Reviewby Carlo Santos, Nov 14th 2010
Kingyo Used Books
New discoveries await at Kingyo Used Books, where rare, used and classic manga have a way of changing the lives of those who browse the shelves. Sometimes it's the big names like Leiji Matsumoto's Galaxy Express 999, Osamu Tezuka's Adolf, and adaptations of novelist Kenji Miyazawa that move the hearts of readers. Other times it's specialty titles that define one's tastes—like a particular "girly" manga that captures the attention of a macho athlete, or an out-of-print classic that tempts a a shrewd book dealer. Even the store's own employees can learn something new, with storekeeper Natsuki coming to understand her father through a family gag series, and a department store book bringing together many great manga enthusiasts.
Half the time, Kingyo Used Books is your favorite grandparent, a tender soul who shares various manga-related stories of human hope and inspiration. And the other half the time, Kingyo Used Books is your most dreaded professor, a Ben Stein-voiced automaton who will drown you in facts about manga history. It is in trying to reconcile these two modes that the series continues to be a double-sided enigma, drifting inconsistently between warm slice-of-life narrative and mind-numbing encyclopedia entries disguised as manga. As an expression of one's passion for the hobby, Kingyo's heart is in the right place—but it doesn't always stay focused.
When it does maintain that focus, however, wonderful things can result. English-speaking readers, with their outside-looking-in view of Japan's idiosyncratic manga categories (essentially man, woman, boy, girl), will probably get the most entertainment out of "One Percent Man"—a chapter that illustrates the classic dilemma of being a male who prefers female-oriented fare. Naturally, an enlightened voice reminds everyone that good manga is good manga regardless of who it's for, a sentiment that should fill any enthusiast's heart with joy and pride. Other touching moments can also be found in character-driven chapters like "His View," where a reading of Tezuka's World War II epic Adolf moves a student to become more confident in who he is, and "Star Traveler," where Galaxy Express 999 inspires a teenage boy to hop on a train and seek out his biological father. When an emotional connection with manga leads one to develop connections with others—or even within one's self—that's when these stories really shine.
The series' recurring characters also have their own heartfelt moments and personal epiphanies, like when Natsuki reads family gag strip Jarinko Chie and gains a better understanding of her father as a result. But charming scenes like these are often overshadowed by needless showboating of manga expertise; when the characters launch into obscure name-dropping and gushing about how rare or old a certain title is, the series suddenly turns cold. The book fair chapter, for example, could have been an interesting exposé on the fragile state of the used-book business—but instead the characters stand around praising how wonderful manga is and droning on about rare editions. Ever had a friend who was no fun to hang out with because they only knew how to talk about the inaccessible, technical side of their interests? Too many of the Kingyo regulars are like that.
Despite the wild variations between heartwarming and mind-numbing, one thing that remains consistent is the art. With clean, delicate lines and appealing character designs, it's easy to be pulled into the human aspect of each story—they're all ordinary folk, young, old, and middle-aged manga readers just like the rest of us. The straightforward paneling and simple dialogue sequences also provide a steady visual rhythm, with the characters' interactions being instantly understandable. Where the artwork misses the boat, though, is in showcasing the manga that's being covered in each chapter—usually the cover is shown, and maybe a sample page as the story is being discussed, but after that, it's page after page of talking heads discussing how great or rare or old the series is. While there may be some copyright issues in reproducing large chunks of artwork, how can any manga-ka sing the praises of a visual medium, yet fail to use that medium to its maximum advantage?
As a result, the only channel left for manga evangelism is through the written word—and that, combined with the series' Encyclopedia Syndrome, is where it stumbles the most. The character-driven slice-of-life episodes tend to succeed by virtue of the plot, but as soon as people open their mouths, it's usually to spew sentimental aphorisms about the life-transforming power of manga, as if this were the Japanese comic book version of Oprah. Worse yet is when the "experts" get together and start nattering on in their insular, manga-loving jargon. The passion for the hobby is there, but the way in which it's presented makes it more of a barrier than an attractive force.
The inconsistent translation doesn't help much either—sometimes book and magazine covers are displayed in their pure, original Japanese but the translation is nowhere to be found. (Could you tell that the old guy in "One Percent Man" was buying the holy trinity of Nodame Cantabile, NANA and Honey and Clover? Unless you can read Japanese or identify them by snippets of cover art, no.) Slightly more helpful are the marginal footnotes that describe certain titles—if publisher, author and a two-sentence summary can be considered helpful at all. Funnily enough, the only place where true manga love shines—where human warmth finally meets with obsessive-compulsive enthusiasm—is in Seimu Yoshizaki's liner notes at the back of the volume. And yet it fails to carry over into the story's main characters.
Fortunately, with the episodic format of Kingyo Used Books, there will be more chances to correct the series' approach. Maybe next time, the store's staff and colleagues won't just be expressing their enthusiasm with plastic words of praise and lists of classic titles. Maybe they'll learn to express it with heart and soul, just as the ordinary folks in each chapter experience manga through their heart and soul. The same goes for those who are actually reading this. We all know why Japanese comics are so thrilling and moving and vibrant and just plain fun—but to see that excitement warped into dry, musty textbook material by these fictional bookworms is baffling. It's a decent series. But it could be so much better.
Overall : C+
Story : C
Art : B-
+ Moves the heart with well-drawn, inspiring tales of ordinary folk finding their way in life through manga.
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