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It’s been quite some time since I’ve written out something here. The recent anime have mostly been quite pleasant viewing, but I wasn’t in the mood to put out my opinions on them on a blog post, as they didn’t strike me as anything particularly awesome in the first place anyway (that, or I’m just too lazy to do anything). While the current season has been surprisingly enjoyable thus far, my notion that the winter season is mostly a transitional season for the blockbuster that is spring looks like it could be true. There are a slew of new TV anime/OVAs/movies that look mightily promising, plus the sheer amount of anime in general next season is something I haven’t seen in a while. If you’re particularly bored of anime this season, then hibernating for a month should be a plenty good idea.

Or, if you’re not exactly the hibernating type, you could just read more manga. I’ve been really out of the loop when it comes to current manga so I can’t say anything about it, but surfing through past titles should also be a worthwhile activity. There are literally hundreds more manga than there is anime, so there are bound to be some gems to be found here and there. I’m sure most have also stockpiled a considerably extensive backlog, so it’s also a nice idea to chip at it bit by bit. I’ve hoarded a lot of stuff over time myself. The feeling of being impressed by a story that’s been put off for very long is a good, if not a rare feeling.

hang this up on walls

 

Obrigado! (Shinkichi Kato)

The main impressive thing about manga is that it’s just so vast. People could cover every kind of material (and then some) and have it released to the reading public. Just about every aspect of life (or anything under the sun, really) has been drawn about, but there still is a lot of impressively inventive pieces of work being put out. Of course the industry is a business, and everyone involved is out there to make money, but the sheer vastness of the industry itself has given opportunities to a multitude of excellent artists/storytellers to effectively exercise their talents and creativity in their own personalized styles. Not necessarily does commercial purposes mean the lack of individualistic creativity. The fact that anime has continuously approached manga for material over the years for its own stories gives proof to manga’s breadth. Just as there are a boatload of fluff on the surface of the medium, I’m plenty sure there are also a boatload of good stuff hidden beneath it. We just aren’t exposed to it heavily enough.

 

While not being necessarily “underground”, Shinkichi Kato’s Obrigado is one of those manga infused with enough personality to differentiate it from the rest of the crowd. I don’t think there is a real clean-cut “manga style” that artists must faithfully observe, but you wouldn’t really associate Obrigado with the stories people would normally think of when they’re thrust with the term “manga”. It has a charming and unique appeal that is due to the artists’ signature touch. Kato was responsible for the insane drawings for Reichi Sugimoto’s acclaimed 1994 manga The National Quiz which worked well with the manga’s insanely humorous story. Fans of the former can definitely see the jump his art made from his early years. Obrigado is a collection of one-shots Kato has drawn in the early 90s (which I presume were the beginning years of his manga career), and it showcases an array of differing approaches that eventually formed the subsequent look his drawings achieved over the years. The many variations in the images for Obrigado tells me that this was a prototype collection of sorts–a product of an artist who already has a vague idea of what he wants to do with his drawings, and is looking for slightly differing changes to round his personal style out. In that sense, it reminds me a bit of Furuya’s Palepoli. They’re both made by artists learning the ropes, so to speak, but they are also artists who already have their eventual stylistic approaches planned out.

Furuya Usamaru’s debut work Palepoli was, I would say, an experimental manga in the truest sense of the word. The descriptions of the manga consistently point out that Furuya has had no significant experience in manga prior to it, and as you read along, the truth of that statement reveals itself more and more. He plays with the structure of the traditional 4koma very freely, and at times even subverts it competely. The way he tinkers with the rigid composition of the 4koma results in some of the most visually entertaining manga I’ve seen (which thereby gives me the confidence to say that Palepoli is the best 4koma ever made). Not only does Furuya willfully bend the structured affair of the manga, he also infuses every chapter with highly imaginative set-ups, insanely disturbing twists, and intuitively witty, dry humor. It was a bash of pure artistic creativity, where Furuya learns what he could learn in manga, all the while establishing the stylistic preferences that would later define his work. It was a fitting choice for him to go to Garo for his debut, since the magazine was home to a lot of independent and “avant-garde” manga and manga artists (the likes of which include Shirato Sanpei, Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Yoshiharu Tsuge, Kiriko Nananan, Nekojiru, and even Maruo Suehiro himself). Veritable company, indeed. Furuya may have had his trademark appeal toned down as his career went on, but the underlying charm and signature absurdity of his work still remain intact.

