Let’s Get Visual: The Verklempt-Makers

MICHELLE: It’s time for another installment of Let’s Get Visual, the monthly column in which Melinda Beasi and I attempt to better understand the visual aspects of manga!

This month we’re looking at scenes that have impacted us emotionally. Personally, I had always assumed that a sympathetic reaction to an emotional scene was due purely to my empathy for the characters and whatever they happen to be feeling. Having learned more about an artist’s bag of tricks, however, I began to wonder if the creators weren’t somehow influencing readers to respond in the desired way. To that end, Melinda and I have each picked a scene that made us verklempt and will attempt to look at them from a more critical perspective.

Melinda, why don’t you start us off this time?

MELINDA: Sure! Well, as you know, my original idea when we were talking about this column was to focus on romantic imagery, so I’m going to still go in that direction for my, uh, verkelmptedness.

NANA, Volume 6, Pages 123-125 (VIZ Media)

The scene I’ve chosen comes from volume six of Ai Yazawa’s NANA. Here, Nobu has finally gotten up the nerve to confess his feelings to Hachi, though she’s still involved with Takumi. What I think is especially brilliant on Yazawa’s part, is that she’s managed to create real romantic tension while keeping the characters physically apart, but without the kind of melodrama that might typically involve.

The symbolism seems obvious. The two are standing at the edge of the jetty (maybe less dramatic than a cliff, but similar in feel), separated from each other by the solid sections of the structure. So they’re both out on a limb (metaphorically) by just being there, though circumstances keep them from getting too close. Yazawa sets this tone immediately by establishing their position in the very first frame.

Recognizing the tension of the situation, Hachi tries to lighten the mood, but Nobu’s got a mission, so he gets right to the point. He doesn’t draw things out at all. There’s almost no anticipation, and the dialogue is fairly sparse. Still, with little more than a few camera angles and some subtle body language, Yazawa manages to create a deeply affecting scene, more romantic, even, than in the next volume when the two actually get together. It’s beautifully done and really shows off her powerful talent for romance.

MICHELLE: Oh, that’s such a good point regarding the jetty and their position on it! I totally did not notice that when I read this volume. What strikes me is how different the darkness in this scene feels from the oppressive use of screentone we saw last month in your pick from Tokyo Babylon. For me, the darkness here reinforces the feeling that, for this moment, these two might as well be the only people in the world. I swear, too, that I can almost feel a night breeze when I look at that first page. Perhaps it’s the wide angle used, which emphasizes openness and yet utter solitude.

MELINDA: The night breeze is absolutely there! The flutter of Hachi’s skirt, the still-visible clouds creating a coolness in the air… it’s all there! The wide shot at the end reinforces this too.

And while one might think that it’s the dialogue that makes it romantic (Nobu does say “I’m in love with you.” right at the end, of course), I think the real testament to Yazawa’s skill here is that, even if you take all the dialogue away, the scene reads the same. Take a look:

MICHELLE: It does! I bet if you tasked someone with filling in the dialogue with no knowledge of the series, they would still get the basic gist right, even if they missed some of the specifics of Hachi’s attempt to lighten the mood. Her mute, blushing shake of the head stands out more this way, as well.

MELINDA: This is what makes great comics, in my opinion. Obviously dialogue is important, but Yazawa really lets the artwork tell the story here, and it’s so powerful. This is probably one of my favorite scenes in the whole series.

So what verklemptotomy have you got up your sleeve?

MICHELLE: Well, you’ve probably heard people say, in regards to One Piece, something like, “Wait until you get to volume nine! That’s when it really gets good!” Heck, I have said this, because I think that it is true. For today I’ve chosen the scene that, for me, is the emotional crux of this pivotal volume.

One Piece, Volume 9, Pages 199-200 and 202 (VIZ Media)

At this point in the story, independent and avaricious Nami has been keeping secrets from the other members of the Straw Hat pirates. She is in over her head, trying to deal with an enormous problem on her own, and even though Luffy doesn’t know the specifics of what’s going on, he still wants to help. Here, we finally see Nami break down and finally ask for his assistance, and I swear that this scene gives me goosebumps. I love stories about someone finding the place where they belong, and that’s really what this scene is all about. We’ll see this again when another solitary, wounded woman joins the crew—it takes time to let down one’s guard and accept Luffy’s offer of unquestioning acceptance, and the notion that the crew really becomes a family is an important theme for the series.

Artistically, Oda depicts Nami’s state by putting her in a pose in which she appears almost literally weighed down by her burdens, and also by drawing her very small. It’s a wide angle, and she’s trying to hide her despair, but on the second page she finally allows herself to be open with Luffy and communicate how much she needs him, which is where we finally see the true extent of how upset she is. Of course, Luffy agrees instantly, and the loan of his treasured hat silently communicates many things, like, “You are trusted,” “You are valuable,” and, perhaps most important when up against a powerful foe, “Don’t worry; I’ll come back.”

