The Strange Tale of Panorama Island


By Edogawa Rompo, adapted and illustrated by Suehiro Maruo, translated by Ryan Sands & Kyoko Nitta (Last Gasp)
ISBN: 978-0-86719-777-8 (HB)

Edogawa Rompo is revered as the Godfather of Japanese detective fiction – his output as author and critic defining the crime thriller from 1923 to his death in 1965. Born Tarō Hirai, he worked under a nom-de-plume based on his own great inspiration, Edgar Allen Poe, penning such well-loved classics as The Two-Sen Copper Coin, The Stalker in the Attic, The Black Lizard and The Monster with 20 Faces as well as many tales of his signature hero detective Kogoro Akechi, notional leader of the stalwart young band Shōnen tantei dan (the Boy Detective’s Gang).

He did much to popularise the concept of the rationalist observer and deductive mystery-solver. In 1946, he sponsored the detective magazine Hōseki (Jewels) and a year later founded the Detective Author’s Club, which survives today as the Mystery Writers of Japan association.

Although his latter years were taken up with promoting the genre, producing criticism, translation of western fiction and penning crime books for younger audiences, much of his earlier output (Rampo wrote 20 novels and lots of short stories) were dark, sinister concoctions based on the trappings and themes of ero guro nansensu (“eroticism, grotesquerie, and the nonsensical”) playing into the then-contemporary Japanese concept of hentai seiyoku or “abnormal sexuality”.

From that time comes this particular adaptation, originally serialised in Enterbrain’s monthly magazine Comic Beam from July 2007-January 2008.

Panorama-tō Kidan or The Strange Tale of Paradise Island was a prose vignette released in 1926, adapted here with astounding flair and finesses by uncompromising illustrator and adult manga master Suehiro Maruo.

A frequent contributor to the infamous Japanese underground magazine Garo, Maruo is the crafter of such memorable and influential sagas as Ribon no Kishi (Knight of the Ribbon), Rose Coloured Monster, Mr. Arashi’s Amazing Freak Show, The Laughing Vampire, Ultra-Gash Inferno, How to Rake Leaves and many others.

This is a lovely book. A perfect physical artefact of the themes involved, this weighty oversized (262x187mm) monochrome hardback has glossy full-colour inserts, creator biographies and just feels like something extra special, whilst it compellingly chronicles an intriguingly baroque tale of greed, lust, deception and duplicity which begins when starving would-be author Hitomi Hirosuke reads of the death of the Taisho Emperor. Sadly, it still hasn’t made it into digital formats yet…

On December 26th 1926, Japan suffered a social catastrophe. The shock of losing the revered ruler reverberated through the entire nation. The trauma forced one failing writer to reassess his life. He finds himself wanting…

At another fruitless meeting with his editor Ugestu, Hitomi learns that an old friend, Genzaburo Komoda, has passed away. At college the boys were implausibly inseparable: the poor but ambitious kid and the heir to one of the greatest industrial fortunes in Japan. Perhaps it was because they looked and sounded exactly alike: doppelgangers nobody could tell apart…

The presumed cause of death was the asthma which had plagued the wealthy scion all his life and Hitomi, fuelled by self-loathing and inspired by Poe’s tale “The Premature Burial”, hatches a crazy scheme…

Faking his own suicide the writer leaves his effects to Ugestu before travelling to Kishu and immediately beginning his insane plot. Starving himself the entire time, Hitomi locates his pal’s grave, disposes of the already mouldering body and dons the garments and jewellery of Komoda. He even smashes out a front tooth and replaces it with the false one from the corpse…

His ghastly tasks accomplished, the starving charlatan simply collapses in a road where he can be found…

The news spreads like wildfire and soon all Komoda’s closest business associates have visited the miraculous survivor of catalepsy. The intimate knowledge Hitomi possesses combined with the “shock and confusion” of his miraculous escape is enough to fool even aged family retainer Tsunoda, and the fates are with him in that the widow Chiyoko has gone to Osaka to get over her loss. Of course she will rush back as soon as she hears the news…

However with gifts and good wishes flooding in, even Chiyoko is seemingly fooled and the fraudster begins to settle in his new skin. Just to be safe, however, he keeps the wife at a respectful and platonic distance. Comfortably entrenched, he begins to move around the Komoda fortune.

Hitomi the starving writer’s great unfinished work was The Tale of RA, a speculative fantasy in which a young man inherits a vast fortune and uses it to create an incredible, futuristic pleasure place of licentious delight. Now the impostor starts to make that sybaritic dream a reality, repurposing the family wealth into buying an island, relocating its inhabitants and building something never before conceived by mind of man…

Fobbing off all questions with the lie that he is constructing an amusement park that will be his eternal legacy, he populates the marvel of Arcadian engineering, landscaping, and optical science with a circus of wanton performers, living statues of erotic excess and a manufactured mythological bestiary.

He even claims that the colossal expenditure will begun healing the local economic malaise, but for every obstacle overcome another seems to occur. Moreover he cannot shift the uneasy feeling that Chiyoko suspects the truth about him…

Eventually however the great dream of plutocratic grandeur, lotus-eating luxury and hedonistic sexual excess is all but finished and “Komoda” escorts his wife on a grand tour of the wondrous celebration of debauched perversity that is his personal empire of the senses.

Once ensconced there he ends his worries of Chiyoka exposing him, but all too soon his Panorama Island receives an unwanted visitor.

