Japanese & Chinese

DOMU: A CHILD’S DREAM BY KATSUHIRO OTOMO

They often come to me from different towns or cities. I meet them at the train station, and on each occasion, as we exit, and start the climb towards one of the bars in the city centre, I turn my head and draw their attention to the Park Hill housing estate. I know I shouldn’t do it, but I do. The woman is not the same but this scene is; repeated I don’t know how many times now. Look, I say, and they look. And then I begin my explanation, which, by this stage, is almost scripted; and I’m boring them, I know; and I’m boring myself; but I can’t help it, as I am intensely moved. I didn’t grow up in Park Hill, but it was a place just like it; hard, raw and grey. The design of the buildings mirroring my experience. It’s pretty ugly, they say, or something of that sort. I don’t tell them that I feel ugly too, for this sort of thing formed me. I too am hard, grey concrete. For a while they stopped buses going up there, to the estate where I lived, because children would throw bricks at them. Where did they get such a supply of bricks? Were they stolen from the tower blocks themselves? In my mind I see little gutter kids sitting in the dirt, carefully removing bricks from the base of tall buildings. And in the next moment I see them toppling, in a perfectly choreographed, Twin Towers-like collapse.

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On the surface, Domu, by Akira creator Katsuhiro Otomo, is a horror/murder mystery. At a large housing complex, the residents are dying – twenty-five in less than three years – in unusual circumstances. What appear to be suicides, murders and accidental deaths, are, the police think, somehow linked. The latest apparent suicide had, they note, no history of mental health problems and left no note. He also had no access to the key to the door leading to the roof, from which he flung himself, and the door itself showed no sign of being tampered with. At one stage, one of the detectives says that it is a ‘locked roof mystery,’ in a nod to the once popular locked room subgenre, of which Gaston Leroux’s The Mystery of the Yellow Room is a prime example. In the early parts of the manga, Otomo builds his puzzle carefully and expertly, leaving numerous clues and providing a number of possible theories. It could be that there is a serial killer in the housing complex who has a grudge against the residents. Or is that someone has a grievance with the complex itself, someone who was forced out when it was built perhaps? Or could it even be one of the children? Or a ghost or spirit of some kind?

After a while, however, although the ‘mystery’ remains important to the police, the truth is revealed to the reader and the story then becomes more about the housing complex itself. In fact, even from the beginning it dominates the book in a visual sense. It is a huge, brutalist structure, of the kind I grew up in. It is described as ‘really creepy’ by one character; while another says of it that it ‘goes on forever.’ It appears in almost every frame, often in the background, looming ominously behind the residents or the police. Having lived in something just like this, I understand how they function in the mind. It is a little world in itself, a world made up of often vulnerable people, a little world from which it feels impossible to escape. Wherever you are you can see it or you can feel its presence. One interesting thing that Otomo does as an artist is draw important scenes where the lens has panned out, so to speak, to show only the complex, and the speech therefore appears to be coming from the building itself, rather than the characters. It gives the impression of, not only its immensity, but of a community swallowed up by the complex. In this way, Otomo uses it a little like the Bates motel or the house in The Exorcist; it is not directly responsible for the crimes, but is, nevertheless, a symbol of evil.

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The truth of who is murdering the residents, and the police, is Cho, a senile old man with extraordinary powers. He can levitate, for example, and can move objects with his mind; but, most importantly, in terms of his crimes, he can influence people to do things, such as kill themselves and others. His nemesis is Eksuko, a little girl with similar, if not stronger, powers. The two engage in battle and this provides Domu with its thrilling climax, which is, as far as I am concerned, the best action sequence in manga. On this, my issue with Akira is that there is simply too much of that sort of thing, but here Otomo provides a perfect balance between action and character development and psychology. In any case, it is said that Cho was abandoned by his family, who simply moved out and left him. The murders are, therefore, part play, by a bored old geezer, and part revenge. When he makes someone kill themselves he needles them about their failures, about how awful their lives are. Like the housing complex, Cho could be said to have a symbolic function. He is the suffering, the hopelessness and the destructiveness of the residents. He is the bad spirit, energy or atmosphere.

