Monday, February 20, 2017

Reflections of a Former Otaku

If you walk into a chain bookstore these days, it's a safe bet that you'll find a section devoted to manga, i.e. Japanese comics, often a rather large one. In the current market, manga is published in book form; these books, called tankobons, are compilations of comics that have been published previously, making them the equivalent of American trade paperbacks. (Some people like to call them graphic novels, but in most cases I think this designation is erroneous. Watchmen is one notable exception; even though it was originally published as a twelve-issue limited series, it has been in collected form for over thirty years and comprises a complete story.)

Instead of being published in monthly comics, as they are in America, manga are released in monochromatic, phonebook-sized magazines (there are some exceptions, but this is the way it is done for the most part). Some of these, such as Shonen Sunday, come out weekly and are sold everywhere. Rather than just featuring one story, these magazines are anthologies of numerous series. They are printed on cheap paper and are, not unlike newspapers, considered ephemeral. People read them on the train and toss them when they’re done. Fans of a particular series can purchase tankobons, which are of considerably higher quality and often even have dust jackets, at a later time. Some places even rent them out, not unlike the video stores of old. I once tried to purchase one from a shop, only to find out that it was not for sale.

For me, seeing such a huge volume of manga readily available is stunning. Frankly, most modern series are of little interest to me, though I do find the odd one here and there that gets my attention (examples include The Sacred Blacksmith, How to Build a Dungeon: Book of the Demon King, both fantasy series, and the various horror manga of Junji Ito, such as Tomie and Uzumaki). During my fervid manga period, which lasted from 1994-2000, there were only three companies translating and publishing manga: Dark Horse, Viz, and Antarctic Press, and their output isn't what you'd call huge. Comic stores usually had a single shelf devoted to manga, and I always wished there was more available. The most popular title of the time was probably Ranma ½, Rumiko Takahashi's comedic saga of a teenage boy who turns into a girl when splashed with cold water. Today, Takahashi is better known as the creator of the fantasy series Inu Yasha, which is a pretty clear indication of the delineation between older fans and newer ones.

In those days, manga was actually put out in comic-book form. The tankobons were broken up into chapters, translated into English, and then republished. In addition, the pages were reversed because Japanese read right to left. Many mangaka, i.e. manga artists, disliked this, and many “otaku,” American manga fans, did, as well. (In Japanese, “otaku” is a multi-purpose word roughly the equivalent of “geek,” but in America it is used specifically for fans of manga and anime.) Some series were later recompiled. After a while, the publishers decided not to reverse the art and to start putting the books out in their original form rather than breaking them apart. This proved to be a good decision, not only because it ultimately made more sense but also because it made manga easier to get into mainstream bookstores.

I read a ton of manga and watched a mountain of anime during those years. I was even a member of an anime club that met in a community center in Atlanta once a month. I frequented a Japanese bookstore that sold untranslated manga (so I could at least look at the art) and even tried to learn Japanese because there were so many series that interested me that had yet to be translated.

Most of the anime I absorbed has fallen by the wayside, but a few series remain favorites: Bubblegum Crisis, Dirty Pair, and Urusei Yatsura.

Bubblegum Crisis (1987-1991) is an eight-episode cyberpunk OVA (Original Video Animation) series heavily influenced by Blade Runner. It chronicles the adventures of four women calling themselves the Knight Sabers who wear “hardsuits,” technologically-advanced exoskeletons, and battle rogue androids known as “Boomers” in the Tokyo of 2032. It features gorgeous character designs by Kenichi Sonoda, the creator of the popular manga Gunsmith Cats. One of the most notable aspects of this series is its hard-rock soundtrack, which is a perfect fit for its gritty, violent world, where everyone is at the mercy of the evil Genom corporation.

Dirty Pair is a futuristic sci-fi series about the Lovely Angels, two beautiful but dangerous women named Kei and Yuri, who work as troubleshooters for the WWWA (Worlds Welfare Works Association). They succeed in solving all of their cases, but something invariably goes terribly wrong, resulting in massive property damage and casualties. Hence, they are more commonly known as the “Dirty Pair,” a name they despise. Creator Haruku Takachiho originally published several novels featuring the Pair before bringing them to the screen. The 1985 TV series ran 24 episodes, and there are several OVAs and a film. The TV series, which is the most comedic in nature, is by far the best, as far as I’m concerned.

Urusei Yatsura is a romantic comedy about an alien girl named Lum who falls in love with a boy from Earth named Ataru Moroboshi. While he is fond of Lum, Ataru is a lecher who cannot commit to one woman. As such, Lum gives him electric shocks whenever he chases anyone else. Naturally, Lum has friends from the stars who make further trouble for her beloved, whom she calls “Darling.” It’s also extremely weird, which is one of the main reasons it appeals to me. The title is derived from an untranslatable pun, so for the most part it has been left as is (AnimEigo, the company that released the anime in the States, retained the title but put “Those Obnoxious Aliens” in parentheses). The series is based on Takahashi’s earliest ongoing manga. The TV series, which ran from 1981-1986, comprises nearly 200 episodes, and six movies and an OVA series were also produced.

Most popular manga have been made into anime, and in many cases the anime proves superior, as the writers are able expand the stories and inject more drama (in the case of Urusei Yatsura, they often become far crazier). The series that I adore in manga form are Masamune Shirow’s Appleseed and Takahashi’s Maison Ikkoku.

Shirow is probably best known for Ghost in the Shell, which will soon be released as a live-action film starring Scarlett Johannson, but I prefer Appleseed (1985-1989). Following World War III, Deunan Knute and her companion Briareos Hecantochires (named after the one-hundred-armed, fifty-headed monster from Greek mythology) join the police force in the city of Olympus, battling threats from both outside and inside the utopian metropolis. There have been several animated versions produced, but none of them seem to quite capture the spirit of the manga. 


Maison Ikkoku, which ran from 1980-1987, might seem like an odd choice, seeing as how it’s merely the story of a broke university student, Yusaku Godai, and the young apartment manager he falls in love with, Kyoko Otonashi. A widow, Kyoko is afraid to love anyone else, and Yusaku’s constant financial struggles and perceived duplicity certainly don’t make things any better. There is nothing even remotely supernatural or speculative about it. But something about it grabs me and won't let go. Its cast of wacky characters is certainly an element of its appeal, as is its frequent hilarity. It’s a huge story, spanning several years. I’m not sure of the exact page count, but I’m sure it’s in the thousands. 

I consider myself a “former” otaku because while I still enjoy manga and anime, I am no longer fanatical about them and am more interested in other things these days. (I never learned much Japanese, incidentally.) I know a few current otaku, and it’s clear that we are speaking different languages when it comes to our favorites. They have never even heard of the stuff I like and vice versa. 

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