Anime Programming in the US
Making a Living in Manga in Japan with Felipe Smith
Lost in Translation
Manga Hell (Part 2)
“Your suffering shall be legendary even in Hell!”
Last week, we followed Yotsuba&! on her tricycle deep through six circles of Manga Hell. Now, we resume our subterranean journey to the final three circles where the world's worst manga are tormented for eternity…
CIRCLE 7: THE VIOLENT
If you don't know what bad shonen manga are like, I envy you. No, I really do! You get the pleasure of reading and discovering all the wonderful(-ly bad) shonen manga, all the genre themes like “fighting stronger and stronger opponents,” “the heroic training challenge,” “defeated enemies turning into sidekicks,” and so on. Even the oldest trope is cool if you've never seen it before. And it was Dragon Ball that showed that dying and going to Hell wasn't necessarily bad, but could be a cool way to get more upper body strength.
So it is with the worst shonen manga, which are condemned to the Hell of the Violent, where they are taunted with cries of “Show me your power!” while being sliced up with discarded Yu-Gi-Oh! cards that came with their subscription to Shonen Jump magazine. It's a crowded section of hell, but even here, we can see the mangled forms of the worst sinners:
There's nothing wrong with mindless action, of course, even mindless, formulaic action. But it has to have good figure drawing, clear art and transitions that make it easy to tell what's happening, and some kind of emotional stake that makes you forget it's all been done before and care about the characters at least long enough to flip the page. Masaomi Kanzaki comes close, but possibly no manga has ever failed at this more than Kia Asamiya's Dark Angel, a vaguely wuxia-style Ancient Chinese fantasy story about some guy who wanders from place to place on…I'm not sure…some kind of a mission? He has a little winged angel-thing on his shoulder helping him out (always a bad sign unless your manga is called Berserk)and as he travels from place to place angry people keep attacking him for no reason. Asamiya can't draw human beings, let alone two human beings in the same panel physically interacting with each other, so the fight scenes consist entirely of one person swinging a sword or shouting “You're the one who's gonna die!” and then there's a huge explosion or some flashing lights or clouds of dust and a lot of sound effects. The English adaptation from CPM Manga manages to make it even worse with giant lettering that covers up even more of the actual art, and in this case no one can really blame them.
Asamiya's editor for Dark Angel was obviously too intimidated by Asamiya's 1990s popularity to actually edit the manga and try to make it comprehensible, or else he was busy at the soapland. But there are far more shonen manga that suck because of excessive editing than minimal editing. Take To-Ru Zekuu and Yuna Takanagi's Shiki Tsukai. A manga about a wimpy 14-year-old boy who meets a super-hot seemingly emotionless girl who moves in with him and awakens him to his true powers, every pixel in this manga is completely formulaic. Collectible cards that have magic powers? Check. Pokémon-like summoned monsters? Check. Sexy teacher with huge breasts who keeps hitting on the hero? Check. Bad guys are motivated by the desire to save the environment by killing everybody? Check. (This is probably the most clichéd of all bad guy motivations; when will someone draw a manga where the heroes are righteous eco-terrorists?)
To make a successful shonen manga, you also need some kind of complicated power system for worldbuilding flavor and to give the illusion that you're not just making it all up as you go along, like nen in Hunter X Hunter or chakra in Naruto, or “the heroes’ powers are based on the three Abrahamic religions: Islam, Christianity and Judaism” (I call dibs), or something. Basically, anything more interesting than the boring “they're based on the four elements, water, air, earth and fire.” Shiki Tsukai's power system is based on the four seasons, which apparently have a lot of symbolism in Japanese culture. Unfortunately, it's expressed in some of the most boring, encyclopedia-text-like descriptions imaginable:
“Do you understand the basics of the season incantation?”
“Yeah…for the most part…”
“In the first phrase you say the traditional japanese name of the month and the corresponding 24 Sekki name. (“Kisaragi Risshun!”) In the second phrae you say the meaning of that particular Sekki. (“Spring arrives from the north in search of its Zassetsu!”) In the third phrase you say the section name of the ’72 Kou.’ (“The Eastern Wind shall melt the ice!”) Lastly, the fourth phrase is the spell name. (“Ice storm bullets!”)”
The really sad thing is, it all boils down to “the four elements” anyway.