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GOGO MONSTER BY TAIYO MATSUMOTO

They think that I hate them. But it’s not true. In fact, I admire them. They look so happy, so relaxed. I don’t feel happy or relaxed; not in their company; not in any company. I cannot relate to people. Their preoccupations, their conversation. I can fake it, of course, and I do sometimes. With girlfriends mostly. I use them in order to fool myself into thinking I am not a hopeless case, and because their grace and beauty soothes me in the same way a cat’s does. Actually, it’s not correct to say that I always use them. Occasionally, my enthusiasm, my participation is genuine; occasionally I am engaged; but it’s rare. Most of the time I feel as though I exist behind glass. It’s hard to fake being-like-them consistently. It’s like trying to perform a complex dance routine when you have only learnt the first couple of steps. You might look as though you know what you’re doing initially, but soon you’re stood uncomfortably still and silent in the middle of a room.

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All of Taiyo Matumoto’s major work in English features children as outcasts or oddballs. In Tekkonkinkreet, for example, there are the orphaned brothers Black and White; and Sunny, which some consider his masterpiece, is set in a foster home, the kind that he, apparently, spent some time in himself. In GoGo Monster, however, the kids are less obviously vulnerable. The setting, on this occasion, is a school, and there is no suggestion, that I remember, that any of the students have been discarded by their parents, or have a complicated home life. Indeed, most of them are ordinary kids, who engage in a bit of mild bullying and name calling, and play sport and computer games. As a result, GoGo Monster has less immediate emotional heft than Tekkonkinkreet and Sunny, but is, for me, more subtly moving and interesting. Not because a school is a novel setting, for of course it isn’t, but because one is forced to look beyond their circumstances to explain the strange behaviour of Tachibana and IQ, the two eccentrics at the heart of the book.

IQ wears a box on his head and looks after the school’s rabbits. The box is, one might say, a home away from home; it is a barrier, a comfort. There’s a wonderful scene where IQ is asked to sit an exam without his box, and he replies that this is like asking a kid who doesn’t wear a box to wear one for an exam. About two-thirds of the way into the book he befriends Tachibana. The relationship between the two boys is, in some ways, predictable. They are, as noted previously, both eccentric, both largely shunned by their contemporaries, and both are intelligent. However, there’s more to it than that; IQ acts as a kind of commentator, a guide, and a therapist. For Tachibana believes in the existence of another world, which he calls ‘the other side.’ This world is populated by beings who are not monsters in the traditional sense, although he draws monstrous looking characters on his school desk, but more like a kind of energy. You might call them ghosts, but that doesn’t seem right either. In any case, none of the other children can see or interact with them, not even IQ.    Screen Shot 2018-11-19 at 21.35.01.jpg

Have you ever looked at a mark on a wall, or something of that sort, and thought you saw a face in it? I’m sure everyone has, at some point. In Witold Gombrowicz’s great novel Cosmos, the two detectives find their clues just like this, by imposing meaning on apparently random and insignificant phenomena. One might, therefore, understand Tachibana’s relationship with the other side in the same way. He sees distorted faces in drops of rain and on leaves; he interprets ordinary events – minor thefts or things going missing – as being the work of ‘the others.’ We have a phrase for this, of course, which is an overactive imagination, which is not uncommon in children, especially intelligent and eccentric ones. It is possible that Tachibana has created this other world because he feels disconnected from the real world, just like IQ with his box. Yet GoGo Monster makes you ask a more uncomfortable question: does the boy really believe it? And if he does, is it not actually a manifestation of some form of serious mental illness? I don’t want to diagnose, but at no point did I get the impression that Tachibana is acting out, or lonely, or not in earnest.

