Sunday, May 26, 2013

Scummy Manga Reviews #9: WORST

Title: WORST (ワースト)
Serialized in: Weekly Shonen Jump, Volume 11 1970-Volume 34 1971
Art and Story by: Komuro Kotaro (小室孝太郎)
Genre: New Age Science Fiction

What It's About
It took the Old Testament forty days and nights of rain to purge the planet of humankind and their sin. WORST did the same in half a weeks time.

The population of Earth contracts a mysterious, incurable disease following a three day worldwide storm. Death is swift, but is only the beginning. As the dead rise, their skin splits and molts, revealing the ghastly form underneath—hairless ghouls with glowing, globular eyes, their emaciated stomachs hungry for human flesh.

Shoot them and they get right back up. Blast them apart with dynamite and their giblets recongeal. Their only weakness is direct sunlight, which merely repels, not kills them. The survivors have a long, futile struggle ahead of them. A bite is all it takes for the virus to spread, and the monsters multiply faster than cancer cells. Mankind's reign has ended. The age of the Worst Man has begun.

Why It's Awesome
WORST challenges the divide between kid's entertainment and social commentary. The author frequently breaks through the fourth wall with his gag hammer to diffuse the tension and keep things from getting too scary for the young 'uns. But then the next page will open to a U.S. Air Force pilot's flashback showing American troops gunning down unarmed Vietnamese woman and children. While anti-war sentiment was beginning to boil at the end of the 60's, it would still be some time before other mainstream youth serials began obliquely criticizing the conflict with Devil Man (1972) and Barefoot Gen (1973).

Komura was also among the first authors to tackle the issue of industrial pollution seeping into the public sphere. The Worst Man virus evolved to thrive in the toxic environment created by Japan's unchecked economic growth, echoing tragic real world headlines detailing the outbreak of mercury poisoning in Minamata City, or the cadmium-induced “itai-itai” syndrome that turned its victim's bones into taffy. Nukes were one thing. At this rate, we were going to poison ourselves before we got around the blowing ourselves up.

Komuro interned under Tezuka and it clearly shows in his art and themes. His character designs are lifted from the master mangaka, but Komuro pushes his dystopian vision further than his mentor ever dared. In The World to Come(来るべき世界) (1951), Tezuka brings the world to the brink of extinction in a Cold War gone wrong, only to pull it back to safety at the 11th hour. WORST is not as charitable and sets mankind running on its last legs from the starting line. Extinction is the least of their worries. As the Worst Men evolve and grow in intelligence, they pry loose humanity's grip as the dominant species, one finger at a time.

But just as the reign of the dinosaurs was usurped by the advent of mammals, this changeover may be in civilization's best interest. Pollution-induced climate change has ushered in a sudden ice age that homo sapians do not have the resources to endure. Man's best hope to continue its lineage may be to relinquish it to the Worst Man.

Why It Won't Come Out In English
One major appeal of mid-Showa titles is how they cram so much content into a short span. WORST is no exception, chronicling the struggle of three generations of survivors in under a thousand pages. The character's limited screen time doesn't make them any less memorable.

We start with Eiji “The Razor,” a quick-witted punk who sets up base camp for the pro-human league in the Kasumigaseki Building, Japan's first office skyscraper. It's only a matter of time before the metropolis becomes a death trap and we take refuge on a deserted tropical island. This arc focuses on Taku, an orphan Eiji rescued, now a grown man researching how to destroy the Worst Man with the limited resources available from their island prison. The drama plays out like Matheson's “I Am Legend” with a volatile cast drafted from “Night of the Living Dead,” though the latter would not see a Japanese release until years later.

In hindsight, WORST may not be the most original work ever, but for a sophomore effort it hints at great things later in Komuro's career. Unfortunately his talent was suffocated before it could develop. Despite regularly securing the top spot of Shonen Jump's infamous reader popularity polls, his Big Brother-ruled dystopia title Outer REC(アウターレック) (1973) was cut from circulation in favor of Mazinger Z. The editor only wanted one sci-fi serial in his magazine, and with the anime adaptation riding on it, Mazinger Z received top billing. Komuro walked out in protest, only to discover that the Shonen Jump exclusivity contract prevented him from working with another publisher for the next year.

The manga industry shrunk as paper prices soared following the 1973 oil shock, and Komuro wouldn't be given another paid gig until 1978, when he ironically came back to the pages of Shonen Jump. He never produced another piece of science fiction, instead focusing on historical fiction and Eastern religion. Tezuka's prodigy never had a chance to upstage his master.

If only his connection to Tezuka could give him a free pass to be reprinted. Komura's art may be dated, but his themes and panel compositions are new wave science fiction shot through the lens of the best experimental cinematographers of his day. His stories influenced the occult classrooms of Tsunoda Jiro, the survival horror of Hanazawa Kengo's I Am a Hero and even Gekiga artists with Koike Kazuo's sci-fi thriller Shonen no Machi ZF. Komura never became one of the greats, but the teeming ranks below him are far, far worse.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Loli-con Complex: Azuma Hideo and Aoyama Yuki

Available on Amazon.
If an artisan's touch can venerate obscene materials to the level of art, then perhaps Azuma Hideo and Aoyama Yuki will integrate loli-con aesthetics into the public sphere—or at least keep the censors off their backs for a little while longer. Azuma Hideo, recovering alcoholic and pioneer of the erotic-cute style of manga popularized in the late 70's, recently met with photographer Aoyama Yuki, best known for his tantalizing collections featuring schoolgirls in surreal poses, to discuss their collaboration on a new omnibus of Azuma's works.

