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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

World Cup Manga!

Hey, world!  Do you like sports?  I knew you did!  Well, how do you feel about comics?  Okay, what about Japanese comics?  Great!  Quick follow-up question: have you been beset by World Cup Fever and are primarily hung up on watching soccer (or as everyone outside the United States calls it, not-soccer), but also can't shake that perturbing interest you have in comics, no matter how many matches are going on?  Good news!  There is a shit-ton of manga out there about soccer!
One of the funnest things about manga is that there is a title about literally almost everything.  You like golf, mahjong, swimming, cooking, painting, animals, sex, comics?  Trust me, it's out there.  The maddening thing about it (or maybe this is what is so great, I dunno) is that most of it is so specialized that it can be very difficult to get into if you are not already a fan of that subject matter.  There are a few exceptions, of course (most notably Ping Pong, but I read that first as a Taiyo Matsumoto comic, and that guy could write about anything and it would be wonderful; also note that an animated series of Matsumoto's Ping Pong is currently running right now, and it's fucking awesome -more on that another time), but for the vast majority of it, I find myself uninterested by either the writing or artist, and the book exists to both keep aficionados interested and also to hock some very specialized equipment pertaining to whatever sport or pastime the book is about.  I guess that's all fine and everything, I just don't really care about many of the hyper-specific subjects of a lot of those books; I love comics as a medium before anything else, and good storytelling trumps subject matter any day of the week.

In 2002, though, Asuka Shuppan published Adidas Manga Fever, an anthology manga about (what else?) soccer, sponsored by (who else?) Adidas.  The main difference between this and most other sports-themed manga, for me, is that this book is full of some of the best artists working in Japan right now (and some in France, plus one Korean!).  Included in this anthology are works by Katsuya Terada, Jiro Taniguchi, Taiyo Matsumoto, François Schuiten, plus many others, including Inoue Takehiko, who has become famous mostly due to his other well known sports manga, Slam Dunk!  All of this comes wrapped in a wonderful cover by none other than Katsuhiro Otomo.  It's all a very nice collection, though if you're looking for a large format, hardback book, you'll probably be pretty disappointed.  It's very nice, but one would just assume that being sponsored by Adidas, the package would be something at least similar to Otomo and Terada's Viva Il Ciclissimo! book set; instead, Manga Fever is about 7.5 x 9.5 inches (19 x 25 cm) and softcover.  All of that is fine, but given import prices, and the broad appeal of soccer worldwide, one would also wonder why they wouldn't have added at least some commentary in another language besides Japanese, especially since there are a couple non-Japanese contributors to the project.  I might be wrong, but as far as I know there weren't any foreign printings of this book, though I'm sure if you look, you might be able to find some translated versions online somewhere (editor's note: while I won't tell you where to find scanlations online, and urge readers to BUY BOOKS, I am fully aware of their importance and the vitality that scanlations give to an artist's work that would never otherwise see foreign soil).

I can imagine that this was a fairly expensive book to put together, as well (I would be surprised if it wasn't, at least), due to the alarming amount of well known talent included.  I don't know what the above average mangaka makes these days, but with stories and illustrations by the likes of Hirohiko Araki (JoJo's Bizarre Adventure) and Yoshikazu Yasuhiko (Mobile Suit Gundam), it behooves me to ask again why this wasn't produced on a larger scale.  Either way, for all of that little griping, I do enjoy this book quite a bit, and it is still, so far, one of the better sports manga anthologies I've seen so far.  To be honest, I don't even think many of these stories are about soccer, really; Terada's contribution, Box!, is, I believe, more about boxing than it is soccer.  No matter!  Adidas Manga Fever is still an excellent way to satisfy both of your summer addictions, even if you don't read Japanese.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Art Of The Kill

So far this Spring, I have mostly been too busy to keep up with too many new movies, though I made a point to get out and see some of my more anticipated films of this year, which I would say, held up to my expectations pretty well.  Within a few days of each other I saw both The Raid 2: Berandal, and Jia Zhangke's highly acclaimed A Touch Of Sin (天注定), and I would be remiss if I didn't find a common, though strikingly different, feature used within the two of them.  Both films, though incredibly violent, carry themselves very differently, and while I would say that I've had my fill of bloodletting for the foreseeable future, they also had me thinking about violence in general; what draws us to violence, in both entertainment/storytelling and in real life?  Why do people seek violence in entertainment, and what causes others to seek and cause violence in their own lives?  Rather than write a straight review of either film, I thought it would be more interesting to look at things within a larger scope, but also to examine violence with an eye trained towards Asian cinema, as it may pay to take a look at the climates of where these films originate or take inspiration from.
2011's The Raid (Serbuan Maut) was maybe one of the most inventive and entertaining martial arts/action movies in I don't even know how long.  The raw, intense, and over-the-top violence was a shot of adrenaline to the action film community, who for so long had been overtaken by either big budget, Michael Bay-sized emotionally empty blockbusters or poorly financed, aesthetically bankrupt brawlers; and while it's hard to say that The Raid changed the film community at large, it at least changed audience expectations and proved that it was possible to elevate what would have been a simple genre film with sharp camera work, spare, yet effective plotting, and crisp editing, for just under a million dollars.  A sequel was sure to follow, and wouldn't you know it, did, only three years later.