By handling things in this way, by posing these questions, by making our thoughts go in a more difficult and distressing direction, Matsumoto avoids the major pitfall that books of this sort often fall into, and which his own work was on the verge of falling into in the early stages. I, and probably most of us, never want to read another novel about how spellbinding childhood is, how glorious the imagination of children, and how, in comparison, rotten and prosaic adulthood is. Antoine de Saint-Exupery in The Little Prince did this better than any author ever will. No one else needs to go there. I audibly groaned when Tachibana began to talk about how growing up will mean that he will not be able to interact with the other side anymore. And the ending does suggest that the boy has ‘come through’ and is well-adjusted and no longer seeing things. So, of course, there is, regardless of how serious he took these supernatural events, the possibility that it was all pure fantasy, or, as IQ says, ‘psychological escapism.’ But I know, being myself once a very strange child, who saw and did very strange things, that it isn’t always so easy to move on. You might mature, you might stop seeing monsters, but the world, the so-called real world, never stops being ‘other’ to you.

KIJIN GAHOU BY SHINTARO KAGO

We hadn’t even finished our first drinks. This is what I do now. I invite strangers back to my place. She invited herself, in fact. She thinks I have a cat. But the cat is dead. She doesn’t seem to notice. I guess she isn’t here for the cat. I’m wishing I had drank more, so I could feign impotence. She notices the books. It’s difficult not to notice the books. ‘Wow, you have a lot of books,’ she says. She wants me to show her the one I spoke about on the way home, which, I now realise, I mentioned in an effort to put her off. The disgusting one. She’s not unattractive, but I have done this too many times to find meaning in it. I’ll cover her in my scent, in my DNA, and then she’ll leave and never return. I collect these women now, in the same way I collected all those books, without ever really enjoying it. I’m surrounded on all sides by shaky towers. One day I’ll die under a book avalanche. ‘You must love reading,’ she says. I want to tell her I hate it. This, I think, with an imaginary sweeping gesture that encompasses her too, is not about love.

“Met her at my younger brother’s family barbecue. I punched a hole in her cheek with an iron spit. My cum was leaking out of it. Amusing.”

The disgusting book is Kijin Gahou, a collection of one-shots, or standalone short pieces, by mangaka Shintaro Kago. I don’t know who put it together. Does it exist because the author wanted it to or was it fan-made? I can’t imagine that any publisher saw it as an opportunity to make money. Or not a lot of money, anyway. There’s something so unsettling about parts of the collection – and one story in particular, which I will discuss in detail later – that the healthy, immediate response would be to suppress it, to hide it, to look away. But, then, the world isn’t a healthy place. So maybe this is the book we need right now, maybe it’s the book we deserve. Certainly, I feel as though I have reached a [low] point in my life where it is one of the few books that has any significance for me, that says something meaningful about how I see and experience the world.

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On the surface, ‘collecting’ is what ties together many of the stories. In fact, the opener is actually called The Collector. It features a girl who is so in love with a boy that she wants to keep and catalogue everything he comes into contact with. It’s one of the strongest entries in Kijin Gahou, for the way that it unfolds with a satisfying, gruesome logic. If the girl wants the pencil that the boy touches, simply because he touched it, then it seems to naturally follow that she would want the skin of the people he touches too. I’m starting to realise that this is something of a Kago trademark, which is to say that he takes fairly banal or commonplace situations or phenomena and draws them out to an absurd, but still logical conclusion. While The Collector is, of course, about the act of collecting things, the author’s real focus is on the psychology behind it. The obsession and madness, I mean; and the strange – to me – desire to own something that once belonged, or was touched, by someone notable, often someone you admire. I have never understand how an object can become significant purely by virtue of having passed through the hands of another human being, but then I have always been unsentimental.

The most distressing, the most notorious, and the best, story is Suck It. Immediately after finishing Suck It I did not want to think about, discuss, or write about it. It affected me that profoundly. Yet even while I was reading it I knew that it had an incredible power, and that it was important in some way, even though I simultaneously hated it for what it was doing to me. It is concerned with a man who wants to photograph women giving him oral sex. For the most part, all that we see are the photographs themselves, with a short comment by the photographer. At first, the pictures are fairly standard, but they quickly increase in extremity and depravity. One way in which Suck It is so disturbing is that it makes you feel complicit, or made me, and perhaps most men who read it, feel that way. Having a dick, and having taken many a photograph and video of this sort myself, I could not help but put myself, my dick, in the situations I was observing. It was, in a sense, my dick that was being sucked; and that is the genius of Kago’s choice, of presenting us with the photographs, rather than a traditional narrative.

