Sunday, December 16, 2007

A Trip to Tokyo in The Latest Issue!

I remember when I first saw Japanese comic books, or Manga, produced in the U.S. for American readers. They showed up at my store, five titles, to take up residence in our graphic novels department. They were Chobits, by manga collaborators CLAMP, about a romance between a human and a human-like AI; Great Teacher Onizuka, by Tohru Fujisawa, about a delinquent who becomes a beloved high school teacher; Initial D, by Shuichi Shigeno, about a young man becoming the greatest street racer; Love Hina, by Ken Akamatsu, a comedic tale of a young ronin finding himself caretaker of a girls dormitory; and Samurai Girl: Realbout High School by Reiji Saiga and Sora Inoue, about a school where fights aren't broken up, they're graded. These five titles were definitely chosen for their diversity, an attempt to catch a weak graphic novel economy unawares, and to try to introduce something relatively new and unique (Pokemon, probably the penultimate example of a successful anime series, had been on TV for about three years).

Five years and thousands of releases later, it's fair to say Tokyopop exceeded expectations in a big way. The manga section of your local bookstore is probably three times the size of the rest of the graphic novel department combined. There are hundreds of different series' to choose from, ranging in quality from very good to very, very bad, but the variety to choose from is almost an adventure in itself: Action, drama, comedy, romance, emo, mystery, sci-fi, sports, fantasy, historical, or any variation on those themes can be found in any random title you pull off the shelf. Manga has even been adapted by many American artists in an attempt to attract an established audience in a world where most independent comics will never see mainstream success. There are so many manga titles put out, in fact, that a truly standout title can often be missed in the pool outside of Naruto, Fruits Basket, and Sgt. Frog.

Which brings us to our review this week, The Kindaichi Case Files: The Magical Express by writer Yozaburo Kanari and artist Fumiya Sato. The Kindaichi series focuses on second year high school student (think junior year) Hajime Kindaichi, a clumsy, lazy, awkward, and socially benign young man who has few friends and little inclination to become more popular. However, many times has he found himself involved in murder mysteries where he used cunning and logic to solve puzzles others would have found impossible to decipher. It turns out he actually is the grandson of famous Japanese detective Kousuke Kindaichi, and that natural instinct, combined with a 180 IQ, has constantly surprised his peers, who expected him to be not much more than a footnote in the story. Several times has he been involved in stories where the impossible has come to pass, only for him to eventually explain how each sinister crime was committed and capture those responsible.

The Magical Express begins with a package delivered to Tokyo's Metropolitan Police Department. It's a trick box, the kind that can only be opened by following a strict set of instructions. Captain Isamu Kenmochi and the TMPD had inspected the box and thus far had been unable to open it, so Kenmochi turned to Hajime, since Kenmochi has known the young detective since his first case. Naturally, Hajime opens the box in a matter of seconds. Inside is a wooden marionette, with it's limbs twisted in a disturbing manner. Besides the marionette was a note:

"This coming April 28'th
I have cast a magic spell on the
train passing through Shikotsu-
Ga-Hara marshlands in Hokkaido.

Enjoy the magic of death and fear

-The Puppetmaster.

This leads Hajime, Kenmochi, Miyuke Nanase (Hajime's childhood friend who always tags along on his cases), and Ryugi Saki (a Hajime fan boy and assistant who videotapes everything) to board the train in question, where a famous magic troupe entertains the passengers on the train's passage to the station hotel at the end of the line. There, the Magic and Illusion Troupe (pretty unimaginative name) will perform at that hotel's theater. The magic group is a very famous one, renowned for their impossible magic tricks such as the "Living Marionette." Well wouldn't you know it, the first day on the train, the "Puppetmaster" slips a miniature bomb on onto the train (in a rose salad, no less), claims there's another bomb on the train, demanding the evacuation at the next station, and then somehow (and without ever being seen, mind you) murders the leader of the Magic and Illusion Troupe, Gentle Yamagami. And then, just as amazingly, the body disappears without a trace. And then reappears at the hotel, twisted in the same position the marionette delivered to the police had been.

And so the chase is on! Who is the "Puppetmaster"? How did he pull off the disappearing corpse trick? What does this have to do with the death of famous magician Reiko Chikamiya five years ago? And will Hajime Kindaichi survive a killer's wrath to solve the case?

The books of the Kindaichi Case Files series play out with much the same setup: Murder one is committed, Kindaichi's on the case; there's never a shortage of suspects, usually there are a minimum of eight suspects who have varying relations to the victim; many times there is an obstacle preventing the heroes and suspects from leaving the site of the murders, whether a storm or lack of transportation, effectively trapping them with the killer in their midst; there is never just one murder, usually three or four of the supposed suspects become victims themselves while the investigation is ongoing; there is never one clue leading to the apprehension of the murderer, it's a trail of smaller clues that tell the story (usually of revenge) of the killers origin and eventually his identity; usually someone close to Hajime such as Miyuke (or even Hajime!) may find themselves in peril due to Hajime being too close to solving the case and the killer wanting him out of the way; finally, Hajime lives up to the legend of his grandfather and solves the seemingly unsolvable case.

