16 September 2012

Some Thoughts About Good Manga 4 (and Status Update)

In case the absence of releases this past week hasn't tipped you off, I'm heading towards hibernation-mode for the next month (possibly 2 months) due to real life. So here's the basic project status for the curious.

Goodnight Punpun: Asano said on his twitter that v11 is expected to be out at the end of November.
Gyanki-Hen: Wait another 3 months. So probably this Nov/Dec.
Sangokushi: Will resume after my break is over.
Tomorrow's Joe: Will resume after my break is over.
Alabaster: Real sorry that I'm slowpoking on this. I promise both volumes will be out by at least spring '13.
Monthlies (Vinland and Historie): Will still do but the releases might come 2-3 days later than I would normally have it out by.
With that out of the way, it's time for another section of Some Thoughts About Good Manga. First one up is Aoi Honoo by Shimamoto Kazuhiko. He's probably best known in modern times for the Anime Tenchou mascot he created for Animate (which had a promotional video directed by Imaishi), but back in the 80s/90s, he was noted for other works such as Blazing Transfer Student, Gyakkou Nine, and Burning Pen. Speaking of Blazing Transfer Student, there was a 2-episode OVA of it made by Gainax, but for some reason, they seem to have forgotten/disowned it and don't even have it listed as one of their works on their official website (what the hell, Gainax). If anybody knows the reason for this, please do tell. But I'm getting side-tracked here, so back to Shimamoto. Well actually, I don't really need to talk any more about him because Aoi Honoo is a loose autobiography of his life.
(The white bars on this inside cover page are comments from Adachi Mitsuru and Takahashi Rumiko)
The basic plot is that Shimamoto Kazuhiko Honoo Moyuru is a first year student enrolled in Osaka (大阪) Osakka (大作家) University of Arts who dreams of making it in the anime/manga world. Unfortunately, his skills can't quite keep up with his ambitions, making his journey a bumpy one. Now maybe you've read other autobiographical manga such as Disappearance Diary or A Drifting Life and didn't like them very much (unlike me) so you want to know why you should be any more excited over this one. To that, I can confidently say this: If you consider yourself to be an anime/manga otaku, you have a very good chance of enjoying Aoi Honoo. The reason is that Shimamoto, unlike Azuma or Tatsumi, tells his story from the perspective of a die-hard otaku.
A die-hard otaku primarily influenced by the holy trinity of Ishinomori Shoutarou, Nagai Go, and Matsumoto Leiji, Shimamoto/Honoo gives a window for us young'uns to see what life was like for an otaku at the dawn of the 80s, a decade which would bring many changes for the anime/manga industry. It was a time in which Takahashi Rumiko and Adachi Mitsuru were starting to become the new faces of Shounen manga, while the likes of Ootomo Katsuhiro and Takano Fumiko would distort the traditional boundaries that separated shounen, shoujo, and gekiga manga in a movement later termed the New Wave. A time in which a group of college nobodies would take the otaku world by storm with the animated shorts Daicon III & IV and later go on to found Gainax. A time in which Betamax, VHS, Walkmans, and even Pocari Sweat were starting to sweep over Japan. These are all events witnessed first-hand by Shimamoto and covered in Aoi Honoo.
Honoo marvelling at the joys of Kanada-esque animation
Shimamoto's usual hot-blooded enthusiasm and passion are absolutely contagious for fellow anime/manga fans and arguably the best scenes come from him (over)analyzing his hobbies, whether it be Doraemon's new opening, the implications of long and short-hair on the heroines of Adachi Mitsuru's manga, or his doubts on Ootomo's future due to his art's realism and detail.
Gendou wishes he could be this badass.
The next best scenes are any time Honno's eccentric classmate and character foil, Anno Hideaki appears (yes, the Anno). Whereas Honno is a loud-mouthed, marginally talented but self-deluded youth aspiring to become a mangaka, Anno is a genuinely gifted aspiring animator who lets his work (see video below) do the talking.
As the 2nd protagonist of Aoi Honoo, the story periodically switches from Honno to Anno in order to tell the behind-the-scenes story on how Daicon III & IV were made by a group of college students barely in their 20s. So if you're interested at all in Gainax's beginnings, you ought to give Aoi Honoo a chance (but if you can't read Japanese, there's always the book Notenki Memoirs).
Yamaga Hiroyuki
Having said all this praise, there is one problem I have with Aoi Honoo. Though I'm not yet caught up with the latest volume (currently ongoing in Japan at 8 volumes), when looking back, I feel that the story hasn't progressed quite as much as I'd expect it to after 6 whole volumes. There's been quite a few unnecessary chapters covering stories that're hardly related to Honoo's actual quest to becoming a pro-mangaka. Some are understandable based on the fact that Shimamoto's trying to paint a better picture of life in the 80s but others just seem...pointlessly meandering. Then again, there's no such thing as a tight, focused plot in the thing called life, and perhaps I'm unfairly carping on elements inherent to autobiographies. Overall, it's a highly entertaining read and I really do hope some translator will step up and pick it up (my hands are a little tied at the current moment).
The other manga I want to talk about is Spinamarada! (the title comes from the mispronunciation of Spin-o-rama) because HOLY SHIT, IT'S A MANGA ABOUT ICE HOCKEY. Now Japan and hockey aren't exactly a "winning combination" (above vid related) but surprisingly enough, there actually have been several other ice hockey related manga in the past, as listed by the Japanese wikipedia page on ice hockey. But a lot of them, like Kumeta's Go!! Southern Ice Hockey Club, have rather mediocre artwork when it comes to the actual depiction of the sport, so it's hard to get excited as a hockey fan. But along comes this manga with a cover page like this:
Finally, a sports manga where I actually like the sport being played.
Realistic equipment, brands, and serious-looking art? Damn, sign me up. It might seem like a trivial reason to pick up a manga for, but ice hockey's just one of those sports that's hard to find any good depictions in media, much less serious ones. Hollywood, for one, gets carried away with the fact that physical contact is allowed and ends up showing nothing but over-the-top goon hockey comedies (thank god for movies like The Rocket though). In any case, as soon as I heard about this manga, I immediately grabbed the raws and dove right in, giddy with expectations. After reading all 4 volumes currently out, I came out, well... both disappointed and entertained.
The premise is as follows: Shirakawa Rou (age 15) is a figure skater who carries the hopes of his divorced mother, an ex-olympic figure skater, to become an olympic medallist. But following his mother's death in a car-crash, he gives up on figure skating and moves to his grandfather's home in the city of Tomakomai, Hokkaido. There, he discovers another world on ice yet unknown to him called ice hockey.
Spinamarada is actually the first full-length serialization for the rookie mangaka Noda Satoru (unfortunately I couldn't find any pictures of him on the internet). As expected for a rookie (and to my slight disappointment), Noda plays his story safe, sticking with most of the standard conventions of shounen sports manga.