Suck It has many notable, and disconcerting, things to say about male sexual psychology. One gets the sense that the man is more interested in the image than he is in the blowjobs themselves, that he is, in other words, more concerned about his project than his pleasure; or, perhaps more accurately, it is the case that working on the project increases his pleasure. It is the desire to try something new, to get a different kind of picture, that appears to motivate him. ‘If you get down to it,’ he comments early on, ‘all faces look pretty similar’; and he then endeavours to make then look as different as possible. I have had many discussions over the years with men who want to fuck a range of women, simply to be able to say they have done it. Like a fat girl, for example, or someone of a race or nationality other than their own. It is a sort of competition with oneself, a kind of cataloguing of the opposite sex. The pleasure gained from these experiences is not from the acts themselves, or not primarily, it is in the accomplishment of a goal, in ticking a box. Maybe it is the case that women do this too; I’m certain that some do, at least; but it doesn’t seem to be as prevalent and toxic.

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I’ve read a lot of ero guro, both in terms of conventional literature and manga, and it is undeniable that much of it verges on, or just is, misogynistic; and, if one glanced at his work, one could accuse Kago of it too. Indeed, almost every story in Kijin Gahou involves sexual, or sexualised, violence against women. There are, for example, images of breasts being cut off, and of a woman sucking dick while having a hole drilled in her head, to name but two of many. However, the further I progressed through the book the more convinced I became of the author’s warmth and empathy towards women. In fact, he seems to focus on issues affecting women far more often than those affecting men, such as abortion in Fetus Collection. The young woman at the centre of the story is ‘filled with inertia.’ She has regular unprotected sex, she says, ‘to please and to avoid seeming unappreciative.’ The sad image accompanying this statement is of her vagina, with semen dribbling pathetically out of it. She then states that ‘the value of my existence is defined by the sexual desire of men.’ In any context I would find this thrilling, this subtle fuck you to all the guys who sulk and bitch if a woman won’t accept their cum, but in male-authored ero guro it strikes me as almost unprecedented.

PANORAMA OF HELL BY HIDESHI HINO

I could feel the needle enter my vein; painless, but cold and invasive, like running your tongue along chilled glass. It had taken me an hour to work myself up to it, to convince myself to go through with it, to allow this woman to take my blood. Yet I felt as though it wasn’t only mine she was taking, but every drop I had ever seen spilled. As she filled her little containers, my head was similarly filled with memories and moments. I saw myself as a child, dispassionately watching the red pool form in my brother’s cupped hands. I saw a trail, from the gates of my school, where some kid’s nose must have been broken, to the house where he apparently lived; following it in my mind like breadcrumbs. I saw a mother grab the hair of a boy her son was fighting, pushing his head down to allow her son to kick him in the face; the boy’s pink spittle dribbling onto the concrete. For almost half of my life I lived under a dull red sun which bathed the world in crimson light. So much violence and madness, I thought it would never stop.

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When I began to show a serious interest in manga I anticipated that I would turn up a lot of what I will inelegantly call ‘extremely weird shit.’ Yet it hasn’t really been the case, and hours of searching dedicated message boards and websites has been largely fruitless also. There is horror, plenty of it, and some is very impressive, such as Junji Ito’s Uzumaki, but that’s not really what I had been hoping for. The Ero Guro, or Erotic Grotesque, genre promised to satisfy my inclinations, but, aside from Shintaro Kago and Suehiro Maruo, I haven’t come across much of that either. Recently, however, I discovered Hideshi Hino’s Panarama of Hell. With my limited knowledge, I would place it somewhere between the Ero Guro and horror manga that I have read so far. Unlike Ito, I don’t believe that it was Hino’s intention, or not the primary one, to scare his audience, although there are supernatural elements to the events outlined within his work. On the other hand, it is grotesque, but without an emphasis on the erotic. Moreover, the style – which is actually my least favourite part about it – is not what I would want, nor expect, from Ero Guro either, being cute, almost charming, in a Tim Burton kind of way, which negatively impacts upon the intensity of the narrative.

