Friday, September 26, 2008

Confessions of a Manga Head by Sarah Ash

I was thrilled to discover that Sarah Ash, fantasy author, mom and school librarian, lives locally and quite near to me in Beckenham. I immediately and cheekily contacted her to find out if she would be prepared to do MFB a guest blog.

She readily agreed, but took the wind out of my sails when she mentioned that she was a huge manga-fan! I knew about her fantasy writing, obviously (!) so her confession took me completely by surprise. I personally have read very little manga (3 books) and have watched little anime (4 movies), somehow always equating them to a much younger audience (says the girl who review YA and teen books!) . And because manga and anime is something I know very little about, and I know many others know as little, I thought it would be amazing if she did the guest blog on her addiction.
And, in Paul Bettany's words: without further ado, here she is, one of our own, Sarah Ash!

Confessions of a Manga Addict

I fell in love with comics when I was a child and devoured as many volumes of ‘Tintin’ and ‘Asterix’ as I could lay my hands on. But there was no manga available in translation then and it wasn’t till many years later – thanks to my eldest son Tom (also a keen devourer of comics) – that I discovered first anime, and then manga. I’d been hooked on classic Japanese films since seeing ‘Seven Samurai’ and ‘Kwaidan’ at uni, and, as a fantasy writer, had been toying with an idea for a novel set in the Heian era, so my first serious encounter, with CLAMP’s ‘Tokyo Babylon’, was a revelation. Only then did I realize that many mangaka (manga artists) were exploring the same fantasy themes that appealed to me; I felt an immediate kinship with their work!

The recent extraordinary growth of manga in translation in the US has undoubtedly been fuelled by the successful broadcasting of popular shounen anime TV series such as ‘Dragon Ball Z,’ ‘Naruto,’ and ‘Yu-Gi-Oh!’ So I thought I’d share a few favourite titles that may not be so widely known. All of them could best be described as fantasy shoujo, but just because their main target audience is teenage girls doesn’t mean that they won’t appeal to older readers (Stephanie Meyer, anyone?).

Black Sun, Silver Moon by Tomo Maeda, published by Go! Comi Volumes 1-6 16+

In the mountains of Eastern Europe stands a church on the edge of a village…but no worshippers attend the services. The priest, Shikimi Farkash, seems a mild-mannered, pleasant individual... although, unusually for one aged only twenty-eight, his hair is silver. When eighteen-year-old Taki arrives to act as Shiki’s housekeeper, he discovers the reason Shiki’s services are shunned by the villagers: he must help the priest destroy the ‘resurrected’, the newly-buried dead who, possessed by demons, rise from the graveyard to stalk the living. But that’s not quite all. “Taki,” Shiki tells him with his strange smile, “someday you will have to kill me.”

Something demonic has taken possession of Shiki and turned his hair and eyes silver, the colour associated with demons; soon the last vestiges of his humanity will disappear. He is resigned to his fate – but Taki stubbornly refuses to accept it. “If humans can be turned into demons,” he protests, “the opposite should be possible too. We’ll find a way together!”

Into this strange household comes an adorable silver-furred puppy, Agi, who attaches herself devotedly to Taki. Is she the lost puppy he once cherished as a boy? Not long after, a fiery young demon slayer, called Laszlo turns up, determined to destroy Shikimi. Laz insists that he’s a boy, but the protests ring a little hollowly in Taki’s ears, especially as Laz seems to take a liking to Shikimi, the very man she’s been sent to slay. Later still arrives a strange and sinister individual who calls himself Grey; he claims to have known Shikimi before his hair turned silver. Only now do the tragic and horrific facts of Shikimi’s past begin to be revealed. Shiki’s behaviour becomes more bizarre and unpredictable, yet Taki is all the more determined to save his master and reverse his slow, inexorable descent into demonhood.

Tomo Maeda has a delicate, ethereal style of drawing which suits her dark tale only too well. This is no violent gore-fest like ‘Hellsing’ – nor is it a passionate blood-sucking high-school romance, like ‘Vampire Knight’. Instead it builds its atmosphere of claustrophobia and horror slowly and quietly, so that when something genuinely appalling happens, it’s all the more distressing because reader has come to care about the people involved. It’s not all quiet gloom and despair, either; Maeda enlivens her narrative with touches of gentle humour, reminiscent of her charming Boys Love ghost story ‘Beyond my Touch’ (published by June OT 16+). Laz’s bickering with Taki and undead Agi’s cute yet mischievous background antics add a lightness that contrasts well with the darker shadows drawing closer around Shikimi’s unconventional little household. The seventh and final volume is due out in October.

