Reviewby Carlo Santos, Jul 15th 2005
Renowned character designer Range (Renji) Murata brings together some of Japan's most talented artists in this full-color manga anthology. From Ugetsu Hakua's stand-alone drawings to Haccan's illustrated prose, Robot presents an assortment of short stories and vignettes that teeter just beyond the edge of reality.
Although long-running series are a common feature of manga, it's not unheard of for short stories to enter the playing field. Such stories often have a small but conclusive arc, and apart from special anthologies, a volume of short story manga usually features just one manga-ka. This is where Robot challenges the norm: it features the work of no less than twelve artists, and the scope of storytelling ranges from isolated scenes to complete, self-contained tales. The artwork is equally diverse and each contributor brings a unique sense of color and design to the book. Compared to the black-and-white A5-sized pages commonly associated with manga, Robot is a world of difference that redefines the idea of Japanese comics.
Dividing 157 pages between twelve artists quickly reveals the limitations of the short story format. Although some stories like Mie Nekoi's kung-fu farce "Clash! Revenge of...," Yasuto Miura's mind-bending "Biting Summer Play" and Sabe's "There Goes Suzume Robo!" have plenty to say, most of the other contributions are just brief scenes from a greater storyline. Haccan is one manga-ka who cleverly gets around this limitation by telling a full fairytale in prose, accompanying the text with well-placed illustrations that capture the feel of manga paneling. Among the shorter, single-scene stories, many of them announce that the work will be continued in the next volume. Shin Nagasawa's samurai-era quest "Sedouka" is one such story that lends itself naturally to serialization, while Yug's "Hemohemo" also plans to continue in Vol. 2 but is more of a gag manga that riffs on a single theme. With varying levels of depth and structure, the stories in Robot cater to all attention spans.
Thematically, Robot covers a multitude of ideas but steers clear of the mundane or clichéd. Even subdued works like "Biting Summer Play," "Pez & Hot Strawberry," and "Ebony & Ivory," which can be categorized as slice-of-life stories, take those slices from very unusual lives. And perhaps that's the one unifying feature of Robot: that all the stories occur beyond the realm of the ordinary. They take place in distant futures (like the pop-culture-skewering "Picnic" and mysterious "Angels at the Planetarium"), fantasy pasts ("Sedouka" and Haccan's fairytale "Eventyr"), and urban dystopias ("Dragon Fly" and "Angels")—in other words, anywhere but here. The variety of genres, which encompass horror, comedy, action, drama, and of course good old-fashioned adventure, guarantees that every reader will find something appealing in this book.
More than just exploring various styles of storytelling, however, Robot is all about breaking the color barrier. In a field where full-color work is almost unheard of, this volume showcases the talents of manga-ka who might be otherwise hampered by the usual black-and-white format. Ugetsu Hakua, for example, provides some full-page illustrations with no real story, concentrating instead on the technical quality of the artwork. Murata himself has the same idea; "Groundpass Drive" is subtly beautiful with its detail, but the time-consuming nature of such coloring prevents him from creating a longer work. On the flip side, "Clash! Revenge of Hunk Kung Fu vs. Ugly Kung Fu" and "Suzume Robo" are stories that stick with a 2-D anime look that's faster to render and lets the artist focus on narrative. The artwork also varies greatly in mood: Yoshitoshi ABe, probably the best-known manga-ka in the book, creates an ethereal, oppressive atmosphere with dark, muted tones in "Wasteland." The opposite of that would be Yug's "Hemohemo," with its spot-on moe style that could be taken as fanboy pandering were it not for the fact that it's both adorable and clever. And just to prove that the age of digital art hasn't completely taken over yet, Mami Itou's shocking "Carogna" and the sketchy, improvised quality of "Dream of the Empty Cage" both showcase the richness of hand-drawn art.
Realizing the significance of Robot as a milestone in manga, DMP has treated it with great respect, bringing out the book in a high-quality format that mimics the original Japanese edition. The heavy, glossy pages and vivid inks guarantee a reading experience that's somewhere between artbook and manga. However, in the case of my copy, pages started falling out as I was halfway through the book. Apparently the pages are so heavy that the glue binding isn't strong enough to hold them together. The fact that it was opened out flat may have contributed to the self-destruction, but even so, there is no reason a book should start falling apart upon the first reading. If DMP doesn't improve their binding process, there may be lots of angry readers with disintegrated copies of Robot. On a more positive note, the translated dialogue is very natural and lively, with the only hiccup occurring in the forced dialect of "Pez & Hot Strawberry." Sound effects are kept as they are, with English "subtitles" that mimic the font and color of the effects so as to be as unobtrusive as possible.
Sensitive readers should take good note of the (removable) "Explicit Content" sticker on the book's cover, as it is well deserved in this case. There are several depictions of full frontal nudity in this book, some of which involve underage girls. While none of it is overtly pornographic, it might raise a few eyebrows. Watch out also for occasional bursts of graphic violence.
Despite problems with the binding, and story fragments that don't get a chance to develop, Robot is still a visually stunning anthology that deserves a place on every reader's bookshelf. The idea of paying $25 for manga may seem prohibitive, but one look through this volume—or the preview images on the website—should convince fans of the visual arts that this book is worth its price tag (assuming that future printings are bound properly). American readers are lucky that a title like this has been translated into English, since the current manga market often goes no further than fantasy adventures or high school dramas. Pick up Robot and be prepared to enter a new, full-color world where reality slides away.
Addendum: Digital Manga has confirmed that the binding issue has been corrected for the final, retail version of Robot.
Overall : A-
Story : B
Art : A+
+ Outstanding color artwork and diverse subject matter adds a new dimension to manga.
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