ultragashinfernoUltra Gash Inferno is a collection of nine short comics from Japanese mangaka/illustrator Suehiro Maruo.

I highly recommend this book, but you shouldn’t buy it. It’s entertaining and well worth reading…just don’t spend money on it, yes? I do not offer this advice out of concern for your finances. Even if you are rich, you should acquire this book through through other means. Moving on…

There’s two things to review here, the work of Suehiro Maruo and the translation/editing of “James Havoc” and Creation Books. Maruo’s manga are brutal and nasty but very heartfelt and even strangely bathetic. They make you feel things. His characters are usually sweet, vulnerable-looking young people and his calendar seems permanently set in the nostalgic past.

His art is really interesting, there’s not too much I can compare him to except those 17th century Ukiyo-e woodblock prints. Maruo’s is a pure, unalloyed sort of manga, removed from all influences of Walt Disney and western iconography.

People call Maruo a mangaka/illustrator but I really think “illustrator” should come before the slash. Maruo draws manga but he’s more at home with stationary, tableaux-like images. He draws motion poorly, and whenever he tries a more stereotypical manga trick (like speed lines) the result appears artificial and disjointed.

“Putrid Night”, the earliest work on here (1981), is about sixteen year old Sayoko, who is married to a cruel and brutish samurai. He is hinted to have killed his first wife and soon we only feel glad at her fortunate escape, for marriage to this man is hell. Sayoko hatches a plan to kill her husband and escape with a young suitor, but of course, things never work out quite right, and sometimes all you can do is enjoy hell. “Shit Soup” is a gross-out comic, probably inspired by George Bataille, that features people having sex, drinking piss, eating shit, et cetera. Hard to believe that Maruo would just make a throwaway porn comic, I guess he wanted to make some kind of transgressive statement but needed to sex it up a bit before he could find a magazine that would print it. “Voyeur in the Attic” is about a man who witnesses infanticide, and rather than do anything socially responsible he becomes a participant in a dirty game. “Nonresistance City” is a 82 page comic set in post-war Tokyo, and is maybe the most mature and emotionally engaging thing on here.

I am a huge fan of Suehiro Maruo. Unfortunately, there’s a middleman here.

The book was edited by “James Havoc” (a pen name for another author), and he does nothing but fuck up the book. Sound effects aren’t edited into the art, they’re reproduced in awkward looking block text at the bottom of the panels. I wouldn’t mind too much if this was a scanlation, but come on, this is an actual product for sale. Some professionalism, please. The quality of the images looks faded out and weird, like bad quality scans.

Worst of all, he takes it upon himself to “improve” the book with extracts of his trademark “William S Burroughs on even more drugs” prose. “WE ARE BLACK SUNLIGHT, A VORTEX OF ANAL SWEAT IN THE SUCKLING SKY.” Oh, fuck off and leave the book alone. We’re here to read Maruo, not you. This sort of nonsense finds its way into nearly every single comic.

With the annoying editing, and the fact that Maruo likely has never seen a yen from this collection (tip: type “Creation Books” into Google), you’d be stupid to buy this. One hopes more (and better) English-language releases of Maruo’s work will be forthcoming. Treat this as a view into the world of one of Japan’s most provocative artists…however, you must look through a distorted lense.

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shogoThis is Monolith’s innovative but obscure mecha-themed first person shooter from 1998. It’s full of cool stuff, but it isn’t a classic. This is the type of game that comes out, impresses some people, and then just goes away.

I’ve never seen a game so eager to impress. It cavorts like a puppy. It has a strong and stylish anime theme, an complex and detailed story (by the standards of the day, anyway), lots of features, and an early test drive of the flashy Lithtech engine. Shogo does look the part. But soon you realise that the game’s content is not able to match its presentation.

Everything seems…rushed. Unready. Unfinished. There’s definitely a meal here, but it bleeds and squeals when I cut it. The game is a two-part experience. There’s on-foot FPS missions, and mecha missions – which are the same but from the perspective of 50 meters in the air, with you shouldering past buildings like Godzilla, and people running around your feet like little ants. Both parts of the game feel half-completed, as if the designers were trying to do too much and then eventually gave up.

Pour water into any part of the game and it leaks.

Weapons? The game basically gives you the entire arsenal from the start of the game. Unsatisfying. Where’s the thrill of progressing through the game and finding more and more powerful weapons? Imagine Doom if it gave you the plasma gun on the second level and the BFG 9000 on the third.

