Some short notes on stuff I'm reading.
~ 2024 ~
Voynich Hotel by Douman Seiman
Or Dowman Sayman or whatever. I've been meaning to check out their work for a long time and I was finally put onto this one by a friend. I totally devoured it in like three or four days so I evidently really liked it. I'm planning to totally re-read it soon with more of a critical eye, because it does a couple things that are really interesting and impressive. Firstly, each chapter is relatively concise at around 8 pages, but WOW does it not feel that way, the pacing is so tight and well structured that a chapter never feels rushed or prematurely ended, or short on plot. Secondly, for something that feels very plot-driven, it has almost no plot at all, with the story eventually concluding with... nothing really happening at all of any consequence other than a few deaths. This reminded me a little of Mozocry's approach to storytelling, which similarly seems to harness this weird sorcery or whatever wherein a manga that should be boring or unsatisfying -on paper- ends up feeling so full of life -in practice-. Thirdly, what makes this even more impressive, is that this is pulled off with an absurdly large cast of characters that seems to grow every two or three chapters, all of whom feel unique and well-characterised, all with their particular pocket storylines (although, again, some of these -on paper- do not really constitute storylines) that get explored and wrapped up.
Basically it's really impressive. It also has that wonderful kind of pre-2010s nostalgia, full of bright sun-soaked hedonism and counterculture, joyously violent and dark, and with a sense of humour that I think has aged surprisingly well.
~ 2023 ~
Some End of 2023 Notes
I read a lot of different manga this year, and a few books. I finished the books (mostly - still filtered by Ininfite Jest for now ;_;) but didn't finish all of the manga. Still, I think that's fine, and I'll probably pick some of them up again later - Rojica to Rakkasei, Goodnight Pun Pun (I read a lot, but it's long), Love After World Domination, Dropkick Jashin-san and the original Ghost in the Shell manga are notable ones I'll probably get back to. 365 Days to the Wedding, A Rare Marriage, Shy and Dandadan are series I probably won't go back to, all of them very good in their own right but I didn't feel like they really had staying power.
This year marked the end of two series I have loved for a while - Shimeji Simulation by Tsukumizu and Dungeon Meshi by Ryoko Kui. I'll probably write a retrospective about both sometime this year. Dungeon Meshi in particular was the series that made me start drawing, and that choice led me to where I am today (probably the happiest and most awake I've felt in my life), so it has a very special place in my heart. Beyond that it really is just a technical masterpiece from head to toe with so much love and original flair pumped into it by its deeply charming and clever creator.
I feel like I've probably forgotten one or two completed or dropped manga from this year (stream of consciousness edit: yes, I have, I also binged through the whole of Nichijou this year which was amazing). This year I think I'll make a more deliberate effort to catalogue things.
The Plague by Albert Camus
The most striking thing about The Plague is that it simultaneously manages to be an overwhelmingly philosophical book whilst not being philosophical at all. What I mean is that the book presents a clear and complete statement (in my opinion anyway) of Camus' ideas on the absurd, whilst never actually talking about them once within the text. Everything is contained within the narrative and the characters, both of which are deeply compelling and wonderfully written. The Plague, like any existentialist literature, grapples with the question of how we should act given our situation of existing in an obtuse and apparently meaningless (insofar as a meaning cannot be identified using reason) universe. The book situates this question in the context of Dr. Rieux, who is effectively the protagonist, a physician trying to control a plague epideminic in a town under quaratine. Faced with the impossibility of doing anything to control the spread of the plague or alleviate a substantive amount of suffering, Rieux grapples with why he nevertheless feels so compelled to help people. This is explored from various perspectives represented by different characters.
