The Mike Toole Show Awesome Unadapted Manga
by Mike Toole,
Last week, amid the bustle of Arisia, Boston's biggest science fiction fan convention, I did something I'd never done at a con before: I focused on books. I met con guest of honor John Scalzi, the Redshirts and Old Man's War guy, and had him sign my tablet, which is where I've been reading most of his slick, funny books. I heard SF author and translator Ken Liu read from Death's End, the forthcoming finale of his translation client Cixin Liu's Three-Body trilogy. And I sat on whole bunch of panels about manga, which, as we all well know, is kind of like anime, only in book form.
I also sat on a couple of anime panels, but the focus on manga felt right at a convention couched in the literary science-fiction/fantasy tradition of most older fan conventions. One panel in particular sought to steer anime fans, who can discover so many top-notch manga titles via sampling their animated adaptations, towards the prodigious heap of manga without anime versions. That's what the column is about this time.
For myself, and I suspect a lot of fans, the link between anime and manga represents a virtuous cycle. After all, I picked up my first issue of Area 88 because it looked a bit like Robotech to me; anime led me to manga, which led me to anime, which led me to manga, which led me to anime, which led me to Monster Musume. (I'm five volumes in, fellas. Don't worry, I'll be writing about the monster girl phenomenon soon!) My collection is run through with fare like Astroboy and Trigun and Cardcaptor Sakura and Maison Ikkoku, all excellent manga that I made a beeline for only after I'd seen them on the screen. Even now, I make at least one excursion to Hub Comics, my local comic book emporium of choice, per quarter, the better to acquire Jojo's Bizarre Adventure, a series I've already experienced quite extensively in anime version. But without the original work in hand, you miss things. For one, you don't get to watch Hirohiko Araki's rapid progression from sloppily aping Tetsuo Hara's Fist of the North Star aesthetic to creating his own bold, flamboyant style, by watching the anime version.
I suppose bringing up Yotsuba&! first is timely, since its predecessor, Azumanga Daioh, is returning to print. Well, the anime version is returning to print. That's still important, because like I just got finished saying, experiencing both versions can be a good thing. In Azumanga Daioh's case, the anime version links Kiyohiko Azuma's fast-moving gag comedy together into larger story arcs. The gang at JC staff, under director Hiroshi Nishikiori, do a creditable job both making the manga characters look good in anime form, and in adapting the best parts of the comics' many, many jokes and situations. But Azuma's next manga hit, Yotsuba&!, is a family comedy almost without peer, a gentle sitcom that makes the little kid character its focus and manages to avoid being too cutesy or treacly in spite of that. It begins as a look at life through the lens of a clever, curious little girl—4-year-old Yotsuba Koiwai—as she and her single dad move into a new neighborhood.
There's plenty of good character comedy on the side – Yotsuba's unorthodox, shaggy dad is an interesting character in his own right, and his own circle of weirdos, plus the nice family next door, add to the fun. What makes this series work so well is the way Azuma just puts Yotsuba into ordinary situations and lets her react to them. One of my favorite early comic stories is all about Yotsuba's reaction to seeing an air conditioner at work for the first time. She regards it with a mixture of amazement, wonder, and a hint of concern. It's that tiny nugget of suspicion that makes the main character so much fun to watch. Yotsuba&! is entertaining enough when our little heroine is having a great time, but it's even better when she's heatedly interrogating the adults because she doesn't understand something, or squaring off against her dad's slacker buddy Yanda, who takes her dislike in stride and teases her relentlessly.
With so many gag manga making the jump to anime, it seems as though Yotsuba&! would be a natural fit. But while the manga continues—Azuma's recently taken the pen up after a long and well-deserved hiatus—an anime version never seems to make it past the point of fan speculation. It seems a bit strange, maybe because in the west we're so accustomed to the old Shonen Jump formula, where the magazine's best and brightest hits inevitably go on to anime immortality. But does a great manga even require an anime adaptation to become a huge, enduring hit? It's a question worth asking.
I have to wonder if an anime adaptation of Vinland Saga would make it a global smash hit, or at least pressure artist Makoto Yukimura to start winding the story towards a satisfying ending. Yukimura's Planetes got the anime conversion, even if the process added all sorts of side characters and subplots that ultimately dragged the TV series down a notch. Vinland Saga is an impressive departure for the artist, an action-packed tale of the Danish invasion of Britain, when Vikings ruled Europe's northern waters. From the start, it seems like it has all of the right stuff—a charismatic and skilled leader (Askeladd, who helms a band of mercenaries), a driven and deadly protagonist (Thorfinn, who vows revenge against Askeladd even as he serves on his crew), and the backdrop of the real-life 11th century, as the Danish king Cnut rises to power.