Kogoro Akechi has come at the behest of the wife’s family and he has a few questions about, of all things, a book.

It seems that an editor, bereaved by the loss of one of his protégés, posthumously published that tragic young man’s magnum opus to celebrate his wasted life: a story entitled The Tale of RA

This dark compelling morality play is realised in a truly breathtaking display of artistic virtuosity from Maruo, who combines clinical detail of intoxicating decadence with vast graphic vistas in a torrent of utterly enchanting images, whilst never allowing the visuals to overwhelm the underlying narrative and rise and fall of a boldly wicked protagonist…

Stark, stunning, classically clever and utterly adult The Strange Tale of Paradise Island is one of the best-looking, most absorbing crime thrillers I’ve seen this century, and no mystery loving connoisseur of comics, cinema or prose should miss it.
© 2008, 2013 HIRAI Rutaro, MARUO Suehiro. All rights reserved. English translation © 2013 Last Gasp.

Velveteen & Mandala


By Jiro Matsumoto (Vertical)
ISBN: 978-1-935654-30-8 (Tankōbon PB)

Things have been a bit too much sweetness and light around here lately. Here’s a change of pace and taste then then needs a bit of an advisory warning. This book revels in gratuitous violence, barely-closeted misogyny and sexualised imagery. So why, then, is it so very good?

Civilisation has radically changed. What we knew is no longer right or true, but disturbing remnants remain to baffle and terrify, as High School girl Velveteen and her decidedly off-key classmate and companion/enemy Mandala eke out an extreme existence on the banks of a river in post-Zombie-Apocalypse Tokyo.

Here (with straight-faced nods to Tank Girl), using an abandoned battle-wagon as their crash-pad, the girls while away the days and nights casually slaughtering roaming hordes of zombies – at least whenever they can stop squabbling with each other…

From the very outset of this grim, sexy, gratuitous splatter-punk horror-show there is something decidedly “off” going on: a gory mystery beyond the usual “how did the world end this time?”

On the surface, Velveteen & Mandala (Becchin To Mandara in its original 14-chapter run between 2007-2009 in the periodical Manga Erotics F) is a monster-killing yarn which owes plenty to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but there’s more than meets the eye or ballistic charge happening here.

We begin at ‘The Riverside’ with the pair awaking from dreams to realise and remember the hell they now inhabit. Cunning catch-up concluded, ‘Smoke on the Riverside’ then reveals a few of the nastier ground-rules of their current lifestyle, and especially Velveteen’s propensity for arson and appetite for destruction…

‘Sukiyaki’ finds the girls on edge as food becomes an issue, whilst the introduction of ‘The Super’ who monitors their rate of zombie dispatch leads to more information (but not necessarily any answers) in this enigmatic world, after which ‘The Cellar’ amps up the uncertainty as Velveteen steals into her new boss’s ghastly man-cave inner sanctum…

In a medium where extreme violence is commonplace, Matsumoto increasingly uses unglamourised nudity and brusque vulgarity to unsettle and shock the reader, but the flashback events of … ‘School Arcade, Underground Shelter’ – if true and not delusion – indicate that a society this debased might not be worth saving from the undead…

In ‘Omen’ and ‘Good Omen (Whisper)’ the obfuscating mysteries begins to clear as B52 bombers dumps thousands more corpses by the Riverside, adding to the “to do” roster of walking dead the girls must deal with once darkness falls…

Throughout the story Matsumoto liberally injects cool artefacts of fashion, genre and pop-culture seemingly at random, but as the oppressive horrors get ever closer to ending our heroines in ‘Genocide’ and ‘Deep in the Dark’, a certain sense can be imagined, so that once the Super is removed and Velveteen promoted to his position in ‘Parting’, the drama spirals into a hallucinogenic – possibly untrustworthy – climax for ‘Mandala’s Big Farewell Party’ and ‘Nirvana’ before the further revelations of ‘Flight’

Deliberately misleading and untrustworthy – and strictly aimed at over-18s – this dark, nasty, scatologically excessive tale graphically celebrates the differences between grotesque, flesh-eating dead-things and the constantly biologically mis-functioning Still-Living (although the zombie “Deadizens” are still capable of cognition, speech and rape…); all wrapped up in the culturally acceptable and traditional manner of one blowing the stuffings out of the other…

Confirmed confrontationalist Jiro Matsumoto (Uncivilized Planet, Avant-Pop Mars, A Revolutionist in the Afternoon, Tropical Citron) is probably best known for dystopian speculative sci-fi revenge thriller Freesia, but here his controversial yet sublime narrative gifts are turned to a much more psychologically complex – almost meta-fictional – layering of meaning upon revelation upon contention, indicating that if you have a strong enough stomach the very best is still to come…

First seen in English as a monochrome paperback in 2011, this stand-alone saga will be available in digital formats later this year.
© 2009 Jiro Matsumoto. All right reserved. Translation © 2011 Vertical, Inc.

