Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Franken Franby Jason Thompson, May 2nd 2013
Episode CXLVI: Franken Fran
"We're fighting for the advancement of science and the happiness of humanity! And in order to move towards happiness, experiments are necessary!"
Of the two greatest mad scientists in manga, one is Dr. Kishiwada (from Tony Takezaki's Dr. Kishiwada's Scientific Affection)…but my current favorite is the other one, Katsuhisa Kigitsu's Franken Fran. In terms of character design, Fran has the edge, looking like a stitched-up moe girl, a cross between Frankenstein's monster and Sally from The Nightmare Before Christmas. Her body isn't in the best shape, and bits of it fall off sometimes: an eyeball here, a stitch there. She's a little absent-minded too, and when she walks she wobbles around obliviously, her head swaying: fura fura is the Japanese sound effect for it, and now you know the other place she got her name. But when it comes to medical science, Fran can't be beat. Anyone can make a giant robot or a superweapon out of cold steel, silicon and nanomachines, but Franken Fran is a doctor, whose chosen medium is squicky, slimy stuff like human flesh, blood and bone. When people go to her, seeking her help with difficult medical problems, they know she'll find a solution. Of course, the solution might have horrible, unintended, ironic consequences…
Franken Fran is a medical body-horror manga which succeeds where it counts: with clever stories, surprise endings, and drawings of awful things you never, ever wanted to see. Googling "Franken Fran" images will produce unforgettable results and possibly get you fired from your job, although I suppose Google is always dangerous that way. In this manga, a group of people are turned into a single organism, joined together at the face. A woman who wants to preserve her youth turns into an immortal mass of living cancer. An entire industrial complex is built just to replicate the functions of a human body, with a factory for the digestive system, cables and wires for the nerves. People are turned into hybrids, drooling doglike monsters…into living kigurumi, their brains transplanted inside living furry suits…into giant caterpillars with human heads…
The amazing thing is, Fran isn't even the real mad scientist. As she'd be the first to tell you, she's just the assistant of the actual scientist, the infamous genius/biologist/war-criminal Dr. Naomitsu Madaraki, who is away on an extended trip. In his absence, Fran has taken over his laboratory in his mansion in the remote mountains, and she's doing very well, performing surgeries with the aid of some extra arms she grafts onto herself when she needs them. She's not such an outcast that she doesn't occasionally, say, lecture to the Japanese Medical Association, but she mostly keeps to herself, accompanied only by her army of silent, hulking, masked nurses, and her #1 assistant, Okita, a bishonen whose head was transplanted onto the body of a cat. Her #2 assistant is Adorea, a woman completely covered in bandages; when the bandages eventually come off, we see that the flesh beneath is covered in (leaking) zippers, so that Fran has easy access to the transplantable internal organs for which Adorea serves as a living, walking ZipLock bag. (And I'm not even giving away the worst part.) Later, she gets more labmates, Dr. Madaraki's other creations: Veronica, a little stitched-up girl designed by the doctor to be the ultimate killer, and Gavril, a shark-toothed woman designed to be the ultimate ultimate killer…the 2013 iMac compared to poor Veronica's 1998 Bondi Blue.
If this group wanted to be evil, the world would be in trouble. But don't worry! They don't. Honest. Like the very best mad scientists, Fran doesn't have some limited goal like "defeat the aliens" or "achieve human Instrumentality"; she's an idealist who wants to use science to better the world and save people's lives. In this way, she's a lot like Black Jack, Osamu Tezuka's stitch-faced super-surgeon; in fact, many Franken Fran chapters are basically riffs on Black Jack, beginning from the first chapter in which a rich man asks Fran to save his son who died in an automobile accident. The difference, however, is that Fran could use lessons in "quality of life"; she cares only about keeping people alive, no matter what hideous, disfigured form they're kept alive in. "I can't allow anyone to die if I can keep them alive!" She's not trying to hurt people, she's just got…her own special values. Fran's zealousness for preserving life terrifies even Veronica, the cold-blooded killer, and leaves no doubt as to who's really the scariest person in the manga.
As medical horror manga go, all this is about 20% medical and 80% horror. Kigitsu is clearly a horror fan (the omake in the early volumes included super-short horror stories that are just one or two pages long—but they're still scary!), and the series is full of in-jokes. In one chapter the characters take refuge in a mall from flesh-eating zombies, just like in Dawn of the Dead, although Kigitsu comes up with a way to make it even more disturbing. The chapter where a whale-like giant monster rises from the sea off the Japanese coast is a callback to a story in Gegege no Kitaro. There's a story about a blind painter which seems like a reference to Saya no Uta, or more likely to the original Osamu Tezuka Phoenix story that the infamous galge was based on. Another tale, where an ultra-rich man builds a private paradise on a remote island, is a pseudo-homage to Edogawa Rampo's The Strange Tale of Panorama Island, recently adapted into a graphic novel by Suehiro Maruo, although this is one of the few cases where another manga artist outdoes Kigitsu in creepiness. But Kigitsu's nerdiness goes beyond just science fiction and horror and weird science facts. This is the only manga I can think of to base a story on the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
Franken Fran ran for 8 volumes in the seinen magazine Champion Red, the only manga magazine so full of gore and kink that this manga might not always have been the sickest thing in it. (For example, not to discourage you from reading it, but Franken Fran contains no scenes of adult breastfeeding.) The fanservicey covers, with Fran and the other female characters half-naked, make it look pornier than it is, although some stories do involve sex, such as "Lust," in which the girls in Fran's high school ask her for a way to keep those horny boys from harassing them all the time. (In Fran's hands, pheromones do things that would make David Cronenberg flinch.) If Franken Fran has any weakness, it's that it doesn't have much plot. There's a few recurring non-core characters, like hapless detective Kuhou who has to clean up after Fran's messes, but there aren't really any antagonists (unless you count, well, everybody) or any buildup to a climax. Still, some of the stories have disturbing consequences that carry over into later chapters. When a girl can't decide which of two boys she likes, Fran gives her the power of mitosis, allowing her to split into two identical girls…but it doesn't stop there, and soon Fran has to take extreme measures to prevent the Earth from being overpopulated by millions of asexually reproducing clones. In another story, Fran invents a method for easier childbirth, allowing women to give birth to premature babies as larva-like creatures which develop outside the womb instead of carrying them all the way to term…but when the chrysalis breaks open, the parents are in for some unpleasant surprises, and the larva-baby trend doesn't end well. (But it's not Fran's fault! It almost worked!) Even the kigurumi storyline, yes even that, spirals apocalyptically out of control.
Sadly, Franken Fran (like Dr. Kishiwada) has never been officially translated into English, so this is the first column I've written about a series which isn't licensed and legitimately available, although you can get the tankobon at a good Japanese bookstore. Frankly (sorry, couldn't resist), I don't know why some manga publisher didn't license it while it was still being drawn, but now that the series is over in Japan and the whole thing has been pirated, it seems unlikely that anyone will ever do so. Katsuhisa Kigitsu (apparently a websiteless, Twitterless manga artist) hasn't gotten a dime out of the scanlations of Franken Fran, while meanwhile the internet has consumed itfor sustenance, cannibalizing its pages to grow body tissue, blood, fat, memes and TVTropes entries. Unintended, ironic consequences indeed.
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