House of 1000 Manga
by Jason Thompson,
"I used to do 'serious' art, and manga was just an extension of that.…Now I want to create more entertaining types of worlds, like creating a Hollywood movie."
Usamaru Furuya is proof that, for manga artists, art school isn't a waste of time. His skill level and stylistic flexibility is proof of that, and he clearly wasn't sleeping in Art History class either: his work is full of visual shout-outs to Heironymus Bosch, Renaissance religious art, and Heian-era paintings. (That is, when he's not mimicking Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, Kazuo Umezu or Golgo 13.) If it seems weird that an artist who started in abstract sculpture, oil painting and butoh ended up drawing for Jump Square, it's really no different than a movie director starting out with experimental indy films and ending up directing action movies.
His earliest, craziest work was published in the 1990s in experimental magazines in Comic Cue, Manga Erotics and Garo, and later collected in the anthologies Palepoli, Garden and Wsamarus 2001. Most of his really strange work hasn't been translated, but in 2000, Garo editor Chikao Shirator selected Furuya's "postmodern" gag manga Palepoli as one of the up-and-coming underground mangaka to feature in Viz's anthology Secret Comics Japan. Palepoli is basically a series of experiments with style and form, hard to describe because each one is so different from the other. There are visual meta-gags involving the comics medium, with characters playing with perspective and panel borders; there are stylistic gags, copying the style of moe manga, old gag manga (think Masashi Ueda), and paintings; and then there's the strip that's done in the style of a maze. Most of all, Palepoli is a beautiful portfolio piece: Furuya's art is super-detailed and super-diverse, using superfine crosshatching, pointillism and woodcut-like effects. Some of the humor is very dark, and some of it is religious, like the scene of an ant Moses parting a puddle. One of Viz's usual letterers declined to work on the series due to a strip with a crucified Jesus displayed in a bug collection with pinned butterflies and stag beetles.
I don't know if news of this ever got back to Furuya, but if not, it's a strange coincidence that Furuya's message to American readers in the English edition was: "I've heard that 80% of America is made up of anthropocentric and passionate Christians who deny the theory of evolution. Could this be a misconception on my part?" In other words, Furuya's not afraid of controversy, unlike some other manga artists like, say, Hikaru Nakamura, who didn't allow Saint Young Mento be licensed in English out of fear of offending American Christians. This isn't much of a surprise considering that Furuya was published in Garo (RIP 1964-2002), the original "underground" manga magazine, whose whole aesthetic was about letting artists do what they want. But Furuya's work in Palepoli got attention outside of the undergrounds, and soon he was getting offers of work from the big magazines. He transitioned from a fine artist to a high school art teacher and a part-time, then full-time mangaka.His first mainstream work (and the second one translated by Viz) was Short Cuts, published in 1996 in Young Sunday.
Young Sunday (1987-2008), like most Japanese magazines with "Young" in the title, was aimed at college-age men and featured a heavy dose of softcore pr0n: gravure models on the covers, sometimes a sealed nude photo section, and lots of fanservice and sex. Fittingly, Short Cuts was a gag manga about a major late-'90s Japanese obsession: kogals. (I wonder, was the title a pun on "Short Skirts"?) It was a time when the Japanese public was hyperventilating over stories of enjo kosai (teenage prostitution) and other scandalous displays of shameless youth: adult male readers could shake their fingers disapprovingly with one hand and jerk off with the other. Doing a kogal strip could have been the editor's idea, but then again, Furuya's work in the undergrounds had also featured a lot of sex and kink. (And the better porn manga magazines, particularly the ones like Manga Erotics that don't require a sex scene in every chapter, have often left room for creative expression as long as the artist delivers the goods.)
In Short Cuts, like in lots of fanservice manga, the line between titillation, satire and self-awareness is indiscernible. "Remember, everybody, committing indecent acts with minors is an arrestable offense!" a character says at the end of one strip…with a wink. Doll-like kogals and creepy oyaji (the bald, sleazy old men who lust after kogals) are stock characters, and panty-peeking and prostitution are taken for granted. In one strip, it's the year 2050, and oyaji are having their brains transplanted into stuffed-animal bodies to hit on women, not unlike how Furuya draws himself as a cute cartoon bunny rabbit who's into bondage and S&M. But beneath all the short skirts and loose socks, Short Cuts is basically a Palepoli-like exploration of different genres and artistic styles: Egyptian hieroglyphic kogals, Buddha statue kogals, model-kit kogals, giant mecha kogals, futuristic super-evolved kogals, kogals who take off their flesh like a suit revealing the skeleton underneath. The kogal who just came back from America shocks her high school class by acting like an American cartoon character: eyeballs popping out of her head Tex Avery style when she's excited, turning into a Playboy bunny when she's horny, etc. The collected edition included a set of kogal paper dolls, toys for the reader to play with, just like Furuya plays with his subject matter. (Is it worth repeating the fact that Furuya drew this comic while he was working as a high school teacher?)