Schoolgirl Complex by Aoyama Yuki
On Aoyama Yuki
His photos manage to be erotic without showing the girl's face—that impressed me most. He leads your eye to the minutia, the wrinkles in a shirt, the ratio of fabric to flesh. He focuses on the parts you want to stare at on the train, but can't in fear of being arrested. There's something wholesome about that.

A photo book is a collection of one panel manga. Each photograph is self-contained. There's no grand narrative, no connectivity, so a single frame needs to tell an entire story.

Disconnectivity is the core of my work. Typically at fashion shoots, the photographer tries to build up a rapport with the girl—“Yes yes, give me more!” But I want to remain removed without creating a relationship. I don't personally know the subject, so I can't ask them to act a certain way. I get more natural poses when I resign myself to their nature.

Likewise, I maintain a disconnect between the subject and viewer with barriers. A chair leg, a window frame, a wall of foreground defocus. Anything to put a visual element between you and the girl.

 Nanako SOS manga by Azuma Hideo.
On Azuma Hideo
Azuma: Everything is ad-libbed while following the classic 4-act structure of beginning-rising action-twist- conclusion. I start with a main theme, then connect each panel with gags to serve as a part of the larger whole. The narrative needs to loop back on itself. It can't be nonsense. The punchline should be logical, even if the logic is self-contained—we're talking science fiction, after all.

Some of my characters have developed a life of their own. Like Nanako and Mia from Scrap Gakuen. They're still tumbling around inside my head, waiting for their roll call.

Learning how to draw girls is an ongoing study. Aoyama's books are a great reference for how skirts fold and shirts crease. My style has changed more times than I like to admit since the 70's, but the fundamentals are the same—a young face with a big chest and fat ankles.

Puberty introduces boys to girls as an object of sexual desire without providing a way to connect with them. That's why us men are always stealing looks, peaking over our shoulders. Azuma's work contains that same cocktail of sexual frustration and daydream innocence. His drawings manage to be cute and pure despite the grotesque motifs—bugs, poop, violence. His simple lines are purposeful and kinetic, ready to jump off the page.

Scrap Gakuen manga by Azuma Hideo.
On their Trademark Design Element:
The juxtaposition of slender limbs poking out of baggy clothing. Like cardigans or puffy blouses that scrunch up at the sleeve.

Most of my models are backlit to create a crisp silouette and posed to create depth—for example, partially showing the other leg obstructed by the foreground leg prevents the image from looking flat.
Schoolgirl Complex by Aoyama Yuki.

On Following Trends:
There used to be more classically trained artists drawing comics. These days, everyone is simply a manga artist. Manga artists aren't draughtsmen—they can't draw anatomically accurate human forms. 

We copy from other manga artists. Me, from Tezuka and Ishinomori Shotaro. People copied Otomo when he was big, then Takahashi Rumiko when she was big. Our drawing style shifts with trends because we have no core integrity.

The same thing happens in the photography world. When Ninagawa Miki made her break, suddenly everyone rediscovered primary colors.

On Keeping It Real
A certain level of abstraction shields my manga from the censors. Setting nude characters against surreal backgrounds or omitting the man during sex scenes helps diffuse the smut potential.

It would be short-sighted to say that my work didn't have any effect on society. But that doesn't mean that I should limit my imagination and creativity because of that.

You can photograph a young girl eating candy, so long as it doesn't have a stick. Lollipops and suckers are off the table. But what if you wanted to shoot her simply enjoying the treat? I think it all boils down to intent. Is the artist trying to create something lewd, or does the viewer pervert it in thier mind?

We live in the real world ruled by lawsuits so we must think pragmatically. Intent is open to interpretation, so it's the editor's call to decide what is fit to print. Take the recent AKB48 “hand bra” debacle. The photographer and models were just doing their jobs. It was the editor who was asleep at the wheel.

Schoolgirl butt in suku-mizu by Aoyama Yuki.
On What's Erotic
 I'm taking a community college life drawing class. They sit you down to draw a naked woman, but it doesn't do anything for me. The girl needs to be clothed to get my juices going.

Another thing—girls that ooze sex from their pores aren't interesting either. They leave nothing to the imagination. But take a modest girl. You know she's as dirty as the rest of them behind closed doors. That's where it's at.

Acting as my own editor, I don't allow panty shots to creep into my work. Spandex shorts only. Think of it like a doughnut. The middle is hollow—no obviously erotic elements at the center—but the outside ring is delicious.
Girl in vending machine by Azuma Hideo.
Azuma and Aoyama have overlapping themes and visuals despite differences in their personal perversions and the generation gap. The phrase "loli-con" elicits a gag reflex in many, but strip away the sexual politics and you're left with a pleasingly soft aesthetic scented with the sweet smell of nostalgia. Even Freud had to admit that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. How long before the public accepts that sometimes, a lollipop is just a lollipop?