The final image is one of my favorite pages in the entirety of One Piece. There we find that the other members of the crew have just been waiting for word from Nami. They are all there, ready and willing to come to her aid, and the change in Luffy’s expression in that final panel just says it all: “Nobody messes with a member of my crew.”

MELINDA: I agree, it’s that final bit, the strong demonstration of the support Nami’s got behind her that really punctuates the scene. I think what really strikes me, too, as someone who hasn’t yet read past the first few volumes of the series, is how powerfully Oda uses what is really a very cartoonish art style to create this emotional impact. Luffy’s so goofy, even down to his rubber-man powers, yet there’s nothing goofy at all going on here. Even his “shwing”-y little jump feels weighty in this scene.

MICHELLE: I must admit that I did not scan page 201 because it’s a full-page illustration of Luffy bellowing “Okay!!!!!” in a rather unattractive manner, but otherwise, you’re quite right. Oda’s style takes some getting used to at first, but long acquaintance with the series will reveal that he has crafted a story far more in touch with its emotions than most shounen fare.

And, you know, I suspect this scene would work equally well with all the dialogue stripped away.

MELINDA: I expect you’re right!

MICHELLE: So, in the end, I think it’s fair to say that artists are emphasizing certain elements of emotional scenes to influence a reader’s response, but it doesn’t come across as outright manipulation. That’s probably not even possible. I know we’ve both read series in which the artist tried very hard to wring pathos from flat and lifeless characters to no avail.

MELINDA: Yes, that’s really a great summary of what we’ve seen here, Michelle. Both Oda and Yazawa display their real skill through their subtlety, even though most might not characterize either of these series as “subtle.” They use their artwork to do most of the heavy lifting, so that they don’t have to tell us everything through dialogue, which would be much more obvious and much less effective. That’s their real craft.

MICHELLE: I concur. I raise my Coke in salute to them both. Well done.

Off the Shelf: Ayako

Melinda and I have deviated from our typical Off the Shelf routine to bring you a column devoted entirely to Osamu Tezuka’s Ayako. We both agree that the work is problematic in some respects but is nevertheless masterful.

You can find that column here.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

One Thousand and One Nights at The Hooded Utilitarian

When Noah Berlatsky of The Hooded Utilitarian invited Melinda Beasi and me to contribute one of our conversation-style posts to his site, I knew immediately which series we should talk about. “One Thousand and One Nights!” I cried. It’s one of Melinda’s favorites, for one thing, and something I’d been meaning to read for ages, for another. Additionally, I thought it might be nice to focus on manhwa instead of manga, since it’s rather unsung and all that.

You can find the resulting post here. Thanks again to Noah for the opportunity!

Review copies for volumes eight, ten, and eleven provided by the publisher.

Let’s Get Visual: Tricks of the Trade

MICHELLE: It’s time for another installment of Let’s Get Visual, a monthly feature in which Manga Bookshelf’s Melinda Beasi and I work to expand our artistic horizons!

This month’s column is inspired by a recent TOKYOPOP release, How to Draw Shojo Manga. Instead of simply offering tips on drawing faces, poses, or cute little animals, this book surprised and impressed me by its wealth of specific advice on many aspects of the manga-creation process. I covered it in a recent Off the Shelf column, and concluded by saying, “Even a casual manga fan would find this book illuminating. For a reviewer, particularly ones like us who are trying to improve our skills in artistic criticism, I’d go so far as to call it positively indispensable. There’s so much practical advice about what a mangaka should be—and theoretically is—striving for in his/her work that I found it quite a fascinating read.”

I put together a list of some of the techniques suggested by the book, and Melinda and I kept our eyes out for shoujo manga that puts them into practice. Happily, I stumbled upon a perfect example almost right away in the series Karakuri Odette, recently the topic of the Manga Moveable Feast.

Karakuri Odette, Volume 5, Pages 1-2 (TOKYOPOP)

MICHELLE: These two pages exemplify several elements from How to Draw Shojo Manga. On the first page, for example, we have a variety of different-sized shots of the scene and characters, as recommended on page 60. (“Each page needs a rhythm. If all the panels are the same size, and the characters just sit there talking, that’s no fun to read.”)

In the middle of the second page, when the danger of the falling boards is realized, the use of diagonal lines evokes this piece of advice, from page 68: “By placing a character at a diagonal within the panel, the composition becomes unstable, allowing you to express the character’s anxiety, nervousness, or fear.”

Lastly, you’ve got the cliffhanger page-turn to build up the reader’s anticipation, as advised on page 59. “If you can hook the readers at the bottom of the page and make them ask “What next?!” as they turn the page, then you’ve succeeded.”