Wandering Witch: The Journey of Elaina volume 1


By Jougi Shirashi illustrated by Itsuki Nanoa: character design by Azure: translated by Taylor Engel (SQUARE ENIX)
ISBN: 978-1-64609-035-8 (TPB)

Written by Jougi Shiraishi, Majo no Tabitabi began in 2014 as an original eBook on Amazon’s Kindle service. Initially the book struggled, but diligent politicking on message and bulletin boards built a solid fanbase and the series was picked up in 2016 by SB Creative for their ranobe (Light Novel) division. With illustrations and designs by Azure the stories of the Wandering Witch took off – with ten volumes thus far – and ultimately led to an online manga adaptation by Itsuki Nanao. That launched in November 2018 as a smartphone app and on Square Enix’s Manga UP! website. April 2019 saw the release of a paperback tankōbon collection in Japan which now comes to the English-speaking world in anticipation of a TV series slated to launch in October 2020.

Firmly entrenched in the whimsical, joyous and exceedingly popular arena of benevolent magic-users operating in comfy medieval other-verses, these are engaging episodes starring a capable young woman just getting to grips with her mystic gifts. Moreover, Elaina is a lass who loves to travel, meaning she can help folk of many interesting places…

Her peregrinations begin when she arrives in ‘The Land of Magicians’: a walled city filled with mages and sorcerers…

Elaina fondly recalls how her love of books – especially the saga of travelling witch Nique – set her own childhood ambitions firmly on following her idol’s path. Now a freshly-graduated full sorceress dubbed the Ashen Witch, her progress is stalled after an apparently accidental crash involving neophyte student Saya. Somehow, in that fateful collision, Elaina loses her potent Brooch of Office and cannot move on without recovering it. As she seeks, however, the Ashen Witch discovers that all is not as it seems…

A tone of menace and thwarted romance permeates ‘The Land of Flowers’ as Elaina encounters an eerie field of blossoms and unwisely agrees to deliver a bunch of blooms for the young maiden reclining there. Strangely, it doesn’t matter who accepts the bouquet, only that someone from the nearby city does. Even more peculiar is that no one will and that flowers have been ruled illegal in the conurbation. Ever-inquisitive, Elaina soon learns of a fantastic situation and is embroiled in a fantastic tragedy before moving on…

Smart and self-sufficient, the Ashen Witch arrives in a nondescript kingdom and faces an unprecedented crisis as ‘Raising Funds’ find her trapped in a land where runaway inflation ripples the populace and drains her of her own living capital. Struggling to meet basic expenses, she soon uncovers an incredible plot against the new king and must take dramatic action to help him and escape with her travelling cash intact…

The dramas conclude with an origin tale as she recalls her time as ‘Apprentice Witch Elaina’: a talented but naive acolyte striving to please her ferociously eccentric mentor Fran the Stardust Witch. It was quite some time before the student divined the method behind her tutor’s apparent madness…

Rounding out this jolly grimoire are brief prose vignette ‘What Would You Take to a Desert Island?’, taken from Elaina’s student days with Fran, plus a selection of short strips concerning ‘The Tale of the Muscle Man Who’s Looking for his Little Sister On the Road’, ending the fun on a suitably bizarre note…

Engaging and wry, this superbly illustrated slice of fanciful fluff will delight lovers of the genre and offers plenty of potential for developing into a true all-ages fan phenomenon. Why not check it out, if you’re looking for something light and frothy to balance life’s darker realities…
Wandering Witch volume 1 © Jougi Shiraishi/SB Creative Corp. Character Design by Azure. © 2019 Itsuki Nanao/ SQUARE ENIX CO., LTD. English translation © 2020 SQUARE ENIX CO., LTD. All rights reserved.

Pure Trance


By Junko Mizuno (jaPress/Last Gasp)
ISBN: 978-0-86719-878-2 (HB)

If you’re over a certain age or have eclectic tastes in art and music, you might feel a pang of nostalgia at this remastered work of coyly adults-only fiction: the first subversively compelling creation of iconic Manga master Junko Mizuno.

Since her emergence in 1995, the author has become renowned – more accurately, infamous – for mixing childhood innocence with grim, gory action and unwholesome or stridently clashing, wildly inappropriate content in a sub-genre now dubbed Gothic or Noir kawaii (where kawaii describes cutely drawn protagonists and subjects).

Moreover, the skewed sensibilities of such works as Cinderalla, Hansel & Gretel, Princess Mermaid, Momongo no Isshō (the Life of Momongo), Little Fluffy Gigolo Pelu and Ravina the Witch has escaped the comics ghetto to be embraced by a larger fashion-based audience with art exhibitions (Heart Throbs and Tender Succubus), art-books (Hell Babies, Collector File and Flare) and high-end designer toys for adults which include plush animals, vinyl figures, stationery, postcards, stickers, original art T-shirts and a line of condoms and erotic paraphernalia.

Her shojo-derived style (that’s “stories for girls”, in case you’re wondering) also borrows heavily from the most iconic imagery of the 1960s and early 1970s, particularly the Graphic Psychedelia which grew out of Pop Art. Her stars and support characters are huge eyed, large-headed poppet girls, drawn to look young or, more accurately, actively, innocently, illicitly under-aged: all acting in simplified environments where detail is reduced to bare minima.

The stories are always sharply at odds with her drawing style – like cartoons for toddlers, but involving unpleasant visits to the gynaecologist or being consumed by cannibals – and much of her material incorporates splashy full colour despite the overwhelming preponderance of black and white material in Japan.

Rereleased in tactilely-satisfying hardback and ebook editions, Pure Trance is strictly monochrome throughout and was the auteur’s first official book, even though it is, in fact, a compilation of a minicomics series created to be given away with CD music albums. From 1996-1998 these deeply disturbing Sci Fi adventures of hard-pressed nurses and beauticians in a dystopian future were included in Pure Trance volumes 11 to 20.

