House of 1000 Manga
by Jason Thompson,
“I’m just a fanatical hot-blooded mangaka! I can teach you about plot structure, but I can’t give you relationship advice!”
“It’s not enough to burn only in your own world! In the face of a crisis, will your burning heart emerge??!”
“As a child can only gain independence after surpassing the father, the mangaka must surprise to surpass god!!!”
When you first discover anime and manga, it can be hard to tell what's serious and what's a parody. (Some might say it doesn't matter.) Way way back, at the UCSD Cal-Animage anime club in the 1990s, my first encounter with parody anime was a show called Blazing Transfer Student. Your standard storyline about a high school where people fight each other all the time, I couldn't tell what was real and what was fake: the hyper-emotions? The super martial arts moves that all boiled down to punching people really hard? Or the incredibly slow, deliberate pacing, with every line of dialogue was so blunt and heavy-handed it was like a truck driving through a wall? I knew that anime could make fun of itself, but Blazing Transfer Student was so straight-faced, I couldn't be certain it wasn't for real. Even today, it's still never been officially licensed in English, but as Justin Sevakis wrote, its completely earnest absurdity makes it feel ahead of its time.
The genius behind Blazing Transfer Student was Kazuhiko Shimamoto, a manga artist who has made a career out of this kind of pseudo-parody, these worlds of sweat and blood, of screaming word balloons and big black hair. He has the same love for wild-at-heart 1970s manga that burns through the work of Ippongi Bang (a friend of Shimamoto's, unsurprisingly). His first big hit was Blazing Transfer Student from 1983 to 1985, but Shimamoto has created zillions of manga (his alter ego character in Moeyo Pen draws six monthly series at the same time). But out of all his work, my favorite are his manga about being a mangaka.
Shimamoto's meta-manga tell us exactly what we, manga readers, want to hear: being a mangaka is the most exciting job on Earth. Released in 1990, Moeyo Pen (“Burning Pen”) introduces us to Shimamoto's alter ego Moyuru Honô, a hot-blooded manga artist (both his personal and family name essentially mean “fire”) who always wears boxing headgear (because manga is a battle, presumably!). He never backs down from an assignment, and he guzzles energy drinks like they're water. When a rival mangaka gets by on three hours of sleep a night, Honô forces himself to get by on two and a half! He argues with his editor as much as necessary! (“A mangaka must stand his ground against the editor! The only way to beat them is with our fiery hearts!”) He dances on the razor's edge of deadlines, daring the brazen madness of ditching work to go to the publisher's New Year's party when he has 12 pages to draw by 9 am. (“Time doesn't control humans! It should be humans who control time!”) If he has a weakness, it's love, as in the chapter where he becomes obsessed with an idol singer and goes on strike until his editor promises to arrange a meeting between him and his dream beloved. (It doesn't end well.) But he's a shining champion to his assistants, male and female alike, who look in awe upon his speed and talent and manly leading-by-example. Throughout this entire manga you can hear John Cafferty's Hearts on Fire (from the Rocky IV training montage) playing.
Except of course, Honô is simultaneously a manga superstar and complete self-deluding wreck. Like Bruce Campbell, he's so manly he enters the realm of parody. One moment he looks super-cool and handsome, standing with a bit of grass in his mouth all ‘70s bancho style, the next moment he's drawn in gag manga style with bugged-out eyes and buck teeth. When he overworks himself, he turns into a human skeleton pouring sweat, a trembling ruin. When he blows bleedproof white over an assistant's freshly drawn backgrounds, to get that pre-Photoshop ‘explosion’ effect, he accidentally blows too much and ruins the original artwork. (Note: for God's sake, Shimamoto, why didn't you just use plastic transparency paper? It was totally available in the ‘90s!!) In classic shonen manga style, mastery of a skill is 50% confidence and 50% masochism, like in the third-wall-breaking storyline where Moyuru and his assistants take turns destroying each other's most prized possessions so they can learn firsthand how to draw ‘speed lines of absolute shock and horror’. (“See? Those speed lines above your head!! You need to draw them like that!”) And yet nothing is impossible for our hero; when he's drawing a story set in New York, he ditches his deadlines and goes to New York for research, leaving his editor freaking out until a big-nosed foreigner shows up from America bearing Moyuru's manga pages; meanwhile, Moyuru gazes at the Manhattan skyline from atop the crown of the Statue of Liberty. SO. BADASS.
Moeyo Pen was only one volume, but it was so popular it was expanded into an ongoing series, Hoero Pen (“Barking Pen” or “Growling Pen”). Shin Hoero Pen came next (English subtitle: “Be Growl, Pen”), and together they ran for 24 volumes, finally ending in 2008. Moeyo Pen combines a high-energy style and a just-beyond-believable, crazy reality, juxtaposing the manga dream and the reality: fame, fortune, malnutrition, back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, hemorrhoids, swollen ankles. One has to assume these are exaggerated tall tales, but the pseudo-autobiographical element is part of their appeal. One Moeyo storyline even parodies the making of the Blazing Transfer Student anime, with the anime producers butchering Shimamoto's Moyuru's work and turning it into something completely different. Moyuru is furious and ashamed, until he actually rereads Blazing Transfer Student and decides it sucks and he's happy they're changing everything. (He's just ashamed that the animators have to read it.)