When evidence of said sequel started showing up online in trailers, audiences of the first film shook as they wondered whether filmmaker, Gareth Evans, would be able to top the first film, as it set a high benchmark not only for himself, but for the action genre as a whole.  What genre fanatics were torn on was whether they wanted more of what made the initial film so special, or something brand new that lived as it's own beast, propelled by the same kind of balletic violence they had now expected from Evans' production studio, Merantau Films.  As is always the case with action films, the goal is to always top the previous installment somehow, and with the success of The Raid, filmmakers all over the genre rushed to up the ante in an unspoken (or pretty spoken, if you ask Sylvester Stallone) competition.


The point to all of this, I suppose, is that maybe it's not necessarily the violence itself that Gareth Evans is promoting so much as he's promoting the genre itself.  Evans has stated in several interviews about the kind of film fan he is, and what films he grew up watching, and while corruption within the civil services is a real problem in Indonesia, The Raid 2's sly winks and deliberate homages to classic martial arts and gangster cinema almost alleviates it from any social responsibility.  There is a scene in The Raid 2 in which one of the lead characters, Uco, is having an altercation with a singer/escort in a karaoke bar, and while the scene is momentarily unsettling, I quickly reassured myself that Evans, as a filmmaker, seems uninterested in displaying sexual violence the same way as he would a carefully choreographed fight scene.  The point is to provide a moment in which the audience recognizes a character flaw and removes any doubt about Uco or his role in the film.  The violence in The Raid 2, I conclude, though serious, is more suitably taken as a choreographed martial arts epic rather than an acute social examination.
The violence in A Touch Of Sin, then, is perhaps far more impactful, due to the film's firm and unwavering look at a true, unforgiving, and rapidly modernizing mainland China.  Each of Sin's four separate vignettes on personal violence are based on real life events, and their short, sharp moments are felt even stronger than Evans' only slightly longer-running ballet of wince-inducing action.  In The Raid series, we involve ourselves in the exploits of rookie cum undercover cop, Rama, as he infiltrates an underground crime syndicate after toppling one of it's former under-bosses.  If all of that sounds a bit fantastical, it is; Rama is a fictional character in a fictional version of Jakarta, Indonesia's capital city.  His mission is one of pure exploit and escapism, though tinged with a darkening world that feels believable because the rules within it are so similar to our own.  Guns kill quickly and easily, and the impact from punches and kicks feel as if real.  As an audience, because of these rules, we believe that Rama's feats are possible.  It feels believable that he could clear a room of adversaries due to his superior skill and righteousness.  We see him hurt, we see him bleed, and because of that, we sit on the edge of our seats knowing in our gut that one more hit could kill him, much in the same way that Jackie Chan made us believe in real life superheroics (one of Evans' favorite action movies, afterall, is Chan's own balletic masterpiece, Police Story).

Jia Zhangke's protagonists, by contrast, are real people, not reasonable facsimiles thereof.  Rather than heroics, we face four real, unsettling, and often heartbreaking moments in which a person is drawn (or rather led?) to violence.  In contrast to The Raid's nonstop barrage, Sin gives us time to breathe between every moment, and it's in contemplation of every moment that it's impact is felt.  The death of a single factory worker, whose act is based on the Foxconn suicides of 2010, is more important than the swift demise of henchmen #s 14-32 in a single scene of The Raid.  The days and moments leading up to the dramatized account of the Deng Yujiao incident and the moments after frame the act of violence in a way that is both anticipatory and pensive; as an audience, we are forced to contemplate Xiao Yu's actions, and it's hard not to anticipate them as we watch the film.  Her segment comes at a place in the film where we already know what to expect, and if we are familiar at all with the actual event, it's a sick pit in our stomach as we wait for the pitch to finally turn feverish (or at the very least, where we find Xiao Yu's breaking point to be).  As news stories and accounts of incidents file up, Zhangke's film becomes sadly predictable, and I think it will sit with many viewers as a chronicle of a time in China when life seems very cheap; what is so fascinating with Sin, though, is it's ability to keep us engaged through it's predictability.
In their own ways, both A Touch Of Sin and The Raid 2 reminded me a bit of  the films of Takeshi Kitano, who is no stranger to violence (both in real life and on film), but has a sensibility about him that I have always really admired.  A nihilist at heart, Kitano has never had a problem showing us darkness, but the differences, specifically, between 1993's Sonatine and 1997's Hana-bi are staggering in tone; similar acts take place, though the way the audience views them is very different.  He is treating the audience much like children in the way at some moments he invites us in as if to say, "look at this, learn," in some instances, and "this is not for you to see" to others; but we trust his judgement, because he's usually right, and it's nice to see an artist guide his audience every once in a while through both extremes.  What Kitano lacks, though, is an eye for artistic violence, as to him it just exists.  I don't think it's too far of a stretch to think that maybe his aesthetics for filmed violence were shaped in some way by the work of Kinji Fukasaku, who was set to helm Takeshi's directorial debut, Violent Cop, before stepping down due to illness, or scheduling, or some other story I remember reading forever ago.

