Just got the single for Monochrome, the first insert song/battle theme for Bones’ anime Star Driver, sung by Haruka Tomatsu (who voiced the character Sakana-chan, or “Fish Girl”), and I’ve got to say it’s a good enough listen. It was a neat little battle theme during the first arc, with its symphonic sounds exuding the necessary sense of urgency fit for a fight song. Though it is a bit disappointing that they turned it into a more Jpop-sounding song in the full version, but at least they kept the original song used in the show. The latter version was superior in more ways than one, anyway. After a while I just can’t help but compare it to the main battle theme used in Star Driver’s spiritual cousin, Kunihiko Ikuhara’s Revolutionary Girl Utena, though. Now I do like Monochrome, but I have to say I found Zettai Unmei Mokushiroku as the definitively superior fight song (even if it was only an introduction of sorts). It sounded fresh, and it never really got old no matter how many times it was used. The lyrics were very strange at that, which gives it a feeling of weird depth–like it held much deeper meanings or something (though they probably didn’t). All the battle songs in Utena had really strange lyrics, come to think of it. Maybe that’s part of why I love that show so much.
Speaking of music, I’ve found more enjoyment listening to this record, Club Jazz Digs Lupin III, which is a cover album dedicated to the classic anime Lupin III. The record was mostly filled with different covers of Yuji Ohno’s legendary OP theme for the show, but they all had their own personal touches to distinguish one from the other. As an added bonus, the band Soil & Pimp Sessions contributed their own version of the song (the first one in the list). I first came across them in Manglobe’s 2008 offering Michiko e Hatchin, as they did the OP, and I liked what I heard. So it was a nice surprise to see they included the full version of the OP theme, Paraiso, in their latest (?) album, 6. It’s good to know that Lupin remains relevant today, being the original “cool and jazzy” anime and all. Cowboy Bebop itself had some definite Lupin influences. If you give Spike a beard and a cowboy hat, he’d be Jigen.
That got kinda long. Well, anyway, it seems that I’ve neglected manga for a long while now, so I decided to look back into a little something I’ve read some time back.
Nasu (Kuroda Iou, Afternoon Comics, Kodansha)
Actually, I chose to read it again after a few months since I’ve forgotten what it was I understood from it. My memory needed refreshing. The manga itself didn’t have any bold catchy hooks, no fancy gimmicks, and no flashy tricks. However, what it had was a defining unifying element which is present through all three volumes: the eggplant. Kuroda manages to weave little episodes here and there which revolve around or at least involve the plant in some way, and that’s part of what makes the manga a good read. From the past to the present down all the way to the future, the eggplant remains a fixture throughout the characters’ many different episodes. Some things just never die.
Fans may know of Kuroda Iou from his other works, Sexy Voice and Robo and Japan Tengu Party Illustrated. I haven’t read the latter, but I did complete the former. Sexy Voice was a fresh, almost youthful story about a teenage girl with, yes, a sexy voice, who fancies herself a detective. The main character, Hayashi Niko, enlists the aid of a bumbling and geeky adult guy, whom she nicknames Robo, and they go around accepting errands from an aging mob boss–with Niko herself adopting the titular name Sexy Voice. The manga itself isn’t finished yet, technically, but for some reason or another Kuroda put it on indefinite hiatus. I don’t know what Kuroda Iou is currently doing, but I think it would be better for him to go back to that. Now why am I giving a description of Sexy Voice in a post about Nasu, you ask? Well, partly because it is a fun read, and also because there’s a kind of similarity going on between the two works. They both have this bizarre sense of detachment that’s kind of hard for me to pinpoint. The characters are fun to watch, sure, but there’s this feeling that you’re merely watching them through some kind of filter or lens. It was a feeling I’ve had while reading Nasu again.
Now allow me to stray for a second. A two-part story in Nasu got itself adapted to anime: Summer in Andalusia and Migratory Bird with a Suitcase (both anime produced under Madhouse). I mention them because anime-only watchers may get the wrong idea about the manga, thinking it a high-octane sports manga about cycling (I know I did, a long time ago). I haven’t watched the anime versions of these, but the original versions were nice introspective pieces about the important things in life, seen through the unusual eyes of a professional cyclist. There was also this little anecdote that I read somewhere about the beginnings of the anime production. I forgot the full details, but it went something like this: Hayao Miyazaki read the manga once and he liked it. Someone in Afternoon magazine heard about it and published it in the magazine, and the rest is history. The story kind of makes sense, since the director for both anime, Kitaro Kosaka, worked under Miyazaki for his films Howl’s Moving Castle and Princess Mononoke as animation director, among other Ghibli films.
A helpful reminder to those who want to make an anime, then: have Miyazaki endorse your manga.
