The Lost Manga Anthology

*UPDATE - 1/11, 2:17 AM: I'm slow on the uptake with this, but it seems Matt Maxwell has pulled his Strangeways series from Speakeasy; it's thus currently unknown when the first issue (which I reviewed) will be released, or who will be releasing it. I can only imagine how difficult this decision was to make, and I wish Matt the best in courting other avenues of publication.

*Very good analysis on some of the themes of Bulleteer by one Ragnell the Foul (also a contributor to the valuable resource linkblog When Fangirls Attack), extending from the knowing sexualization of the first issue to some telling absences of such in the second, with a special focus on Agent Helligan, and her varied, maybe unappreciated demonstrations of virtue, extending back to Shining Knight. All you Seven Soldiers fans should read it. (Found at Mark Fossen’s)

Bringing Home the Sushi: An Inside Look at Japanese Business Through Japanese Comics

There’s a lot of manga out there today, as you might have noticed. Bookshelves crack under their weight (actually, at least one mall bookstore around me has finally bit the bullet and phased out all comics material beyond the manga digest form), and nary a day goes by when the world of Japanese comics isn’t invoked in American sequential art discussion. Ah, but we still speak from a somewhat limited perspective. It’d be disingenuous to claim that all of the manga available in English today was originally geared toward Japanese teens (and younger - note that this doesn’t always line up with who actually reads the stuff in Japan), but there’s certainly quite a lot of shounen and shoujo material packed in there, with a healthy dose of sci-fi/action-tinged seinen, some more alternative-flavored stuff culled from the pages of IKKI or Afternoon or other anthologies, a pronounced yaoi presence, a few catchy women-centric josei works, the occasional older samurai epic, a hint of literary and autobiographical material, and some other odds and ends.

What there really isn’t all that much of, is a hefty dose of the varied genres inherent to popular, older-skewing manga - it’s a nice scene we’ve got here, but what of the manga specifically targeting salarymen and office workers? What of the fishing manga? The four-panel newspaper yonkoma, and their gag-strip beats? The tales from the office and the adventures of folks in high-powered business? Sure, they probably won’t be looking at the massive sales of shounen or shoujo, but I think that the occasional collection, a title here or there might not be a bad idea. These comics exist, though as of now they remain unknown to us.

Well, almost.

You’ll maybe recall my yapping in the past about a magazine by the name of Mangajin, which presented plenty of otherwise unlicensed manga in its pages as a Japanese language teaching tool over the course of its seventy issues. Thus, it became the only venue by which pieces of certain popular manga could be seen in English, albeit in a somewhat non-casual format. But Mangajin wasn’t ignorant of the appeal of manga, even beyond the obvious use of the comics form as a language tool - in 1995, they released an anthology of fully-translated manga, intended equally as entertainment and enlightenment, meant to expose curious readers to a more authentic view of Japanese business life and practice by providing plenty of authentic business-centered comics. It was to be both cultural food-for-thought (each and every one of its nine comics accompanied by a scholarly essay), and pleasant fun. That is the book we have here, the long-forgotten 212-page Bringing Home the Sushi, which I purchased used for under five dollars (shipping included), and can serve as a fine sampler for all of you curious as to the less-exposed corners of the Japanese comics world.

Surely it’s the product of an earlier comics time - it’s presented in a sophisticated paperback package, with pull quotes from the likes of a former Japanese Minister to the US and the Chair of the Department of East Asian Languages of Georgetown University. It’s presented in what will seem to contemporary manga readers as a bizarre hybrid of flipped and unflipped reading formats - the book proceeds in page order from left-to-right, though the panels on each page still move right-to-left (tiny numbers are included in ever word balloon and caption, in case you get lost). There’s a glossary of common terms, and the obligatory introductions explaining that comics are really quite popular in Japan. But the comics presented in these pages, some of them standing alone and some of them mere chapters of large serials, are surely worth your time, and unfortunately still largely the exclusive province of this book - Mangajin surely succeeded in offering an attention-grabbing sampler of work.

For sheer corporate fun, there’s really no beating Tatsuo Nitta’s Director Hira Namijiro, the premise of which concerns a short, tubby, good-natured fellow working at an automotive giant and mistakenly promoted to the position of Junior Director, from which he often shows up his conniving superiors. A simple premise, but the story presented here, The Feel of an American Car, provides a wicked satirical bite, as Namijiro is thrown into a terse negotiation with a large, overbearing US auto tycoon who wears an incredible stars-and-stripes patterned suit jacket, has his lackeys roll out a red carpet sprinkled with American-made auto parts everywhere he walks, and gets a little crazy when he’s had a bit to drink. He eventually challenges Namijiro to a round of “riding the Chairman’s car,” upon which Namijiro climbs atop the larger man’s star-spangled back and the American careens around the room holding a prop steering wheel, screaming out the benefits of US craftsmanship (“A ha ha ha ha! It accelerates! It corners! It stops!”) as Our Hero hangs on for dear life. But even after he’s tossed through a window and into a tree, Namijiro’s spirit never fades. “Even when treated so roughly… Japanese cars don’t break down.” The whole thing culminates into a brutal business handshake, in which the American brings Namijiro’s weak-willed superiors to their knees with his powerful grip; Our Hero could never tolerate such disrespect to his colleagues, as awful as they are, and the sheer force of his burning spirit empowers his tiny hand to shake like the American has never felt before. Luckily, both nations learn to respect one another in the end.

