December 5, 2009

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Tanpenshu Volume 1

Written by Hiroki Endo
Illustrated by Hiroki Endo
Dark Horse

It's hard to ignore a collection that features a shy figure hiding behind a curtain amongst a field of slain stuffed pandas, so massive kudos to the collection designer M. Joshua Elliott, who I would imagine came up with the idea. I know it caught my eye, and I'm glad it did, as this set of dark short stories by Endo is right up my alley, as part of my continuing search for more mature manga material.

(This doesn't mean I don't still love my shojo, I just want to find some other genres to explore.)

Tanpenshu consists of three short stories, each of which rely upon the psychological aspect of storytelling. There's a sense of impending trouble from the beginning of each tale, and the enjoyment for the reader is in seeing the execution and release of that tension.

The Crows, the Girl, and the Yakuza is the first story, and deals with a man who has crossed his bosses for perhaps the last time. Shot and probably dying, he's saved by a strange girl who has a relationship to the crows that stalk the neighborhood. While the Yakuza and the cops try to figure out what's happened, our dying man reflects on how his life turned on not being able to save a small bird. In the end, will be be saved or used for carrion?

Endo weaves the Greek myth of crows into his story and gives the impression that the crows are as smart--perhaps smarter--than the humans around them. They, like the two main characters of the story, are survivors. The innocence of the girl, contrasted by the evil of the Yakuza enforcers, makes for a juxtaposition that worked very well for me in a short story that I could see being adapted for screen, if someone was inclined to do so.

A creepy, stalker feel pervades Because You're Definitely a Cute Girl, the middle story in this volume. We have another young girl as a main focus, but she is nothing like the first one. Like most teenagers with only one parent, she is protective of her father and wary of anyone he opts to date. But as we can see, she has a lot more problems than your average teen. Obsessed with psychology and fixated on her father's life (even watching his porn tapes), she changes herself and starts to find ways to get even closer to her father. Given the clues we've seen so far, that can't possibly be good.

Even though the ending is telegraphed from a mile away, this was still my favorite story in the book because of how well Endo crafts the slow deterioration of his protagonist's sanity. As with any good horror story, we know the end result--it's the getting there that's interesting. Tamura has had too many things scar her past, and her father and friends can't see the problem until it's far too late. While there is no final denouncement of the inevitable crime, the last page, a one-image spread, tells us all we need to know. It's great storytelling in only about 50 pages.

Last but not least is For Those of Us Who Don't Believe in God, about a group of actors putting on a particularly brutal play about a serial killer confronted by the relative of one of his victims. This would be rough enough but on top of it, many of those involved have hangups of their own, leading to violence, hurt feelings, and acting out those feelings in the production.

Family issues, teen relationships, and the problems of growing up mix with the deeply psychological nature of a play about a killed confronted by those left alive, giving us a story that's mostly designed to get us thinking about what it means to live. Can we forgive those who have been so horrible to us? Should we move on and never forgive (or forget)? Can we lead a normal life despite the bad things that have happened? Do they justify us being bad ourselves?

Endo doesn't try to answer those questions, he just slaps us in the face with the fact that no matter how hard we try, we live with those questions every day--or live in denial about it. It's a powerful idea in a short story, and left me pretty impressed.

Tanpenshu is, at heart, a set of post-modern stories that use some fanciful elements to talk about real life issues and ideas, primarily dealing with trauma. All three stories see bad things happening to their main characters, and how it affected their lives. It's rather interesting to me that all three end up using violence to deal with their issue. What does that say about Endo's opinion of humanity? Are we just a bunch of bundles of rage, ready to act out? I'm not sure, but it's something to think about and I feel like that's what Endo wants us to consider after we finish reading these stories.

I like books that make me think, and I love the idea of a manga that presents life as a series of complications--there's no easy way out at the end of the series for these characters, because they're trapped within their 50 or 80 pages. Like us, they have to live the life they're presented with. It's something I've not really seen in a manga story before, probably because I didn't know where to look.

I definitely want to read more manga like this, and if you like post-modern fiction that's more about dealing with life than telling a story, I can't recommend this highly enough. If anyone knows more manga like this, please tell me where to find it!