Osamu “Astro Boy, et cetera, et cetera” Tezuka’s 1970 manga is rather weary and cynical. It stars a professional player who thrives because the world full of marks who just can’t wait to get played.
Toshiko Tomura appears to be the ultimate Renaissance woman. At the peak of a successful acting career, she writes a work of literature that achieves national acclaim. Maybe she’s a genius…yet at the same time, there’s something’s not quite right about her. One of her friends has committed suicide. This friend, as it happens, was writing a very similar book to Tomura’s.
A reporter investigates the coincidence, and discovers two things. The first is the trail of destruction Tomura left behind her in her quest to become an actress. The second is Tomura’s wildly dysfunctional upbringing, and the emotional scars that ensure she will never be anything more than an artistic freeloader. She has no identity, no “soul.” She can be anything, and anyone. Yesterday she was an actor, today she’s a writer, tomorrow she’ll be something else. Tomura is like a human insect, metamorphosising from larva to pupa to winged insect…an imperfect metaphor. She is more like an insect that survives by stealing the essence of others.
The Book of Human Insects is fast and accessible. It’s pacing and revolving door of characters reminds me of Tin-Tin. Except if Tin-Tin was this fatalistic, Tin-Tin would have been plugged by Al Capone’s goons three pages in, and Captain Haddock would have died of alcohol poisoning. Tezuka’s classic 70s-style art remains hard to pin down. It shifts from cartoony and funny to erotic and tense and within the same page, and often within the same panel.
Tomura clearly has borderline personality disorder, or something similar, and we cannot wait for her to come to a sticky end. One problem: that moment never comes, at least not in the events covered in this book. Using her wits and physical charms, Tomura is able to outwit and outmanoeuvre an endless gallery of thugs, artists, reporters, politicians, and businessmen, in her journey to become…what? That’s the big unresolved question that makes Tomura’s triumphs seem empty and useless. What is she trying to accomplish? Does she even know?
The Book of Human Insects is another merit badge on Tezuka’s impressive career. All you can say about him is that he was a true storyteller, unconstrained by markets or demographics. He created a Japanese icon in Astro Boy, but there was another, more mature aspect to his work, and books like this are where it is exposed to the full.
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Why did I buy a book of random words?
Kenji Siratori is an experimental writer from Hokkaido who I have heard described as “cyberpunk.” Sort of like how a radio tuned to static can be described as playing music. His work is written in a weird pidgin filled with odd contractions, expansions, and slang, all as impenetrable as 256 bit encryption. That’s the generous stance you can take on Nonexistence. The ungenerous stance is that Siratori pounded out a hundred pages of nonsense and is laughing his way to the bank.
Let’s not beat around the bush. You can’t read this book. This isn’t a novel, it’s art, in every wrong way you can count. Nonexistence, like Siratori’s more famous “novel” Blood Electric, is indecipherable technogibberish word salad that makes Tristram Shandy look sane. As there’s no avenue of approach into this book and no way to understand it, I would suggest saving your money and reading the names of the chemicals on the back of a detergent bottle instead.
I don’t mind reading hard books. But give me something. Finnegan’s Wake works because it can be analysed a little bit, and also because of James Joyce’s clever but gentle manhandling of the English language (“[he] lived in the broadest way immarginable”). This, on the other hand, is true art. Big difference.
The web is full of depressing reviews of people claiming to have “gotten” Siratori, or that he’s some sort of genius. Come on guys. Drop the charade. If you read Nonexistence and decide you’ve learned something from the experience, you’ve been trolled. The emperor is not only naked, and he’s also been skinned, eviscerated, and stripped to his bones. That’s how far he is from wearing clothes.
There is nothing to get or understand about Siratori’s books.
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Don’t read this manga while eating. It is gross.
Tadashi and his germophobic girlfriend find their holiday interrupted by a disgusting smell wafting off the beaches. Soon, fish with legs are swarming ashore. Land-walking sharks are the next. The fish seem to be walking on strange metal legs that are powered by a foul-smelling gas. This gas has a mind of its own, and soon Japan is in the grips of a plague that may literally be from hell.
Ito says he conceived Gyo after watching Spielberg’s Jaws and deciding that the shark would be even scarier if it could walk on land. Gyo lacks most of Uzumaki’s creepiness but packs plenty of intensity and imagination, and the art is, of course, pungent. There are about ten or twelve moments where you think “OK, no way is he going to top this” only to get hit with a scene even more ridiculous and insane. As far as revulsion goes, Junji Ito is pretty much a dial that turns right…and right….and right…there is no end.
By volume 2, the story has fully shifted gears into what resembles a zombie apocalypse story. Ito bombards us with plot fragments until it’s hard to work out where any of this is going. Walking sharks, deadly germs, WWII military experiments, circuses…Gyo has something for everyone. By the final few chapters, Gyo starts to creak and groan a bit under the weight of its own implausibility. Eh, what are you gonna do. When you turn zombie sharks loose in a city, there’s going to be some casualties. Sanity and plot cohesion are likely to be among them.
The ending is, at the same time, rushed and incredibly profound. Ito struggles a bit to tie together all of his haywire plot threads, but the final two pages absolutely work. Ito rarely attempts this kind of simple, understated gravitas.
To pad out the shorter second volume, there are two bonus stories.
“The Sad Tale of the Principle Post” is a lovingly told shaggy dog joke about a man who becomes trapped under the support pillar of his house. “The Enigma of Amigara Fault” is very, very good, almost to the point of upstaging the main event. An earthquake reveals an ancient fault in a mountain, and people who journey to the fault find countless human-shaped holes in the rock. A very compact and frightening tale.
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