trials and tribulations preceding the disaster greatly influencing their actions during the crisis.

The Meteor also features extrapolations of the difficulties inherent in surviving a massive disaster, this time a sizable meteor impact with an added pandemic of unknown origin.  It moves more quickly into the “breakdown of society” meme than Kanojo 51, though, and that’s where the real focus of the story lies.  The technical details that populate Kanojo 51 are more or less absent from The Meteor, but both works share a view that humanity will immediately balkanize and begin turning feral once the cuffs of civilization are off.

Frankly, I haven’t heard those kinds of stories coming out of Japan following the recent tsunami.  Instead, we heard about the problems with the one reactor that caused a great deal of panic and consternation, but we also heard tertiary stories of how people were attempting to work together to deal with the various hardships and emergencies.  Perhaps this is more indicative of the nature of the rural areas that the tsunami hit.  If Tokyo had actually been significantly traumatized, maybe there would have been a massive amount of civil disorder and violence.  Hopefully we’ll never know.

Speaking of the nuclear plant issues, the last manga I’ll mention is Coppelion by Inoue Tomonori.  Coppelion is the story of a group of school girls, Narusae, Aoi, and Taeko as they go on an outing to Tokyo.  (Yes, Tokyo again.)

Now, what’s a bit different here is that nobody generally goes to Tokyo anymore.  This is because 25 years ago, Tokyo was contaminated by a major nuclear disaster and has been flooded with lethal levels of radiation ever since.

The girls in actuality are genetically engineered clones created with a specific body chemistry that allows them to survive in high-radiation environments.  Their “outing” is actually a graduation mission from their training school to locate and rescue “survivors” still populating the area.  (The survivors live in regions of lesser radiation but still have to wear survival suits.)

To be honest, Coppelion’s  prognostications are little more than anti-nuclear scaremongering.  The disaster at the nuke plant in Japan is not anything to laugh at, but it’s not exactly Chernobyl, either, and even Chernobyl isn’t as bad as the nightmare of contamination that Coppelion calls down upon chicken little’s head.  Still, it makes a sufficient backdrop for the story and it’s a far more palatable story than either of the other two manga I mentioned.  In fact, the idea of people helping others to the best of their ability is core to Coppelion.  The girls are there to help and what they find are people who are also working together to get by in increasingly difficult times.  Whereas the first two manga I mentioned expect the worse of people, Coppelion offers up the best (so long as your Japanese, that is.  A negative foreign influence is hinted at recently in none too subtle a tone.)

And I think that a hopeful element is important.  Yes, people can be shallow and selfish and cruel.  They can also be noble and selfless and caring.  Authors present what they expect people to be, whether they intend to or not.  Either that or most authors think that stories of people doing their best in difficult times are boring.  My personal tastes, though, are to root for people facing great difficulties together and overcoming.  Ergo, of these three views of possible disaster in Japan, I prefer Coppelion over Kanojo 51 or The Meteor.

That having been said, all three eerily parallel what has transpired in Japan this year in terms of potential disasters become reality.  Let’s hope the majority of what the posit remains fiction.

–Darwin Garrison

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Animanga Viewpoint — Jormungand: Viking Name, Japanese Story, Cold Blooded Kills

To kick of my discussion of Jormungand, I’d like to make something very clear about my reading preferences when it comes to manga: to whit, I’ll read about anything that amuses me.  Saccharine teenage love stories?  Yeah, been there, did that, do that, and have enjoyed them.  Weird future adventure tales with lots of T&A and sarcastic humor?  Read tons.  Even laughed every once in a while.  Space fleet adventures?  Yep.  Vampire romance? Yep.  Vampire shoot-em-ups? Yep.  Vampire  redemptions? Yep.

But the manga I have the hardest time getting into are the “realistic” ones.  Jormungand is an example of that.  The scare quotes around “realistic” are there for a reason, because Japanese manga creators seem to part ways pretty quickly with reality no matter what the subject.  What I’m referring to might actually be better referred to as “noir” or “dark”.  Worlds that are all too familiar from reading just about any newspaper of on-line news feed.  Murder, rape, drugs, war – that sort of thing.

So, when I choose to follow a series like Jormungand, you can bet your bottom dollar that it has empathetic characters, an intriguing plot, and art that won’t make you feel as if you’re perusing the sketchbooks from a freshman high school art class.

Jormungand is the creation of Keitaro Takahashi.  Technically it’s a “shoot-em-up” story about an arms dealer, named Koko Hekmatyar, and her band of mercenary bodyguards as they burn their way around the globe selling new and used military hardware to the highest bidder.  Among Koko’s squad, we find the boy-soldier Jonah, who hates weapons and all that they do and yet is bound to serve Koko as an amazing killing prodigy.

