Art of Softness

Tokyo Zombie

This wasn't quite what I expected, but I'm not complaining.

It's a 160-page, $9.95 Last Gasp edition (translated by Ryan Sands and lettered/retouched by Evan Hayden, both of the blog SAME HAT! SAME HAT!) of a 1998-99 serial by Yūsaku Hanakuma, which ran in early issues of the alternative manga anthology AX. It also inspired a 2005 live-action film (note the Kazuo Umezu cameo) from writer/director Sakichi Satô, who previously adapted Hideo Yamamoto's Ichi the Killer manga for director Takashi Miike's 2001 feature. The two films also share the same lead actor, Tadanobu Asano - I expect such connections helped the later film get some attention from international horror viewers. It's due on US dvd in November.

All of that, coupled with the fact that artist Hanakuma works in the storied heta-uma ('bad-good') approach to comics and illustration, might lead you to believe you're in for some crackpot exercise in faux-naïve genre splatter. That, however, would belie some misunderstanding of how heta-uma ideally works - it's not so much about a denial of craft as a deliberate controlling of such to prevent the gloss of technical aptitude from paralyzing the 'soul' of one's drawings. Successful art of the type may seem totally unskilled on first blush, but there is an evident command of visual craft backing it up, albeit not in a way that inhibits the spirit of the drawing.

(remember, right-to-left)

As such, Hanakuma's art is dashed-off yet disarmingly cute, soft and putty-like humans walking against playset architectures, everything bolstered by an innate understanding of what makes a drawing funny. His writing is no less slippery; its tone reminded me a lot of the old Super Nintendo game Earthbound, with a quiet appreciation for situational absurdity bumping into vividly odd character humor. Better yet, it's Earthbound as a Eurosleaze horror quickie, complete with a scene of a naked zombie beauty taking hold of a hapless man's equipment, and biting it right off.

The plot concerns two men, Mitsuo and Fujio (apparently regular characters in Hanakuma's comics 'cast' in specific roles, a la Tezuka's star system), who love nothing more than practicing their jujutsu moves in the hopes of becoming masters. And when an awful fuckhead from "main office" tells them how gay those proper holds look, they think nothing of bashing his head in with a pipe and dragging the corpse up to Dark Fuji, a local mountain of garbage where people seek to lose all their troubles.

Things get bad, though, when Dark Fuji's corpses begin to rise as flesh-hungry ghouls, leading to some funny bits with nearby citizens running into the newly undead - one young punk arrives home during a gangbang, only to have a zombified friend stretch its mouth to devour his whole head while a partygoer bursts into the room, the action with his partner continuing from the standing position, shouting "What's going on in here?" Plenty of folks bitten and infected around town, including the older Mitsuo, prompting him to urge Fujio to keep training and attain that black belt rank.

And then, quite suddenly, the already loose-fitting plot leaps five years into the future, where a walled-off city seeks to maintain polite society in the middle of the zombie hellscape (much like in George Romero's later Land of the Dead), complete with the wealthy lording over slaves and holding gladiatorial human/zombie fights for their pleasure. Guess who's a skilled fighter in the pit?

Gradually, wonderfully, Tokyo Zombie drifts off into using its zombie fights as an extended metaphor for the crowd-pleasing antics of pro wrestling supplanting the subtle beauty of classical martial arts grappling, with Fujio standing as a paragon of skill hated by an audience hungry for blood and thunder, faked or not. Hanakuma is a practitioner of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and he invests his bad drawings with good authenticity, enough so that the zombie fights -- and what they represent -- become fascinatingly personal, all with enough room left over for nearby guards to slash a man's arm off and demonstrate the exciting art of pig surfing (stand on pig; don't fall off).

I doubt the book's climax will come as much of a surprise to anyone. But then, this is a work of moments, doled out in an easygoing manner but not necessarily easy - a critical fight sees two combatants leap to the highest level of jujutsu skill, pulling off moves that stun the connoisseurs but aggravate the rabble, which hurls trash into the ring, denouncing the match as bullshit and the participants as amateurs, loud and snarky in snorting, uncaring ignorance. It's not hard at all to see it as an even broader metaphor, one of artistic pursuit, one tailored neatly for a bad-good artist cooking up a story for the first issues of a manga anthology determined to avoid the mainstream - the culture sure won't eat them up.

But don't let my reading get in the way of the work's immediate pleasures, many of them involving heads falling off and cute piggies devouring consumer culture, the role of blood played by wild scribbles and slashes of ink. This is a fun, attractive work, even a moving one, in its loose-limbed way. You should find a copy and read it.