The plot, what little of it there is, centres on a painter who may or may not live in hell. The man talks openly to the audience, explaining that he creates ‘hell paintings’ and that he is currently at work on his biggest and most important project, ‘The Panorama of Hell’, which will be a ‘breakthrough in technique’ and will depict ‘the end.’ He then spends the majority of the rest of the book exhibiting and detailing these hell paintings, including The Guillotine, The Bottomless River of Hell and so on. It is through the paintings that one gets a sense of his personality, situation, and past. I said recently, to the unfortunate few whose ears I have, that the book reminds me most of Maldoror. There is a similar theatricality to the central characters’ misdeeds and personas; they both revel in their evilness, in gore and pain. For example, the painter declares that ‘the sight of fresh corpses broiling is remarkable.’ This sort of thing clearly amuses and excites him, in the same way that Maldoror enjoys slicing up children. Indeed, he actually paints using blood, which he describes as the most beautiful thing in the world; and Hino’s most unpleasant images involve the man vomiting up blood and cutting and bleeding himself.

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Yet, the further you progress through the book, the more his statement that ‘the overpowering odour of blood always surrounds me’ takes on a more subtle, deeper, even moving significance. I stated previously that it is through his paintings that one comes to know the man, but it is when he tells the stories of his family – his grandfather, father and brother specifically – that most is revealed. All three of these men were brutal and violent, all damaged and destructive. Big drinkers, they beat their wives, their acquaintances and their children. In this way, Panorama of Hell is a portrait of how the sins of each generation can be passed on, about cycles of violence, and how your upbringing can harm and mould you. It’s particularly interesting how the other men are strong and overpowering but the painter is weak and, well, morbid. He is still disgusting, no doubt, but strangely sympathetic at times. He says at one stage that ‘I’ve seen images of hell since I was in my mother’s womb,’ and is born holding blood clots in each hand, and this resonated with me, affected me emotionally, perhaps more than it ought to have.

TEKKONKINKREET BY TAIYO MATSUMOTO

Look who just walked in, my friend said. I tried not to look. This is why I don’t drink around here anymore, I thought to myself. My friend nudged me. Do you remember that guy? Of course I did. It was impossible to forget. My friend walked over to the bar and introduced himself. Are you him?, I heard him say. I might be, the old man replied with a sly grin. I thought my friend was going to buy him a drink, but thankfully he didn’t. The story goes that the police had been trying to put him away for years and eventually they did it. They got him for what must have been fifteen-to-twenty, and now he was out. I don’t know what they pinned on him, and I don’t want to know. Once, or so legend says, he was summoned to take part in a retaliatory raid on a local pub full of rival gang members. His one instruction was not to stab anyone. Beat them up badly, yes, but don’t stab. You got that? Sure, man, sure. Of course, he didn’t listen. As the members of the rival gang fled the pub he stuck a knife in the first three he saw.

You’re not having another? No, I said, eyeing the dregs of my drink. My friend had returned to our table and now I wanted to leave, to flee with the same kind of urgency I felt when I was boy. Only then it was a whole city, a whole life I wanted to escape, and this time it was just a sad old man and a sad old pub and a sad old situation. Are you alright? It was a joke. I almost smiled. No one ever asked you that back then. Are you ok? Can you handle this? Do you need any help? I didn’t look like a tough kid. And I wasn’t; not physically, at least; but I was desperate and crazy, and that is sometimes worse. The city did that to you; or our small, wretched part of it, anyway. Do you remember when we were kids?, my friend said, with a kind of smug complacency. He had allowed nostalgia to transform his memories into an heroic narrative, one worth reminiscing over, but I hadn’t. The pain, the blood, the fear, the heavy, sour smell of hopelessness in the air. Yeah, I remember.