But here's the thing: when the hero's revenge arc is unexpectedly cut short, Yukimura just keeps the story going. Thorfinn, who had made vengeance the central reality of his existence, has to find some other reason to go on living. The artist uses this dramatic shift in setting to explore the realities of medieval farming, of all things. And amazingly, the series still continues to be wonderful and compelling historical drama. Aside from pondering what an anime version might be like (it's easy to picture, especially the earliest chapters and their large-scale, bloody battles), I'll also entreat readers to seek Vinland Saga out in manga form. It's one of those titles that has struggled to find an audience in North American bookstores, but it really deserves one. Give it a shot.
Trying to seek out some of the best manga without anime adaptations would take you ages in Japan, where new manga pages fly out by the thousands every single week. There are entire genres and styles and popular artists that have never gotten the anime treatment. I think one of the most distinctive and important artists to never hit anime paydirt is Jiro Taniguchi. One big reason why not is probably just the difficult matter of adapting his style to animation. I mean, just take a look:
Right away, it's obvious that you'd have to drastically simplify his work,possibly rendering it unrecognizable in the process. But in the case of A Distant Neighborhood, I really wish someone would try it. See, Jiro Taniguchi really excels in a couple of areas—he's remarkably good at rendering the great outdoors, the might and wonder of nature, on paper. One of his compilations, The Ice Wanderer, even contains a version of the first part of White Fang, featuring a Yukon sled team's harrowing struggle to escape a pack of starving wolves and make it back to camp. Along with the nature stuff, Taniguchi is absolutely incredible at depicting the good old days, a particular slice of time long ago, but not so long ago that older folks don't remember it. That time and place is at the center of A Distant Neighborhood.
Ever catch yourself daydreaming of going back in time and living part of your life over, with all of your youth and vigor, only also with the memories you've accrued after a lifetime of mistakes, tiny tragedies, weekends wasted getting drunk and shooting pool, and that one awful time when you bought a brand new Subaru WRX and took the rearview mirror off coming out of a parking garage two days later? That concept is what drives A Distant Neighborhood, as Nakahara, a restless, unhappy 49-year-old salaryman is catapulted back to his small-town youth in the early 1960s. He doesn't use his lifetime of experience to prove how awesome he is to his classmates—though he does have an easier time at school—but to try and solve a potent mystery. As a teenager, his father left his family suddenly, leading to years of hardship and doubt. Why'd he do it? Nakahara has to find out.
My favorite scene in this sweet and melancholy examination of youth and the mistakes we make in life is definitely the bit where Nakahara visits a buddy whose family owns a bar, and the guy's 49-year-old soul, still full of anxiety and desperate for a little familiar comfort, causes his 14-year-old body to quaff most of a fifth of good scotch. The manga's larger story is compelling, but something about what appears to be a straitlaced 60s Japanese schoolkid almost literally diving to the floor to grab at a bottle of expensive hooch is just hilarious. Later, things will start to change for Nakahara as he redoes bits of his life—the class beauty, whom he'd always regarded as out of his league, responds immediately to her classmate's peculiar worldliness. Then they both get busted by his old homeroom teacher for going out on a date by themselves, which wasn't really a done thing back then. Details like that are fascinating, and Taniguchi hardly misses any. Other stories of his concern broken down old rooming houses, missing-person mysteries, and mankind's epic struggles against nature. Not one of them have been adapted as anime.
Frequently, something about these anime-less titles makes them seem like they'd be a little tricky to adapt, be it Yotsuba&!'s compact cast of characters and simple situations, Vinland Saga's abrupt tonal shift, or A Distant Neighborhood's exacting visual luster. But Satoshi Mizukami's Lucifer and the Biscuit Hammer seems like an incredibly natural target – when I described it at the panel, I had several audience members loudly wondering why an anime adaptation hadn't yet been announced. But that's why this subject is so interesting to think about-- for every title that makes the jump, there are ten very similar to it that don't.