Fukasaku's own Battles Without Honor & Humanity (仁義なき戦い Jingi naki tatakai)series could be seen as a kind of precursor to some of the violent films we see today, even beyond Takeshi Kitano.  To Fukasaku, crime was unglamorous, and the yakuza, who up until then in film were often revered as folk heroes, were dirty, underhanded degenerates who killed, raped, and stole out of desperation and greed, and were not, generally, the heroic men of the people popularized in the the fiction of the time.  Fukasaku had enough true accounts to ever mistake the fictional yakuza for what they really were, and combined with his documentary-like style of filming, to audiences of the time (I can only imagine Takeshi was among that audience), it was a shot in the arm both cinematically and socially.  I again find it not such a stretch to imagine that Fukasaku's films were perhaps at least in some way influential to both Gareth Evans and Jia Zhangke, whose films celebrate both the cinematic and brutal humanity depicted as far back as the early 70s.



The difference between The Raid and A Touch Of Sin, I conclude, is in cinematic tradition.  In the case of Evans, perhaps, originally a westerner, his connection to many social aspects of the cultures he viewed were superficial.  That's not to say that Evans is a superficial director, and I actually would argue that he is a socially responsible filmmaker who in fact has great respect for the culture he represents in his film (allegedly, Sydney Pollack was said to have had very little respect for his Japanese cast while filming 1974's The Yakuza, and accusations of it's "promotion of 'yellowface' behavior" lasts to this day).  Again, Evans' films celebrate the balletic momentum of the wuxia film traditions (to make an interesting note, even the title of A Touch Of Sin is a reference to another wuxia film, King Hu's A Touch Of Zen), combined with modern sensibilities and classic "one-upmanship" within the genres his films represent, and are therefore not irresponsible when measured against the films of Zhangke, whose films have always carried a social overtone, and have yet to veer too far from being specifically Chinese.  One could argue that Evans could never make the films he makes outside of Indonesia, but I feel like his films have a little more of a global lens with which he views things.  To adopt a culture and grow in one are very different, and though one is not less admirable than the other, it feels rather inescapable in terms of pedigree.
It's hard to be able to sit back and say a film has zero social responsibility, but in having the choice of what cinema we choose to watch, the responsibility ultimately comes back to us as the audience; we are in a pretty wonderful position in 2014 for cinema to have such a global reach, and whether that influence be social or purely aesthetic, we can take from them what we choose.  It's interesting to note that Sin was censored in China (allegedly, though few notes have been found saying exactly that, despite the film's trouble finding domestic distribution) not for it's violence, but for it's social commentary.  The largest difference between the two films is that Zhangke asks us to reflect upon the consequences of that violence, whereas Evans is content to let his audience be namely that: an audience.  Though the protagonist in both films could be viewed as the angry antihero, pushed beyond the limits of rational humanity, of the two only Sin asks the audience to step into the shoes of his characters, while The Raid forces us to view Rama as we would through a shark tank: aware of danger yet safely beyond it's reach.  Neither film is wrong for it's decision, as ultimately the two films are incomparable (a little late for that, wouldn't you say?), and it is up to the audience to decide what the limits of their morality is, whether that be an explosive gangster yarn or the simple question of human decency.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Young, Beautiful, & Blue

Most readers who keep an eye towards international cinema will have, most likely, heard at least rumblings about two of the most sensational films from this past year's Cannes Film Festival, and since they're either finding or found their way to home video releases, now seems like the perfect time to talk about two of my favorite films of last year.