Despite the seeming sameness of the series, I love reading what probably amounts to Sherlock Holmes for a younger generation. It's a lot of fun following along as this young prodigy calmly moves from scene to scene, probing each corner, searching for the tiniest clues, and tearing apart a suspect's alibi when he finally announces who the murderer is. This is in large part to the effective writing styles of Yozaburo Kanari, who's strength is weaving all the clues together so that they're in plain sight, right where you'll likely miss them. He also excels in character creation, making innocent (at least of murder) parties seem like the guilty suspect, and making the murderer a sympathetic character himself (or herself). Rarely is there a character in the Kindaichi Case Files you don't feel something about, good or bad. That said, there are weaknesses in the writing style. When Hajime isn't "on," he's a lot like other young Japanese anime males in that he doesn't know a lick about girls. His interactions with friend Miyuki are almost infantile (they have crushes on one another but don't know the other feels the same) to the point of perversion, and he always goes gaga over pretty girls or women. It's really the only true weakness of the series, but not completely out of character. It's just hard to take him seriously as a detective sometimes when he's stammering out words when introduced to a woman. Also, I'm not happy with the way Detective Kenmochi is portrayed in this book. Usually, he's a competent cop who, while not brilliant, has a keen mind. Not so here, where he's almost a mental defect, the obviousness of the plot holes he tries to explain away.

The artwork is pretty good. Fumiya Sato is a typical manga artist, good enough to properly capture the elements that Kanari puts into play. Her character designs are solid to the point where you will rarely if ever confuse the identity of two separate characters. In the scenes where the story is told from the murderer's point of view, her outline is always that of a shapeless asexual shadow, never dropping any clues as to who this character might be. Character expressions and set details are done very well, and the depictions of death are almost twistedly beautiful in a way that perfectly captures the horror of the moment. This is actually one of the better drawn volumes in the series, a sign that Sato has no intention of slowing down her involvement.

The whole thing leads to a completely satisfying conclusion, as each clue is brought to light and nudging the reader to go back to that particular chapter and see for themselves the clues they missed. Additionally, it's worth rereading the book to see it from a knowing point of view. I absolutely love The Magical Express, and would ask that even if you don't like manga, or if you're apprehensive about a medium that's essentially aimed at teenage Asian boys (understandable) that you should pick up this book (or if you're new, get the first book in the series, The Opera House Murders) and give it a shot. You might be pleasantly surprised.

As a final note, The Latest Issue will be taking this weekend off as I visit family for the holidays, but we'll be back next week with a new review at some point. Happy holidays!


brian said...

You should review 'Lone Wolf & Cub' at some point. Although, might not really fit as a "latest issue".

steve said...

They ATTACKED this country in the middle of friggin PEACE negotiations! You shouldn't be reviewing their products at all!

elmo said...

But you should watch "The West Wing" on their TVs.

steve said...

Another manga-lover heard from!

Gianni said...

You know, we've all been affected SOMEWHAT by Japanese innovation (and not necessarily militarily, I might add). I bet you can't find anyone in the USA who doesn't own or hasn't owned a Japanese product at some point. For instance, I played Nintendo as a child, games from Squaresoft (now Square Enix) and I still own a Sony Playstation II today.

steve said...

OK, FINE - the Japanese are our friends! So now that we've got that cleared up, let me ask you this: tell me how to GET manga.

I asked this of Elmo a few years ago regarding Evangelion, and I'm asking it again here. Gianni, I've been present when your Eskimo friend Kirima, on hearing that your latest post dealt with manga, rolled her eyes and changed her attitude to one of baffled indifference - and I'm sure you and other manga fans have had similar reactions from lots of people. So tell me what I need to know to GET this stuff, so I can stop having the same reaction.

The artwork looks juvenile to my eyes. The characters all look the same. The word-balloon translations are often obviously ridiculous. The plots are often fey and twee and arch, exactly as if they were being written for children. And yet lots of smart people I know love this stuff - so what gives? What am I - and Kirima and lots of others - not getting? It's obviously not that you need to be Japanese, since Gianni's not exactly a Nipponese name. And it can't be that you have to be hugely obsessed with manga, since Elmo isn't. So what is it? Help us all out here, anybody who cares to chime in!

Megmo Eskimo said...

Steve, we owe Japan many other wondrous exports in addition to technology such as sushi, karaoke, Akira Kurosawa, and anime. If we are to judge the validity of a country's cultural products based on historic military tactics...then no nation should ever import anything from the U.S.!

Also, you are 100% correct...baffled indifference is indeed my reaction to manga...I simply do NOT get it.

elmo said...

Evangelion is a rare bait-and-switch! It starts off "fey and arch" and then flowers- big time.

Gianni said...

It's not like I'm saying ALL Manga is awesome; that's just not true, and I would never try to insinuate that. Hell, most of it is talentless crap, BUT so are many American comic books. I also think there are very GOOD Manga titles, like Evangelion (best damn storytelling I've seen in ANY comic or anime) or the aforementioned Kindaichi Case Files (of which I will find the first volume and make you read) that are heads and tails ahead of the rest of the crowd.

It's kind of like comparing Kingdom Come with much of the rest of the comic book universe: NOTHING looks better than Kingdom Come, but we don't use it to say how great the medium is (nor do we characterize the slog at the other end of the spectrum to define it either).

Does the artwork look similar between each title? Yes, the styles are very alike, but each artist has his own quirks (Akira Toriyama's famous Dragon Ball franchise has very particular artwork, you can tell his art at a glance). And writing is definitely different depending on who's penning the piece (translation's a different matter; sloppy translation doesn't really have an excuse)

What I don't get is the casual indifference, especially because Megmo's casual response of indifference is essentially the same as that other people might have to her reading "normal" American comics. If it's crap, then I completely understand. But not all Japanese Manga is bad, just like not all American comics are good.

brian said...

Also, what's up with having to read manga from back to front?

steve said...

well, that IS true: most 'normal' comics are crap in any case ... and I DID really like that 'Death's Notebook' thing the Swipper made me read ...

And I guess Yamamoto IS dead, after all ...

OK! I'll try it!

brian said...

I've had two postings since your last one. Get on the ball.

Kevin Caron said...

Agreed. Get off your fanboy ass and review 'One More Day', so we can get all fired-up about it.

steve said...

I'm pretty sure John is having some fierce computer problems these days. If you'll all just stay tuned, The Latest Issue will return!