See? This stuff can be fun! Kinda frightening too, as with Jiro Gyu and Yosuke Kondo’s Notes from the Frantic World of Sales, in which a young salesman is broken in to the high-pressured world of hawking electric appliances. He’s screamed at, forced around, engages in early-morning pump-up shouting sessions (“Yeah!! Sell!! One appliance sold is one appliance’s worth of happiness!!”), panics a lot, but always resolves himself to improve, to overcome his personal inexperience to become a greater salesman. To my eyes, the whole thing comes off as awfully Glengarry Glen Ross, but one gets the feeling the story is exaggerated in a whimsical way, that such things are to smile at and tolerate, as they are the way, the harmony of the system. And that’s maybe the peek into a different culture that Mangajin intended.

Some peeks are even less pleasant. Risu Akizuki’s four-panel yonkoma, Evolution of the Office Lady, is positively saturated in the rigid gender distinctions of some Japanese workplaces. Office ladies, ‘OLs,’ are (according to Jeannie Lo’s introductory essay) largely given supportive, sometimes domestic-feeling roles: bringing men tea and snacks, acting as secretaries, cleaning telephones, filing papers, etc. There is little hope for advancement; indeed, most of these women are expected to quit after they’ve found husbands to concentrate on family life. The strip reflects the tiny humors of these workplace experiences, though some of them may have a different effect on some current readers. A woman constantly sits at a desk, as men come up to her and flatter her relentlessly, asking for dates - she finally blushes, and a stern woman reprimands here - it’s all just a receptionist training exercise, ha ha! Apparently, you just sit there and take it with little reaction. Elsewhere, a girl giggles as an older male worker pats her on the rear - another girl reprimands here for acting in such a way, as “it’s bad for all the female employees.” As the opening essay tells us, sexual harassment of the sort isn’t to be reported, as it will upset workplace harmony - rather, it’s up to the women of the office to support (and one presumes police) one another.

Even the anthology’s ‘powerful woman’ story, Kazuyoshi Torii’s I’m #1!, features its talented female sales maven succeeding through utilizing her flirtatious charms on prospective clients. Sure, she’s doing it knowingly, and for success and profit, but it isn’t exactly a reassuring vision of a woman in a position of power, her success still predicated in this chapter on typical ‘female’ traits. But this book knows such things are only pieces in the cultural puzzle - Shoji Sadao’s Salaryman Seminar, which looks like a newspaper Sunday comics feature, only longer, is packed with rueful, ‘oh those kids!’ humor geared toward older working men, surly that young men don’t bow to them in the hall, shocked at the sexual openness of young ladies, and saddened that the monied new generation can take all of the international holidays that they never had. Even their families forget Father’s Day, and their wives no longer want to run out and buy them snacks at a late hour - what times we live in today (circa 1990)!

There’s a lot of fascination here, but don’t get the idea that there isn’t more fun, or even drama. Human Crossroads, apparently a drama anthology by Masao Yajima and Kenshi Hirokane, finds a successful young man ruminating on his father’s embarrassments and sacrifices in the hardscrabble business world, a place he wonders if he’s sinking into. There’s also a chapter of Hirokane’s solo smash hit, Section Chief Kosaku Shima, in which the title character, the very embodiment of the go-getting young business professional, teaches himself to adapt to the new division he’s been transferred to, learning the importance of relating to people, and understanding where they come from (there’s a great, telling sequence in which he gauges his popularity in the office by seeing if any of his workers have put flowers on his desk in the morning). And then there’s the plain old entertainment of Juzo Yamasaki and Ken'ichi Kitami’s Diary of a Fishing Freak, in which a fishing-obsessed underling is reluctantly taken along on a big negotiation by his serious, if also angling-prone boss. The two try to observe decorum as their potential client goes on and on about his own arrogant, dismissive fishing tactics. Finally, the two can take no more, and tell the bastard off, the uniting power of fishing superceding all business concern, all rank, all class, everything but their status as people and fishermen. It’s funny, maybe, because of its fantastical shattering of the corporate way of doing things. But it’s the fantasy that comes through the clearest and brightest.

These are the things we see from these manga, these tales of mundane life. I’d like to seem more, and not from a surprise discovery from a decade ago.