Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga Bambi and her Pink Gun
by Jason Thompson, Sep 5th 2013
Episode CLVI: Bambi and her Pink Gun
"You tryin' to pollute Bambi's beautiful, pure body?"
A bounty hunter is on the run, protecting a child. The price on the child's head: ¥500,000,000. She must get the boy to the "Old Men", her shadowy employers. But an army of hitmen pursue her, and she has only her pink gun to fight back.
But Bambi is no ordinary bounty hunter. She's a virgin killer whose reflexes and instincts are as good as her social skills are poor. "Me Bambi!" is her usual opening line. She hates baths and other human beings, dealing with them only when necessary, but she loves health food, and even when she's on the run, she'll stop to stock up on protein powder and fresh vegetables. ("You move too slow, you know that? I think it's because of the junk food. Cholesterol's built up in your blood vessels…") She kills and steals without remorse, and only has a soft spot for one thing, the children's TV show "Mr. Pei the Bear." "Any pro will pause for a few split seconds before killing someone," says one of her terrified opponents, one of the few who survived. "But not her…she don't do that one bit! That girl…Bambi's a monster!"
If Bambi's rude and ruthless, the kid she's guarding isn't much better; he's a nameless brat with a bowl cut, who never speaks and only communicates by occasionally biting people. But their enemies are even weirder, a selection of increasingly twisted perverts and cross-eyed, toothless freaks. There's the assassin who's a teacher by day, and by night hunts his prey with monofilament line. "Mama," the one-legged, scarred boss of a crew of six-shooting cowboys. The bounty-hunting truckers. Platinum Mask, a super-strong, possibly immortal man in a Mexican wresting mask. Wart-covered yakuza bosses. Enough scumbags to keep the pink gun busy, day and night…
Bambi and her Pink Gun is an ultraviolent action manga, a black comedy that's a comedy not because of jokes, because the violence and strangeness is so extreme. I say it's a manga, but the art style is nothing like conventional manga with its delicate lines and sparkly-eyed faces; instead, Atsushi Kaneko draws from a hodgepodge of Western influences, with thick inks, visual references to Robert Crumb and Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, and an overall aesthetic that's nothing like the vast majority of Japanese comics. (It ran from 1998 to 2001 in Comic Beam, an 'alternative manga magazine' whose bestselling manga have included Thermae Romae, Emma and King of Thorn.) Bambi's closest relatives are American action comics like Frank Miller and Geof Darrow's Hard Boiled, stories where each page is splattered with odd background details and thick gouts of meaty-looking blood. Instead of speedlines, Kaneko goes for big American-style sound effects, dramatic poses, and realistically drawn bodies killed in gruesome ways. When Bambi kicks a guy in the balls, his tongue sticks out six inches and his eyes pop out of their sockets, like Daffy Duck in an old Warner Bros. short. This kind of cartoony exaggeration isn't common, though; it's much more typical to Bambi to see someone get shot in the face so hard their teeth and eyeballs come flying out of the bloody hole.
The violence is ugly (although the art is excellent, and very attractive when Kaneko wants it to be) but it fits into this dystopian world. The story takes place in a landscape of deserts and smoking factories, junkyards and Bob's Big Boys (a visual icon also beloved by Frank Miller) and omnipresent billboards for products with names like "Choke". The setting is indistinct, but it seems like one of those Gotham-Urbicand-New Crobuzon type cityscapes, with a bit of the American Southwest mixed in. One reviewer on amazon suggested that the story was a satire of American pop culture's influence on Japan, and that the setting (which features a mixture of Japanese and English text and such incongruous things as Japanese ultra-nationalists dressed like British skinheads) isn't some sci-fi nowhereland, but a near-future Japan completely invaded and degraded by Western consumerism. Perhaps. It makes an interesting contrast to Taiyo Matsumoto's Tekkon Kinkreet/Black and White, which is also about casual violence in a strange cityscape, but has a very different feel, innocent and transcendental rather than grimy and low-down.