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Yeah, I remember, although sometimes it takes a scene like that to bring it all back. Or a book, maybe. Sometimes it’s a book, and that’s even more unexpected. A book like Tekkonkinkreet, which is the story of orphaned brothers, one called Black and one called White, and a place called Treasure Town. Matsumoto’s style is crude, although detailed, with imprecise lines and perspective. There is a shakiness to it, a sense of chaos; and this suits the narrative, the personalities and lifestyles of the characters, and the setting. Treasure Town is, we’re told, a pit; it is the rundown playground of delinquent children, yakuza, drunkards, and stray animals. It is often said of cities within novels that they act as characters themselves, which strikes me as a meaningless phrase, but Treasure Town is certainly important to the people who inhabit it. They talk about it frequently; they are prepared to fight, and die, for it. Yet the place is changing. The adults are particularly sensitive to this, because they are old enough to remember how it once was. New gangsters are muscling in; old alliances are crumbling and fresh, but less stable, ones are being formed; and the landscape is being redeveloped.

One of Tekkonkinkreet‘s most interesting, and surprisingly moving, subplots involves yakuza members Suzuki [The Rat] and his protégé Kimura. Suzuki is weary of the game, in an ironically amused kind of way, and is planning retirement. He’s one of the guys – almost everyone in the manga is male; I recall only one female character – who most often speaks of changing times and of the relationship between a man and his city. One gets the sense that he feels left behind, that he intuits that he is no longer fit for purpose. Kimura is younger but equally at odds with the way that his world, the world of crime, is evolving. His girlfriend is pregnant and that makes him reevaluate his life and his priorities, but more than that it is the brutal approach of his new boss, Serpent, that disconcerts him. There is a scene, for example, in which he is presented with a gun and he behaves as though it is the first time he has ever seen one. Throughout his dealings with Serpent he counsels against excessive violence; he is always tentative, always seems uncomfortable and on edge. Matsumoto brilliantly weaves together all of these ideas when Kimura is ordered to kill Suzuki; and, as The Rat advises his friend on how to carry it out, and how to get away with it, I found a small lump forming in my throat.

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However, as previously suggested, the main characters are the two boys, Black and White. I’m not sure of their ages, but White behaves as though he is the younger brother. Certainly, he’s a simple-minded, happy-go-lucky kid. He often sings nonsense songs and talks in a kind of infant-like gibberish. His appearance also mirrors his mental and emotional state, what with the permanently snotty nose, missing front teeth, and the cute animal head hat. It is said that he is vulnerable, and Black takes care of him like a father; he ties his shoes, dresses him and makes sure he brushes his teeth. As his name implies, he is the [more] innocent half of the partnership. In one scene, for example, he plants an apple seed in a parking lot, so that he can grow a tree and have his own apples; although this can also be viewed a comment on the city as well as a symbol of hope. Yet, it would not to true to say that White is totally innocent, for he participates in and enjoys violence, even, at one stage, setting fire to a man [albeit he is an assassin who is, in that moment, intent on killing Black].

Black is, of course, the opposite of White. He is cunning and tough and street smart. Again, his appearance is telling, with the dark top, goggles, and the scar over his eye. Yet, while the boys are engaging enough as individuals, in their differences, it is what they mean to each other that gives them depth. I’ve already noted how Black looks after White, but it works the other way around too, albeit in a more subtle, indirect way. Throughout the book, Black is described as evil, abnormal, bloodthirsty; in fact, he is considered such a threat to White’s well-being that the police take him away to a kind of safe-house. However, Black needs White; he needs to have someone to care about. He needs White in order to feel something, in order to not lose the last remaining human elements of his personality. At one point, the boys’ grandfather perceptively says to Black that it is not he who is protecting White, but White who protects him. White himself says of the two of them that they each have the screws that the other is missing; and in doing so shows himself to be not all that simple-minded after all.

RED COLORED ELEGY BY SEIICHI HAYASHI

Recently I read Mr. Arashi’s Amazing Freak Show by Suehiro Maruo. I wanted to put together a review, but I could not. I don’t know how to write about manga. I do not know how to write about anything anymore. Ever since returning from Tokyo I have felt changed. I have thought about recording my experiences. A kind of travelogue. Since no one knows about Chihiro and the love hotel I could make something of that, perhaps. I feel changed. You could blame the seizure. Or the typhoon or the earthquake. The world is trying to kill me, it is clear. I met Chihiro at 4am outside Shibuya station, by the Hachikō statue, which is where all young lovers meet. I had expected her to be a man. I had expected to be murdered. How many beautiful young women offer to pay for a hotel in order to sleep with a stranger? Recently I read books by Suehiro Maruo and Katsuhiro Otomo. I enjoyed them both, but I could not write about either. I cannot. Tokyo was trying to kill me, it is clear; and yet I long to return.