Despite it's controversy (more on that later, maybe), Blue Is The Warmest Color has become a critical success pretty much from go, and it managed to secure the Palme d'Or for the director, Abdellatif Kechiche, as well as both Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos, making them the first (and only!) women since filmmaker, Jane Campion for The Piano in 1993, to win the award (not to mention Exarchopoulos being the youngest ever recipient).  While both actresses are excellent, I found Exarchopoulos to be the breakout performance as it's her character (also named Adèle) that the audience gets to see grow throughout the film as she meets Emma (Seydoux), the young woman with blue hair with whom Adèle begins a life-changing relationship with.
Though the film is based (kinda) on Julie Maroh's graphic novel of the same name (making Blue the first film based on a graphic novel to ever win it's esteemed award), the film differs slightly, as it was also the product of filmmaker, Abdellatif Kechiche's, original concept that he found mirrored Maroh's story that he came across as he was still developing it.  Aside from the changing the character's name from Clémentine to Adèle, it's the ending and preceding character changes that delineate the two versions; and as much as I love to side with source material, I found the film to be much more interesting, and the ending of the film drove home everything that I loved about it.  In fact, one of the reasons why Maroh wasn't mentioned in last month's article on female artists was that I wasn't too terribly impressed by her version of Blue Is The Warmest Color, as I didn't find her ending as satisfying.  It's also interesting to note the film's original French title, La Vie d'Adèle - Chapitres 1 & 2 (Adele: Chapters 1 & 2), which I find probably more appropriate, given it's structure, as well as the overall impression the film left with me.

As I mentioned above, the film garnered it's share of controversies and criticisms; some of it came from alleged working conditions during filming, but the film's reputation was criticized, even by Maroh herself, disapproving of the film's several lengthy sex scenes, comparing them to pornography.  I found that the rest of the film's visuals were not to be overshadowed though, and the lovely (if not so literal) use of blue in the film's rich color palate was very striking and reminded me of Glyn Dillon's The Nao Of Brown and it's brilliant use of red as it's own central palate; in both instances, neither color overwhelmed the senses nor felt overused, but in fact added to the overall design of both pieces, making them feel like complete, well-rounded artifacts.  Blue Is The Warmest Color is just that; both a color and a mood.

My second favorite film of last year, and also a nominee of the Palme d'Or, was François Ozon's Young & Beautiful (Jeune & Jolie).  I have been a tremendous fan of Ozon for a while now (as with the continuously promised Wong Kar Wai article,there is an Ozon omnibus post coming soon as well, I swear!), and I have yet to see him turn in anything I haven't enjoyed (though I will admit to not seeing absolutely everything he's done); Young & Beautiful was no exception.
The film focuses on the seventeenth year of Isabelle, played by Marine Vacth, who, after losing her virginity while on vacation with her family in south France, decides to explore her sexuality by becoming a prostitute.  Simple enough Cinemax style setup, I suppose, but Ozon's film shines in much the same manner as the rest of his films; almost like an alternate universe Yasujiro Ozu, François Ozon's films often deal with families and the relationships between generations, and it's that relationship and subsequent fallout of Isabelle's alter-ego Lea that feeds much of the film's conflict.  After a shocking event, Isabelle is quickly found by the police and her parents are notified, straining her relationship with her mother.

In true Ozon fashion, he deliberately and frankly sees his events through to their conclusion, and as the film encompasses an entire year, the audience is able to see real growth in the characters through the performances of actresses Marine Vacth and Géraldine Pailhas, who played Isabelle's mother, Sylvie.  Vacth is able to portray a young girl both experienced and unrefined, and it's her penetrating, weak, yet almost blank gaze throughout many of her sex scenes that belie a sense of innocence in her incongruous professionalism.  Pailhas reacts with all the stoicism of a lost parent, and it's through a series of tough love, treading water, and trust exercises that the two develop back into their former relationship, at once pretending that nothing happened while silently acknowledging their conjoined shadow, lurking just under the surface.

The film is interceded by four chansons (one for each season) by Françoise Hardy, whose recording of the German song, "Träume", was featured at the end of Ozon's Water Drops On Burning Rocks (an adaptation of an early Fassbinder play, so, you know, it's awesome that that's a French reinterpretation of both a song and a movie; just saying).  The effect is very French, and it gives the film a sort of timeless quality; much like his previous films, Young & Beautiful doesn't cater to social trends in either filmmaking or setting, and if it weren't for the inclusion of cell phones and computers, I feel like Ozon could have made the same film fifteen years ago.  In fact, the visual style of Blue Is The Warmest Color even reminded me quite a bit of Diva, a personal favorite of mine by director Jean-Jacques Beineix, so it's almost as if in 2013 France has reached a new neo-classicist period, though I'd still hesitate to rename an era every time a couple of dudes make a few really excellent films; for all we know, these are isolated incidents, but I'm still going to be excited when said dudes release their next films.
Funnily enough, despite filmmaker François Ozon's frequent use of deliberate sex and graphic violence, his films rarely if ever have any controversy surrounding them, and even in the face of some misplaced comments suggesting that many women fantasize about being prostitutes, Ozon stands by his films in a way that maybe Kechiche finds himself unable to do in the face of his critics, even at one point threatening legal action against actress Léa Seydoux for criticizing his shooting methods.  Despite both Ozon's comments and Kechiche even denouncing his own film in weekly French magazines and the like though, the films have been popular and critical successes, and it's nice to see that art can still sometimes speak for itself.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

