An Omnibus of Tries


Another side-effect of the growing popularity of a foreign culture’s popular art here in English-language environs: the whiplash of seeing an artist doing something that you’d never expected, but that they might have spent years pursuing. It’s the tunnel-vision of language, and the time-lapse of publishing manga in English - an artist may well be accidently branded as something (a ‘samurai’ guy, a ‘harem’ fellow) by English-language fans, leaving them vulnerable to the shock of a sudden, assured ‘debut’ in another style way down the line.

So it’s all the more interesting for me to come across a venture into a heretofore unexplored style by a popular artist that broadcasts just as much hesitancy from the creator's side of things as the reader's. Hiroaki Samura is well-known in the US for his Blade of the Immortal series, about samurai and the supernatural. It’s been a constant presence at Dark Horse, which has now opted to release this one-off collection of Samura’s short non-Blade works, three stories in sum. And yet, for this particular instance, the artist’s new ‘debut’ actually feels like one, since it genuinely was a new type of comic for Samura to draw upon its 2002 compilation in Japan. He even employed a pseudonym, despite these new works being published by the same Kodansha that put out Blade - that fake name was Takei Teashi, which is a pun on the English phrase “Take it easy.”

And that makes some sense, as it’s apparent that the works collected in Ohikkoshi are meant more for fun and experimentation (and perhaps a bit of thematic exploration) than providing the most polished, assured storytelling experience. Don’t get me wrong, Samura maintains a very high level of visual craft throughout -- and he’s quite open in his Afterward about how much he directed his uncredited assistants to do -- but the loose structure of these pieces evidence more of a desire to stretch the artistic legs than necessarily come out looking good, and I do think that reads may be a bit disappointed or put off by the tone. That doesn’t mean they’re bad stories, or even particularly incomplete, but they may require a certain adjustment to the self-conscious, somewhat nervous approach Samura employs, even while indulging in genre tropes.

Of the three tales, little needs be said of the autobiographical Kyoto Super Barhopping Journal (Bloodbath at Midorogaike), save that it’s eight pages long, self-explanatory, kind of funny, and reminiscent of the sort of thing that appears as a bonus short in a collection of works, which is essentially how it functions here. And that someone along the line apparently couldn’t decide on which part of the title goes in the parentheses, so it’s displayed in different ways at different times. If that’s indeed a localization error, I’ll cop to that being the only one I could find; this is a very nicely-designed book.

So, of the two bigger stories, the 58-page Luncheon of Tears Diary (Vagabond Shoujo Manga-ka) was chronologically first and easily emerges as the more experimental. Indeed, it feels largely improvised, following the bizarre life trajectory of a young woman who starts the story as a naïve 18-year old shoujo artist, ends the story as a wizened 34-year old manga superstar, and becomes a wide variety of things in between, almost all of her misadventures involving calamities with men. Samura mentions that the story was inspired by various eras of French pop music, but it seemed most reminiscent to me of Doris Wishman’s 1965 exploitation cinema classic Bad Girls Go to Hell, with the largely dependant female character wandering from location to location, encountering many forms of pain and exploitation along the way.

It’s sometimes as unsavory too; the work oscillates between a lightly tongue-in-cheek and overtly parodic tone, but I do find it kind of difficult to laugh at a forced deflowering, or a woman being forced into prostitution to pay off her debts, no matter how many wacky facial expressions Samura and/or his assistants whip up, and I don’t think the author’s no-doubt knowing homage to various unsavory popular genres (Yakuza, women-in-prison, etc.) supercedes such queasy juxtaposition of sex, violence, comedy, and writing exercise noodling. That last element is maybe the most pertinent; the whole story really does feel like the obviously talented author simply hasn’t a clue of what he’s doing (maybe intentionally so), and probably doesn’t really care what sort of cumulative impact his lightning-paced outlay of genre tropes and loud gags might have, so long as the enthusiasm is kept high. I can only add that there’s a very thin line with me between “Take it easy” and “I don’t care.”