Camus' answer to this question is that there is no answer - or at least, no answer that reason can give you. Rieux embraces a kind of dark nobility in the knowledge that it is impossible to both 'understand' and 'act' at the same time. There is no reason why one should try to stop human suffering, there is no reason why one should live for anyone other than oneself, and yet we are compelled to do it anyway. I don't think this is as arbitrary as it sounds - whilst I'm pretty sure Camus was an atheist, I think there is inevitably a deep kind of spirituality to this choice. I'm not saying that spirituality is God, but what I mean is that this choice to accept the absurd and follow the compulsion to help others independently of reason is essentially identical to faith. Rieux admits does not know why suffering is wrong, or why helping others is the correct choice of action. He admits he cannot judge anyone who decides instead to flee or act selfishly, and he even aids those people to the extent that he can. But Rieux nevertheless cannot in good faith accept any other conclusion than continuing to resist suffering. Rieux 'inhabits' the wrongness of suffering. For him, it's self-evidence transcends truth.
The book is for that reason hugely optimistic about the human condition. The absurd is the territory of human goodness. Every character in the book (bar one) ultimately arrives at this conclusion through one way or another, whether they are a priest, a revolutionary, or a lovesick journalist. Each finds a sort of sublime peace and grace in the absurd community of collective human suffering, and collective human compassion, even if it means (in some cases) their wretched and futile deaths. A tangent, but this kind of reminded me of the empathy box from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and the whole Mercerism thing in that book. I guess that probably suggests Dick's reading of the existentialists although I don't know for sure. Unsurprisingly, there are strong echoes of Kierkegaard here as well - in Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard's Knight of Faith is basically just an ordinary person, and similarly in The Plague Rieux describes his great struggle (and the great struggle everyone faces) as simply to live as an ordinary man, harming no one, helping where he can, having few doubts and few wishes.
There are some truly incredible passages in the book, some horrifying, some razor-sharp and analytical, and some deeply moving, so I'd really recommend reading it to get all of that ontop of these broader philosophical conclusions.
Made in Abyss by Akihito Tsukushi
I'm really late to the game on this one. It's part of the 'dark moe' canon I guess, so it was inevitable I'd get around to it sooner or later. To get the glaring negatives out of the way first, I guess I had avoided it due to its - to say the least - pretty notorious reputation. The guro content I get, and it compliments the manga's interest in body horror (and the horror of embodiment), but the inclusion of softcore ero loli/shota stuff is frustrating and it's hard to see how it could be considered anything other than bad faith fetishistic pandering. I have nothing but patience for giving authors the benefit of the doubt, but whenever the manga gives you pause to think "oh, you know, maybe there's more that meets the eye with this", it quickly closes the door by shoehorning in some totally unambiguous fanservice. I would love to have some super progressive outsider opinion on this, but I just don't. This manga is so good in every other aspect that it deserves better from its creator.
Because it IS really good. It's dripping with that ineffable masterpiece quality, to the extent that it would feel reductive to talk about it in any other way. It is crammed full of originality, beauty, wonderful attention to detail, and deeply charming and infectious characters that deliver on classic tropes whilst continually subverting expectations here and there. Its core thesis revolves around a fascination with transcendent self-destruction, and the allure of falling haphazard into the intimate inviting darkness of humanity's shared suffering. I'm sort of going to like that concept straight out of the box, but its success is making an otherwise strange and challenging idea deeply compelling and accessible to an (evidently) broad audience. It never compromises in its commitment to confronting this central thesis, and after 66 chapters (the current length of the ongoing series) it still has new things to say despite some occasional meandering.
Well... another precious problematic masterpiece for the "oh my god I love this but I will never let anyone I know find out" box.