Although typically less violent, terrible shojo manga are also on this level of hell, separated from the shonen manga by a wall like the one separating the men's and women's hot springs. There's Kiyo Fujiwara's terrible romance manga Wild Ones, with its stereotypes of adorably stupid yakuza that couldn't possibly have been funny even in Japanese. The Magic Touch, a manga about massage, which might have been a good idea if Isumi Tsubaki had been able to draw human bodies so that characters getting a back rub didn't look like two-by-fours being pawed at by oven mittens. There's the dregs of magical girl manga, like Tokyo Mew Mew and Wedding Peach, and hundreds of interchangeable manga from magazines like Nakayoshi and Ciao, where art styles are so restricted by editorial pressure that everyone looks exactly the same. Lastly, Hell has a complete collection of every manga by Tamayo Akiyama, a mangaka whose career arc consists entirely of telling people that she used to be a member of CLAMP.
CIRCLE 7.5: THE EVIL COUNSELORS
Dante had a special place in Hell for evil counselors who give bad advice, who are tormented in flames. In Manga Hell this place is reserved for artists who draw “how to draw manga” books. Deepest in the fire is none other than Christopher Hart, “the world's bestselling author of how-to-draw books,” author of such titles as:
…and of course, “Manhwa Mania: How to Draw Korean Comics,” ensuring that a severed, still-living fragment of Christopher Hart has a place in Manhwa Hell too.
CIRCLE 8: THE PANDERING & RAPEY
Fetish manga, found in higher levels of hell, are at least interesting in their perversions. On this level are men's fanservice manga so dull, so tastelessly designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator, It feels more like pimp/john than author/audience. Gacha Gacha: The Next Revolution, Girls Bravo, Pastel, Guardian Hearts, KimiKiss, DearS, Maburaho, To Heart, Happy Lesson, Omamori Himari…everything by Satoshi Urushihara is here too, his extreme-closeup breast fetishism not being enough to get him lifted up to Circle 6. Their fate is to attend high school with clumsy demons with scissors for hands who ‘accidentally’ stumble into them and grab parts of their anatomy.
The most damned of shojo fanservice manga, like many of the shonen ones, are those based on dating simulation games. Haruka: Beyond the Stream of Time, about a girl who travels to the past and meets hot dudes, might have seemed like less of a Fushigi Yûgi ripoff in its original game incarnation. Ugly Duckling's Love Revolution wins failure points for its complete inability to depict the original game's twist, the idea that you're a girl trying to lose weight; in the 1st-person POV game “you” are always offscreen, but in the manga the previously invisible main character is drawn as a hideous caricature of a fat person. Hell is also the home to the endless mob of shojo manga about girls who meet super-hot crossdressing male models pretending to be women, including Tenshi Ja Nai!!, Never Give Up, W-Juliet and Nosatsu Junkie. Mikiyo Tsuda, the creator of Princess Princess, is the queen of this level of Hell. With her manga's combination of bland art and tons of dialogue, but the dialogue is all absolutely inane and pointless, she's like the evil opposite of Fumi Yoshinaga. Also doomed for eternal torment are the many shallow bishonen manga about brooding angsty guys, generally detectives or assassins, such as RA-I, X-Kai, and Trash by Sanami Matoh. The latter is only notable for expanding the 1990s Japanese obsession with the English word “Junk” (Junk Force, Junk: The Last Hero, Junk Boy, Junk the yaoi manga…).
La Corda d'Oro, set at a music academy, is another male-harem manga with a blank-slate main character surrounded by five music-playing guys: a person who read every volume of the manga described the guys to me as “grumpy, dopey, sleepy, sporty and rapey”. And oh, Guy #5 isn't the only one. Shojo, shonen and Boys Love manga all has its share of questionably consensual scenarios, from extreme rape-glamorizing BL manga like Love is a Hurricane, Poison Cherry Drive and World's End (which includes the most romantic line of all time, “There's still some left inside you from before”)to rape-and-revenge manga like Kannazuki no Miko and Tenjho Tenge that use rape as a cheap plot device, to “dramatic” shojo manga like Kare Kano.
