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Posts Tagged ‘manga’

onwards towards our noble death

Comics seem exceptionally well-suited to handle difficult subjects: war, illness, political turmoil, and angst of any other nature. Or, perhaps, in the hands of talented comic artists, all the different dimensions and subtleties come alive in a particularly evocative way.

Onward Towards our Noble Death by Shigeru Mizuki (originally published in Japanese in 1973), based on his own personal experiences (90% facts, he says) as a recruit in Japan’s Imperial Army, is especially hard to read. This is a fictionalized account of a small unit of the Imperial Army in Rabaul (in what is now Papua New Guinea) fighting the Allied forces. Mizuki’s cast of characters include lower-ranking men who are constantly and baselessly admonished and abused by superiors in a “heirarchical and feudalistic command structure”. No war is without cruelty and death, or hardship and fear, but what makes the manga particularly tragic is a gruesome aspect of the Imperial Army honor system: a unit sent out on a banzai (suicide) charge unexpectedly survives; “since the men’s ‘glorious death’ had already been reported to headquarters, it is sent back to the front with orders not to return”.

The original Japanese title of the book is Soin Gyokusai Seyo!, where gyokusai (translated into “noble death” in the English title) is just a euphemism for a forced (honorable) suicide. I believe gyokusai literally translates to jade shards, or shattering like a jewel. Mizuki draws backgrounds—the warships, the coconut trees on the pristine island, war scenes, and bodies ripped by artillery, with staggering realism, only to contrast them heavily with the highly ‘cartoony’ shapes of the Japanese soldiers. This rendering and the incongruent humor that it injects, only makes the fate of the soldiers even more poignant, if that is possible. In the final pages, two “dilly-dalliers” are forced to commit seppuku, kneeling on the ground in front of their kaishakunin (an second whose job is to assist in the suicide and ensure it is successful).

Onward Towards our Noble Death is a commentary on the absolute depravity of war and the wickedness of codes of (honorable) conduct and reflects the author’s outrage .

Other comics, that make up in emotional depth what they lack in mirth: Blankets, Stitches, Marbles, Palestine, Tangles, Fun Home.

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The art of Osamu Tezuka

I am only familiar with two of Tezuka’s works: the Buddha series that I am reading and collecting, and the Adolf ni Tsugu (Message to Adolf) series that I just finished reading, both historical manga, so I can’t say that I am particularly familiar with Tezuka. But I couldn’t resist reading the biography of someone often called Manga no kami-sama (The God of Manga).

The Art of Osama Tezuka: God of Manga by Helen McCarthy (2009) traces Tezuka’s life from his childhood to his growth to a manga titan, with plenty of pictures, illustrations and strips from his comics, and discusses his work and his legacy.

 So, who was Osama Tezuka (1928-1989) and why is he such a major force in Japanese pop culture?

…an innovator in animation, a creator of vast comic book sagas founded on a wide knowledge of international culture and literature, a fantasist who mined his innermost self for universal stories, a significant science fiction author, and a scientist who popularized technology, but also warned of its dangers to the planet and to mankind years before environmental concerns became fashionable.

Tezuka was also a medical doctor who received a PhD from a medical university for a thesis entitled A Microscopic Study of the Membrane Structure of Heterotropic Spermatids – imagine a scientific thesis illustrated by the God of Manga! Tezuka, however, never practiced medicine, even though he descended from an illustrious family – one of his ancestors was the first to practice Western-style medicine in Japan; another ancestor was Hanzo Hattori (whom Tarantino immortalized in Kill Bill). Tezuka chose, instead, to become a manga artist at a time when the job was neither considered particularly prestigious or well-paying.

Clearly, Tezuka’s family and early childhood played a significant role in sparking and developing his artistic tendencies, and I found the pages about Tezuka as a young artist particularly fascinating. Tezuka’s father, Yutaka, wrote haiku and comics for his own amusement, and was a keen photographer (and the reason for the family photographs which feature a young Tezuka and his siblings). Yutaka screened cartoons from Europe, America and Japan on family film nights, and encouraged his children to draw and share their own comics. Tezuka’s mother, Fumio, introduced the children to theater and concerts, and was a skilled storyteller. Fumio and Yutaka would leave a pencil and paper on the children’s table, and they often entertained themselves during illnesses and sleepless nights by cartooning – drawing on all of the movies, stories, shows and comics that they read and watched, and also fed by their own imagination. When Tezuka filled his drawing books, Fumio gave him his grandfather’s huge legal books to make flicker-book animation. By age nine, Tezuka had a firm grasp of presenting distances, shadows, lights, drama and comedy in his comics. Is it any wonder then that the boy grew up to create his own posse of characters?

Tezuka was not the founder of manga, but he did breathe fresh air into it. What had thus far been something to just cheer people graduated to a serious art form that “could change the way [people] saw the world”. Tezuka came of age right around World War II and his works reflect both his anguish, at seeing the charred remains of his country and its people, his constant questioning of how different cultures can live together in peace, and his desire for people to live in harmony with nature. Common themes found in his manga include destroyed families, abandonment by a father, survival, hope, the senselessness of war, questioning the wisdom of blind faith in technology and science, conflict between cultures, the need to respect nature, along with some darker, and even adult themes. Many of his manga are science fiction, and are set in the future, and his drawings of technology seem prescient (you must remember that he drew many of them in  the period 1940 – 1960). His themes and plots are varied as a rainbow. Consider this plot:

Kenichi’s uncle invents a drug that can shrink humans to the size of bacteria. The pair enter the body of a sick boy and find a huge hole in his lung. To their amazement, they find that the bacilli that cause tuberculosis are intelligent beings. A cute bacillum named Mode…is sent by her people to learn human language, and she befriends Kenichi and his uncle.”