I can’t help but wonder what the blissed-out music fans made of the creepily tongue-in-cheek horror stories, but at least the work reached a more amenable audience when Mizuno revised and updated the pamphlets in 1998 for a single book edition. That was first translated into English in 2005 and now it’s back again…

I hesitate to attempt a précis of this wonderfully baroque extravaganza of sugar ‘n’ spice, unnecessary surgical procedures, creeping mutant terrors, animal antics, walk-in Eating Disorder clinics, fetish and bondage catalogues and the indomitable triumph of the human spirit over its own darkest desires, but the chilling whimsy unleashed here is a brilliant and intoxicating progression that needs some highlighting, so…

In the aftermath of WW3, Earth is a toxic wasteland and humanity has retreated underground. Deep beneath Tokyo, society carries on but is currently beleaguered by a plague of uncontrollable hunger: an unappetising condition dubbed “hyperorexia” which is caused by the life-sustaining Pure Trance pill everyone takes. In a bleak commercialised underworld, the condition is treated by dedicated clinicians in specialised hospitals…

Our story focuses on Overeaters Treatment Center 102 and its deviant director Keiko Yamazaki; an officious, drug-abusing, sadistic tyrant who makes life hell for the poor nurses under her command. Her cruel practises – such as humiliation, torture and eating any animal (artificial or real) unfortunate enough to fall into her clutches – eventually sparks a revolution, but not before some of her subordinates make a daring and desperate dash for the abandoned surface world to discover things both amazing and life-changing…

Supplemented by info pin-ups highlighting the many characters wandering about and accompanied by sidebar inserts detailing people, places, beasts, items of interest and key moments under the designation “Pure Trance Trivia”, this epic exploration of an uncanny alternate tomorrow is both splendid and terrifying.

Everything, especially the legion of pretty girls, is drawn in the style of early Playboy icons, in the brand of cartoon stylisations that featured in movie title sequences like What’s New, Pussycat? or Yellow Submarine. Anybody British who remembers the children’s animation Crystal Tipps and Alistair, or the hippo from Rainbow, will feel a frisson of nostalgia – which is of course the point. The art is an irresistible velvet trap designed to reduce readers to a receptive state in which the author can make telling points about contemporary culture.

By co-opting children’s entertainment Mizuno addresses fundamental aspects of human existence in a form designed to shock, subvert, upset and most importantly, provoke. So, if some thought on the readers’ part extends beyond our old-fashioned, but still visceral gut-reaction to innocent girls in distress and the ridiculous and idealistic spiritual purity that used to be associated with such imagery, then she’s done her job…

This groundbreaking social satire is a supremely edgy and funny fantasy with plenty to say about society, relationships and the planet we should be safeguarding – especially now, when and where we’re all under similar pressures of isolation and survival.
© 2005, 2019 Junko Mizuno. All Rights Reserved.

Sickness Unto Death volumes 1 & 2


By Hikaru Asada & Takahiro Seguchi (Vertical)
ISBN: 978-1-939130-09-9(tankōbon PB vol. 1) 978-1939130105(tankōbon PB vol. 2)

Here’s an intriguing and tragically underrated and sadly forgotten saga deftly examining the devastating effects of despair that still has plenty to say and much to offer…

Takahiro Seguchi’s gripping psychological melodrama Sickness Unto Death is a bleak and enthralling, emotionally complex tale of love, compulsion and dependency, transformed into spellbinding comics by artist Hikaru Asada.

Inspired by Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s treatise Sygdommen til Døden (The Sickness Unto Death – a Christian existentialist examination of the “Sin of Despair”), this extremely accessible tale began in 2009 as Shi ni Itaru Yamai; serialised in Hakusensha’s fortnightly Seinen magazine Young Animal.

This translated version opens with a Professor standing beside a student over the grave of his first case – and greatest love…

A flashback begins revealing how, as a young man, Kazuma Futaba came to the city to study clinical psychology, and how he was lucky to find lodgings in an old house. However, on his way there he encountered a young girl with white hair suffering a crushing anxiety attack in the street. Although everybody ignored the crippled creature, he rushed to her assistance and happily complied with her desperate need to be held.

‘Emiru’ was impossibly cold to the touch and although both were merely 18 years old, she seemed inexorably gripped by an ancient despondency and overwhelming gloom…

After she recovered, he hurried on to find his new digs in a vast old house, meeting the butler Kuramoto who reveals the place belonged to the orphan Emiru Ariga, a beautiful, vivacious creature who had within the last two years suddenly succumbed to a crushing ‘Despair’ so great it had bleached her hair, triggered drastic weight-loss, weakened her heart and caused her body temperature to fall to far below normal. He describes it as a “terminal illness of the spirit”. She now spends most of her time locked in her room, drawing monsters and waiting to die…

Intrigued, desperate to help but painfully aware of how inexperienced he is, Futaba examines the compliant, barely-living corpse and determines to somehow help her. At least she shows some animation when he is near. Both Kuramoto and his young mistress want Futaba to fix her…

In ‘Haunted Mansion’ the relationship develops further as the student transfers what he learns by day at school into evening therapy. Emiru seems brighter, even though she believes the house harbours ghosts…

When Kuramoto is called away for a few days, he leaves Futaba in charge, but after the frail girl spends too long in a bath, the boy panics. Breaking in, he sees her painfully thin, nude form for the first time. Embarrassed and confused, he dashes away and stumbles upon a mystery room, its door nailed shut with heavy planks.

