It's manga edutainment!

How to “Read” Manga: Gloom Party Vol. 1 (of 5)

Oh, now this is something interesting. Not really ‘new,’ mind you, but interesting.

It’s fairly rare that folks in the US get exposed to honest-to-god four-panel gag manga (yonkoma), even though the superficial attributes of the form seem decidedly akin to American weekday newspaper strips - besides the fact that the Japanese strips are positioned vertically rather than horizontally, the basic structure seems to be entirely the same. Just glossing over such strips gives one an almost cozy reading experience, though there’s not many opportunities - there’s always the popular Azumanga Daioh (by Kiyohiko Azuma of Yotsuba&! fame), and I do recall Masahiko Kikuni’s Heartbroken Angels from the pages of Pulp getting a few collections, but stand-alone English-language books dedicated to yonkoma are scant.

And once you look beneath the surface, that’s understandable. Humor isn’t always universal, and it’s easy to see how a dedicated humor comic might inevitable delve into a specific culture’s popular iconography or social concern to withdraw fresh material, making it all the more impenetrable to the foreign reader - and the relative lack of ongoing storytelling in such strips might remove any additional ‘buffer’ against the unacclimated reader slamming into the wall. There’s certainly exceptions; the aforementioned Azumanga Daioh both features a (loose) ongoing story, and a minimum of difficult-to-understand gags.

But then there’s comics like Gloom Party, the brainchild of Yoshio Kawashima. I really can’t imagine anyone without a very deep grounding in (sometimes archaic) Japanese pop culture and social mores getting through even half of this material without missing a great deal of the content - much of it is utterly impenetrable. Apparently Digital Manga Publishing agrees, as they’ve elected not to release a ‘standard’ edition of this tome - rather, the raw source material has been augmented (armored, really) into the first in a new line of semi-educational books, How to “Read” Manga. Apparently, if you’re not going to laugh as much as you normally would, you might as well learn something.

Translated, adapted, and commented upon by one G. Genki, Kawashima’s strips are presented one or two per page, in raw Japanese, flanked on two sides by supplementary material. To the right of each strip are English translations of every sound effect, caption, and line of dialogue, split up by panel. Below each strip are commentaries, usually split up into two or three bullet points, explaining pretty much everything. Pop culture references are revealed (Kawashima sure loves his '70s Japanese cinema). Obscure cultural mores are explained. The translation itself provides the biggest pool of material for these commentaries, with seemingly every difficult and/or unique term or phrase presented in both kanji and romanized form, divided and explained, any use of artistic license or handling of regional accents duly discussed. Sometimes, there’s even photographs provided of pertinent bits of scenery or objects, so the reader might better understand how everything in the comic relates to real life. Some of the notes are repeated, from time to time. Sometimes they explain obvious things, or chalk punchlines up to nonsense when there seems to be a different point being made by the strip itself. In a way, it’s like having an extremely long set of annotations and translator’s notes dribbled throughout the work itself rather than relegated to the rear of the book.

Except for that whole ‘comics left in Japanese, translations pushed to the side’ thing, of course. That seems to push the project more in the direction of language education than anything else. The long-running learn-Japanese-through-manga magazine Mangajin employed a similar brand of presentation, though this book isn’t nearly as thorough in its dissection of language. That makes sense, as I don’t think the purpose here is to actually teach anyone Japanese, though I presume folks with a working knowledge of the tongue might pick up a few tips here and there. No, the intent here is more general, a desire to dole out a lot of handy(?) trivia and factoids about Japan and Japanese as a means of providing a unique reading experience. Obviously the humor content suffers - there’s nothing more likely to kill a joke than explaining it, after all - but then, most English-speaking readers weren’t going to get a lot of laffs out of it anyhow without guidance. Thus, the yonkoma is reborn in the current English-language manga market as what can only be dubbed a hybrid, maybe in the hopes that a niche might be found in need of filling.

Given the uncertainties involved in this type of pursuit, however, it seems odd that the first test subject for this new treatment (albeit using old techniques) is, well, Gloom Party, a work that I suspect some readers might deem uncomfortable, or even outright misogynistic. Basically, Gloom Party is a barrage of sex and bodily function jokes, most of them revolving around horny men ogling pretty girls. There’s a very odd ongoing story involving a toddler bride and her melodramatic adventures (the joke almost always being: hey, she’s a toddler), and a few additional recurring characters, like See-Through Teacher (a sexy educator whose clothes are translucent), or a trio of middle-aged men who’ll stop at nothing to gaze upon unclad girls, or Hamichin-kun (‘Mr. Slipped Out Ball,’ in the words of translator Genki - basically, he’s a typical hot-blooded shounen manga hero, beloved by everyone despite the fact that his testicles are constantly hanging out of his too-short shorts). Often, there’s just random gags - one of the recurring ones involves some man or another attempting to peer beneath a girl’s skirt to see her panties; the girl is wearing shorts, however, so the man gets mad and punches or slaps her in the face, blood streaming from her fresh wounds. Wokka wokka wokka!

The running commentary isn't as much focused on the tone of the work as the niceties of cultural and linguistic specifics, and I was frankly hoping for a bit more in the way of wide-view analysis of the work by its end. There's a few flashes of that - one particular strip (consisting of a man on a crowded subway pivoting his body to delight in the feeling of a sleeping woman's breasts against his back) prompts Genki to muse:

"Oh well - I suppose this comic strip isn't intended for female readers, is it?... in my opinion, the author likes to capture the degenerate in all of us, or maybe it's just what men think about but don't act out. You be the judge. I'm a woman, so I can't go there."

And Genki is right about audience - the strip hails from Weekly Shonen Champion, a boy-targeted anthology, and the humor is very much in synch with the feelings of its intended audience: sputtering, rushing lust, women appearing almost as alien beings, bodily functions and dangly bits of great primacy in the mind. Much like Apocalypse Zero (itself a Weekly Shonen Champion alum), it pushes the whole thing way beyond what a US audience probably wants their youths to see (indeed, Explicit Content and 18+ warnings cover the shrinkwrapped package), though its mindset remains keyed to a certain emotional state. I don't doubt that many souls outside of the target audience read this work, but the very categorization itself can prove useful.

Still, all the context in the world doesn't quite erase the shakes one gets from reading a strip about a toddler dressed in a tanuki costume licking honey off of a 16-year old girl's breasts. "I don't think the author is intending to portray a lesbian relationship here. Instead, I believe this is an intimate moment the author captured - perhaps because it's part of a fantasy some Japanese men might have." So goes the commentary. Perhaps. But it's telling that the educational adornment in the world can't quite remove the punch of some of this material, whether it's funny or revolting or whatnot. Some bits of work cross borders more easily.