– Tuberculose (1948).

Tezuka also pioneered the use of cinematic devices in manga (using close-ups, pans, zooms, changing viewpoints, action lines). These had been used in manga before, but Tezuka took them to a whole new level. Tezuka was also the first to organize his characters into a “star system” – he built  a cast of actors (imagine a set of Hollywood actors who play different roles in different movies), who would play different roles in different manga. The star of one manga could have another name in another manga, or be a supporting actor. Tezuka himself played a role in several of his manga, stepping in and out of his own stories (like Scott McCloud does in his comics about comics). Also, Tezuka created a code for diagrams of line style, shading, backgrounds, and effects, tone and color. He then hired assistants who were instructed through this system of codes to do exactly what he wanted them to. He grew his empire. Tezuka’s manga often uses character development to build stories, and deals with serious themes, such as social awareness and gender roles. He “demonstrated that cartoons could be used to convery profound ideas and explore terrifying aspects of humanity, that they could not only compete on level terms with the science fiction novel and the political polemic but could stand on an equal footing with literary classics both in form and content”. And that is why he is Manga no kami-sama. Tezuka also “had great faith in children, in their optimism, their ability to make the best of circumstances, and their openness to new experiences. He constantly emphasized the need to encourage children to cherish life and learn about the wonders of nature”.

…the true Manga God as captured by the remote control camera is someone who takes 3-hour snoozes every three days, gathers his ideas whilst eating take-out fried rice and who gives his all to draw manga.

The Art of Osama Tezuka: God of Manga also includes a 45-minute DVD of Tezuka doing his thing – making manga. Since he died in 1989, the video must have been filmed sometimes in the 1980s, and the viewer cannot help but be acutely aware of this – the hair is 80s, the dresses are 80s, the polo shirts are 80s, and the televisions are very 80s. Tezuka sits in a red, plastic-wrapped low-backed chair at his desk (I guess ergonomic was not yet popular) with classical music at full blast, and works with both hands (both hands!). He then visits his offices, where I think I caught a glimpse of one female artist, but with the 80s hair I could be wrong. Tezuka keeps his trademark beret on, even when he does a mid-session head stand, and agonizes over his inability to draw a smooth circle anymore and bemoans looming deadlines. “…I would keep drawing for the next 40 years. I have a lot of ideas”, he says. This statement is particularly poignant because he  died about a year later.

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In the case of a purely instructional comic, particularly in the case of a behavioral or attitudinal piece, the specifics of the information are frequently overlarded with humor (exaggeration), to attract the reader’s attention, convey relevance, and set up visual analogies and recognizable life situations. This inserts ‘entertainment’ into a ‘technical work’.

Will Eisner in Comics and Sequential Art

Daniel H. Pink cleverly taps the comic’s potential to instruct and motivate in his The Adventures of Johnny Bunko, which he proclaims is The Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need. Pink uses a small cast of characters, comprising of Johnny Bunko himself – a young, bored, uninspired management trainee who, Pink insists, is a “lot like you and me…a good person basically” and a spiky-haired, supernatural career counselor, Diana. Joining them are Bunko’s various bosses and sidekicks, all splendidly multi-ethnic in a story that aims to impart career-related wisdom.

Using a manga-like medium (even though it doesn’t read back-to-front or right-to-left like traditional manga does), is certainly an ingenious approach to dispense career advice. Pink also keeps his counsel pleasantly succinct: six rules, no more. He uses a simple narrative to prove his point, that these six lessons are all one needs for a satisfying, successful career. His style is not fussy or pedantic, and the story serves to make the rules sticky.

Clever, certainly, but calling it ‘the last career guide you’ll ever need’ might be stretching it far too much. Although Pink has done a fairly good job of distilling  his career lessons into six short, simple rules, I don’t necessarily agree with all of them:

  • There is no plan
  • Think strengths, not weaknesses.
  • It’s not about you.
  • Persistence trumps talent.
  • Make excellent mistakes.
  • Leave an imprint.

While the rest may qualify as excellent career advice, I do have a problem with Pink’s very first rule – ‘there is no plan’. While I agree with the premise that life is complicated and unpredictable and that there is no real way to map it all out, and that it is better to do “what turns you on”, I don’t think that might be the best career advice for everyone. Pink, via Diana, urges us to ape what successful people do and how they think:

…they understand what you and your dad and your college advisor don’t.

While our dads and our college advisors may know less about us than ourselves, I’ve found that sometimes the unlikeliest people can make you have an ‘aha’ moment or point you in the right direction. ‘There is no plan’ is probably not the best way to summarize this piece of advice, which emphasizes that parents, teachers and counselors are often wrong, and might only lead to young people shutting their ears to all but their own ideas. Yes, you cannot map it all out, and there is no real way to know if you’ve taken the best path. So, don’t chose a path that you know you will loathe, don’t put all your eggs in one basket, and talk to as many people as you can. And that, is a plan. Discover, network, converse. And modify your plan when and as you see fit.

In my experience, career advice is sometimes like fashion. It is exciting and new one season, and dated the next. When I was growing up, and looking for my first job (not all that long ago, actually), Pink’s advice would have been innovative and inspiring. I am talking about a time when we were urged to begin our resume with an Objective whose sole purpose was to announce what you wanted to do with your life. Most life aspirations sounded unoriginal, dull and insipid, something like ‘To gain knowledge and advance in my career’. We were also encouraged to stick with tried and tested routes that led to secure careers. Life has, since then, changed and so has the name of my hometown. Pink’s advice is hardly groundbreaking, but it is brief and pithy.

The plot is weak in places, but the characters and format are interesting enough that I’d recommend high schoolers and college students give it a try.

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