Sunday, May 25, 2014

Non to Nonnonba: Autobiographical Visual Metaphors

Recently, I read the pseudo-autobiography of Shigeru Mizuki, the residential founder of Yokai (Ghost stories) Manga.  While recent reviews of the book seem to garner mostly praise, my perception was more closer to the Comics Reporter's review, which found the book an outright bore, and had to struggle to even finish the damned thing.

While the majority of the narrative focuses on the lead protagonist, the true co-star clearly belongs to the grandmother, Nonnonba, who was a great influence on the young boy, telling ghost stories of folklore that were preserved for future generations.  While every country has their versions of imaginary monsters (even in Australia, which has enough real-life monsters of its own), Shigeru managed to retain the numerous ghost stories of his youth for posterity, which would account for his popularity.  Fairy Tales or urban legends (which are in a way, kind of adult Fairy Tales) are ways for people to make some kind of sense out of the world they're living in.  Here, Shigeru is haunted by Mr. Sticky (who looks like the mascot of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), the ghost that follows the sound of your sandals.

Sadly, that reputation doesn't seem to apply very well when talking about his life. While Shigeru Mizuki was the founder of Yokai in Japanese Manga, his reputation for stylish storytelling for schlocky horror themes doesn't apply very well as an autobiography.

The bigger problem stems not just from the wandering narrative, which goes nowhere, but also from the over-reliance of stock poses, of characters constantly holding their hands in repetitive fashions.  (There are similar issues with videogame novels)  Here, haggling, delegating responsibility, lavishing praise, looking contemplative, offering helpful advice, recalling fond memories and basically being lost in thought are all drawn with the same stance.

I realize that Japanese society tends to repress outbursts of outlandish behavior (which is why I have issues with their live-action movies failing to convey emotions convincingly), but that same standard shouldn't have to apply in a particularly cartoony-looking Manga like this.  Constantly relying on old poses for everything is just lazy.  While the time period takes place in the 1920s when the latest Western technology and Japanese tradition were still clashing with each other, Shigeru's mother makes a point of referencing to her family history, using the same pose three times.  One could make bonus points for her not snorting out of her nose in the last panel alone, but that would be too generous.

Whether it's from holding their hands in front of them when they talk, rolling their eyes in thought, putting their arms behind their heads, or stroking their chins in contemplation, there's a lot of sameness to the quality of the drawings.  And the constant display of Shigeru's duck lips don't help either.

One suspects that if Shigeru's assistants didn't help work on the heavily detailed backgrounds, he wouldn't be as highly regarded today.

The bigger problem I have is that whenever a Yokai appears, there's no metaphorical meaning behind them.  No attempt is made to differentiate between whether a Yokai appearance is either happening in a child's imagination, a storytelling element or the result of someone's superstition.  (It's very unlikely they would've actually shown up, since only a select few people can verify for their presence, and that's mostly from a biased perspective)

An underused method is to use visual metaphors in autobiographies, as popularized in Maus, which plenty of people seem reluctant to emulate.  But that shouldn't be a deterrence for keeping others from trying.  For instance, Cancer Vixen, has dozens of visual metaphors to get the point across more succinctly than any passage of longwinded prose ever could.  (Yes, I'm aware that DAR made some similar metaphors for the strip below)

The real reason why Nonnonba seems so dissatisfying is that there are other autobiographies out there that have far more imaginative scope than what Shigeru manages here.  As far as visual grandiosity goes, few can manage to hold a candle up to Epileptic, David B.'s masterpiece about his handicapped brother, and the twisting narrative that led to futilely try to find a cure for his condition.  Like Shigeru, David B. is strongly influenced by his Grandparents, even in their absence, which is imagined in the form of bird-like humans.

To put the two in context, in Nonnonba, a Yokai appears during a robbery, but its presence could either mean that the hostage is fainting from the severeness of the situation, or is overwhelmed by the robber's menacing aura.

Where this falls apart is when the hostage wanders off in a bright area, chasing off the shadow Yokai, at which point, he starts feeling better.  The shadow then leeches onto the robber, and only Shigeru and the Grandma can see it, and warn the robber to change his ways.  What exactly we're supposed to get out of this is hardly relevant or clear.

In comparison, in Epileptic, the disease makes itself represented as an armed snake-creature that ensnares around its victim.  In the early French books, the covers are sparingly drawn with several spare monsters
upon a yellow background, until the sixth book when the numerous creatures have crowded out everything else, leaving only the snake-creature visible on the back cover.

Shigeru has numerous conversations with one particular Yokai, the bean-tossing Azuki-Hakari whose wide-smiled wild-haired appearance always appears head on, never in profile.

