Friday, January 15, 2010

Reader's Diary #566- Katsuhiro Otomo: Akira Volume 1

This March, the Mutfords are going to Japan!

Yes, it's an exciting time. And a strange time. See, while I love traveling and learning about different cultures, I'm kind of at a loss as to how Japan ended up topping our spring break travel plans. I've never been a huge fan of Japanese food, didn't quite get anime, and have somewhat of a phobia of insanely large cities. So why I'm ending up in Tokyo is a bit of a mystery. (I'm not shooting a whiskey commercial, I swear!)

But since making the decision a few months back, we've been trying to familiarize ourselves with Japanese culture as best we can in Canada's subarctic. I've come to realize that there's a huge variety of sushi, and have actually found quite a bit that I enjoy. I watched Ponyo, and okay, still don't get anime. But now I'm venturing down a new path for me: manga.

Not knowing where to start, I went for one of the biggies: Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira (Volume 1). Some have hailed it as one of the best graphic novels of all time. It's certainly one of the books that helped bring manga into the North American market.

What a relief! Not only did I really enjoy it, I'll be moving on to read the rest of the series, and new manga as well.

Set in a post-apocalyptic Neo-Tokyo (so when I visit today's Tokyo, I should actually be relieved), the story revolves around a young male biker gang that inadvertently gets caught up in a street war, a government cover-up, an illegal activist organization, and a whole lot of trouble. How? One night the gang explores a forbidden zone: the bombsite where World War Three essentially began. While there, one of the gang, Tetsuo, nearly runs into a pale childlike figure standing in the road. Tetsuo swerves, falls from his bike and is nearly killed. However, when he wakes up surrounded by strangers, he soon discovers he has new abilities...

The cyberpunk dystopia, the multi-layered mystery, the science fiction; I loved it. I was even surprised by how much I enjoyed the visuals. Growing up with crappy Astroboy cartoons (yeah, I said it), I thought Japan animation was overly and too simplistically stylized. However, the detail in Otomo's drawings was fantastic, especially in the decrepit and vandalized backdrops. Apparently when Marvel Comics bought the rights, they colourized it for publication in North America. However, since then Dark Horse comics has bought the rights and reverted it back to the original black and white, leaving only the first 16 pages colourized. I'm glad they left these pages in for the sake of comparison, and though painted by Otomo himself, I think black and white was the better choice. The graininess, essentially to the feel of Neo-Tokyo, seems to be lost with the colour and besides, the more graphic novels I read, the more I'm starting to think they should all be black and white-- I've yet to see one coloured well.

The only issue I have with Akira, and I'm hesitant to call it a problem, is the lack of a likable character. Kenada, while certainly the protagonist of the piece, is a rude punk at best, a dangerously violent teen at worst. But it's about the only character that could fit in this situation, so I'm not sure what choice Otomo had. Plus, there are five more volumes so there's definite room for growth.

Who knows, maybe when I'm done I'll watch the film version and grow to appreciate anime as well.


Bybee said...

Oh'll be really close...any plans to make a side trip to Seoul?

Unknown said...

I'm really looking forward to hearing what you think of Japan! I've always kind of wanted to go, but also find that big cities, especially where I don't know the language, make me very nervous.

I haven't read Akira -- my manga tastes tend to run to the shojo (translated directly: "young girl" as in for young girls) and the sillier shojo at that.

And even if you didn't really like Ponyo, I still have to recommend Spirited Away by the same director. It won an Oscar, and it's beautiful. The subtitled version is best, and I get something new out of it each time I watch it. It's very much like a Japanese fairytale. But I admit, one just has to go with the flow occasionally because there are things that seem very odd. I think often it's because there's a cultural reference I'm missing entirely. Still love it, though, for its wonder and magic and beautiful art.

John Mutford said...

Bybee: Unfortunately no, not this around. It's a pretty jammed backed couple of weeks. But who knows what the future'll bring!

Kiirstin: A fellow traveller told me that the hardest adjustment for him upon visiting Japan was feeling illiterate. I must say, that intimidates me as well, but hey, as a teacher, maybe it'll be good to experience that feeling. As for the anime, I readily admit that I haven't seen a whole lot and it's most likely just that I haven't hit upon the right film for me.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

The trip is a go? Excellent! I'm trying to figure out how I can reinvent myself and get adopted as a Mutford.

I have not actually read any manga, but I know several teenage girls who are huge fans.

John Mutford said...