The plot of Jormungand initially kicks off as a series of interconnected short stories.  Jonah is already part of the team, which includes Lehm, the grizzled veteran, and Valmet, the knock-out knife-wielding assassin, among others.  Right off the bat, you can tell that Koko’s squad is the kind of professional that other would-be mercs long to be.  They’re a team who trusts their leader and that leader takes them where the money is.

And where the money is happens to be where the blood flows, too.
Through the volumes, though, you begin to see a pattern wherein a bit of each team member’s past is revealed.  First, of course, we start with Jonah and how he ended up attached to Koko, who seems determined to return life to his icy personality.  After that, we begin brushing against Valmet’s past.  Ugo the driver turns out to be a former Mafioso.  Mao hails from China and once served as an artilleryman.  Lutz was a SWAT sniper.  The others have yet to be examined, but you can tell that each one has a special set of skills that builds the overall team and each has a story to tell – and each story end up wrapped around Koko’s destiny.

Koko’s destiny, by the way, is where a thread of the otherworldly is slowly creeping into the story.  If this manga were just about the adventures and stories of Koko and her squad, it might be interesting, but hardly compelling.  Yet, something “more” is swirling around Ms. Hekmatyar, and Jonah seems to be assigned as the chief observer of her path toward completing whatever mission drives her forward.

Already in the story, it has become clear that Koko has something special in mind for Jonah.  Make no mistake, either, in thinking that Jonah is unaware that something is a bit “off” in his employer’s attitude toward him.  His situational awareness is second to none in the squad and what he may lack in worldliness, he more than makes up for in his healthy distrust of all things “adult”.

The deeper mystery of what exactly Koko seeks to achieve and how Jonah figures into her world drive the overarching plot line.  The progress along the way is woven thick with the personalities and histories of both her squad and her adversaries.  The art is rich and detailed, sometimes subdued and sometimes grandiose, but always carrying the narrative along by enriching the set upon which the dramas play out.  The leavening of humor that is sprinkled throughout helps ease the shock of the horrid violence that accompanies so many of Jormungands more “active” moments.

I’m picky about my “realistic” action manga.  There has to be a story to carry me past the horror and grimness that such stories draw upon.  Jormungand has succeeded in capturing my attention and letting me enjoy an engaging tale without overwhelming me with gore.

— Darwin Garrison

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Animanga Viewpoint– Hekikai no AiON

Hekikai no AiON
Immortal Witch, Pure Hearted Boy, Blood Thirsty Mermaids

There is no point in denying that most manga that hits popularity in the States is based on Japanese high school students and various stereotypes thereof.  The classic coming of age tale, in all the various flavors (both tame and tawdry) play out in the crucible of “near the end of middle school” and “through the years of high school”.

I mention this because Hekikai no AiON is “yet another high school urban fantasy with romance” kind of story.  Frankly, most manga hits along those lines one way or another because that’s the target age for their market, especially if you recognize the “urban fantasy” bit as interchangeable with “science fiction mecha” or “sparkly vampire” or any other “hook” that may be in play at the time.

And yet, Hekikai no AiON is yet another case in point that proves the assertion that the characters and story (coupled with art in manga) are what drives the story, not genre or the presence or absence of cliché.

Mangaka (female manga creator) Yuna Kagesaki is best known for her teenaged vampire romance series “Karin” (which goes by the name of “Chibi Vampire” here in the States for some inscrutable reason known only to TokyoPop’s clueless herd of marketing bovines.)  “Karin” enjoys extreme popularity both in Japan and the States due to the extreme affability of its main characters and Kagesaki-sensei’s characteristic “sexy-cute” art.

Hekikai no AiON (marketed as “AiON” here in the States by TokyoPop) is, frankly, more of the same in some sense as “Karin”, but not entirely so by any stretch.  The story opens with the main male lead, Tsugawa Tatsuya, heading out for school on his first day back a week after his parent’s untimely demise in a car wreck.  First thing out the door he gets rolled for his lunch money by some neighborhood bullies.  Worse yet, when he goes to pick up the money, a lead foot comes down on the biggest coin.

Enter our heroine, Seine Miyazaki.  She’s a cool beauty who apparently doesn’t even get the fact that she almost smashed Tatsuya’s hand and couldn’t care less anyhow.  Not to worry, though, because she’s going to get even worse before she gets better.