Lucifer and the Biscuit Hammer has a lot of stuff straight out of the Hit Anime Playbook. It has an unlikely hero, a skinny dude who wears glasses and seems to have a smart-assed comeback for everything. It has a magical talking animal sidekick, who berates him for his frequent failures. It has panty jokes. It has a mysterious, evil wizard, who seems handsome and intriguing, but plots to smash the world with a gigantic biscuit hammer(!!), which looms threateningly in the background from time to time. There's also a long-foretold princess clad in a schoolgirl's uniform, who wishes to defeat the evil wizard and thwart his plan to smash the world, all so she can destroy it herself. Despite all of that rote nonsense, you can add my voice to ANN's chorus of praise for this comic, which manages to both embrace a long list of shonen manga clichés, and slyly kink them up.
There's one specific joy to Lucifer and the Biscuit Hammer that can't really be applied to any future anime adaptation: Mizukami's artwork, which starts rough and ugly, but improves rapidly and remarkably as the series progresses. (Global smash hit Attack on Titan has the same thing going on, which is also not at all evident if you're just watching the anime. Also, let's be honest—Isayama's draftsmanship still kind of sucks!) Last but not least, Lucifer and the Biscuit Hammer has a completely ludicrous English-language title that is better than almost any title of any piece of fiction anywhere. Think about it: you're going to remember this title. You won't mispronounce it, or get it mixed up with anything else. Only one series has “biscuit hammer” in the title, and it's this one.
At this particular “Great Manga with No Anime” panel, I took the liberty of recommending a manga series by Hiroki Endo called Eden: It's an Endless World! . I'm tempted to describe this series as a buried treasure at this point, because while it's ostensibly still in publication in English, it's rarely discussed among my peers and seems constantly in danger of going out of print—Dark Horse have insisted that it's just on hiatus, with low sales bumping it off the schedule for now, but not forever. That's too bad, because it rules. It opens with the end of the world, as a mysterious disease sweeps across human civilization, wiping out seemingly everyone that contracts it. Later, we learn that the disease didn't kill human civilization—it just decimated it, radically reshaping global politics in the process. A pair of kids who'd fled the disease years ago resurface as adults, and key figures in this new world order—a new world order threatened by their young son Elijah, who's coming into his own as a would-be soldier and revolutionary figure. Elijah's aided by a motley crew of mercs and cyborgs, which makes Eden: It's an Endless World! an excellent example of the post-apocalyptic cyberpunk true crime political thriller pulp action-comedy genre.
See, that's what really keeps me engaged in a series that's become very difficult to collect. Despite the backdrop of a radically changed, broken-down world and the constant life-and-death struggles of Elijah and his compatriots, Eden: It's an Endless World! strikes an oddly euphoric tone, keeping proceedings light and fast-paced in spite of the near-constant death, despair, and destruction. Four hours after bidding the panel audience to go forth and seek the series out, I was seated in my apartment's tiny library, inexpertly trying to razor the cataloging tag off of the spine of Eden: It's an Endless World! volume 10. I'd just acquired the book from an Amazon reseller for a reasonable sum (about what it sold for new, plus a buck or two), which is pretty much the only way you can actually get most of Dark Horse's English-language run of the series. Selfishly, I have to admit that's one of the reasons why I kind of wish this series would get an anime version-- it might ultimately goose sales of the manga. This certainly seems to have worked for Attack on Titan and Blood Blockade Battlefront!
Despite the excellence of these titles, there's still so much more manga out there. My co-panelists brought up works by Inio Asano and Taiyo Matsumoto. They tried to picture anime versions of the hard-edged, weird SF of Naoki Urasawa's Pluto, or the impossible beauty and grace of Kaori Mori's A Bride's Story. Asano's been quietly turning out some of the best comic storytelling of the last decade in fare like Solanin and the forthcoming-in-English Goodnight Punpun, but the closest his work has come to anime are the original character designs for Perfect Insider.
But should some manga be left alone? Is it such a bad thing that there's no Jiro Taniguchi anime, and no sparkling, peppy TV anime of Yotsuba&!. I'm satisfied with the manga, but I always think of possibilities. After all, if they can pull off an anime adaptation of Taiyo Matsumoto's Tekkonkinkreet and Ping-Pong, they can probably get a pretty good Sunny anime done, as well. But even if they don't, good anime will always lead you back to great manga. The media are inexorably linked. If you've got a favorite manga that's never been adapted as anime, share it in the comments!
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