Emiru sees ghosts: a crying, lonely child and a monster with teeth but no face…

Her sleep is perpetually disturbed, and Futaba – after learning about Night Terrors in class – agrees to ‘Sharing a Bed’, even though he is no longer certain his own motives are strictly professional. Nevertheless, resolved to save her he begins a ‘Psych Assessment’, gathering facts and personal history, but learns little more than once she was normal and then, suddenly, she wasn’t…

Emiru is increasingly time-locked in lengthy periods of despair, weeping outside the barred room; her traumatic nights eased by Kazuma’s platonic presence, although she feels the spectral presence of ‘The One in the Mansion’ whenever he goes away…

In the present, Professor Futaba and student Minami – who thinks she too can see a ghost in the abandoned dwelling – explore the deserted, decrepit mansion which housed his greatest regret. When they stop at a monster drawing scrawled on a wall, it takes him back to those troubled years…

A setback in Emiru’s recovery occurs when another ghost sighting unleashes a wave of depression and young Futaba learns of her carefree ‘High School Years’ from fellow psych student Koizumi – a former classmate of Emiru when she a healthy, happy, raven-haired ball of wild energy, fun and adventure…

Koizumi ardently believes she became burdened with some terrible secret that overnight transformed her into the frail, fading creature Futaba describes, prompting the floundering lad to confer with his tutor Professor Otsuki. The mentor responds by lending him a copy of Kierkegaard’s infamous tract…

For such a weakened patient, even a cold might be fatal, but with Futaba at her side Emiru pulls through. However, after recovering, she entices him into crossing a ‘Forbidden Line’ but neither as therapist nor lover is young Futaba assured of securing her ‘Happiness and Beauty’ until and unless he can her unburden her obsessive soul of the dark secret strangling it from within…

Beguiling and hypnotic, this exceptional medical mystery/ghostly love story is far from the familiar – to Western eyes at least – explosive bombast and action slapstick normally associated with Japanese comics. As such it might just make a few manga converts amongst die-hard holdouts who prefer sensitive writing, deep themes and human scale to their comics.

Moody, moving and far more than just another adult manga, Sickness Unto Death is that rarest of things: a graphic novel for people who don’t think they like comics…
© 2010 Hikaru Asada. © 2010 Takahiro Seguchi. All rights reserved.

The Garden


By Sean Michael Wilson & Fumio Obata (Liminal 11)
ISBN: 978-1-912634-16-3 (HB)

We’re all locked up in our own heads as much as in our homes these days, and constantly in search of solutions to ease anxiety however we can. Please allow me then – in timely fashion and most serendipitously – to get in an early plug for this forthcoming sublime gem laced with helpful suggestions on healing mindfulness.

Not only is the message calming and helpful – and delivered in beguiling imagery guaranteed to reset your outraged Alpha Waves – but it also guarantees a solidly entertaining read while helping to moderate your hunger for physical relaxation and contemplative rejuvenation.

Until recently equally at home in Britain and Japan, Scottish author Seán Michael Wilson (Breaking the Ten, The Story of Lee) was inspired to write The Garden after being asked by a comics newcomer if there were any about gardening. After taking a beat and realising the range of subjects covered in graphic novels was quite limited – and getting smaller – the writer, educator and dedicated Humanist – who has previous form on cerebral topics and non-mainstream graphic narratives – decided to create one himself…

Wilson originally took a degree in psychology, with a postgraduate diploma in clinical hypnotherapy before transferring to the Ninth Art. In comic form, besides more traditional fare, he has co-crafted political and philosophical tracts such as Goodbye God – An Illustrated Examination of Science Vs. Religion and Portraits of Violence – An Illustrated History of Radical Thinking and adapted many Western and Eastern literary classics such as Wuthering Heights, Sweeney Todd, Book of Five Rings and Tao Te Ching. This is a man with wide interests who has learned how to kick back and slow down…

His collaborator here is equally distinguished with similar antecedents. Author, educator, artist and animator Fumio Obata (Just So Happens, DC Thompson, Internazionale) was born in Tokyo in 1975, before moving to the UK at age 16. His BA Illustration degree from Glasgow School of Art was compounded with a Masters in Communication Design from the Royal College of Art before he began pursuing a comics career in Britain and Europe.

In this gloriously welcoming hardback, the classic tale of early success leading to burn-out and transformative healing through new purpose follows formerly high-flying financier Joanna who spectacularly and very publicly suffers an emotional meltdown.

Recovering in her house, a conversation with sister Samantha sets her on a path to a new life that begins with a trip to Japan and a course in creating traditional Zen designs at the Garden Institute of Kyoto.

Once there, Joanna learns that it’s not actually all about her at all…

Filled with delightful human moments and a broad cast of appetising characters, Joanna’s learning curve is a marvellously tempting invitation to combine our personal urban nightmare with a more bucolic experience that Williams was a appeal to the suppressed nature lover in us all, and the life-changing challenge even comes with an appealing Poem of the Garden to start your own verdant rebirth…

Calm, contemplative and mentally refreshing, The Garden is a seed of surprise just waiting for you to plant it…
© 2020 Sean Michael Wilson & Fumio Obata. All rights reserved.
The Garden is scheduled for release on May 21st 2020 and is available for pre-order now.