The thing is, Tatsuya had the opportunity to have a few last words with his father.  Those words basically boiled down to, “Don’t be a wimp!  Be a strong, upstanding man!”  Thus, when our hero spies Seine being bullied in a hallway at school later, he throws himself into action to shield her from the bully’s kicks.

And immediately after, Seine smacks him away and tells him to butt out.  She likes being bullied.

Trust me, it confuses Tatsuya just as much as it confuses the reader at first and it calls into question his whole quest to live up to his father’s last words.

As things go forward, we find out there’s a reason for Seine’s desire to be bullied, because it’s only when she’s goaded her target into a killing rage that she can finally use her attached familiar “AiON” to consume the sea-born parasites that have attached themselves to human hosts.  So, since that the way she has to hunt, it’s probably a good thing that she’s been equipped with an immortal body that can take any sort of abuse a homicidal maniac might dish out at her.

As skimmed over as that summary of the opening is, I actually find the characters and situations in AiON to not be cliché or boring at all.  Kagesaki-sensei does a very good job of really looking beyond the surface of characters and that comes to the fore in AiON.  Everyone has come from somewhere, and those journeys have been through various degrees of hardship.  Even the villains are developed enough to empathize with, including the mermaids that are gunning for Seine’s life even as she seeks to exterminate them.  There’s a lot of pathos in Seine’s revenge-driven worldview.  Yet she is still vulnerable in ways despite her long life, still very much a maiden at heart despite being a committed killer of otherworldly things.  Tatsuya starts out very much as the classic wimpy male manga character, but there’s more to him than meets the eye and that only starts coming through via his efforts to redeem himself to his father’s vision.  Other characters join in the fun, of course, and that makes the journey all the more intriguing and enjoyable.

I’d be happier with this if TokyoPop wasn’t the main publisher for the series.  They have shown an annoying tendency of late to drop project uncompleted without explanation or apology.  Still, it’s good to see this series finally coming out in the States and I enjoy reading it as much in hardcopy as I do following the releases online.  If you like intriguing tales that wind as much mystery as they do romance into the telling, you might consider giving AiON a try.

–Darwin Garrison

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Animanga Viewpoint –

While our site is being upgraded — which should be finished tomorrow, assuming the bosses and I can get together long enough to approve the changes — I’ll post Darwin Garrison’s latest Animanga Viewpoint column here.  Enjoy!

After enduring a weekend full of horrid news and equally horrid reporting, I found myself seeking comfort from one of my favorite manga creators, Kozue Amano.  Being that I’m not Japanese and can’t read kanji, I don’t really know if Kozue or Amano is her last name, but I’ll refer to her as Amano-sensei in attempt to be respectful – and her work definitely deserves respect.

Amano-sensei is the creator of the manga series Aria (and its prequel, Aqua).   The setting is a terraformed Mars in the 24th century, now referred to as “Aqua”.  Due to a poor estimate on the actual size of the subterranean Martian polar caps, warming of the planet resulted in 90% of the surface becoming covered with water.  The result is that Mars became “Aqua”, a sort of resort planet with a culture that harkens back in ways to pre-interstellar Earth.

The main character of both Aqua and Aria is Mizunashi Akari, a Japanese girl from Earth who has come to Aqua and the city of Neo-Venicia to apprentice as an Undine – a gondola piloting tour guide for the city.  Neo-Venicia is a recreation of Old Earth’s Venice down to the Plaza of St. Mark and many mirrors of original Venetian traditions.

When we first meet her, Akari is starry-eyed and romantic about the lifestyle, grace, and beauty of Undines.  The thing is, she soon realizes that the reality is so much more than she could have imagined as she begins her life with her mentor, Alicia-san, and the Undine company, Aria.

The story of Akari’s adventures in friendship and immersion in Neo-Venecia’s culture and history is brilliantly executed by Amano-sensei.  The entire series has a “dreamy” quality that combines beautiful art, subtle storytelling, and a weaving of everyday life with the extraordinary.  The story’s core moves forward with Akari’s honest and sincere character.  Her accepting personality and heartfelt desire to understand and care for those around her and her new home paints the narrative with a hue of hopefulness that is simultaneously uplifting and touching.

All of the characters in this series are earnestly portrayed by Amano-sensei.  Cardboard cutouts do not fit into this gentle world.  Everyone is important and everyone has a role to play, which is a metric by which all good fiction should be measured.

