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Making a Living in Manga in Japan with Felipe Smith
Lost in Translation
Special Guest Edition: Kingyo Used Books
For a manga freak like Shiba-san, a world without manga is a living hell.
--Kingyo Used Books, Volume 5
What could be more blissful than reading manga? Obviously, reading manga about manga. It's like sinking into a warm, soothing bath of pure manga-ness—something I imagine your regular columnist, Jason Thompson, does at the end of each long day of reading manga.
Manga about manga can take many forms. There's the massive subgenre of manga about fandom and otaku culture, from the cheerful and encouraging (Genshiken) to the bitterly self-deprecating (Welcome to the NHK) to the unabashedly pandering (all those moe series about cute girls who are also super into manga and anime and cosplay). Given how inert the average modern manga-ka's life is, manga about manga artists and the publishing industry are surprisingly common, from pumped-up fictional depictions like Bakuman. to true tales of suffering like Yoshihito Tatsumi's A Drifting Life and Hideo Azuma's Disappearance Diary. But the rarest of all are manga about…well, manga itself. How do you convey passion for a beloved manga in manga form?
Kingyo Used Books, by Seimu Yoshizaki, offers one answer. The old-fashioned bookstore of the title specializes in manga, which fill its shelves and pile up in its unnavigable basement stacks. The owner, an elderly manga guru, is forever out searching for new finds, like a manga-obsessed version of Uncle Traveling Matt from Fraggle Rock, leaving Kingyo in the hands of his granddaughter Natsuki, who doesn't know much about manga because her CEO father tried to shield her from its addictive powers, and Shiba, a rumpled young guy who knows everything about manga and wants to evangelize to the world.
In each chapter, a customer comes into Kingyo with a personal problem—a problem which can only be solved by the application of the correct manga. Examples: A strung-out bar hostess connects with a lost little girl by reading manga adaptations of classic children's books by Kenji Miyazawa (known in the U.S., if he's known at all, for Night on the Galactic Railroad). A non-nerdy guy figures out how to talk to a nerdy girl by tapping into their shared love of Ranma ½. A disaffected tween is shocked out of boredom by the horror of Devilman. A politician is revealed to be a secret manga fan with a thing for Crying Freeman. And on and on. Although the stories are episodic, many of the characters go on to become regulars at Kingyo, so as the series progresses the store gets busier and the relationships more complicated.
Curing people's woes with pop culture may seem implausible even to the most devoted otaku, but the idea isn't unique; Kingyo is a sort of companion piece to the untranslated Telekinesis Yamanote TV Cinema, also drawn by Yoshizaki but written by frequent Naoki Urasawa collaborator Garaku Toshusai, which is basically the same concept but with films instead of manga. Telekinesis runs in the men's magazine Big Comic Spirits and Kingyo in the semi-alternative magazine Ikki, so maybe being obsessively into old manga is a little more “indie” than being obsessively into old movies.
Viz published Kingyo as part of its SigIkki line, but was forced to cancel it after four volumes. It just became too difficult to acquire U.S. reproduction permissions for every manga featured in Kingyo (which hail from a variety of publishers; Kingyo definitelyisn't just shilling for its own publisher, Shogakukan, and in one volume Yoshizaki even apologizes for the conflict of interest in plugging a Shogakukan magazine), after the Japanese publishers had already gone around laboriously acquiring the Japanese permissions several years before. Ultimately, Shogakukan gave up and halted the English translation.
Kingyo has its weaknesses. A lot of the individual stories are pat and melodramatic (shockingly, tales about the healing power of manga sometimes fall short of realism), and Yoshizaki's detailed seinen-style art is attractive but a bit generic. The stories that work best are the ones that embrace the absurdity of the premise and run with it, like one involving a literary salon where people only discuss Kazuo Umezu manga (“In all this world, I am the only rightful queen of the Umezu Salon!”), or one where two drunken salesmen get into a fistfight over whether or not Joe dies at the end of the classic boxing manga Ashita no Joe. After that, I like the stories revisiting the store's regulars and developing their personalities. And sometimes Yoshizaki gets amusingly tongue-in-cheek, as when a customer who looks like a stereotypical comic-book nerd becomes enraged over the fact that all the male manga fans at Kingyo are drawn as stone babes. (It doesn't bother him that the female characters are equally hot.)
Really, though, there's only one reason to read Kingyo Used Books, and that's to learn about manga. And I mean really learn about manga: although there are chapters about hits like Sailor Moon and Dr. Slump, much of the series is devoted to classic, underground, and obscure titles, manga that even Japanese otaku might not know much about. As for American otaku…well, if you think you're a hardcore shojo fan because you've read Moto Hagio's The Heart of Thomas, Kingyo will provide you with a rude awakening by building a chapter around Hagio's minor one-volume children's manga Moto-chan. If you think manga started with Astro Boy, check out the chapters devoted to postwar collectors’ items like the Kabaya Bunko, books published by a candy company that children could get by sending in wrappers. Yoshizaki also goes into intense nerdy detail on the subject of manga stores, including the history of manga lending libraries and the tricks of the trade used by shopkeepers, book buyers, and collectors. When the characters take a field trip to a manga museum, it's not even a relatively well-known one like the International Manga Museum in Kyoto; it's a small museum in Miyagi devoted to Katsuichi Nagai, editor of the underground magazine Garo.
More than anything, Kingyo fills me with yearning to read all the untranslated manga featured—or just mentioned in passing—in its pages. I'm curious about girls’ horror manga from the 1960s and 1970s, like Masako Watanabe's “The White Chameleon” and Kazuo Umezu's early shojo horror. The alternative manga Absolute Safety Razor, by Fumiko Takano, sounds fascinating, as does Hinako Sugiura's Sarusuberi, based on the lives of the artist Hokusai and the daughter who followed in his footsteps. And how has the original Legend of Kamui never been published in English? That makes no sense.
Basically, Kingyo Used Books is like a Tom Clancy novel, except that instead of learning about the specs of fighter jets and military rifles through a thin veil of fiction, you learn about book-repair techniques used by manga rental store owners in the 1960s. Just in case the info dumps in the manga itself aren't enough, each chapter is followed by an essay by Hiroshi Hashimoto, the owner of an actual used manga store! If that strikes you as exciting, track down those four volumes from Viz, because they're made for you. If it doesn't, why are you reading this column?