Suppose a Kid from the Last Dungeon Boonies Moved to a Starter Town


By Toshio Satou, illustrated by Hajime Fusemachi: character design by Nao Watanuki and translated by Andrew Cunningham (SQUARE ENIX)

Here’s a quick simple reading treat to cheer you up: a classic Comedy of Errors – more like misconceptions – to whisk you away from grim reality for a while.

Written by Toshio Satō (Satou) with illustrations by Nao Watanuki, Tatoeba Last Dungeon Mae no Mura no Shōnen ga Joban no Machi de Kurasu Yō na Monogatari is a series of ranobe – or Light Novels – recounting the adventures of a naïve, super-powerful innocent in the big bad outside world. Set in a traditional fantasy/fairy tale realm, the saga has generated seven prose volumes since debuting in February 2017. The popular hit has spawned the usual tranche of spin-offs including an upcoming anime TV series and a manga interpretation by Hajime Fusemachi. This last began digitally in manga magazine Gangan Online and since its start in September 2017, has filled three physical-print tankōbon volumes. This is the first to make it into English…

One aspect that might possibly grate on western sensibilities is the motif of incredibly lengthy titles. Opening chapter ‘That Day Was Like the Arrival of a Really Well-Mannered Super-Typhoon’ sees male ingenue and shy village hick Lloyd Belladonna arrive in the bustling metropolis and capital city of the Azami Kingdom. Although the weakest and most inconsequential inhabitant of his far-distant hamlet of Kunlun, the kid has finally succumbed to his lifelong ambition: to try and enlist in the mighty army of the Realm. Lloyd has no illusions of his unworthiness and inability, but he must follow his dream…

On the advice of his village Chief – a witch named Alka – the boy imposes himself on Marie, the Witch of the East Side unaware of her dubious past or the inescapable debt the urban sorceress owes Alka. There’s lots going on that Lloyd doesn’t understand, but he’s kind, hardworking, diligent and so very humble. He also knows a little magic.

He uses it to clean and tidy with inconceivable efficiency but in the civilized world it’s a rare commodity. The boy Belladonna also has one more advantage that he’s blithely unaware of. Kunlun rests at the ends of the Earth. It’s a village of heroes stretching back into antiquity standing at the edge of a region of horrors: a Bastion against evil where fighting monsters is second nature to all. Back there, he might be a feeble figure of pity but it’s only relative. In the outside world, he’s a being of incredible physical power and speed, with fighting strategies bred into his unbreakable bones from the moment of conception…

Thus, the bewildered waif and his reluctant landlady Marie set about making his dream come true, but as the boy accidentally progresses through ‘That Encounter Was Like a God Came in on a White Horse’, ‘This Stroke of Luck Was Like Finding a Wish-Granting Magic Flower Growing in Your Backyard’ and ‘This Shock Was Like Seeing a Jewel That Could Save the Realm’s Economy Flung into the Ocean’ – fixing environmental disasters, routing invading horror-beasts and even curing a cursed princess without noticing – it becomes clear that the only thing impeding Lloyd’s progress is his own crushing lack of self-belief…

Even joining the elite Azami Military Academy he attributes to luck and kindness, not the sheer power the tutors are desperate to recruit and utilise. However, as malign forces gather around the imperilled city-state, Belladonna might be the only factor capable of staving off irreversible doom if only the veteran warriors can convince him of his own worth…

To Be Continued…
Suppose a Kid from the Last Dungeon Boonies Moved to a Starter Town volume 1 © Toshio Satou/SB Creative Corp. Character Design by Nao Watanuki. © Hajime Fusemachi/ SQUARE ENIX CO., LTD. English translation © 2020 SQUARE ENIX CO., LTD.

A Man & His Cat volume 1


By Umi Sakurai, translated by Taylor Engel (Square Enix Manga & Books)
ISBN: 978-64609-026-6 (PB)

The relationship between human and pet is endlessly fascinating. Animal lovers always want to know what other people’s non bill-paying companions get up to and they’re also always looking for points of similarity. How many times have we all heard “Yeah, my fuzzball also piddles on electrical points” or “no, Jolly Mister Creampants has never dug up a corpse… as far as I’m aware…”?

That shared compulsion has produced a lot of funny and so-so books and comics, but few have matched the astounding success of cartoonist Umi Sakurai (The Vampire Called God) with her strip Ojisama to Neko. It’s even more remarkable because the humour is gentle and almost all on the side of the rather ugly, pitifully self-deprecating moggy in his narrative asides. The rest of reading experience is more heartwarming than funny. This is a series about honest sentiment and the human rewards of animal companionship.