After School Nightmare’ by Setona Mizushiro Go! Comi OT 16+

This dream draws blood…’

Going to high school can be a difficult experience for many young people, but for Mashiro Ichijo it’s a nightmare: although all his peers think he’s a boy, he’s just had his first period. This isn’t just a case of cross-dressing, he’s a boy who just happens to be a girl from the waist down. Now he’s been forced to take part in an unorthodox after school class; every week he must go to a secret infirmary in the school basement and enter an alternate dream world where he has to complete a given task whilst battling against the other students. When his task is completed, he will be able to graduate and leave the high school.

In the dream world, everyone appears on the outside how they are on the inside, which can make it almost impossible to guess who they are back in the real world. All Mashiro’s fears and insecurities are soon laid bare; his dilemma as to who he really is: a boy – or a girl – is revealed to the other students taking part in the dream class. So who is the knight in the suit of black armour who mercilessly attacks Mashiro? Or the cruel-hearted child in the gothloli dress? What about the paper giraffe? Or the girl without a face? The only one Mashiro recognizes is Kureha, his classmate, a pretty girl who hates men after surviving an appalling sexual assault when she was little.

Torn in his affections between the vulnerable Kureha (who loves him because he is not like the other boys) and Sou, an aloof, arrogant boy who has slept his way through most of the girls in the class, Mashiro must try to decide what gender he/she truly wants to be. “How can I love someone when I don’t even know my own gender?”

The high school setting has become a manga cliché, yet subtle little touches (what does the black moon mean?) make ‘After School Nightmare’ fresh, painful, and involving. The colour artwork on the jacket and at the beginning of some volumes is especially beautiful, reinforcing the dreamlike atmosphere of the narrative.

Setona Mizushiro has spun an addictive, disturbing tale which constantly challenges the reader’s expectations. It is genuinely moving at times – and brutally harsh at others, a true metaphor for the pains and joys of adolescence and the slow discovery of self. She provides no easy answers – and the superb final volumes (9 and 10 are still to be published in English translation later this year) bring extraordinary and unexpected revelations.

‘Voice or Noise’ by Yamimaru Enjin Blu OT 16+ Vols 1-2 ongoing

If the idea of same-sex relationships makes you queasy, then avoid this next title – although its depiction of the painful acknowledgment of first love is poignantly and realistically portrayed. ‘Voice or Noise’ is all about communication and miscommunication.

Shinichiro’s dog Flappy has begun to misbehave; but a routine trip to the vet’s results in an unexpected referral. For respected young college professor Narusawa has a rare gift; he can communicate with animals. Yet Narusawa-san is no jolly Doctor Dolittle figure; he may be gifted in his chosen profession, but he is not good with people, as his ability to hear what the creatures around him are saying has made him feel alienated and ‘different’. So when Shinichiro tracks him down at his college and blurts out in front of his students, “Professor, you can talk to animals!” of course he denies that he can help. It’s his black cat, Acht, who provides an unexpected bridge between young Shinichiro and the aloof and prickly Narusawa. For Shinichiro can understand every word that Acht says to him. Does he possess the same gift as Narusawa? Will Narusawa understand him and help him develop his skills?

For a cat-owner like myself, Acht is a delight: fickle, preening, constantly interfering in the relationships of the humans around him, yet hiding a sadness beneath his confident exterior. And Yamimaru Enjin’s drawings of Acht are just adorable! But just as adorable is the depiction of the growing understanding between young Shinichiro and the remote Narusawa, an understanding that begins to develop into something deeper. Yet when Shinichiro realizes that Narusawa has been using crows to keep watch over him, he can’t handle the situation any more.

“What am I?” he cries out, confronting the professor. “What exactly am I to you? I’m not a lab rat!”

Yamimaru Enjin’s first extended manga (she also illustrates novels) displays few of the usual clichés of the Boys Love genre; the nascent relationship she portrays is all too realistic in its misunderstandings and heartache. And it’s not until Acht is involved in an accident that the two protagonists really begin to try to communicate with each other.


Yet beware. If you venture into the addictive world of manga and find yourself irretrievably hooked, there are untold perils that await you (apart from the hole in your wallet). A genre that uses the cliffhanger ending to keep its readers desperate for more is dependent on the mangakas reaching their deadlines in time. For almost all manga is published first in weekly or monthly magazines, before the successful series are collected and republished in tankoubon (volumes). And sometimes…no, alas, far too often…those deadlines are missed. The artists are only human, after all! Or, worse still, manga magazines fold and series go on hiatus with tantalizing plotlines left unresolved, characters frozen in limbo, and frustrated readers wondering what might have happened next if only… But those words ‘ongoing’ may mean that there will be a long wait for the next volume to appear.