It could be that what I am experiencing is an extreme form of Stockholm Syndrome. I only force myself to write this now because I wonder if it is the last time. The very last. Not one but one. Not the bluff. My eyes lose focus. I’m sick. My head is sick. Something happened out there, something entered into me and I have brought it home. Tokyo was trying to kill me, of that there is no doubt. The world is trying to kill me, and for the first time I feel as though it is succeeding. Last week I read Travel by Yuichi Yokoyama. I bought it in Mandarake Shibuya. It was a lucky find. That day, I could not move further than a few hundred yards from my hotel. I was too ill, too weak. I was constantly on the verge of collapse. I felt as though I was trapped in a giant pinball machine. I did not write about Travel. I did not make notes, even.

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In Shinjuku a middle-aged man in a shirt and tie offered me a blowjob while I stood outside the Robot Restaurant and listened to their song. It was 4:30pm. I politely declined. Akari commented on my politeness. How politely you decline the blowjob, she laughed. No, thank you. No, I don’t want a handjob either. Young girls inside. I questioned his sales technique. You don’t offer the blowjob first, I explained to Akari. If someone doesn’t want that they certainly won’t be enticed by a handjob, I said. My head feels as though it is immersed in warm water. I am ashamed of myself for allowing Chihiro to pay for the hotel. I had plenty of money but I wanted to see if she would go through with it. It was the first and only time we met. Her friend, she said, had drank too much and passed out and had to be taken to the hospital. That is why she was still out at 4am. She did go through with it; although there was going to be no love, she said, only sleep. I asked why, in that case, she needed me. To hold, she said; but of course it didn’t work out that way.

Yesterday I finished reading Red Colored Elegy by Seiichi Hayashi, and this is my attempt to write about it. I didn’t know that it was an earthquake. Not at first. My mobile phone vibrated, beeped and spoke to me in Japanese. On the screen was displayed an emergency warning. The word emergency was the only word that I could understand. Red Colored Elegy is a love story. There are two people, Ichiro and Sachiko, a man and a woman, and they are in love. When I looked up everyone had stopped; everyone was motionless, staring at their phone or staring into the distance. They looked confused, or concerned. A voice came over some kind of PA system. I do not speak or read Japanese. I thought the world was ending. Someone has launched a nuclear weapon, I thought, and the world is coming to an end. I am dying here in Tokyo, at the Shibuya crossing. It was midnight, four hours before I met Chihiro. I had been out drinking, but not enough to be hospitalised. I am dying here, and I am not in love.

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Ichiro is an artist who wants to draw comics. A man can’t live off paintings, we’re told. There is something in this, I’m sure, about Japanese culture, or Tokyo culture, at the time; some reference to the emergence of manga as a way for artists to express themselves. But not too much is made of it. Ichiro draws, doodles or whatever, but it could have been anything, any activity. When the typhoon hit I was in Ebisu with Akari. The old men outside the traditional restaurant jeered and whooped when I kissed her. I dropped my umbrella and my jacket on the street as I put my hands around her hips. The old men are watching us, she said. I am not in love. I picked up my umbrella and my jacket and we walked for a while. I could not walk for more than a few hundred yards. I am not in love, although I am constantly on the verge of love. As we left the hotel I offered to buy Chihiro a coffee. It was the first and only time I saw her in daylight.

Ichiro and Sachiko move in together. Ichiro draws, or doodles or whatever. Sachiko works. Yet most of the panels show the couple squabbling, rolling around on the floor, playing with each other, smoking, fucking. It is the most realistic, and therefore the most moving, representation of the banalities of love that I have read. This, I thought, as I turned the pages, is love. This is what I don’t have. I bought Chihiro a coffee, when perhaps what she really wanted was to leave. The typhoon ripped through Ebisu. I was scared. I am dying, and I am not in love. Akari and I kissed outside the restaurant, my umbrella and jacket in a heap by my feet. I am not in love. This is my attempt to write about Red Colored Elegy. It is a failure. Tokyo has changed me. Something entered into me out there, and it will not leave. In Harajuku I had a seizure. My head felt as though it had been immersed in warm water. I fell against a wire fence and shook. I fell further down. I slouched towards the concrete street. I am dying here, of course, on the floor, without love. I tried to ask for help, but no one heard.