Ojisama to Neko began life as a self-published weekly webcomic on Twitter and Pixiv before being picked up for strip serialisation in print magazines Monthly Shōnen Gangan and Gangan Pixiv. To date the emotive vignettes have filled four tankōbon tomes and had well over 560 million views. It is astoundingly popular, garnering awards and recommendations wherever it appeared. Now its available in English and I’m beginning to see why…

This slim but well-stuffed volume sets the ball rolling in ‘A Man and a Cat’ as a humble, homely, slightly huge and rather old cat ponders his life in the pet shop. He’s been there an awfully long time, gathering dust but no admirers as younger, prettier cats and kittens come and quite rapidly go…

As his price tag is regularly lowered, he understands and accepts his fate, but everything changes the day a distinguished gentleman comes in and without hesitation picks the flabbergasted veteran. The answer comes in ‘All Alone’ when the gentleman is revealed as a recent widower. He had discussed with his wife getting a cat just before…

The short moments of bonding continue when the new family unit decide on ‘The Cat’s Name’ and stock up on “essential supplies” when ‘The Man Goes Shopping’. Rejoicing in the name Fukumaru, the cat plays that old “I’m hungry” tactic in ‘Super-Mewracle Crunchies’ and the freshness of the learning curve for both is proved when ‘I Have a Cat Now’ sees the Man try to bath The Cat…

Both man and beast are visited by unwelcome memories in ‘Good Night, Fukumaru’, but their co-dependent bond is clearly solidifying. When Fukumaru remembers those distant days of kittenhood in ‘Good Night, Mister’, it leads to an explosive triptych about litter boxes, discreetly dubbed ‘The Noble Feline in the Bathroom’ Parts 1, 2 and ‘Afterward’before ‘Kneady-Kneady Fukumaru’ shares his first human bed…

When ‘The Man Wakes Up’ they discover the wonder of taking cat photos, but when the adoring human leaves for work (he’s a silver fox music teacher, utterly oblivious to his affect upon the younger educators at school), his devoted and grateful new companion experiences abandonment issues in ‘Fukumaru Minds the House’ and responds just as you’d expect at day’s end in ‘Welcome Home’

‘Loyal Kitty Fukumaru’ settles in and they learn the joys of selfies, with only the odd moment of discord when a dog-loving pal asks about the “ugly cat” only to learn ‘My Pet is Number One’.

A household Rubicon is crossed in ‘Fukumaru and the Black Thing’ when a locked room is opened and a magnificent piano is revealed, whilst the trauma of carry cases and collars is confronted in ‘Safe, Worry-free Design’ before the household standing of the black thing vis a vis scratchable items is explored in ‘Attack from the Purriphery’.

‘The View Beyond the Invisible Wall’ is Fukumaru’s first taste of modern gardening, followed by a return outing for the dog-lover who has learned his lesson in ‘Your Precious Cat’, after which ‘I Promise You’ sees the Man – AKA Mr. Fuyuki Kanda – further impress the youthful school staff as ‘Hellos and Good-byes’ flashes back to that pet shop, revealing how lonely Miss Sato almost took the lonely straggler on the day Kanda walked in and proved love at first sight…

Peppered throughout one-page gag moments, this initial outing ends on a low-key yet warm note sharing further revelations about sad Kanda and wife before he chose to share his life ‘With Fukumaru’

Forthright, painfully honest and packing hidden tear-jerking episodes the way a fluffy kitten packs sheathed claws and razor-sharp teeth, A Man & His Cat is a compelling buddy story no pet-carer or comics aficionado should miss.
© 2018 Umi Sakurai/SQUARE ENIX CO., LTD. English translation © 2020 SQUARE ENIX CO., LTD.

Moto Hagio’s A Drunken Dream and Other Stories


By Moto Hagio, translated by Matt Thorn (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-377-4 (HB)

Girls’ comics have always taken a secondary role in publishing – at least in most countries. In Japan this was the case until a new wave of female artists and writers stormed the male bastions in the 1970s transforming a very much distaff niche into a viable, autonomous marketplace, consequently reshaping the entire manga landscape in the process. At the forefront and regarded as part of a holy trinity of astoundingly gifted and groundbreaking creators is Moto Hagio. The other two, if you’re in the mood to Go Googling – and of course, other search engines are available – are Keiko Takamiyaand Yumiko Oshima…

This lovely hardback collection (regrettably not available in digital formats yet) presents ten of her best short stories gleaned from a career spanning more than 50 years, over which time she and her revolutionary compatriots created whole genres, advanced the status of fantasy, horror and science fiction tales, reinvented and perfected the shōjo (“girl’s story”) form, all while introducing a degree of literacy, symbology, authority and emotional depth to the medium that has gone on to transform comics in Japan and globally.

Editor, translator and cultural ambassador Matt Thorn has contributed an informative historical treatise on Japan’s comic world and those revolutionary comics creators (thoroughly annotated) as well as providing a far-reaching, moving and engrossing interview with the artist and academic herself.

Although her most popular works are generally science fictional (another arena where she broke new ground in such sagas as They Were Eleven!, Marginal and Otherworld Barbara), socially probing human dramas like Mesh and A Savage God Reigns explored previously forbidden realms of psycho-sexual and abusive family relationships with such deft sensitivity that they served to elevate manga from the realm of cheap escapism to literature and even Great Art – a struggle we’re still waging in the West…

This compelling volume traces her beginnings through more traditional themes of romance, but with growing success came the confidence to probe into far darker and more personal subjects, so whereas my usual warnings are about pictorial nudity and sexual situations, here I’m compelled to say that if your kids are smart enough, the contextual matter in these tales might be a tad distressing. It is all, however, rendered with stunning sensitivity, brilliantly visual metaphors and in truly beautiful graceful tones and lines.

