November 26th, 2009


In a parallel world, I'm a gekigaka!

Monday's International Emmy Awards saw a win for Japan in the Comedy category. NHK's production of Hoshi Shinichi's Short Shorts presents "one author's tales of strange worlds, told with an odd accent, grownup fairy tales". Shinichi, who died in 1997, wrote over a thousand of these "short shorts", stories just three or four pages long. He's often called a sci-fi writer, but most of his fictions are earthbound, and concern parallel worlds where strange things happen. Here, for instance, is the tale of Mr Teal, a space travel insurance agent whose life is so mechanised that nobody notices he's dead:

And here's the tale of a woman brought to hospital by her boyfriend, who tells the staff she thinks she's a fox, because the last thing she said was kon, which is the bark of a fox in Japanese. In fact, she was starting to say kondo, which means "next time", and was trying to warn him that next time he cheated on her she'd leave him.

This is a very odd one. A young girl has a much older lover, who keeps her in the lap of luxury, in a room with strange white flowers and a fountain bath. He goes away on a trip, leaving her (totally naked) in the care of his butler. The servant has to relay the news that the old man has died in a car accident, but the young girl already knows it somehow:

There are times I wish I could draw well. I think manga, or the visual novel (The Crib Sheet prefers the term gekiga, or "drama pictures"), has the capacity to be a much higher artform than written-word-only novels. Just about anybody can write, but not so many can write and draw with talent. So it seems unfair that we generally rank visual novels lower than literary novels.

Japan tends to observe this hierarchy less. When Tomoko Miyata was visiting Berlin recently, she told us that her favourite writer is the mangaka Yoshiharu Tsuge. He's still alive, but hasn't made any new manga since 1986. Here are a couple of rather remarkable films I found on YouTube, in which a fan has animated still Tsuge manga in a superbly weird, almost psychedelic style:

I think it's the capacity of drawing to evoke -- better than photography, film, or the written word -- parallel worlds which both resemble our world and don't that I like so much. That plus the fact that a single auteur-creator, sitting at a kotatsu table, can produce these worlds with very few resources except time, effort, skill and imagination. And possibly the fact that the manga industry has something abject and underground about it, rather like the world of indie record labels (the Wikipedia entry on gekiga basically says they were to Japan what rock was to the US). Is it too late for me to learn to draw and switch careers?