IGUANA GIRL BY MOTO HAGIO

One of my earliest memories is sitting with my mother while she passed judgement on my brother and I. “Girls will love you,” she said to my brother, “because you’re beautiful.” He had, at that time, long curly blonde hair; and I now imagine that she caressed it as she spoke to him. “You!” she turned to me. “Girls will like you because you’re cheeky.” I don’t think my mother intended to hurt me, or even that her aim was to criticise me, but I was old enough to read between the lines. I felt clearly who she favoured, and who she found the most appealing. But, more than that, she was, I realised, so sure of her opinion that she was able to speak with such authority for other people, for the rest of the world, who would, I now knew, never like me for my appearance. For a period following this incident I would stare at myself in mirrors, at my large eyes and plump lips, which never before had struck me as unattractive, and become ever more disheartened, because my brother did not look this way. My mother had defined beauty for me, and it belonged to only one little boy in the world.

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Moto Hagio is considered to be the the most notable, and influential, creator of shōjo manga, which is to say manga that is aimed at a teenage female audience. While shōjo manga is not restricted to any particular subject matter, or genre, it generally features more prominent female characters, is more introspective, and more focussed on emotions and issues affecting young women, than traditional manga. Iguana Girl, which was first published in 1991, is the story of Rika, whose mother believes her to be an iguana and therefore ugly. This may sound something like a manga version of The Ugly Duckling or that awful Mask film, but the reality is something more moving and complex. Iguana Girl isn’t about being unconventional looking or different [or certainly not in terms of appearance]; it is not about the beauty within, or anything so glib. For Rika is not considered ugly by all, or even most; only her mother sees her that way. Indeed, her father calls her beautiful and boys find her attractive. There are, moreover, moments in the text when one is allowed glimpses of Rika as human, in other words as she appears to everyone except her mother, and she is, even in cartoon form, obviously a pretty girl.

Yet, while Rika is not ugly, she is often awkward and clumsy. For example, in one scene she runs to show her mother a bug in a box and accidentally lets it out to fly in her face. She is also, and more significantly, not stereotypically ‘girly.’ She is, with her interest in baseball and her ‘good throw,’ what we might call a tomboy, although that is a phrase that I dislike. In fact, one character says of her that she should have been born a boy. In this way, Iguana Girl engages with some of the issues surrounding gender roles and identity. What does it mean to be a girl? Or a boy? What is a boy activity? How should a girl behave? Certainly, Rika’s mother has firm ideas about such things. She considers grace and reserve – which her iguana daughter lacks – to be feminine qualities. When she has a second child, Mami, she is pleased that she now has a daughter with whom she can bake [suggesting she couldn’t with Rika]. Mami, we’re told, also looks good in a dress, while Rika does not.        iguana-girl-d20fe387-d4c9-408f-9d6c-392ac441ac1-resize-750 (1).gif

However, one gets the impression that Rika’s awkwardness is not natural; it is her mother who makes her so by repeatedly criticising and abusing her. Likewise, if she is tomboyish, one might argue that it is because she has been raised to believe that she is unsuited to traditionally feminine activities. There are a series of panels in which Rika applies make up to herself, and the mother is angry when she finds out; so it is not that the girl has no interest in such things, simply that she has been convinced that they are shameful, and that she is made ever more monstrous or ridiculous by them. Rika isn’t born thinking that she is ugly, either; she learns her self-loathing about her looks. Iguana Girl is, therefore, as much about how one’s upbringing affects you, about parent and child relationships and dynamics, about nature versus nurture, as anything else. While Rika gives the manga its title, the most important character is, in fact, her mother. It is her disappointment in not getting the kind of child she always wanted that drives the action; it is her expectations that are not met. She cannot love Rika for what she is, because she does not see her as a person in her own right; she is, instead, a breathing, bumbling, broken dream.