The comics section (which is re-presented in the traditional front-to-back, “flopped” manner) begins with ‘Bianca’ from 1971: a wistful reminiscence and disguised disquisition on creativity wrapped in the tragic story of a childhood companion whose parents separated, whilst 1971’s ‘Girl on Porch with Puppy’ is a disquieting cautionary tale about disobedient little girls who don’t try to fit in. From the same year, ‘Autumn Journey’ is a complex mystery concerning a young man trying to meet his favourite author – as well as a painful exploration of families growing up apart.

‘Marié, Ten Years Late’ hails from 1977: a heartbreaking example of a “Sophie’s Choice” as a lonely, frustrated artist discovers the truth behind the breakup of a perfect friendship which twisted three lives, whilst the eponymous science fictional ‘A Drunken Dream’ (1980) deftly describes a doomed reincarnating romance which has spanned centuries and light-years. This is the only full colour story in a generally monochrome volume.

Moto Hagio is one of a select band of creators credited with creating the “boy’s love” sub-genres of shōnenai and Yaio: sensitively homoerotic romances, generally created by women for women and now more popularly described as BL (as opposed to Bara – gay manga created by men for men) and this lyrical, star-crossed fantasy is a splendid example of the form.

‘Hanshin: Half-God’ (1984) is a disturbing, introspective psychological exploration of Hagio’s favoured themes of familial pressure and intolerance, described through the lives of anther girls’ comic favourite; twin sisters. The siblings here however are conjoined: Yucy is a beautiful angelic waif whilst her monovular other Yudy is an ugly withered homunculus.

The story is told by ugly Yudy, whose life is changed forever by an operation to separate them. This incredibly moving tale adds barbed edges and ground glass to the ugly duckling fairytale and cannot fail to shock and move the reader…

From the same year comes longer romantic tale ‘Angel Mimic’ as a failed suicide eventually evolves into a slim chance of ideal love, which poesy leads into the harrowing tale of rejection that is ‘Iguana Girl’.

Although couched in fantasy terms, this tale of contemporary Japanese family life follows the life of Rika, an ordinary girl whose mother thinks she is a monster, and how that view warps the way the child perceives the world throughout her life.

‘The Child Who Comes Home’ (1998) again examines rejection, but uses the memory of a dead son and brother to pick open the hidden scabs of home and hearth – or perhaps it’s just a sad ghost story to clear the palate before this superb commemoration ends with the elegiac and almost silent, solitary pantomime of 2007’s ‘The Willow Tree’ which shows yet another side of family love…

Abuse of faith and trust. Love lost or withheld. Isolation, rejection, loss of purpose: all these issues are woven into a sensuously evocative tapestry of insightful inquiry and beautiful reportage. These tales are just the merest tip of a cataclysmic iceberg that invaded the stagnant waters of Girls’ comics and shattered their cosy world forever. The stories grew up as the readers did; offering challenging questions and options, not pat answers and stifling pipedreams.

Until the day our own comics industries catch up at least we have these stories – and hopefully many more from the same source. Sequels please, ASAP!
All rights reserved. Original Japanese edition published 1977, 1985, 2007, 2008 by Shogakukan Inc. English translation rights arranged through Viz Media, LCC, USA. © 2010 Fantagraphics Books.

Hi Score Girl


By Rensuke Oshikiri translated by Alexander Keller-Nelson (Square Enix Manga & Books)
ISBN: 978-64609-076-7 (Tankōbon PB)

I’ve been dreadfully longwinded of late so here’s a quick review of a book I didn’t expect to like at all, but which happily surprised me.

Let me start by admitting I’m old and slow and physically decrepit. Computer gaming of all stripes and sorts has completely passed me by, and even when I was a fit, demi-god-like Adonis, I was completely immune to the allure of moving screens, ghastly cartoon explosions and things that went blip or bleep. I knew other folk liked them, but I couldn’t care less.

I still don’t, but they’ve been around long enough to have entertained generations and acquire some vintage, and this delightful manga (and the usual anime and movie/TV spinoffs) cannily access that sense of time well spent and happy childhoods to splendid effect for a very human story.

Created by Rensuke Oshikiri, the strip Hai Sukoa Gāru began in October 2010 in Monthly Big Gangan, running until September 2018 and filling ten Tankōbon volumes with the collected adventures. There is talk of a sequel series soon…

It’s actually a slow-burning romcom that begins in 1991, concerning poor schoolboy Haruo “Mighty Fingers” Yaguchi. He hasn’t got much, but he’s the king of his local video game arcade – and any other he can find money to enter. At least, that is, until little perfect miss Akira Oona comes in and starts trashing his scores…

She’s in his sixth-grade class: pretty, rich, aloof. Everybody loves her – even the teachers – even though she never speaks to anyone. What right – or need – has she to invade his sordid dominions?

He hates her.

As she continually and constantly wrecks his rep on a variety of games that will cripple fans and cognoscenti with overpowering nostalgia, his ire grows. However, as shared interests and surprisingly similar domestic problems push them together, his attitudes begin to change. Hers are harder to fathom. Like Tommy in that rock opera, she only seems to come alive in front of a console…

Packed with the kind of technical detail and historical background all geeks – gamers, comics, whatever – and surprise features, this is a truly engaging yarn that ends on a potentially tragic cliffhanger that will have you clamouring for more…
© 2016 Rensuke Oshikiri/SQUARE ENIX CO., LTD. English translation © 2020 SQUARE ENIX CO., LTD.