Terumina by Kashmir
Terumina, by the prolific but elusive mangaka Kashmir. It's difficult to categorize and stands out as one of the more unique and wholly authentic manga I've read. It documents the travels of a cute diminutive catgirl as she takes famous railway journeys around Tokyo. In this aspect the manga has a documentary approach, sharing information about the lines and referencing facts and histories relating to the trains and the areas they pass through. I think this on it's own would actually kind of work as a concept. But Terumina goes leagues further than this, as each chapter rapidly devolves into nauseating, grostesque fever dreams, the railway journeys becoming a safari through dizzyingly complex landscapes melting and twisting into surreal and psychedelic scenes of decay, transmutation and esoteric symbolism. The protagonist remains, for the most part, blissfully disinterested, giving the reader an anchor of sanity in the unrestrained insanity of her world - this is a device in storytelling that I always seem to be drawn to in manga and it works really well here. It would be possible to launch into some literary exploration of what Kashmir is trying to communicate here by putting something so bland and mundane as a railway journey through the psychedelic meat-grinder, but there's nothing I can say that would really do it justice so you should just go read it. Each chapter is short and self-contained, with the next one beginning as if nothing weird had ever happened. It's a tragedy that barely any of it has been translated, with the last chapter updated a few years ago.
Discommunication by Riichi Ueshiba
An unusual manga from the early 90s. It's about a high school girl and her romantic fascination with an enigmatic boy in her class, who lives alone in a derelict building and practices weird esoteric magic. The story follows a comfortable, honest slice-of-life type rhythm, but occasionally deviates into sprawling psychedelic dream sequences dripping with complex visions of eastern mystic imagery. These are really beautiful. The juxtaposition of these two opposing sides to the pacing of the manga gives it a distinct character that works really well. It's worth mentioning that for a female schoolgirl character written by a male author in the 90s, the protagonist stands out as feeling very organic and well-rounded - she's tough, principled, has clear boundaries, but also does all the things an ordinary schoolgirl would do, and expects to be respected and treated as a woman. Although, the premise is all about her inexplicable infatuation with a mysterious but otherwise disinterested boy, so take it with a pinch of salt. I really wanted to read more but unfortunately most of it hasn't been translated as far as I can tell.
Spectral Wizard by The Imitation Crystal
I re-read this recently for maybe the third time. It's the longest and probably the most well-known work of enigmatic indie mangaka The Imitation Crystal AKA Mozou Crystal AKA Mozocry. A gloomy and meandering slice-of-life story about an outlawed wizard deeply at odds with herself. As with all of Mozocry's works, I find myself always wanting it to go a little harder, to be a bit more direct and definite in its message and plot, but at the same time I feel the lack of these qualities is exactly what makes their work so unique, and what gives it just a characteristic quality. Mozocry is a master of carrying a manga with a -vibe-. There's no story hook here, it's a vibe hook. It's enough to just experience their characters doing their thing, wandering around their vague and inconclusive monochrome worlds.
I'll probably write about this more elsewhere - actually I did touch on it in my review of their manga Game Club (see blog :]) - but I think this is probably also a deliberate creative decision from Mozocry. Spectral Wizard (and pretty much all of Mozocry's work) indulges in conflicts and ennui and unease that isn't meant to be resolved - it's perennial and vague, not reduced to a collection of straightforward plot elements waiting to be tied up. This makes Spectral Wizard kind of frustrating, but in a way that feels honest, and it works in spite of it.
Various Short Stories by Kenji Miyazawa
That's not the title or anything, it was just a book of short stories by Kenji Miyazawa so I called it that. I read a few - Night on the Milky Way Train, The Nighthawk Star, Indra's Net, Magnolia. They're difficult to write about because it's the experience of reading them that is most striking and memorable, rather than the themes they explore or the stories they tell. The -visual- potency and beauty of the worlds he describes is hard to overstate.
Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
It's an autobiographical memoir. He was one of the pioneer pilots flying mail across the Sahara, back when being a pilot like that was more akin to being an astronaut. It's a haunting memoir about the transcendence found in utter desolation. He struggled through much of his life with depression and ennui, chasing these fleeting moments of perfect absolution he felt out in the desert. Profoundly humanistic in its conclusions and beautifully written, and it really does manage to do it without coming off as pretentious or preachy - which is not what you'd expect given it's a prose-heavy memoir by a brooding and romantic French author in the 1930s. You get the sense he is writing out of an honest need to communicate this transformative and massively compelling personal experience.