International Ladies

Okay.  I feel like I shouldn't have to do this, but lately I've been coming across more and more articles about women in media and thought that this would be a good moment to pause a bit and take a look at some of the wonderful female voices out there.  Now, when I say women in media, I am talking not about actors, TV personalities, or even singers; what I want to talk about is all the amazing ladies doing the cool work behind the scenes writing, drawing, or directing some of my favorite books or movies I've seen over the past couple years.
On a recent episode of The Point (if you have even a passing interest in videogames or the videogame industry/ecosystem, you should be watching The Point), host Danny O'Dwyer lent some focus to women in the videogame industry, and while lamenting the state that such a male-dominated community has devolved to recently (honestly, just check out some of the comments about any game that deals with women as either characters or creators to see what I mean), he offered a lot of insight as to something that unfortunately gets shoved aside when discussing games.  Another recent article featured on The Comics Journal has pointed to a similar problem in comics, and one that though seemingly a no-brainer, obviously needed addressed (honestly, the real crazy stuff comes in some of the comments), unfortunately.  Rather than toss my own arguments into the pile, I think it's more important to use this blog to let these talented individuals' work speak for itself, though it's important to understand that I still run the risk of sounding like just another male voice championing what I find appealing; this article is in no way meant to be a point of reference for every female artist out there, and this is by no means anywhere close to a comprehensive list.  As is the nature of this blog, I also want to focus on international talent that I find appealing and that maybe a more mainstream domestic audience might not know about yet.  Enough jabbering, though (clap): let's do it!
So last article I mentioned Pink, by writer and artist Kyoko Okazaki; it was a title and artist I was previously unfamiliar with, but after making my way through the absurdly-described, sexually-infused story set during Japan's bubble economy, I am ready to blindly try anything Kyoko Okazaki has written.  Pink's smart, yet breezy approach to storytelling reminded me in some ways of the work of Taiyo Matsumoto, though Pink is reasonably lighter fair than Sunny, or even Black & White.

I read an okay amount of erotica and have even reviewed some on this blog by way of some Dark Horse rereleases of erotic work by Milo Manara, and even some of the work by Vittorio Giardino.  What made Pink so refreshing to me was to finally see (for me, at least) frank eroticism told from the perspective of a woman.  I understand that romance novels exist, and female led erotica is a thing, but in comics, I had yet to encounter much in the department of a woman giving a true female perspective of the form.  Every so often one encounters a female writer or artist on a similar project, but mostly they are paired with a male counterpart who is either leading the story with their own take on the female mindset, or indulging in their own visual fantasies, rendering the piece often times more palatable to a male readership.  With Kyoko Okazaki's work though, it's her writing paired with her drawings (reminiscent of her work as a fashion illustrator) that give me the impression that I'm seeing her own views on beauty, sexuality, and even violence (again, reminding me of Taiyo Matsumoto's personal approach to all of his work).
It seems only fitting, then, that 2012's live action film version of Okazaki's Helter Skelter would be directed by film director and fashion photographer, Mika Ninagawa, who is known for her brilliant use of vibrant colors throughout her work.  Her previous film, Sakuran, was based on the manga of the same name written by fashion writer and mangaka, Moyoko Anno (can I pause for a minute to point out that Moyoko's husband, Hideaki Anno, is responsible for some of my favorite pieces of animation?).  The film even used Ringo Sheena's Heisei Fuzoku album as the film's soundtrack, as Sheena herself served as the film's music director.

It's hard to mention women in Japanese cinema and not talk about Naomi Kawase, whose films are decidedly more acclaimed than those of the aforementioned, Mika Ninagawa.  Though she also started her education with a focus on photography, Naomi Kawase used her interest in autobiography and documentary filmmaking to make a series of short films before completing Embracing, her longest film yet, and a personal journey to find her lost biological father who had abandoned her and her family at a young age.  Her films relate to a very personal, often rural slice of Japanese society, and while Ninagawa's films follow a more mainstream, pop culture formula, that while not bad, are definitely not as focused as Kawase's in terms of execution and polish.  Naomi Kawase also has a good fifteen years of filmmaking experience behind her, coupled with a more classic education in film, so it is no wonder that her films are, well, better.  There, I said it.