It would be a shame to conclude without some recommendations for some new series due to be published over the next few months, so here are a few hot tips for fantasy-themed manga that I’ll be looking out for:

‘Silver Diamond’ by Shiho Sugiura published by Tokyopop (Volume 1 already available). Don’t be deceived by Sugiura’s delicate – yet delicious – drawings; her story of a lost prince coming to earth from a dying world has touches of wicked humour, as well as a cast of seriously handsome bishounen (beautiful young men).

’07 – GHOST’ by Yuki Amemiya and Yukino Ichihara, to be published by Go!Comi
A boy with a magical artefact that give him unimaginable powers may not be the most original of fantasy subjects – but the author and artist of ’07 – GHOST’ have put an intriguing spin on the tale of young Teito Kline and the terrifying Seven Ghosts. Convincing characterization, breathtaking action sequences, and dazzlingly different artwork make this a very impressive debut; one to watch!

‘Gestalt’ by Yun Kouga to be published by Viz in 2009. This should be a treat for all Yun Kouga fangirls like me; this fantasy series dates from 1995-2001 but has never been published in an English translation as far as I’m aware before. It acts as an interesting bridge between ‘Earthian’, Kouga-sensei’s breakthrough series about angels which began in the late 80’s and her ongoing dark fantasy ‘Loveless’. One thing is certain: the artwork will be gorgeous.

A quick glossary for readers not familiar with the main categories within manga:

Shounen – manga aimed (mostly) at boys, with a strong action content e.g. ‘Dragon Ball Z,’ ‘Naruto,’ ‘Bleach’
Shoujo – manga aimed (mostly) at girls, with greater development of characters and relationships, often through dialogue e.g. ‘Fruits Basket,’ ‘Fushigi Yugi,’ ‘Cardcaptor Sakura.’
Seinen – manga aimed at an older male readership, with more complicated plot lines and adult material e.g. ‘Monster,’ ‘Berserk,’
Josei – manga aimed at an older female readership, dealing with more mature issues e.g. ‘Nana,’ ‘Walkin’ Butterfly,’ ‘Nodame Cantabile’

Within these four broad categories can be found many different genres ranging from sports and cooking manga through science fiction, thrillers, Boys Love, samurai, mecha, etc. etc. A recent hit in Japan is the wine-themed series ‘Kami No Shizuku’ (‘The Drops of God’) which has actually increased demand for the wines featured in the manga.

Go read – and enjoy! There’s something to suit every taste in the wide world of manga. (As long as you don’t mind reading from right to left…a skill soon acquired by the ardent manga-fan.)

Sarah Ash

What Sarah has to say about herself (culled from her website):

"Unlike many other authors, I didn't gain my life experience in exotic jobs such as trapeze artist, night-club chanteuse or mortician - instead I ventured into the jungle known as teaching! I became a class music specialist and kept up my writing when I could. Having gained one (very supportive) husband and two (very lively) sons, I still wonder how J.K. Rowling managed to write Harry Potter with a small child to look after.

"The major breakthrough came when I bought my first word processor, an Amstrad 9512. For years I'd struggled with my faithful old typewriter; the wpc freed me from having to correct all my typos and the endless frustrating trips to the photocopying shop.

"Now I run a primary school library and school orchestra, an enjoyable combination of roles which combines literature and music with working with children.

"My sister is Jessica Rydill, author of the fantasy novels Children of the Shaman and The Glass Mountain and our cousin, Vicki Howie, writes for children. We're beginning to wonder what the next generation will produce.

"I admit to a passion for anime and manga - my latest ambition would be to see my stories re-worked as anime (I've never really grown out of my early love for comics)."

1 comment:

Debbie said...

Hellooo Sarah and Liz... I've wandered over from Wonderlands and couldn't resist reading your article... by strange concidence I was also with your son recently (after the WF gig in Ealing!) when Tiff and I happened to buy some Manga - 'Deathnote' and yes, I am hooked! To my shame, I can't remember who the artist is - but the story is great (and surprisingly complicated in places,with people trying to second-guess or out-bluff each other!) I can see that I'm going to have to buy some more.

By the way, is it considered very bad form to colour in your Manga? I have a very strange urge to take my fineliners to a few of the pages... is this a no-no???