Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Comic You Should Be Talking About For February 1, 2006: Rurouni Kenshin Vol. 23

You hear a lot about the manga these days. Some love it, some hate it. What's interesting though, is that most lovers and most haters will give the same reason for why they love or hate it: it's nothing like American comics.

It occurred to me, reading this week's CYSBTA, that this is not necessarily true.

A brief summary of RuroKen, as it's called by the otaku, to this point: The year is 187-something. Eleven years ago, Japan was in the midst of a brutal civil war between the shogunate and the imperialists. On the side of the imperialists fought Himura Kenshin, called Battousai, or "Manslayer." He was their greatest assassin, but after the war was won, he swore never to kill again, and took up a reverse-bladed katana, called a sakabato, to symbolize this vow. After wandering for years in search of peace, he has come to find a home at the Kamiya Kashin-Ryu dojo in Tokyo, a school teaching a sword style centered around defense and protection, instead of attack and killing, and a friend (and possibly more) in its sensei, the idealistic and beautiful Kamiya Kaoru. After thwarting a plot to overthrow the government, he has returned home, only to find that he is being stalked by a group of revenge-minded assassins, led by someone with a connection to the reason he swore his vow eleven years ago.

What spurred my thinking was a character profile page of one of the assassins, who creator Watsuki Nubohiro admits is visually based off of Venom. Watsuki then goes into his self-effacing mood, noting how he considers the character a failure for myriad reasons, but that's not important. Nor is the Venom thing, really, it just got me thinking.

Now, it's certainly true that stylistically, economically, structurally, historically, ecumenically, and grammatically, manga is very different from American, and indeed most Western, comics. The diversity of genres alone is enough to prove the point. Scott McCloud is, as we speak, writing a book on the subject. (Although of course he'd point out that no one's said a word. But that's another entry.) Manga ain't comics as we know them, period.

And yet…

It will surprise no one who knows me well that I'm not much of a technical reader. I've developed an eye for it, and there are masterful moments (the sentence "The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed him" is one of them) that give me shivers in my right hemisphere, but it's not why I come to the party. I am, first and foremost, about story. About plot, character, and theme. And looking at RuroKen, looking at other manga and anime I've seen and heard of, it strikes me that the old adage about there only being so many stories is true, even across the gulf of manga.*

Let us consider Kenshin. The exact reason for his vow is revealed in the series, so I won't spoil it here, but suffice it to say that he has a great deal of blood on his hands he can never wash off. He's commited sins, and he's trying to atone for them. And he's also fighting to defend a world, a world he helped give birth to, where, hopefully, people won't have to fight one another. The first volume contains an important speech, where he admits that Kaoru's dream of swords used only in defense of the innocent is just that, a dream. But if he had a choice, that dream would be the reality. He's a tortured idealist, living every day with the reminder of his sin and failure, who holds himself emotionally distant from the people who care about him, and is dedicated to a mission that he knows he will never accomplish.

Give him a cape and rich, dead parents, and he's Batman.

Let's consider another manga I read regularly, Takahashi Rumiko's Ranma 1/2. Saotome Ranma is a sixteen-year-old martial artist betrothed to Tendo Akane, the daughter of his father's fellow student in the school of Anything-Goes Martial Arts. He's also under a curse that changes him into a redheaded, female version of himself (who's better built than Akane, to boot) every time he's splashed with cold water. And both Ranma and Akane, who get along perhaps one second every lunar year, are beset on all sides by additional suitors, from the literally directionless Hibiki Ryoga (who's under a similar curse that turns him into a baby pig that Akane dotingly calls P-Chan) to the insane, trap-obsessed Kuno Kodachi, whose favored gifts are black roses that emit a toxic knockout gas, to Kodachi's brother Kadawaki, who's crushing on both Akane *and* girl-Ranma. Wackiness ensues, particularly anytime Ranma and Akane are put on the spot regarding their feelings for one another. It's screwball romantic teen comedy at its finest, the story of a young man with many female admirers who's constantly putting off the decision of which one to commit to.

Or, as I like to call it, Archie Comics with cross-dressing.

I can go on. Neon Genesis: Evangelion is, at heart, a retelling of the theme so classic, it's been said that every classic novel ever written is based around it: a child's desire to please his father. The latest fad-tacular series to hit this coast, Naruto, is a story of young friends tested to their limit by a horrible common experience, with the unsettling implication that only one of them will ever escape his basic circumstances (much like King's "The Body," better known by the title of its film adaptation, Stand By Me). Even Pokemon springs from the same well as that old Grimm chestnut, the Young Man Going Off Into The World To Seek His Fortune. Okay, so the Grimms didn't include any electric yellow rats, but you get my point.

Now, where the Japanese take these themes and plots is often quite different from where Americans take them. And often, two or more of these -- let's call them idea germs -- are combined in ways that no Western creator would think of, but are second nature to the Japanese. Kenshin is, in fact, a very different character from Batman, ending up having more in common with Peter Parker than Bruce Wayne. But the germ is there, the seed around which the fruit grows. In America, you get an apple. In Japan, a… whatever kind of fruit is traditionally associated with Japan. (Gimme a break; I'm gaijin.)

And that, I think, is what American readers respond to most of all: the familiar, tinged with the new. It's a proven springboard to storytelling success, and I think, ultimately, the mirror image of manga can tell us a lot about what comics mean to us round-eyed giants. And that's something you should be talking about. Thoughts?

*I've heard this attributed to several people, including Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison, and the number as varied as three, five, seven, ten, or even one. I've noticed it never seems to be a perfect square, but I'm not sure if that's significant.


Yeoman said...

Hmmm... Ya know, something I think of from time to time is that I really don't read much Manga. For the most part, the Manga I read is the basis of Anime I like, and I read it because it general has more story. Stuff that never got around to being in the Anime.

By and large Manga just doesn't speak to me in the same way a lot of american comics do, and even the way a lot of Anime does.

Which is odd considering what really got me into anime: which was two series really, the first was Ranma, the other El-Hazard. Primarily it was one character, Ranma Saotome.

What drew me to the series was that it's main character was very different than the traditional lead of American animation. Ranma was confident to the point of being an unrepentent sarcastic and lippy jerk. But neither was he an anti-hero.

I'm not really sure where I'm going with this. Just intresting to note that it's the differences that drew me to one Japanease medium, and yet tends to keep me from really getting into another.

Anonymous said...

Lone Wolf and Cub received a great deal of critical acclaim in the US because, I think, the main character, or the idea of Ronin (masterless samurai), must have had some appeal to the already-familiar American pop culture theme. But a manga about Japan's feudal caste system, oppression of peasants, and their ultimate rebellion (Shirato Sanpei's Kamui Den) may not, even though the later is said to have changed Manga during the 60s. The theme or characters will not strike a chord with American audience. So I guess it's possible that ones familiar to comics fans in the US are more likely to be translated and published.

Michael said...

That's a good point, Anonymous, and it brings up another thought.

You know what RuroKen initially reminded me of, when I saw the first DVD?