While we're on the subject of film, and to bring the focus away from Japan for a moment, let's talk for a second about Claire Denis and her recent film, Bastards, which has been kind of polarizing audiences lately.  A lot of people loved it, some people thought it was hollow, I thought it was pretty good; I don't think I would be chastised for calling it unforgiving and more than a little bleak.  Eeeeeeeither way, Claire Denis is a French film director who has been making films about as long as Naomi Kawase, and like Kawase, her films are very humanistic, and it can be argued that both directors extend their reach no further than the immediate issues relating to their own countries' distinct personalities.  While Naomi's Japan is populated with a rural plight and more singularly focused local outlook, Claire's France extends beyond her borders to Africa, and it can be argued as a product of France's long history of imperialism compared to Japan's resurgence into rural isolationism after World War II; despite a rapidly growing economy decades after the war and a growing Western influence, Japan remains incredibly divided in terms of development, and can be illustrated no better than in Naomi Kawase's own film, Moe No Suzaku (萌の朱雀).  Conversely, Denis' opening salvo, Chocolat, focuses on the much more colonial lifestyle of a French family living in Cameroon.  Both films manage to feel incredibly personal, and both films are able to speak to a larger societal issue in their respective countries.  Even the neo-noir feel of Bastards manages to feel in some way very specific to France, and to the French people.

Speaking of France, I wrote last year about one of my favorite comics I had read in a while.  I am speaking, of course, about Aya Of Yop City, whose writer, Maguerite Abouet, absolutely delighted me in her close-to-home telling of a thriving economic community in 1960s Côte d'Ivoire, but since I have failed to get around to writing about it in an article of it's own, I would instead like to talk about my other favorite read from that year, Miss Don't Touch Me, by French pair Hubert and Kerascoët.  Made up of illustrators Sébastien Cosset and Marie Pommepuy, Kerascoët gets their name from the village in Brittany where Marie grew up.  I honestly don't know a lot about Marie Pommepuy other than that she originally studied medical design at L’école Estienne, but the illustration work I've seen from Kerascoët is wonderful, and Miss Don't Touch Me stood out to me as a spectacular piece of graphic storytelling.  I've been looking forward to their next English translated work, Beautiful Darkness, for a while, but it got pushed back to February 2014 from October of this previous year, so hopefully I'll be able to talk about that pretty soon.


While it wasn't my intent to ramble quite so much in this article, the main thing I wanted to talk about was the silly question of female creatives working in a more male populated field.  While one could argue that I could have remained more focused in some areas, I had mentioned here before that I try to remain positive throughout this blog rather than talk about things I don't like, and I feel it to be a more positive idea to talk about some outstanding pieces of work rather than get too far down a hole of cynicism.  I encourage readers, if they haven't yet, to take the time to watch that episode of The Point, and explore the other articles mention here, as well as ones I may have missed.  The first step we can take is to keep an open dialogue between creators and fans, and for all of us to help these communities that we take part in by speaking up when we see this sort of thing happening; sometimes the biggest fault is complacency.

I want to also mention that this short list of creators and works is by no means definitive, nor is its opinions regarding sexuality to be taken as a measure for greatness.  The worth of any creator, female or otherwise, is not reliant on an openness towards sexuality or an aptitude for displaying that in their respective field.  I hope that this article helps to bring to some light both the talents of and issues being dealt with by many women in the arts.  I also understand that I have overlooked quite a few individuals in an attempt to keep the format of this blog at pace, but again, I encourage readers to follow any links on here and spend some time doing what they can to keep their eyes open in their own communities.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Some More New Old Books

So, wow, been a little bit...  Sorry for the absence, life has come in the way as usual, but things are finally settling into a proper enough groove again, and I can get rid of any excuses and finally get to work on here.  In fact, I've been working on a few longer articles that keep tripping me up, and while the completion of them is important to me, I feel like a continued presence is just as important.

Yeah.  So, what have you guys been reading?  This has been a pretty good time for new releases, and even better for finding things that are new to me that have been around for ages, apparently.  This is also a great season for rereads for me, so it's been a blast the past couple months getting back into things I love and exploring things I didn't know I loved yet.  It feels like I haven't been without something to read in forever, and that's a pretty hard feeling to beat, so if you're looking for something to read, maybe this will help then, yeah?

First off (and only first off because of my excitement level), Viz released volume 2 of Sunny last month, and I couldn't be happier with the experience.  This will probably come as no surprise to anyone who has read this blog before, but I can think of very few other writers/artists working now that excite me as much as Taiyo Matsumoto.  His material is constantly fresh feeling, and there is no reason to believe that this kind of output won't continue until the end of his career (which is something I don't even wanna joke about).  Sunny again revolves around the lives of the children of Star Home, and if you haven't read my previous article on volume 1, make sure to check that out.  Volume 2 exhibits the same kind of wonderful storytelling that it's predecessor absolutely exuded, and Matsumoto again manages to both surprise and engage us in a story that is as sad as it is hopeful.  Although this is a couple years old, I am told, it's fourth installment was just released in Japan around the same time, so if nothing else, there are at least two more volumes of this beauty to look forward to, so long as sales stay up and Viz doesn't drop it like it had with Taiyo Matsumoto's No. 5.