But there are pleasures, and I could not say Samura doesn‘t care. Surely his visuals are too energetic for that, and he does manage a overarching theme for the whole messy episode. Samura’s point seems to be that pain and heartbreak are necessary to infuse a body of work with depth, and that a naïve creator can only truly create naïve, superficial works. The funniest parts of the story for me are the early bits in which a shoujo manga is created in a manner straight out of Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga, with careful considerations made as to which boys are actually reading girls’ comics, and what sort of bodies those boys might be interested in leering at, the male gaze invading even apparently female-dominated territory. But Samura cares about art, and he believes that the comics form is capable of more than titillation. It’s very weird that he would tell such a story in the language of lowdown genre; maybe it’s really about how the stuff of trash can transform into compelling artistry in the right hands. A kindly wish, but Samura doesn’t quite have those hands yet.

If there’s any overarching theme in this book at all, it’s that of life experience trumping all else, and sadness leading to greater achievements in life and art. The book’s main presentation is the 168-page Ohikkoshi, a five-part serial that essentially acts as a standalone graphic novel. The plot follows a klatch of art students through their romantic and comedic personal affairs. It’s an environment Samura knows well; as mentioned in this interview, he’s an art school dropout himself, having gone off to work on Blade of the Immortal just prior to graduation while in the process of paying another student to do his final project for him. Samura says he only went to art school because he liked the manga artists there, and there’s a real sense of ennui and drifting to Ohikkoshi. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we rarely see any of these students doing work.

It’s a much calmer, more standard-styled work than anything else in the book. Actually, it’s quite thoroughly clichéd as a romantic manga comedy, complete with the generically bland nervous nerd male protagonist, a love triangle with two women, a pair of nondescript male friends who don’t do much, etc. And yet, this is by far the most successful work in the book (good thing it’s the longest, eh?), and I think there’s two big reasons.

First, Samura is working considerably (though not entirely) within genre tropes, and he clearly knows how manga genres work. This is the kind of story that reminds you of how clichés become clichés - because they can be very effective when used in a sufficiently skilled manner. Secondly, and more importantly to me, Samura is very, very good with characterization, especially the female characters. That may not have been evident at all from the other stories in this book, but it’s clear as a bell here. Samura lavishes time on Akagi and Kobarukawa, the obligatory opposites in the nondescript male’s life, and they emerge as fully-formed, genuinely endearing figures, enough so that, by the end of it all, the story is essentially about them rather than the boring male ‘lead’ character, and it’s all the better for it.

Ohikkoshi is smattered with nervous storytelling tics and faintly irritating bouts of self-reference - I don’t mind characters turning to address the reader, or even making the occasional joke about storytelling bumps and shortcuts, but around the second time Samura drew attention via caption to the fact that he couldn’t be arsed with setting up a new sequence through the story and was just going to jump over to something else, well, I rolled my eyes. Take it easy! There’s also a good number of strange digressions, including a subplot about an Italian assassin and the history of Japanese noodles in the Italian market that, while funny, isn’t nearly as good as the author apparently thinks it is, given the space it’s lavished with.

But all that seems to fade by the end. There’s a real warmth to this story that I don't often get from even allegedly romantic works. An authenticity to the setting and characters (yes, even the underdeveloped ones have their moments of genuine power) that both livens the book and goes a long way toward bolstering Samura’s theme of experience as artistic fuel. You’ll actually come to understand the personalities of these kids, their desires and barely-expressed hopes. For all its posturing just-a-comic artificiality, there’s a soul of empathy and deep understanding behind the pages. Hell, the story’s ending breaks out on the more dire romantic comedy tropes ever, one that by all rights should brand the work as pandering, intellectually insulting garbage, but goddamn does Samura make it into something transcendent. Putting song lyrics onto the comics page almost never works, and it continues to not work here, but I was willing to excuse an awful lot by the end of this book, it had so trapped me with its cast.

And again, life fuels art. I wonder if the image of certain characters abandoning what they’re doing to find themselves is a bit of autobiography itself for someone who left art school to pursue his love of comics?

So this is a turbulent, endearing work. I think it’s very flawed, but also very interesting in the way that only a real talent’s hazardous steps toward something not entirely familiar can be. Surely there’s no self-delusion: in that Afterward, Samura himself deems the works collected here as “just another average achievement.” He’s both right and wrong, but his honesty will take him places, with the skills he obviously has.