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Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Doing Time

by Jason Thompson,

Episode XCII: Doing Time

"One: development of law-keeping spirit! Two: promotion of volition to work! Three: thoughts on rehabilitation and reintegration!"
—Japanese prisoners' mantra

I've fired a real gun only a few times, at a shooting range with my friend, cartoonist Shaenon Garrity. It was pretty fun, but I've never wanted to own a real one, although I kind of like the feeling of knowing that if there was a zombie plague I could just run down the street to the friendly neighborhood gun shop and pick up some heat maybe even without a background check, because this is AMERICA, baby! In Japan, on the other hand, guns are extremely restricted, and even swords are restricted. Incredibly realistic toy guns are easy to get (and have freaked out my friends when they find toy gun ads in manga magazines), but even owning an air gun, like the kind you can shoot birds with, requires a psychological evaluation. As an American, it always seems absurd when I read shonen manga where people are freaked out because some kid has, omigod, a KNIFE.

But there is a small Japanese black market for real guns, and among the many Japanese military otaku and airsoft gun fans playing paintball in the forest like Kensuke Aida in Evangelion or Kohta Hirano in Highschool of the Dead, there are a few survivalists who own actual weapons or know how to make them. One of these latter types was Kazuichi Hanawa, an underground manga artist who was investigated by the police in 1994 for owning model guns which had been converted into real ones. Despite a legal defense basically claiming he was just an eccentric artist and he wouldn't do it again, Hanawa was sentenced to an unexpectedly harsh three years in jail, during which he was not allowed to draw or sketch. After he got out in 1998, he began drawing autobiographical manga about being in jail, which were published in the Japanese version of AX magazine and later collected under the title Keimusho no Naka ("In Prison"), which Fanfare/Ponent Mon translated as Doing Time.

Prior to this manga, my knowledge of the Japanese penal system came mostly from yakuza movies and prison yaoi. Of course I didn't really expect Hanawa's jail time to be full of sexy yakuza parading their tattooed abs, but Doing Time is a realistic manga, focusing on all the little details of life in prison, the mundane instead of the extraordinary. At first glance, it seems like a complete break from what Hanawa was drawing before his arrest: borderline fantasy-horror-scifi manga with historical settings, like his story in AX: Alternative Manga (Top Shelf's excellent translated anthology from the Japanese AX) about a Heian-era Japanese woman and her daughter who are shrunk down to microscopic size and captured by ant-people. But actually, there's something unworldly and strange in Hanawa's prison documentary. Like Hanawa's story in Comics Underground Japan about people who lure Buddhas down from Heaven and keep them in cages like pigs, Doing Time throws us into a foreign world full of inexplicable rules and deep weirdness, with no idea of how we got there or how to get out. It's surreal, just a subtler kind of surrealism: Franz Kafka instead of Salvador Dali.

The story of why Hanawa is in jail (the whole gun thing) is told in the foreword and afterword to the manga, but the manga itself doesn't tell us why he's in jail. We don't see his life on the outside, or how he got out; he's just the character through which we vicariously experience prison. Hanawa draws himself pretty much like he looks in real life, a short middle-aged guy with a shaved head and a stubbly face, but with big expressive eyes, half cartoon. He spends the first few chapters in a solitary holding cell shown mostly from a top-down view, like a dungeon room in a video game. Mostly, he's alone with his own thoughts, or doing mindless busywork like assembling envelopes. Every once in a while, he's let out of the cell to take a bath, or go for a few minutes' walk in the exercise yard, where he basks in the sunlight. Food is passed to him through a hole in the door, but he can't get cigarettes. His nicotine withdrawal is so bad he makes imaginary cigarettes by rolling up pieces of paper and pretending to smoke.

Later, he's moved to a bigger cell shared with four other prisoners. Here he encounters some tougher guys ("I went to collect some money this guy owed and he pulled an axe on me. I din't have no choice but to subdue him. If I only get seven years for killing a dude that's cheap, bwa ha ha!") but most of them are mellow, and there is no bullying, although nobody likes the guy from a rich family or the other prisoner who's a snitch. Several people seem to be in jail on drug offenses, and they talk a little about marijuana and weed. Everyone is nameless—they're not allowed to share personal information—but one guy held up a convenience store, and another guy confesses that his family told his young daughter that he was working overseas, rather than tell her daddy is in jail. They share the cell chores of cleaning and sweeping, exchange books from the prison library, and watch two hours of TV every night (if they're good), making the whole experience almost like boys in summer camp, except that they're adult men in PJ's with criminal records. One guy cheerfully announces "Tonight I'll beat off with this erotic novel!" which makes another guy tease him, and then the teasing turns to wrestling, but then someone else tells them to cut it out, and that's as yaoi as it gets.