Next up was Dark Horse's latest volume of the Manara Library Edition , the third and final of the Erotica series.  This was probably the most jam-packed volume yet, including Butterscotch, Gullivera (a personal favorite), Sexy Camera, Three Girls On The Internet, and Piercing, which was kind of a follow-up to Three Girls...  I don't know what else to say about Manara that I haven't said here before: his work is immaculate, and I have yet to find an example where I was let down.  Mt only real issue with this release, is although I understand this edition better shows off Manara's flawless linework, I still prefer some of these stories in color, and it would have been nice to see these get the same treatment as Indian Summer or Gaucho.

First released in 1989, Kyoko Okazaki's Pink was, I'm told, a pretty big deal, and I like to believe that that's true, since it was just weeks ago released in English by Vertical Inc.  I honestly know very little about the author or her works, but I was struck by the book's cover, so different looking than most of the manga releases I see come and go throughout the months that just don't interest me; the soft, yet stark colors and unconventional linework looked more at home on my shelf of European imports than the manga section of most US bookstores, though I will concede that Vertical has been doing a pretty decent job with it's choices, releasing the first ever English edition of Satoshi Kon's Kaikisen (here translated and titled Tropic Of The Sea) only months prior.  Though I guess technically still shojo manga, Pink is much more adult than many of it's contemporaries, and if the rest of her work is anything like Pink, then it's no wonder that she is considered one of the mothers of the josei manga genre.  Pink is a wonderful little story about love in the bubble economy, all in a light yet deliberate style, quickly summed up as a story about a girl who becomes a prostitute to feed her pet crocodile (say those words together, they feel similar, what with their syllabic structure!).  Read it, it will make your day!


In older releases, I just picked up, but haven't yet read, Jacques Tardi's The Arctic Marauder, which I really can't believe I missed!  I've talked about other Tardi books before, and I believe this story is supposed to take place within the same universe as Adèle Blanc-Sec, so I'm sure I have a lot to look forward to (it should be mentioned that I don't usually like to talk about things that I haven't fully explored, but I want to at least add this to my list of recent grabs, since I am such a fan of the previous work of Jacques Tardi).
Lastly, in my spare time between new purchases, I have been catching up with Lone Wolf & Cub volumes.  There were 28 in all of Dark Horse's previous editions, and it's always kind of nice knowing that I still have so much to read whenever I want, as the narrative rarely feels like it needs to be tackled in quick succession.  It is mentionable that Dark Horse has just begun a release of the material in larger omnibus editions, but really, any edition of this work suits me just fine.  As a casual read, it mostly ensures that on top of everything else recently, I shouldn't be without anything to read for quite some time.

Monday, October 28, 2013

A Short Piece.

Sooooooooo, I suppose this is a long time coming.  For all the references I've made in the past about Akira, I've been fighting writing an actual article about either the comic or the film.  This is partly due to just not knowing where to start; as many readers may have already gathered, I am a tremendous fan of Katsuhiro Otomo, and I have admired and maintained a relationship with his work unlike any else that exists in my life.  His body of work occupies my shelf not only as entertainment, but as inspiration, instruction manual, and proof that hard work and dedication is worth it; as cheesy as that sounds, I guarantee that the top of my bookshelf is more effective than any Hang In There cat poster.
Another reason I haven't spoken more at length about author or (mega)work is because there hasn't been too much more relevant information pertaining to either recently that hasn't been said better elsewhere, and rather than add to the deluge, I thought it best to not add secondhand information on exhibits or works I unfortunately didn't get to experience firsthand.  Excitingly enough, the 25th Anniversary Edition of Akira is being released in North America on Blu-ray on November 12th, so I found my excuse and decided to take it to say a few words in anticipation.

One of the main things that has always impressed me with Otomo was his wonderful sense of design.  In all of his work, especially that found in his first volume of Kaba (1971-1989 Illustration Collection), his skills as a designer, are readily apparent in both his commercial and personal work.  His mastery of such concepts easily transfers to the comics page, where one could practically draw a line tracing the eye-line on the page.  His meticulous draftsmanship takes a backseat to the concepts so simply derived from an intimate knowledge of how visual design works, and it's done in such a manner that the reader never has to think about what combination of principle elements are rushing him ever forward from one page to the next, only that the comic works fundamentally as it should.  In that way, Otomo's comics can be said to epitomize comics themselves.

It is apparent in Otomo's early comics career that he was interested in exploring themes and people beyond the casual manga landscape of the time.  I often compare Katsuhiro Otomo to director Shohei Imamura in that both men seemed very interested in exploring the far more interesting lower rung of society.  Much like Yoshihiro Tatsumi in the late 50s through the early 70s, Otomo's comic work would encapsulate a newer generation of young energy, angry and full of subversion, only this time with an even more cinematic approach.  If Tatsumi and the Gekiga movement was inspired early on by post-war noir and jidaigeki, then Otomo's new brand of manga looked more toward the Japanese New Wave and New Hollywood for inspiration, taking as much stock in the social relevance of Easy Rider as it did, most likely, to the work of Nagisa Oshima.
Inspired further by the European comics movement, Otomo's comics were suffused even further with a fantasy and science fiction influence, spreading all the way from shorter stories such as the more humorous Hair and Electric Bird Land (the latter of which was inspired by the Charlie Parker's Bird Land), to the more serious hard sci-fi pieces, Memories, Farewell To Weapons, and Fireball.  Otomo would then go on to create Domu; one of his most successful works in which he would combine the casual horror and science fiction tropes audiences would find accessible with his previous explorations of urban isolationism within a rapidly growing, and often personally suffocating Japanese society.