AI? Hopeless. In mecha mode your robot enemies get stuck going around corners, kill themselves with explosive weapons, etc. On the ground, you progress through hallways, fighting static groups of enemies that stand still even while you blast their friends from just around the corner. There are friendly soldiers that help you from time to time. You can kill them without consequence.

Level design? Not interesting, there’s a level ripped off from Quake where you ride around on wind turbines etc but otherwise it’s your usual series of techbases and “gritty” urban locales where you must flip switches and find keys. I think there was one level where you have to interrupt your quest to save the world to rescue a lady’s pet cat.

Giant robots? Here’s where the game really keels over and fucks itself. This game never makes it feel like you’re riding a hundred ton battle mecha. You can stop on a dime, make huge, floaty jumps, execute impossible mid-air pirouettes – the physics are all wrong, and it destroys the immersion and atmosphere of the game.

Story? Fairly expansive and detailed for an FPS, but it lacks colour and human interest. Shogo’s story feels like Metal Gear Solid’s story retold by an autist or a sociopath. Characters and their motivations are described in plain, anodyne terms (such and such is the brother of so and so, who is the girlfriend of who and who). The anime theme seemed cool in 1998 but these days you’d be better off playing anything from the later Touhou games to Viewtiful Joe. In general, the largeness and outlandishness of anime is missing. Monolith has copied the words but they don’t seem to hear the music.

It didn’t help that Shogo was released at just the wrong time. Half Life caused better games than Shogo to be forgotten.

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torturegardenThis story sails under false colours.

During the golden age of piracy it was common for pirates to deceive merchant vessels by flying the flag of a friendly country, such as the Union Flag or the Cross of Burgundy. Only when escape was impossible would they run up the Jolly Roger. This book used a similar trick on me. It starts out as a funny story where a caddish young politician, drowning in bad publicity, flees the country on a boat bound for the far East. Soon (while he’s at sea, incidentally) The Torture Garden completely changes in tone and style.

Octave Mirbeau was a 19th century French journalist, novelist, and full-time burr in the establishment’s saddle. This is one of his most remembered works: a very excessive satire story that seems to be the bang-from-behind offspring of Jonathan Swift and the Marquis de Sade. The hero (nameless, as best I can recall) meets shipboard a depraved young woman called Clara, who has all sorts of issues to discuss with her inner child. She seems demur and immune to flattery, but comes to life at the slightest hint of cruelty, violence, or pain.

The book is very funny. The characters are picaresque and exaggerated like the ones in George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman books. I laughed at several parts, such as this exchange, where a sailor is attempting to impress Clara.

“Well then?” she said maliciously, “so it’s not a joke? You’ve eaten human flesh?”
“Certainly I have!” he answered proudly with a tone that established his indisputable superiority over the rest of us.

Clara and her male companion journey to China’s famous “Torture Garden”, a place where criminals go to die. The Asians are sophisticated and evolved in this matter. Where Europe allows its prisoners to languish in dark dungeons, China’s prisoners live and die in massive gardens well equipped for all forms of torture. Viburnums enriched by bilirubin. Azaleas watered by arterial gore.

Mirbeau writes satire really well. One of the funniest parts has a seasoned Chinese torture ranting about Westerners invading the land and bringing their crude and barbaric methods of torture with them, with no respect for Chinese tradition.

Our protagonist’s goes on a tour through this garden, learning about plants and pain. The garden is really quite extraordinary. There is a method of torture involving a rat and a basket and a heated brand that they could never have thought of at Gitmo Bay.

Our protagonist is appalled by everything he sees. Clara laughs and mocks him. These exchanges turn the old trope John Wayne telling the woman to close her eyes as she walks past the dead Injuns on its ear…although it’s hard to feel sorry for our hero. He has the option to turn back at any point, yet he continues exploring the garden. Then, in the book’s final passages, even Clara’s walls and rationalisations break down, and the result is one of the most frank and disturbing scenes of emotional implosion I’ve encountered in a book.

Although it always keeps satire close to its heart, I must emphasise that there are very few books as gruesome as The Torture Garden. The 120 Days of Sodom and Story of the Eye make their nature clear at the outset. The Torture Garden tricks you. I wonder how many idle French intellectuals sat down for a comfortable tale of misbehaving rakes and armchair rebellion, and were exposed to…this.

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