Mostly, they talk about food. Everyone is obsessed with food, Hanawa included. With not much to do but eat and sleep, they talk endlessly about the prison menu, making the manga seem at times like a big house version of Oishinbo. Sukini with shirataki, tofu, veal and Chinese cabbage; chawanmushi; soba noodles; harusame soup; grilled salmon; rice with wheat and soy sauce…it's all so tasty, Hanawa feels guilty.  "We are criminals, so it's like a crust o'bread and some thin veggie broth every three days or so should be more than enough. Is it right for us to live so well in spite of having perpetrated such misdeeds?" Drool hangs off his chin, a tiny taste of the sticky sliminess of Hanawa's other underground manga, and he pictures himself as a pig in a wallow. "Eat and sleep, sleep and eat, that's how I spend my days, like eating was a job." With so little exercise and so much food, he actually puts on weight.

Considering that Hanawa wasn't allowed to take sketches in prison and had to draw it all from memory, the detail level of this manga is amazing; I'd recommend it just for its artwork. (For that matter, when is someone gonna translate a full book of Hanawa's fantasy manga?) Doing Time is not a comic (since it doesn't really have a story arc) so much as a visual scrapbook of being in prison. Whole pages are devoted to drawing things like the design of prisoners' uniforms, the layouts of rooms, and the food they were served. Food menus, and lists of books in the prison library, are reproduced in extreme detail. Hanawa captures little images: the grass in the jail yard, the sound of spoons scraping bowls. Occasionally he slips into surrealism, like when he draws himself melting into the bedclothes as he drifts off to sleep, but there's no escape from the prison walls, not even in his dreams.

The thing most notably lacking in Doing Time is any feeling of rebelliousness about being in prison. When I hear that such-and-such story is set in prison, I instantly think it's going to be about suffering and injustice, corrupt officials, brutal fellow prisoners and guards, etc., but if anything, Hanawa seems amazed at how well he's treated. ("This is a good country that feeds hot food every day to people who have harmed society with their evil deeds.") In the afterword to the manga, Tomofusa Kure says that stories of rebellion against the authorities are clichéd, and while I don't totally agree (I agree that they're clichéd, but I think it's a good thing that people make them) I respect Hanawa for not taking the easy, self-pitying way out and doing a "woe is me, I was in prison" manga. While he's not angry at The Man for putting him there, there's no sense that he's being punished for a crime; he's not in jail for a reason, he just is.

Basically, in Doing Time prison is just a fact of life, like having to work or go to school. By the day, Hanawa works in wood shop, which is like being in a classroom—you sit in your desk and work, you can't talk or look to the side (probably so you don't shank your classmate with your carving knife), and you have to ask permission to go to the bathroom. The stern-eyed guards don't beat or brutalize anyone, but they enforce obedience in a thousand little meaningless ways: the way you walk, the way you fold your clothes, whether your shirt sleeves are rolled up when they come for inspection. A typical punishment consists of being forced to sit in a certain position for hours, like how kids who misbehaved in Japanese classrooms used to get sent to stand out in the hall with a water bucket in each arm. The control is not just physical but mental; prisoners feel ashamed when they make some minor mistake like not buttoning their uniform properly. They're infantilized, as if they've been sent back a grade in life to pre-adolescence, and given the chance to grow up to be obedient, considerate children again.

The scary thing about all this, perhaps, is that being in Japanese prison is kind of nice, kind of easy, like living with your parents. "Living out the days as though gently cocooned in cotton…" Hanawa thinks dreamily as he watches the seasons change. "Like a leaf swept along by the current…if you obey orders without thinking the time just flies by." This was a very successful indie manga in Japan, and was even adapted into a 2002 live-action film which I haven't seen but which apparently captures the same day-to-day banality of prison life. (I do take offense at the reviewer pointing out the "borderline illiteracy of comic books" in the prison's manga library.) Prison films—both in America and Japan—often compare prisoners to caged animals, but this is a manga about being a tame animal. Instead of a world of rugged rebels and violence and drama, it depicts prison as being basically like normal life. If you want to, you could spend your entire life like this, with no bigger goal than eating your next meal, speaking when spoken to, doing your job. It seems like there must be more than this, some escape from this prison…but at least the food's good, right?

Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide and King of RPGs, as well as manga editor for Otaku USA magazine.
Banner designed by Lanny Liu.

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