Though far from his final piece of work, it could be said that all of the themes previously explored by Otomo came to a head with Akira.  The easily accessible post-apocalyptic science fiction setting of a rapidly modernizing Neo-Tokyo landscape worked perfectly as the backdrop to a very personal (albeit rather epic) vision.  His exploration of modern youth culture in an often oppressive and high-strung society on the brink of collapse showed that things hadn't changed so much since the destruction and rebirth of the book's fictional interpretation of Tokyo, and perhaps it reflected Otomo's views on Japan itself and it's struggle to reinvent itself after it's own destruction and rebirth.  Whatever the case, Akira remains Katsuhiro Otomo's most well-known work to date, and it's something I doubt will change in the foreseeable future.  Through all of the hype, Akira remains a benchmark work in both comics and animation, and perhaps beyond the themes of the work itself, the true benchmark and inspiration to artists in any field should be the love, dedication, and professionalism put into the project by Otomo.  Rather than borrow it's themes or take inspiration from individual scenes or moments, become inspired by what it takes to produce such a work.  Become infatuated with pushing yourself and creating something new; what truly exists in Otomo's work is a focus and understanding that you actually can create.  To me Otomo makes me want to try that much harder.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Keep Me In Mind

Years of being a vinyl record addict have taught me a lot of hard lessons: Always put the white inner-sleeve away facing up so that the record doesn't simply drop to the floor when you get the album out next time. You'll never listen to a record set, even a double album is pushing it. Truly great records look like they were put together by a 1940s yearbook committee.  Maybe most importantly, the price of a record doesn't reflect on its quality.

Which brings me to the artist spotlighted in this article, because i'm about to do you a huge favor. I would conservatively estimate that 65% of the used record bins in the world, from high-end boutiques to Goodwills & garage sales, contain at least one Miriam Makeba album. I'm not really sure why this is. I don't know if the Columbia House record club simply mailed one to every household in America, or if the introduction of fluoride into our municipal water supplies sparked a national craze for world music. For whatever reason, there are a ton of Miriam Makeba albums out in the world, and the chances are that somebody would be willing to sell one to you for $1. Take them up on that offer.
Miriam Makeba was a singer from Johannesburg, South Africa, so beloved that she was nicknamed "Mama Africa." Her renown stems from both her powerful voice and her political activism, particularly as one of the resounding spokespeople against apartheid. She is credited with introducing African music to the worldwide stage when she performed in 1959 for 60 million viewers on the Steve Allen Show.
Armed with beauty, forthrightness, and stunning music, Miriam Makeba became a citizen of the world. Through a strong friendship with Harry Belafonte, she was signed with RCA Records in the United States and released her first solo album, Miriam Makeba, in 1960 featuring Belafonte's backing band. Her 2nd album, The World of Miriam Makeba, released in 1963 built on it's success and charted as high as number 86 on the Billboard Top 200.
Though she would say that she didn't sing political songs, that she simply sang the truth, Makeba was exiled from South Africa, and threatened with arrest should she return. This led Miriam Makeba to testify to the United Nations about the realities of apartheid, the government-codified racial segregation in South Africa, on three separate occassions in 1963, 1975, and 1976.

In 1964, Miriam Makeba was married to another of my favorite musicians, Hugh Masekela, whom she had first met in 1958 while performing in a South African musical of King Kong. Their marriage only lasted 2 years, but their influence on each other is readily apparent in all of their music.
Miriam Makeba led a long and storied career until her death in 2008. She left a legacy of amazing recordings, 28 albums, spanning 48 years. She toured endlessly, fighting through serious illnesses her whole life, passing away from a heart attack following a benefit concert in Italy. She remained an outspoken political advocate of the oppressed and marginalized. She was an unshakeable voice for freedom, love and harmony.
This article was once again written by good friend and World Music aficionado, Andrew Burger.  Aside from being a total dude when I ask for some help writing articles, Andrew also founded The Harmony Society record label and keeps his own blog, Stupid Scientifical, where you can keep up with all of his regular record-buying exploits.  Find him on Twitter, and when you get the chance, stop into 720 Music, which he co-owns and operates in Pittsburgh, Pa.  Also, if you haven't read it already, check out his excellent article on Marcos Valle from (what feels like) way back in July.