This isn't too far removed from having literary character avatars as a form of talking to oneself.  And somehow, borrowing elements from The Last Canterbury Tales seems more sophisticated.

Ironically enough, even though  David B. is capable of drawing tense scenes of horrific imagery, when he tries to emulate the feelings that his epileptic brother conveys in him, he finds it an uphill struggle to do so.

Compared to naval-gazing Indy biographies with Woody Allen self-loathing, Manga biographies are largely tame, considering their source material.  Even Junji Ito's Cat Diary, while filled with grotesquely warped faces, is surprisingly charming and adorable, instead of disturbingly scary.  By all rights, autobiographical Manga should be filled with grandiose visual spectacles conveying the emotional turmoil they're going through.  The closest a Manga biography actually manages to convey the artist's vision in a warped mirror of their life is Hideshi Hino's Panorama of Hell.  But the symbolic imagery that's so prevalent in commercial Manga is strangely absent in these self-contained stories.  Furthermore, when groundbreaking authors spill the beans on their deepest darkest secrets, the results are largely toothless.  Even the master of the short story Gekiga format, Yoshihiro Tatsumi's A Drifting Life had the man going through events at the founding of the Manga industry with nary a drama in place.  While this is more true to life in that "living in interesting times" doesn't mean that there's action on every page, the outright sensibility and lack of visual imagery can make reading these works somewhat of a chore.

Especially annoying are Manga biographies of famous people.  When the historic character spouts rousing emotional platitudes that seems meaningful, upon closer observation, they don't really contain much content.  Furthermore, there's no real sense of "getting in their heads", since all analysis of these historic figures are from second-hand observers and admirers.  It's as if they're so scared of offending any sensitivities, that they don't even bother to tread over some of the more interesting or outrageous parts of that person's history. In fact, its those detractions that make the person truly stand out and become alive.

To use another fitting example of expressing unspeakable, indescribable and unnameable horrors, let's use Lovecraft based on the screenplay by Hans Rodionoff, adapted by Keith Giffen, and drawn by Enrique Breccia.  It was originally intended to be made as a movie, but works just as well as a comic.  But first, a minor digression: early on, it's briefly mentioned that he dressed up as a girl in his youth.

While this could be considered gender confusion nowadays, this kind of practice was actually quite common in its day, and brought up well-adjusted boys like the 32nd President of the United States.  With that incongruous explanation out of the way, let's take a look at an unusual bedtime story, a ritual strangely compelled to associate reading books with drowsiness.  (Which despite evidence to the contrary, is not a cause of drops in literacy)

In case you're not familiar with that particular passage, that's because these titles are no longer in print. (Probably for a good reason)  Despite getting night terrors from these stories, Howard is still drawn to an obscure tome called the Necronomicon, despite all attempts from his mother to forbid him from reading the material.  Censorship - a wonderful way to increase readership.

After his grandfather dies from mysterious circumstances, Howard takes his inspiration for storytelling from his grandfather's old stories.  In fact, most of Lovecraft's weird stories are obscure literary references to ancient passages.  He goes on a personal one-man crusade to prevent these unspeakable horrors from ever entering our world by writing about the very creatures that plague his every waking moment.

In Nonnonba, Chigusa, a young girl with an unnamed sickness is reassured by the numerous stories Shigeru makes up.  Same goes for Miwa, another doomed girl who's eventually sold off.  Shigeru creates numerous fantasy worlds in an attempt to cope with their sudden dying and departure at a young age.  Because of his grandma's influence to show the power of stories (such as dressing up as an ogre to chase bullies away), he was able to

In Lovecraft, the protagonist and his wife make a similar (less magical) journey into the realms of Arkham, where all his stories were said to originate from.  This is the pivotal moment of the biography, so spoilers are abound.  Feel free to skip if you have a queasy stomach for gruesomeness and premature revelations.
After a series of chase scenes and mishaps from typically Lovecraftian creatures, losing his wife along the way, Lovecraft (named Carter here) comes upon the abode of the cruel creature ruling over the realm of this mad and twisted world:


Then Lovecraft's rational twin makes the novice mistake of saying that "we should find and destroy that book", leaving Lovecraft to wonder that if the man opposite him was him, he would already know where the Necronomicon was.  In the end, he stabs the calm man, who devolves into a reoccurring creature that'd been chasing him all his life.  This can be read as a metaphor where both the fantasy and the reality can exist simultaneously.  Whichever one you decide to believe in is entirely up to the reader.  I know that most would prefer to imagine the more interesting story.

When comparing the movie Life of Pi to the book, I was asked which one I preferred better.  The answer I gave was, "The one with the tiger."

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