So then, what makes Nasu good? It’s really very hard to say exactly. For me personally, one of the reasons is the art. The art in Nasu is more subdued than what you see in Sexy Voice, but it retains the distinct sense of freedom in a Kuroda manga, especially in a few chapters. His lines are free and bold. He hardly uses any tone for his more characteristic chapters, which gives it a feeling of immediacy. It jumps at you. People may say that he can’t draw, or that his characters look sloppy, but it’s really not the case. Kuroda Iou can draw; his style is just so simplistic yet dynamic that more often than not it does away with the normal pretty drawings people normally see in manga. His characters do look the same, and it’s during the panel-to-panel movement that his free sense of form becomes obviously clear. The art is especially energetic and quite expressive at these stages. It’s far from the kind of technical dynamism someone like Samura performs, but it’s not the static portraits Kentaro Miura draws, either. The “sloppiness” can only be noted during the still images. Sometimes the starkly black lines and the lack of tone reminds me of those old Yoshihiro Tatsumi gekiga I’ve read in the past. The old master of gekiga’s characters share the simplicity and his backgrounds the atmospheric boldness.
The scope of the manga actually covers quite a wide range–from the time period to the subject matter–and Kuroda deftly ties them all together using a singular consolidating element, which is again, the eggplant. The eggplant itself jumps back and forth from being a simple unifying theme to an important plot device in many a chapter. This movement drives home the point that fundamentally, we are all reading stories about the vegetable (or fruit, whatever) and our understanding depends on how the author maneuvers the thing as he wishes. At the end of the final volume, volume 3, Kuroda Iou notes that he had no idea on what the next chapters should be about, saying that was because the manga was “really all about eggplants” and he “doesn’t remember why he decided on eggplants in the first place”. I was chalking it up to typical professional humility, but in a sense this could also explain why the individual chapters and the manga as a whole felt the way it did while I was reading it.
I mentioned above a bizarre sense of detachment that I felt while reading both Sexy Voice and Nasu. The characters don’t really make you attached to them and feel for them in a loud and overt manner, but it’s more like Kuroda placing them on the stage and letting them play out their lives right there in front of you. The detachment was there–I didn’t feel like I was a part of their world, but rather I felt like I was watching them from outside, or from a lens or a specialized filter. Normally, people would try to make their characters sympathetic to stir emotions in the readers. Kuroda, though, is different. He lets his characters act on their own ways and their own whims. And it works. I enjoyed how the characters acted in their own little world. In some ways, it works as a true slice-of-life (whatever that means), in the sense that we’re only watching from afar how the cast lives life from day to day.
Kuroda Iou also ends the whole thing on quite the poignant note, which also ties together the many threads laid out during the course of the manga. It gives the entirety of the story more connectivity aside from the obvious device which is the eggplant. The recurring characters also get some measure of development in their own quirky ways. The manga feels very odd in places, but it still works, even when taken in parts. The whole thing has a consistently smooth flow throughout, which I guess is due in part to the strangely contracted dialogue. Kuroda’s characters don’t really talk that much. Each panel contains about one, two, three sentences of conversation, which would feel jagged in other stories, but in this case doesn’t. I appreciate the lack of dragging self-indulgent monologues which try too hard to convey a tacky twist of philosophy. This is also part of why I think Nasu is good: the characters all feel real.
They speak their minds just like how normal people do. They’re snappy and cool, but in a way that doesn’t feel squeezed-out or forced. What’s nice about stories like these is how the people pull off that natural feeling of just living life day-to-day. Sure, some characters are a bit odd, but I don’t think those quirks of theirs were just put there just for the sake of being different. If that was the case, then those wouldn’t be character quirks anymore, they would just be gimmicks. Nasu’s characters manage to avoid the trap of falling into the gimmicky territory. They are genuinely fun to watch. The smooth flow the manga achieves doesn’t flag, right until the end.
It is fascinating to see someone craft different stories using a very ordinary object (in this case, the eggplant) and weave them in a common thread. This just reminds me why I can’t really enjoy the typical flashy manga with loud gimmicks. It doesn’t strike a healthy balance between the fantastical and the mundane, and it becomes hollow as a result. I’m not proclaiming Nasu as some superbly deep and thought-provoking piece of literature; it’s just one of those low-key stories that succeed in telling its tales naturally and realistically. I can see why someone from Ghibli would take interest in the manga. It would work when adapted into animation.
Still, it probably won’t make me want to eat eggplants.
Some end notes:
It looks like Dragon Crisis would just keep on being bland and highly uninteresting despite the good animation work being done in parts here and there. The FX work in ep 3 has been nice to watch, but other than that I can’t really find a good reason to care. New characters are set for next week, but really, I’d rather just wait for C80.
On the other hand, Level E remains eminently watchable, and most of all funny. I appreciate the execution of the humor in the latest episode, wherein everything from the beginning is resolved in a hilarious way. I wish I could play that kind of well-planned trick. I’m looking forward for more.
And lastly, some glorious news arrived today. I’m sure most of you know this by now, but I’m sharing it regardless.
KAIJI IS BACK ON TV!
You got that right. After years and years of frustration, they finally drops the long-awaited second anime to this wildly fun and emotional series. The most moe man in anime will finally make his return on the small screen. Most of all, this is proof that there is still justice in this world.
Now, if only they also give us new information on that Koji Morimoto movie…