TEENS GONE WILD: Recent comics about killer kids set in 1993 - Part 1 (of 2)
*But before we get started: "Scott Pilgrim" - The Movie (scroll down a bit)? And the follow-up to "Shaun of the Dead" at that?! I recall the last rumor of this sort had Edgar Wright Jr. directing "The Filth" for the silver screen, but that's why the light is yellow after all...
I clearly recalled Chris Butcher hyping this one up a while back, and I’ve heard a lot of good things about writer/artist Taiyo Matsumoto’s other works (“Black and White” and “No. 5” among the English-translated selections), so I snapped this up. It’s a stand-alone volume, a suite of seven short stories focusing on the disenchanted youths who fill the halls of Kitano High School. A film was created from this material in 2001, apparently mixing elements from several of these shorts, if I’m reading the plot synopsis correctly. The tone of each story varies, but there’s a consistent feeling of aimlessness and barely suppressed violence saturating everything, even as the stories themselves range from kinetic action to near-horror to characters just sitting around and talking.
The title refers to the feeling of sadness many high school students in Japan experience as the second half of the school year drags on; spring is allegedly a time for new growth, fresh life, anticipation. But it’s still a long way until summer (and the end of school) arrives, and these dog days of education only reinforce the dearth of options many of these kids have in store for their future anyway. In his afterward, Matsumoto mentions that these were the kids he hung around with in school in the early 80’s, “their front teeth rotten from huffing thinner,” and he emphasizes the importance of graffiti in the reinforcement of their identities. Tellingly, every inch of the dilapidated high school walls are coated with slogans and insults (all dutifully translated in teeny type at the bottom of the page, presumably by English adaptor Kelly Sue DeConnick). The stories appear to be set in the present day (the book was published in Japan in 1993), though many of these concerns are quite timeless.
Matsumoto’s art is chaotic but witty. Sometimes background details are filled in to the last scrap of grime and litter, with a cheery cartoon sun (or even just a simple symbol representing the sun) shining down in the same panel. Other times, buildings wobble and bend with expressionistic energy, as distant characters are filled in as little more than stick figures. Whichever storytelling situation Matsumoto encounters, he simply employs whatever style he feels is most appropriate, regardless of how much it clashes with the rest of the story, although once an attribute is selected for an individual character, it remains consistent. So we’ll have a group of students sitting around mulling over a lost baseball game, and one character will have huge round buggy eyes, which he will retain for the rest of the story, regardless of how serious or contemplative everything gets. The storytelling style can become convoluted; Matsumoto enjoys switching between parallel events in different locations while diving in and out of his characters’ imaginations with little warning or orientation provided to the reader. His page layouts can be cluttered, and his pacing gets very frantic during action scenes. But a lack of smoothness is overcome by atmospheric verve and a willingness to explode his characters’ interior feelings into their surrounding environs. The final effect is often funny while providing more than a bit of distress; it’s not a ‘realistic’ view of gritty street living, but its an authentic one.
The stories balance themselves between talk and movement, and run a gamut of saturating moods, although this Spring is always Blue at its center. I believe the film is largely based around the first story, “If You’re Happy and You Know it Clap Your Hands”, which compares the high-risk rooftop clapping games of a gang of school toughs (you hang off a railing on the roof then let go and clap your hands then try to hang back on - the most claps crowns the leader of the gang) with the sexual exploits of the school administration (with hilarious black bars obscuring everyone’s eyes). Eventually, someone’s gonna fall off. The longest tale, “Revolver”, is based on an original story by a Caribu Marley, and relates the saga of three bored pals who uncover an illegal handgun (quite a sight in that area!) with three bullets loaded up. What they choose to do with these bullets will inform their future in explicit and metaphorical ways. Probably my favorite stories, however, are nearly polar opposites in immediate tone. “Suzuki-San” involves a friendless young small-time drug dealer who’s taken under the wing of an older yakuza boss. Basically, the two chat about life on the way to a small arms deal with a shady American distributor. Casual violence erupts, and we learn how brutality can lend definition to people who are otherwise grasping for some. The other story, the wonderfully titled “This is Bad! I Don’t Know What Love Is” relates the Big adventure of young Hiro, who’s on his way to meet Keiko, a girl he fancies (and the feeling is *gasp* mutual). But he giggles too much on the subway just thinking of her, prompting a nearby maniac (or perhaps his own self-doubt) to chase him all over town, destroying public property, killing police officers, carjacking businessmen, mowing down pedestrians, all while gentle Keiko is wooed by some rich bastard. It doesn’t end well, but it‘s damned perky and hilarious, all while retaining the core attribute of anxiety that all of these stories share.
Beyond defying the simple stereotypes that float around, blanketing ‘manga’ under whatever unflattering attributes that will boost the position of whomever is doing the criticizing, “Blue Spring” becomes a unique comics presentation across the breadth of what’s available in English in the US. It’s not quite magical realism, although it often veers into distinct unreality. It’s a genuine portrait of seething youths, but it rarely presents this portrait under one light. It doesn’t even attach itself to only gang members or only cycle racers or only drug dealers; the baseball team and the class clowns get their own chance to be Blue. And none of these groups are necessarily exclusive to one another either. It’s a long spring for everyone at Kitano High, as the haunting opening images demonstrate, as we glimpse a boy grasping his head, then another eating lunch, then another sneaking a smoke, then another in a fight, then another playing ball, then another riding the train, then another clutching a girl’s hand, and they leap from the roof of the school. And that is that.
*Tune in next time as 12-year old kids blow some motherfuckers' necks off in the name of good clean drug-running fun!