Tough-as-nails coach? Check.
INTENSE, special training? Check.
Hot-headed and cool-headed athlete archetypes? Check.
Token black guy who's in Japan for some reason? Check.
Yelling out the names for players' special moves? Thankfully, no. The story might have its cliches, but it's not that goofy.

So yeah, there's nothing too surprising from the story, but at the same time, the safe, conventional approach keeps the story at a moderately entertaining level. The bigger problem I have with Spinamarada is the art.
One, the character design. When it comes to anime/manga, the characters are what the audiences will usually take notice first so if you're an artist, you better make a lasting impression. I think it's obvious to anyone that most artists for anime/manga use distinctive hair style/colour, and visual markers like ahoge as a poor crutch for their lack of skill to draw actually distinct faces. The main problem with this crutch is that you're fucked when you try to apply it to ice hockey manga because guess what? Your precious hair is covered up by the helmet. Murata Yuusuke also had to tackle this problem in his manga Eyeshield 21 , in which I'd say he somewhat succeeded, though he had a considerably easier time since he could simply have his characters take off their helmets whenever the play stopped. Which he did. Constantly. Noda Satoru doesn't have the same option, however, since hockey players will only rarely take off their helmets during a game/practice. So unfortunately for him, his technical skills haven't yet developed enough to make each player distinctive from one another as the above picture shows. Sure, there are differences in the general eye and nose shapes, but they're still insignificant on the whole and he has a long ways to go. By the way, if you want to see an example of good character design in manga, go check out Katou Shinkichi's works. Now that's a mangaka who can draw either simplistically or detail-heavy to draw distinctive faces, both of which honestly acknowledge their medium and revel in its ability for expressiveness instead of dishonestly watering it down for the sake of "photographic realism."
Two, those goddamn white shadows. It absolutely drives me nuts when I see mangaka put white shadows around their characters to help them stand out better from the background. Why? It makes the characters look like they're shitty paper-cutouts that've been glued onto the background, which makes them look horribly flat and ruins the sense of perspective in the drawing. Am I alone in this or does this bother any of you guys as well? This is something I've never actually discussed with anybody else so I'm quite curious to see whether I have a legitimate point here or just sperging out.
Three, the depiction of the game. For a static medium like manga, you can imagine the challenges that would come with depicting a fast-paced team sport. The important thing is to show key scenes that establish the general flow of the game. Showing the breakaways, the big hits, and frantic saves are nice and all, but highlight-reel material alone is usually never an accurate portrayal of the game as a whole. So far in the first 4 volumes, there've been 3 games shown and I don't particularly feel that the mangaka has successfully managed to depict this flow or a general idea of each team's play styles. Then again, I might be being overly critical since one of the games was intentionally kept short, while the other two games serve as introductory games for the protagonist and Japanese reader still new to hockey. If that's the case, hopefully as the story proceeds, it'll introduce those elements gradually.
The last issue I want to mention is very, very, very minor, and not really a point of annoyance as it is a point of confusion. Noda Satoru seems to have an odd aversion to the Bauer brand by spelling it as Baner. Brand name changing is pretty standard stuff (ex. WcDonalds in anime) but it strikes me as bizarre when other brands like CCM, Easton, Sherwood, and Koho are unchanged in the manga. What's even stranger is that in some panels, you can see players with Bauer skates. So why change the logo for only the helmets? Maybe an inside joke between the mangaka and his friends? Who knows.
By now, you might be wondering why I even bothered to post about this manga for the Some Thoughts About Good Manga section with all these complaints I'm bringing up. Well... One, the story and characters might not be pushing any boundaries but they're still comfortable in a good way. Two, it's got some nice comedic moments here and there. Three, it's pretty much the best hockey manga there is as far as I know. That might not be saying much, but if you're a hockey fan, it's plenty enough reason to read it.
Oh, by the way, did I mention the MC's love interest has thighs that would make Araki's Pillar Men proud? That's gotta count for something.