Barbara: Yes, the trip is a go. Things were looking financially tight there for a while, but we figured, if we come back bankrupt, we'll have still had a trip to Japan. That'll make the following year of Kraft Dinner and water go down much easier. As for the adoption, if you're toilet trained, no reinvention necessary.

Wanda said...

The trip sounds cool (minus the sushi :X !) and the book sounds interesting but I'll send my daughter your way for a more informed comment -- she's our resident Manga expert!

Anonymous said...

This is Wanda’s daughter :)
(what are you talking about Mama? sushi kicks ass.)
Much like you growing up on Astro-boy, I had Pokemon forced down my throat (ugh), and developed a huge bias towards Japanamation. Generally I grew up avoiding anything that even reminded me of it with the fear that I’d be a loser by association. But I realized it was horribly hypocritical of me to pride myself on my willingness to try anything and not try this.

I too would suggest Spirited Away, or anything associated with Hayao Miyazaki, but of course, there kids movies and I love kids movies. Im a kid. If your that interested in anime, check out “Grave of the Fireflies”, based on the semi-autobiographical novel of a man who survived the second world war (been trying to get the book, driving me crazy), “Paprika”, a very imaginative piece of work, and if you have the time “Cowboy Bebop”. Obviously I don’t know much about your tastes in a plot, but if you liked a story about a biker gang in post-apocalyptic Tokyo, perhaps you’ll like this. I like to think of it as a futuristic Mafia movie. Its a short, mostly character-driven series with a tone that changes from one part to another. The dialogue is A+, and they make very good use of angles, sound and transitions. If you do ever watch it, watch part five before making up your mind about it, and be very careful if you look it up. The ending to the series is common knowledge to basically anyone thats ever even heard of it, and a spoiler ruined the whole thing for me.

Also, I don’t know about you, but I hate the dubs of everything, and I’m a strong believer in the idea that foreign things should stay foreign. Most of these are unbearable in english. I always read the subtitles, and I would strongly suggest you do that if you plan to actually enjoy any of this haha. Also with subtitles, you usually get explanations of certain parts of Japanese culture which are omitted from an english version, such as traditions behind food, references to Shinto religion, and there wide system of honorifics.
Anyways, good luck, and have fun in Japan, I’m Jealous :)


Anonymous said...

On the graphic novel front, I heard that Death Note was very good. I could never get a hold of it so I settled on watching the series. It caused a huge divide in its fanbase due to the differing morals of the two main characters, which is doubly interesting considering that the same divide appeared in the story itself. It also stirred up a lot of attention with its controversial themes and the resulting cases of copy cats that popped up around the world. Its plot is strange in that its arcs feel somehow disassociated, but still manage to carry you threw the whole thing. With the series I was un-impressed, but the complex story line and interesting characters made me feel that it had huge potential as, say, an 800 page novel, so perhaps the original manga was much better. but don’t quote me, lol :)
Oh and if I remember correctly, the english version of Akira was printed as a mirror so as to read from left to right, where as most manga are read from right to left, like Japanese vertical script. I don’t know which version you read, but just a heads up in case you start reading another one and wonder why there conversations are all backwards lol

John Mutford said...

Wanda: You've just to find the right sushi! I doubt they make California rolls in Japan, but it was the gateway sushi for us. Now we like a wide variety.

Wanda's Daughter: Thanks for your wonderful insight! My own kids are open to Japanese animation, for sure. My son, 4, loves Pokemon (definitely not forced on him though, because I don't understand it personally), and just this morning my daughter, 6, asked for the Ponyo DVD (which surprised me since I didn't realize she had enjoyed it that much). Thanks also for all the recommendations. Death Note in particular sounds very interesting. I'm going to try and hunt down a copy. Hey, you need to start a manga blog!

Melwyk said...

How exciting - what an amazing trip that will be. I would love to visit Japan, but like you I am not sure the huge cities would be so wonderful. What I found when I went to Kyiv was the same thing you mentioned - that the worst part was suddenly being illiterate.
But it was still a fantastic experience.

As for the manga stuff, well, first off, Wanda's daughter has it covered. Second, I don't know much about it - the only film I've seen is Spirited Away, oh, and Howl's Moving Castle. I enjoyed them both.

Melwyk said...

ps - Astroboy, hahaha

Anonymous said...

No prob :)
haha, im not THAT into it lol. You gotta sift threw loads of garbage to find good ones, but those good ones are worth it.
good luck finding a decent translation of deathnote, haha, and in your searches, watch out for insane fanatics, they can be quite frightening lol.
And hey, if you ever do watch Bebop, get back to me, id like to hear what you think :)