Kazuo Koike, the revered author of Lone Wolf and Cub, is slightly less well known for his series Wounded Man, about the outlaw title character's quest to fight an evil pornographic film corporation who caused the death of his girlfriend. Along the way, he sleeps with an endless line of women, and in the first chapter, he rapes a female journalist, entirely to protect her, of course. (“I hoped that you would get scared and go back to Japan…I don't want you to snoop around here, and that's why I raped you. I didn't realize you were a virgin, really!”). In AIEUO Boy, a crime manga set in New York City, the hero doesn't exactly rape anybody, but he's hired at one point to discredit the feminist movement by drugging a thinly disguised Helen Gurley Brown with aphrodisiacs so that she has lesbian sex, then filming it all and playing it against a skyscraper at a women's rights march.
Even in Japan in the 1970s, of course, plenty of people hated this stuff. 1985 saw the first appearance one of the most infamous manga of all, a manga that, like Toshio Maeda's tentacle horror, is way more iconic than it should be: The Rapeman, about a superhero-for-hire whose “power” is to throw a mask over his face and rape people in the name of justice. But before you criticize it, wait, it's not JUST a sick male fantasy—it's created by a male artist Shintaro Miyawaki and a reclusive FEMALEwriter, Keiko Aisaki!! The Rapeman was turned into both live-action and anime adaptations. Only a few years before his death in 2010 did Miyawaki reveal the truth: there never actually was a “Keiko Aisaki” and he made her up because even in 1985, he figured he'd have a better chance of getting away with it that way. On that note, I'm still waiting for Yumi Unita to reveal she's actually a 40-year-old man.
CIRCLE 9: THE TRAITORS
There's nothing more pathetic than plagiarism. Although the manga industry is littered with manga that are, to put it kindly, “inspired by” more popular works, outright tracing and swiping of art is rightly considered so shameful that even a respected artist like Youka Nitta had to go on hiatus and apologize for copying poses from magazine photos. (She's back, though, and actually she's still great.) Google Megabaka and Cross Hunter and you'll find scans from Japanese manga that blatantly ripped off artwork from other, more popular manga (Death Note and Dragon Ball, respectively). Nick Simmons, who ripped off Bleach for his comic “Incarnate,” has plenty of company.
There's another way to betray manga, of course: by doing an awful job on the English adaptation, such as terrible translation, awful English sound effects, or low-quality scans and printing that turns the art into pixellated smears. It's questionable whether this includes Japanese manga which was colorized for the English edition, like the Marvel Comics edition of Akira (actually a very nice coloring job), or several Viz titles from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. But it definitely includes the Verotik edition of Devilman, a manga which rocker/self-publisher Glenn Danzig had always liked and licensed for one of the first titles in his comics line. Alas, not only was the choice of stories confusing to new readers (being actually Devilman Gaiden), but the garish, intrusive computer-coloring fuzzed out the original line art and committed the ultimate offense: IT GAVE THE CHARACTERS NOSTRILS. The creator of Devilman and Mao Dante surely needed no lessons in how to deal horrible revenge.
CIRCLE 9.5: THE BOTTOM OF HELL
And now we finally come to the end. In the deepest pit of Hell we go from flames to freezing ice and find…wait a minute, what are these maid cafés? What are these bookstores full of dojinshi? What is this giant three-headed devil embedded up into its chest in the ice? We're in Akihabara!
Yes, Manga Hell is so deep it leads right through the center of the Earth and out again, to the Tokyo neighborhood of Akihabara, the ultimate black hole of Japanese nerddom. If you live in any other part in Japan (except maybe the Washinomiya Shrine), forget ever getting any love from the manga industry, because in manga after manga, it's all Akihabara, all the time. You can see it in manga like Kyōhaku Dogs and I, Otaku - Struggle in Akihabara; in My Girlfriend's a Geek and Comic Party; in Di Gi Charat, Genshiken and Maniac Road. Whether good (like Genshiken) or bad (like most of the others), these manga always have the same scenes: this is how you go to Akihabara. This is how you buy porno dojinshi. This is how you masturbate. It's all about being taught how to be good consumers, and you don't even get to patronize a small local bookstore, like in Kingyo Used Books. Akihabara manga are the worst, except for maid manga, which are usually set in Akihabara anyway.
But what about Satan? In Dante's Inferno, each of Satan's three heads eternally gnaws at a different sinner, the three worst sinners in history…but in Manga Hell, each of Satan's heads eternally reads a different manga, THE THREE WORST MANGA EVER MADE.