In 2007, the autobiographical side got stronger, and Shimamoto created a new series in which Moyuru Honô was even more of an author stand-in. In 2007 Shimamoto began Aoi Honô (“Blue Blazes,” but since “blue” connotates “youth” in Japan, possibly “Young Hôno”), a new manga series set way back in 1980-1981 when 18-year-old Moyuru was a freshman at Osaka University of Arts. Shimamoto himself also attended Osaka University, and the stories are apparently based on his real college experiences. Furthermore, also at Osaka were several other students who would go on to become anime and manga professionals: Hiroyuki Yamaga (a crafty businessman who's not even really a nerd), Takami Akai (future creator of the proto-moe simulation game Princess Maker), and Hideaki Anno (future director of Evangelion, depicted as an insane genius with no social skills, who broods silently like Gendo Ikari when not making poses from tokusatsu shows).
Slightly more realistic than the Pen series, Aoi Honô follows Shimamoto/Moyuru's mundane college-age adventures, crushing on girls, going to class, and reading lots and lots of manga in his dark dormitory room. There's a love comedy element, with Moyuru torn between at least two women, his sexy muse Tonko (a third-year student who works at a nearby café and encourages his art) and tomboyish badminton player Hiromi (who brings him ramen and watches anime with him although Moyuru is completely oblivious to her crush). Moyuru goes through brief fits of working out, dreaming of becoming a brawny muscleman who'll really impress Tonko (alas, his training regimen only works his abs, turning into a scrawny stick figure with a six-pack). Honô soon recognizes Hideaki Anno's incredible talent and becomes obsessed with besting him. The running joke is that Anno is so far above Shimamoto/Moyuru's level that he isn't even aware of him as a rival (though the two of them are friends now; they do an interview together in the back of the Japanese Aoi Honô volume 1). Anno's skill is so intimidating, it's part of the reason Moyuru gives up on his original dream of becoming an animator, and decides to become a manga artist instead. (It's easier!) The manga gradually develops into two parallel storylines: Moyuru's struggles to become a manga artist, and Anno and friends’ formation of the group that would eventually become Gainax.
One of Shimamoto's inspirations for Aoi Honô may have been Leiji Matsumoto's 1971 Otoko Oidon (“I am a Man!”), another semi-autobiographical manga series about a pathetic young student, but the comically extreme poverty of Matsumoto's protagonist stands in contrast to the bourgeois comfort of Moyuru, whose offscreen parents are paying for tuition and rent. This is a manga of the early ‘80s, a manga of Japan's boom period—when, as the opening titles of the Aoi Honô TV series reminds us, “It is the year 1980, an era where the fashion and culture of young people are in full bloom!” In fact, one of Moyuru's problems is that he spends less time drawing manga than reading manga…all in the name of analyzing it, of course. Through Moyuru's eyes we see the classic manga of the early 1980s: works by Mitsuru Adachi, Rumiko Takahashi, Fujihiko Hosono. We feel the excitement of watching the Urusei Yatsura animation for the first time, of seeing the opening to Tetsujin 28-go. (Of course, Moyuru makes Hiromi and Tonko watch anime with him, spending hours mansplaining why each show is so great.) Whole chapters are built around new issues of Shonen Sunday, as well as now-dead magazines like Shonen Big Comic and Shonen King. Like Kingyo Used Books, Shimamoto namedrops countless classic anime and manga, summoning up warm fuzzy feelings for retro-anime fanatics and the aging otaku who were there when it was new.
It's not just ‘80s nostalgia, though; it's also a story about the artistic process. The primary theme of the manga is Moyuru's string of failures and hard life lessons as he slowly, slooooooowly becomes a better artist and human being. (This series is more Mad Men than Bakuman.) His early artwork is awful (is Shimamoto actually showing us his original manga pages he drew at age 18??), his youthful arrogance is extreme, although not much more extreme than some of the other characters (Kentaro Yano appears as a snazzily dressed otaku snob who boasts “I've been held back from graduating three times! You see, I have to become a mangaka, because if I don't, my life is over! Mwa ha ha!”). Moyuru's dream is so work for Shonen Jump, and eventually he gets a meeting with a Shonen Jump editor, but things don't exactly go as planned. Time flies…Moyuru gets a motorcycle…love triangles evolve and so does Moyuru's art style…and slowly, his dream comes closer…
Aoi Honô is still running, and it's probably Shimamoto's most commercially successful series so far; it came to my attention through the 2014 live-action Japanese TV series, one of the best live-action adaptations of a manga I've ever seen. (Yuya Yagira does an especially good job as Moyuru.) Of course, the subject matter is still so niche and the ‘70s art style so funky to modern tastes, it's not surprising the manga hasn't been officially translated into English; in fact, none of Shimamoto's manga have been licensed, except for the 7-volume tokusatsu superhero manga The Skull Man, a “posthumous collaboration” with famed mangaka Shotaro Ishinomori. (Tokyopop published it, and it's now out of print.)
It's hard to think about Aoi Honô without thinking of nostalgia, but OTOH I think of Shimamoto's own words when he shows up for a cameo in the TV series, telling his younger self with a laugh: “Listen! Once you grow up, don't turn into one of those pathetic adults always moaning ‘Boy, I sure wish I could re-live my school days!’” Moyuru is inspired by Shimamoto's words. “I'm never backing down again,” he says. “I'll become a professional manga author, a man who is always creating something new, and make my way in the world!” Despite all the name-dropping and in-jokes, Aoi Honô is a series about making art, getting better at art, and growing up. It doesn't matter if it's a parody, as long as it inspires you.
Like drawing? Like manga? Like tabletop games? If you like any of these things, check out my Kickstarter for Mangaka: The Fast & Furious Game of Drawing Comics!
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