Now, as I’ve said earlier, Obrigado and Palepoli share a few similarities (and I also just wanted to talk about Palepoli for some reason). Kato‘s style is starkly different from that of Furuya’s, but the way they approached their early work run on similar threads. Shinkichi Kato is also one of the best artists that I’ve ever seen, something which I also believe is the same with Furuya. The defining art style Kato eventually develops is already evident from the first few pages of the volume. His attention to detail is obvious, and his finely crafted details enhance the individualistic flavor of his art. The look he adopted to his manga actually struck me as a more organized and a more structured version of Taiyo Matsumoto. That’s not to say Matsumoto’s art is itself roughly done or even ugly; Matsumoto‘s art just has an appealingly slap-dash touch to his drawings, whereas Kato’s is more careful. Normally, a manga artist’s early work is characterized by rough, crudely worked drawings. That kind of quality is of course understandable and appealing in its own way. However, Kato’s artwork is cleanly worked and really polished. Like Matsumoto, the subsequent chapters also speak of Kato’s own versatility as an artist, albeit in a much smaller scale.

Shinkichi Kato actually changes things up in terms of his artwork as each chapter of Obrigado goes along. I’m not sure whether each single one-shot was intended to be part of an eventual collection, but when they are arranged together like this, the effect is really impressive. One chapter may have a retro atmosphere going on, and by the next chapter it would have a sort of hard-boiled, gritty feeling. Most of the changes introduced happen in a very subtle way, with almost nothing except a few drawings and panels telling you that there really was a variation. The mini-chapters that fill out the manga adopt a more drastic variation to the art, with one of them even reminding me of the artwork Hayao Miyazaki did for Nausicaa for some reason (I would also like to take this time to say that Nausicaa is best read, not watched). Kato’s art overall has a very hip, retro yet comically cartoon-y feel to it, and his way of inserting variations to that style in Obrigado speak to his ability to expand his talents and to his own versatility as an artist. For an artist still going through the early parts of his career, his work looks more mature and deliberate than most artists out there.

Art alone is enough to carry a manga on its back (some series are better enjoyed as picture books), but an interesting and entertaining story gives the whole product a strong backbone. The ideal situation would be to combine both well-crafted artwork with interestingly written stories, which would ideally result then, in a great manga. People who say that manga can’t even come close to a single piece of literature simply due to its association with childish cartoons are being awfully narrow-minded. Manga can tell a genuinely compelling and enthralling story, and the way it uses cartoon-y artwork to tell those tales makes it all the more enchanting. But that’s beside the point. All I’m saying here is that Shinkichi Kato doesn’t only use his art to entertain readers, but his stories are also humorous, absurd, and at times even sweet, poignant and romantic. Of course, all of these are done in his own personalized way.

Obrigado’s art is the common thread unifying the whole manga, but the individual chapters are also noteworthy. Admittedly they’re second-fiddle to the art, but I liked how they were done, personally. Some one-shots are notably nonsensical, seemingly without a defining point, but the way they’re packed with funny quirks and ideas is hugely entertaining. Kato is a funny guy; his sense of humor visibly coming through in two or three chapters. I especially liked the way he uses thought bubbles to signify imagination; they all flow seamlessly into the big picture. It traps you into thinking that it’s really happening around the characters until you see the clouds of the bubbles. Kato‘s various additions of wacky, and at times disturbing twists remind me of other artists–artists like Furuya and even Shintaro Kago (Kago is of course on the extreme end of the spectrum). There is one chapter whose ending is eerily similar to something made by Kago for example. I wonder why “alternative” (for lack of a better word) Japanese manga artists seemingly have this attraction to heavily weird and foul content. Kago himself has drawn a full-length manga revolving around crap. Literally.

But I guess that’s just one of the things that make manga itself very interesting to me as a medium of expression.

As a baseline for Kato’s personal stylistic evolution/maturity, Obrigado is a good read. It shows him at the early stage of his career, still experimenting with his own already personalized art style, and also trying his hand at story-telling–a maturity that would reach a high point with National Quiz. Admittedly, Obrigado isn’t as imaginatively off-putting and high-powered as a Palepoli, but it is a nice enough read on its own. It’s far from what you would call a pure masterpiece of art or whatever. The art is well-crafted and the stories are fun to read, which is something I couldn’t say of the fluff out there. Shinkichi Kato should still be active today, and I can only imagine how much he has evolved over his long career.

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