A lot of that is because of the heroine. Bambi is selfish, rude and generally irredeemable as a character, and the kid isn't much better. On the other hand, Bambi does eventually warm up enough to give the kid a name ("Pampi"), and selfishness is a survival tactic when you don't have superpowers and almost everyone around you is armed and dangerous. One of the few named characters without a weapon is Tanahashi, a clean-looking crook whose life is saved when Bambi randomly kills some gangsters he owed money to. Tanahashi starts to follow after Bambi, motivated by a fascination with her—or perhaps by that ¥500,000,00 bounty? Bambi's bad, but there's no doubt who the real bad guy of the manga is. A crime-action story is only as good as its villain, and Bambi has Gabba King, a diabolical millionaire pop star who looks like an overweight vampire Elvis with a gold tooth. He reminds me of Tujiro from Matt Wagner's Grendel. King's music drives people mad with lust, and wherever he goes, groupies scream "Kill me, King! Mess me up good!" Every night, crowds of women disappear into King's backstage dressing room to satisfy his twisted lusts, never to return. "Can you hear that?" he croons before a concert. "The sound of thirty thousand hearts roaring…I'm a pop star!" King is the one who wants Pampi, for reasons too horrible to mention…
This is a very original cultural-mashup thrill ride of a manga, and it's a shame that the English edition was a flop. Digital Manga Publishing translated 2 out of the 6 Japanese volumes of Bambi, but sales were low, and once when I asked a (now-former) DMP marketing employee whether they'd ever continue Bambi, they just laughed. Perhaps manga fans didn't like the senselessness of the violence (there weren't enough gorn fans to support Apocalypse Zero either, and that's much grosser than Bambi), or perhaps they didn't appreciate the grotesqueness of the characters and the artwork (though at least Bambi herself is cute). "It's mostly non-stop action and gore, which isn't really my thing," said a reviewer on Goodreads. Jamie Rich (yes, the graphic novel author Jamie Rich) described it as "a sort of manga take on Tank Girl," which is actually pretty accurate, but criticized it for not having enough humor. (IMHO, like a typical shonen/seinen violence manga, the humor is just in the absurdity of it all.)
Yet another reviewer criticized the art: "Kaneko's artistic style might be innovative by Japanese standards, but it's a retro throwback by American standards." On this I totally disagree; Kaneko's artwork may be retro, but it's intentionally retro, and there's nothing wrong with being influenced by the past as long as you bring something original to it. Unlike, say, Yoshinori Natsume American-izing up his art style to draw Batman: Death Mask, Kaneko obviously has a wide range of styles and techniques and totally knows what he's doing. The punk-rock look to Bambi is the real thing. In an interview at the French comics festival Angouleme, Kaneko said that he'd always been a fan of rock music and that his biggest influences for Bambi were the '70s-80s punk bands The Cramps and Destroy All Monsters. Their artbook Destroy All Monsters: Geisha This was one of his especial favorites. Bambi, Kaneko explains, was his attempt to do a relatively 'normal' manga story (i.e. the crime/action/bad-guys-vs.-the-hero setup) which would allow him to express the rock-album visuals and style he liked. But Kaneko isn't one of those all-style, no-substance authors; his post-Bambi work, SOIL (a David Lynchian detective story set in a creepy small town) and Wet Moon, proves that he can write complicated, fascinating dramas. Sadly, no English-language publishers have license-rescued Bambi or picked up Kaneko's more recent work.
In the French interview, Kaneko explained how he became a manga artist: "When I was in my teens I was primarily interested in rock, cinema and punk, and I dropped manga for awhile…I've always wanted to be in film, but it's difficult to become a film director because you have to work in the studio system for years and your originality is gradually drained out of you. But there are two types of people who can get a shortcut through this system: novelists and manga artists." Kaneko has gotten his wish and worked a bit in film—he directed a segment of the anthology film Rampo Noir,based on the works of Japanese horror-mystery writer Edogawa Rampo—and he's drawn illustrations and CD jackets. But thankfully, he's still drawing manga, and the success of his work (in Japan and France if not in America) proves that manga is still a place where artists can express themselves in an original voice. He could have made a good rock star or a movie director, but I'm glad Atsushi Kaneko is a mangaka.
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