ChikaoShiratori, Furuya's editor in his Garo days, was worried that Furuya would chafe under the strict editorial requirements when he started working for the big publishers like Young Sunday. But Furuya's reaction was the opposite: "I considered it a theme to draw manga under such restrictions. Doing it this way made it fun." After Short Cuts Furuya drew his longest series to date, Pi (a un on pai, "breasts"),a 9-volume seinen rom-com manga about a boob-obsessed boy who discovers a secret formula between the number Pi and perfect breasts. (Darren Aronofsky, I know this is the movie you really wanted to make.) He worked out his European religious obsession in Innocence Shonen Jûjigun ("Innocent Boys' Crusade"), another graphic Manga Erotics series about boys who join the Children's Crusade of 1212. He drew the manga adaptation of the movie Suicide Circle. But not all his series featured major violence and sex: 51 Ways to Save Her, his disaster manga about a major earthquake hitting Tokyo, is as mainstream and heartwarming as they come, frankly disappointingly so. (It was licensed by CMX Manga, but they went out of business before they could release it.)
Over here in the USA, though, Short Cuts was the last time we heard of Furuya for years. In 2002, just as the English edition of Short Cuts was released, the market for 'underground' manga collapsed as publishers focused on mainstream YA manga they could sell to a wider audience. But in Japan, Furuya was busy drawing, and eventually he, the artist who had worked for Garo, was working for the Marvel Comics of manga publishers, Shueisha. In 2010 Viz translated Genkaku Picasso, which had run in Jump Square.
Genkaku Picasso is the story of Hikari Hamura, a teenage loner who only cares about becoming a great artist: when his classmates are hanging out and talking, he's sitting in the corner sketching his hand. "I want to be a profound artist, with the grace and beauty of the Middle Ages or the Reinaissance," he muses. "Thank you, sketchbook and 2B pencil, you're my only friends!" But in fact he does have another friend, a girl named Chiaki who likes to read Jung and Sigmund Freud, and they name-drop famous artists together until one day there's a terrible accident and Chiaki is killed and Hikari is injured. Except that Chiaki comes back as an angel, who only Hikari can see, and who tells him that now he has the magic power to draw people's hearts. The selfish Hikari has been given this magic gift so he can use his art to help his classmates, by drawing their innermost thoughts (in surrealistic portraits) and jumping inside them, Inception-style.
Genkaku Picasso is basically an excuse for Furuya to do what comes easily to him: draw surrealist drawings and riff off of various art styles. Unfortunately, the psychological insights of the drawings are just Sigmund Freud Lite, the meanings of the paintings are fairly obvious, and of course everyone's problems are pretty easy to solve. Still, if just one person discovers Genkaku Picasso through the Scholastic Book Club and moves on to discover Furuya's other, better, creepier manga, its mission is accomplished.
Hopefully, however, there won't be any 10-year-olds discovering Lychee Light Club, Furuya's most transgressive work available in print. (In English, that is—Emi-chan, his first long story manga collected in Garden, was a sexual horror story printed as a series of 16-page sealed segments like the ones in a gravure magazine, each one more disturbing than the last.) Based on a play performed by the Tokyo Grand Guignol theater, Lychee Light Club is the story of a boys' club who lair in an abandoned industrial complex where they create a Frankenstein-like robot to kidnap girls for them. In my review in Otaku USA I wrote "Picture The Rocky Horror Picture Show with a 95% male, Visual Kei cast and nonstop gore effects by Screaming Mad George, and you have an inkling what this manga is like." As the mad young men set out on their crazed scheme, their ranks are split by infighting, sex and murder, culminating in a bloodsoaked robot rampage. The subject matter and artistic style of the story, set in a vaguely early-Showa-era time period when everyone wears old-fashioned fascist-looking school uniforms, is a lot like the ero-guro artist Suehiro Maruo, who was actually involved with the 1985 play's original production. It wouldn't be inaccurate to call Lychee Light Club a Suehiro Maruo tribute, although Furuya's work has more of a self-aware, campy feeling. The bishonen in Lychee Light Club are cut-outs just like the paper kogals in Short Cuts, although their tendencies run towards sadism and homoeroticism rather than consumer goods and skirt-flipping. Furuya rubs the darkness in horror in his face, but at the same time he's winking at us, giving us an out: it's not serious. It's all just a play. It's all just a game.
But it isn't always a game; somewhere along the line, Furuya developed the ability to play it straight, to just tell a story, and he's very good at it too. The prime example of this is No Longer Human, translated by Vertical in 2011. A manga adaptation of Osamu Dazai's famous (and, sadly, semi-autobiographical) 1948 novel about a self-destructive author, it updates and alters the story to that of a self-destructive mangaka: a wealthy young man with a distant family, a man who shows flowerings of talent, only to squander them and wreck himself in a morass of alcohol, sex and drugs. The archetype of the alienated, arrogant outsider artist clearly fascinates Furuya, although thankfully, this doesn't appear to be at all based on Furuya's actual life. (However, Furuya writes himself into the story as the narrator, the person who observes the main character's nightmarish descent.) There's a page-flipping fascination and horror in watching the story spiral towards its catastrophic conclusion, and like Genkaku Picasso, it's got many darkly surreal moments, without any need for actual magic. I read the three Vertical volumes immediately as soon as they came out.
In the spirit of pretentious art, I'm reminded of a quote by Oscar Wilde: "There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well or badly written. That is all." That quote applies pretty well to all manga, but especially to Usamaru Furuya. Whether his stories are sappy and meh, like Genkaku Picasso and 51 Ways to Save Her, or gripping and tragic like No Longer Human, or kinky and self-aware like Short Cuts, his artistic ability is top-notch. I like his older, purely experimental work, but I'd never call him a sell-out, because I like his recent, narrative work even more; at its best, I care more about the narratives. Furuya is great when he finds that sweet spot of subject matter that interests him (art and decadence), and entertaining storytelling that you can't put down.
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