WORST MANGA #3: Manga Claus: The Blade of Kringle (Nathaniel Marunas and Eric Craddock). Ho ho ho! Manga Claus is a short (80-page) graphic novel about Santa Claus, who is secretly a super-buff samurai, saving Christmas by slashing apart an army of evil ninja teddy bears before they can destroy his toy factory. It sounds stupid, and it is, but it's almost certainly intended as a parody of the “put the word ‘manga’ on anything and it well sell” trend (exemplified by Todd MacFarlane's Manga Spawn action figure line). The art is well done in an American-cartoon style; Erik Craddock even worked on Venture Bros.
So it's actually sort of good, right? Now read these Amazon and Goodreads reviews:
In other words, it's really a cute children's parody of kung-fu, but to parents buying it for their kids, it's an actual manga. Craddock and Marunas are two of the long line of people to pee in the pool of the American idea of “manga,” and oh, they pee long and hard. I mean, obviously intent is important, not just the effects of people's actions, but when it comes to Manga Claus…PAY FOR WHAT YOU DID IN HELL, YOU BASTARDS!!!
WORST MANGA #2: Eiken (Seiji Matsuyama). I've already written about this manga a little, but really, how could there be any doubt that it could be at the very bottom of Hell? Even though the creator certainly knew what he was doing and intentionally plummeted to the very depths of the Abyss, there's not a doorman in the world who would keep Seiji Matsuyama's manga out of a club for the sleaziest manga on Earth. That includes his untranslated manga as well, such as Oku-sama wa Shogakusei (“My Wife is an Elementary School Student”), which is about exactly what it sounds like. This manga, whose title is a parody of the adorable kiddie anime Mama wa Shogaku 4 Nensei (“Mama is a 4th Grader”), was one of those specifically targeted by recent Japanese censorship laws and is now difficult to find anywhere, but that doesn't mean that Matsuyama didn't still get Britney Spears to cosplay as the main character (warning: NSFW link), thanks to his friend Takashi Murakami who did a Spears photoshoot and chose Spears’ costume. Has Matsuyama merely gone to Hell to train like Son Goku and power-up to a level beyond all other mangaka???
WORST MANGA #1: This is it. The grand champion. The crowning horror. And that manga is Moe USA by Atsuhisa Okura, a manga about Patty and Ruby, two American girls without noses who go to Japan to buy otaku stuff and cosplay gear. They run out of money, so they get jobs at a maid café, where they must contend with their evil rival, Sayuri. Luckily, along the way they find a set of magical costumes which turn them into the superpowered idol group, “Moe USA”, and win the love of pure-hearted fans such as “Mr. Otaku.”
Clawing and dragging itself along for three irony-free volumes like a half-liquefied zombie trailing a clump of intestines from its punctured torso, Moe USA boggles the mind that an adult human being could have spent the time to write and draw it. Not that Okura spent much time—the art is slap-in-the-face crude and hasty, pages consisting mostly of two or three panels with giant closeups surrounded by sparkly screentone, always of the two uncute girls wearing hurt-puppy expressions or insipid smiles. Manga University's web page informs us that Okura was “past recipient of the Best New Artist award from both Kodansha and Shueisha,” but it's impossible to imagine how this could have ever happened. It almost feels unfair to mock Okura, who was last seen in 2012 when he released the first two chapters of his ebook graphic novel Twelve,“an all-new manga fantasy tale of star-crossed warriors and fallen angels waging an epic war across a multidimensional universe.” Instead, perhaps the guilt for this monstrosity should fall upon the evil publisher Manga University, which unless my computer is lying to me, has 23,000 Twitter followers including Barack Obama. Who is truly to blame: the hapless, twisted monster, or the callous mad scientist who brought him into the world? That sucking sound is the rest of the manga universe being dragged down to Hell by their blasphemous creation.
And at last, our tour of Hell comes to an end. We walk out of the dark, chilly night of Akihabara, and towards the dawn at Ueno Station, where we can walk in the park and get an overpriced coffee. Yotsuba&!, of course, has to remain behind in the Third Circle of Hell to provide heartwarming entertainment to the other sinners. Oh wait…what's that? I can't leave Hell either? I too have worked on wanna-be “manga-style” comics? Please, say I'm only in the First Circle, not down on Level Six!! No! NOOOOOOOO!! Ggghhh…nngghhh…glllaaagggghhh…
What manga would YOU put in Manga Hell? List them in the forum!
this article has been modified since it was originally posted; see change history