Sushi and Superheros

Frederik L. Schodt

Dreamland Japan:
Writings on Modern Manga

Stone Bridge Press.

          IN THE OLD days, Japanese culture seemed strange to Americans for the way it contained both the Zen peacefulness of rock gardens, meditation, and tea ceremonies, and the frantic madness of men waving swords, chopping off heads, and disemboweling themselves.

          Then came the '80s, and that Zen master/Samurai paradox seemed to mutate into a new dichotomy of cute kitsch versus anti-utopian darkness--Hello Kitty versus Akira; Sailor Moon versus Tokyo Decadence. If any one cultural product summed up our idea of this bizarre Japan, it was cartoons--manga, as they're called in Japanese, and the anime (animated films) inspired by them. The worldwide growth of graphic storytelling brought us glimpses of a cartoon world where Walter-Keane-eyed nymphets in middy blouses had explicit sex with horny robots. Manga seemed both more cutesy-pie and kinkier (by a power of ten) than our native Disney-to-Superman comics continuum.

          Enter Frederik Schodt with a couple of wonderful books to help us make sense of manga madness. His 1983 Manga! Manga! told the history of Japanese cartooning, and it turned out not to be some weird plant sprung up in the hothouse of the Oriental brain, but a complicated and very consistent tradition with roots in both the Japanese Middle Ages and Walt Disney. Now, with Dreamland Japan, Schodt brings the story up to date, chronicling the near-takeover of the Japanese publishing world by illustrated literature. He shows that manga is a universe, ranging from utter trash for throwaway subway reading to some of the most sublimely individual and quirkily poetic graphic work being done in the world today.

          First Schodt explains just what a Godzilla the mainstream manga industry is: 1.9 billion manga magazines and books sold in 1995 alone, for earnings of close to 9 billion dollars ("twice the GDP of Iceland," he points out). Comic books account for fully forty percent of the entire Japanese publishing industry. Manga have such a hold on the public imagination that they crystallize political debates and get discussed in highbrow journals; certain artists are talk-show celebrities whose opinions on sex and society are avidly listened to.

          Then, in a nonstop series of fascinating and often first-person accounts, Schodt introduces us to the brightest lights among the manga makers. Understandably, he doesn't waste much time on the typical corporate cartoonists--the twentysomething hacks who work in semifeudal master-assistant production line setups. Instead, he profiles inspired oddballs like Shingo Iguchi, creator of the strange little character Z-chan--a tyke in a black dunce cap who inhabits a quietly absurd dadaist world ("I can't tell the difference between myself and a teacup," Z-chan admits). Yoshikazu Ebisu's starkly drawn "salarymen" (white collar workers) in suits and ties are almost as autistic as Z-chan; rivers of sweat pour from their faces whenever they are forced to think or offer an opinion--a dead-on satire of conformist Japan. And Murasaki Yamada's nearly wordless, superbly drawn strips bring the whole Japanese female tradition of psychological subtlety and emotional nuance into graphic narrative.

          Most of these mavericks have at one time or another worked for the 32-year-old cult magazine Garo, the undisputed pioneer of experimental manga, and Schodt pays loving tribute to the late Katsuichi Nagai, who for years kept the small-circulation publication--and the ideal of manga as wildly individualistic art--alive. If you enter Schodt's splendid, engrossing, and very complex book looking for cheap thrills in the land of esoteric kitsch, you'll find some. But you'll end by realizing that the real strangeness of manga is in the brilliance of its least compromising creators.

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