I did not use the word “gentle” lightly.  Aqua and Aria, whether in manga or anime form, are “gentle”.  They do not exist to shock with violence or drama.  These stories are “slice-of-life” tales that, together, relate Akari’s journey from bright-eyed neophyte to an equally bright-eyed but now nostalgic Undine.  The intricate interplay of art and dialogue weave together to create soothing yet compelling tales of Akari’s lessons, her encounters with new friends, and even her brushes with the otherworldly as she wanders between the past and present of Mars/Aqua and Neo-Venicia.  There is no over-blown trauma in this series.  Rather, it’s a tale of coming of age in a new way that carries a more gentle yet none-the-less compelling drama of its own.

I heartily recommend all of the Aqua and Aria mediums, both manga and anime, since the storytelling and conclusions differ subtly from one to the other and enhance, rather than detract from each other.  In a world where violence is so quickly followed by lies and recrimination, Amano-sensei’s touch can help calm your world for the better.

Oh, I also recommend her new series, Amanchu, which is not yet available in the USA, if you can access it.  Amanchu has a similar feel to Aqua and Aria, but it is based in the here and now of the Seto Inland Sea and follows the adventures of a high school diving club.

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Animanga Viewpoint — New Post

Check out Darwin Garrison’s latest installment to the Animanga Viewpoint.  Today, he’s taking a look at Berserk by Kentaro Miura.  You can find it here.

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Wednesday Morning

Thanksgiving is almost here and, like so many folks, I’m facing — and dreading — that last minute run to the grocery store later today to make sure I have everything needed for the big Thanksgiving dinner.  Of course, because of family scheduling conflicts, dinner will actually be lunch on Friday.  Not that it means I can postpone the trip to the store… Oh no.  Have to brave the crowds today to do food shopping in case I have to brave the crowds Friday for Black Friday sales.

And, yes, that scream you heard was me.  I hate, absolutely HATE, shopping of any sort.  Add crowds to the equation and, well, I’m sure you get the picture.  Thank goodness most of the sales also have online equivalents.  Still, you know there will be that one item my retired mother will want me to go out to get for her and, dutiful daughter — okay, quit laughing — that I am, I’ll go, grumbling and clutching my mug of coffee like a lifeline.

Any way, if you check out the site today, you’ll see that Darwin Garrison’s latest Animanga Viewpoint is up.  You can see what he has to say about Raiders by JinJun Park here.  Go take a look and let him know what your thoughts are.

Also, don’t forget that Dave Freer’s collection of short stories, A Goth Sex-Kitten & Other Stories, is now available for sale.  You can find it  on our site or at Barnes & Noble.  As soon as it goes live on Amazon and smashwords, we’ll let you know.

Enjoy your holiday.  Be safe and have fun.  Oh, and check back on Friday.  I have a feeling you might find a few “Black Friday” sales here as well.

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Animanga Viewpoint

We’re excited to announce our new review column by Darwin Garrison.  Animanga Viewpoint will be where Darwin can discuss and review what’s going on in the worlds of anime and manga.  His first post, which just went live, can be found here.  His next post will be on the 24th.  After that, he will be posting the first and third Wednesday of each month.

One of the reasons I’m so excited about Darwin’s column is because I know how large an impact manga can have on younger readers, especially boys.  I was first introduced to it about 10 years ago when I was trying to find something — anything — my son would read.  Once a boy who had read everything he could get his hands on, thanks to a teacher who used reading as a punishment, he hated reading.  As a reader and a writer, I was desperate to find something to rekindle that spark.

Two things did.  The first was listening to books on tape on the way to and from school.  I’ll forever thank Jim Dale for narrating the Harry Potter books and — no, I’m not kidding — Diane Mott Davidson for putting her Goldy the Caterer books on tape.  Those showed my son that books can be fun and entertaining.

But that still didn’t get him to put book in hand and sit down to read.  Manga did.  I’d never have thought of it but for one of the youth librarians in our local library.  She also happened to work at one of the local middle school libraries at the time, iirc.  When I explained the situation to her, she took my son and I immediately to the manga collection and that was all it took.  We checked out a couple of volumes and, dragging his heels, my son agreed to try them.

Well, long story short, he came into my room later that night wanting to know if we could go back to the library the next day because he wanted more books.  It didn’t matter that they were comic books on steroids at that point.  All I cared about was that he was reading.  Those dozens of manga books he checked out of the library and then the many more that we bought led him back to enjoying reading.

Since then, I’ve talked to a number of parents and teachers who have seen the same thing happen over and over.  I’ve also read my fair share of manga as well.  Some of it is very good.  Some isn’t.  But that’s how it is with any book.

All this is simply my way of saying “thank you” to Darwin for letting all of us know what’s going on in the manga and anime world.  As far as I’m concerned, manga is as much a “book” as anything else, especially if it helps get one more youngster interested in reading.

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