12 comments:

  1. Takane is truly a goddess.

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  2. Shimamoto is probbly my favorite manga author and its nice to see someone talk about him and its about aoi honoo no less one manga series i wish to do more then anyother also hello I am kazuhiko I am the typeset for alabaster I hope we can speak some time in the near future

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  3. Oh god, that girl is scary

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  4. Too bad no one is ever gonna translate a hockey manga (probably). What sport is that girl training?

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  5. Aw man, if I get a translator to help, I can help typeset Supinamarada!!! there seems to be raws for all the volumes. I'll add I can't redraw sfx super well so it won't be HQ work. If noe one picks it up, let's do this :D. can be reached at 90tables at gmail.

    I also suggested Irie Aki's Gunjou Gakusha to you Hox but .. you seem busy with a lot of things so I'll ask next year. So if another translator wants to have a go at it, I'm willing too!! Raws are online.

    Yes, I know I'm shameless.

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  6. Pillar Men... yep, I know what you mean Hox.
    About the white shadows: I totally agree with you and you know what? I always thought they were cut-outs. I mean, author-san gives a white page to assistant-san saying "I want you to draw me a detailed forest/city/landscape here" and then he goes to he's table and draws the characters positioned as they should be in the scene. Then he cuts them out with a cutter leaving a little white around the lines and glue them on the scene assistant-san has poured he's soul into. Make a copy. Done. But you say are actually drawn in the same scene right? Maybe it's just to make them stand out and that's it, to not lose them into the backgroud, in particular if they are wearing clothes with "colors" too similar to the background itself. The final effect flats everything out though. I've seen these white shadows used often. I still don't know if it's a good thing or not. For example, let's think about Asano's Punpun in the city background. You often find Punpun in some point of the background but many times you have to actually search for him 'cause it's so mingled with it that he doesn't stand out. Even thoug it'a...bird? A pyramid? Some stuffed toy with a big mouth? I think the effect in this case is an actual choice, to make Punpun fuse or dissolve into the background. I can't explain better than this, my English fails me here. To conclude, white shadows are a no no for me.

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    1. Yeah I thought that copy/pasting was pretty standard nowadays for a lot of mangaka, especially for weekly shonen series. Although I thought that they did it digitally, which a lot of them may, but putting out a popular series every week can be a lot of work, even with assistants. So you can understand how a lot of mangaka would choose to do it.
      To be honest sometimes it bothers me, sometimes it doesn't. They should just choose when and when not too do it with a little more consideration sometimes.

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  7. Nice post Hox. I love you "Some Thoughts About Good Manga".
    Could you please in another post maybe explain in depth about the history of manga? Maybe write about major and some interesting minor artistic movements such as the New Wave movement?

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  8. Damn, the end of November seems so long away. I need more Punpun

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  9. I remember the white shadows thing on YKK, but it never bugged me there. I don't think anything about YKK ever did.

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  10. I want to read this for Thighs-chan alone.

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