I’m starting to wonder if mangaka Julietta Suzuki read this book, too!

MELINDA: Well, if you think about the fact that the book was written by editors from the publisher that released Karakuri Odette, it seems likely that these are standards to which they hold all their artists!

You know, aside from obvious two-page spreads, I’d never really put a lot of thought into how important it can be for a chapter’s right and left-hand pages to be so precisely displayed. But it’s clear here that the bottom left panel of the left-hand page must immediately precede the page turn in order to have its intended impact. This actually brings up some questions for me about the effectiveness of digital distribution, given that most of the readers I’ve encountered favor (or at least allow) single-page views. How much page-to-page impact are we losing by reading manga on a portable device without even realizing it?

MICHELLE: Yes, I had meant to mention that the book was produced by the editors of Hakusensha’s shoujo manga.

And yes, that’s a great point. I believe the viewer at the NETCOMICS site preserves the two-page view, which is excellent, but others don’t. I suppose this is the argument in favor of shelling out loads of money for an iPad instead of trying to read shrinky-dink manga on one’s Kindle, but eh. I think I’ll stick with paper books!

Moving on to pages three and four…

Here we’ve got the resolution to the cliffhanger, in which Odette swoops in to save the day with her android strength. Suzuki uses a nifty trick to express Odette’s predicament simply through composition: placing her alone in the middle of a wide shot (as advocated on page 68) emphasizes her isolation from her classmates in this moment, bringing into focus how different she is from them, in that she can pull off this feat with ease.

Not that this stops her, as she chivalrously scoops up her classmate—”It’s effective to have a panel that draws the eye to the top of the left page,” notes the book—and carries her off. We know they’ve gone to the nurse’s office because Suzuki has followed the advice about using a sign or placard as an establishing shot when changing scenes (page 76).

I’ve got to say, it feels a little odd to be able to match up practically every panel to a specific piece of advice in the how-to book because when I read this scene, I really didn’t think of any of these things. Suzuki may be employing common practices when drawing her series, but that doesn’t make it feel generic.

MELINDA: I’ve definitely found it a bit jarring to realize just how much these pages adhere to a fairly strict artistic formula. It all seemed so natural when I was reading them! I suppose what this really demonstrates, though, is how much careful craft goes into creating something that can flow naturally for millions of individual readers. The visual language that Suzuki uses to tell an effective story using just a series of still drawings is key to our understanding.

Also, it’s important to remember that this kind of structure is only the framework for displaying a story to readers, and not the heart of the manga itself. Suzuki puts a soul into her story that would never be possible by way of panel formula only. The structure just makes some of the storytelling easier, by giving us visual cues our brains can process with little effort. It’s clearing the way for the heart of the story, I suppose.

MICHELLE: Oh, that’s a lovely way to put it. I mean, really, when you think about it, if a creator went to a lot of trouble to come up with some wildly innovative new way to do an establishing shot, for example, it could either not quickly make visual sense to the reader or could detract from their enjoyment by yanking them out of the story. You used the phrase “visual language,” and I think that’s exactly what we’re dealing with here.

MELINDA: Yes, exactly! There’s a reason you weren’t thinking about any of these things when you were first reading the book. The point of this kind of visual language is that you don’t have to. Our brains do that work automatically because we’re already fluent in the language. That’s not to say that there isn’t value in artistic innovation. Of course there is! But with a story like this, you want the focus to be on the characters and their relationships. The craft should be invisible, so as not to distract from the point at hand.

MICHELLE: All I can do is nod, because you’ve said it so well!

How does this visual language manifest itself in the pages you’ve chosen?

MELINDA: Reading How To Draw Shojo Manga, I was struck by how really modern it feels. All the artwork inside is very consistent with what we’ve seen coming over for the past few years, so I thought it might be fun to look at something a little older, as well as something that falls well outside the romance genre, which is what we mostly see these days. To that end, I dug out a volume of CLAMP’s Tokyo Babylon, which is about fifteen years older than Karakuri Odette (give or take) and, though there’s a sort-of-romance element involved, leans heavily towards dark fantasy.

Tokyo Babylon, Volume 6, Pages 109-109 (TOKYOPOP)

Here in the first set of pages, the story’s protagonist, Subaru, is clearly waking from a nightmare. You can see that, like Suzuki, CLAMP is also using varied panel sizes to establish rhythm, as well as a number of different camera angles for cluing us in to Subaru’s state of mind. The contrast between Subaru’s dramatic awakening and the realization that he’s very much alone is especially effective, I think. At the bottom of the first page, we feel his unsteadiness as he pulls back the curtains to let light into the room, and then our eyes are drawn easily to the top left by the reflection of his hand in the mirror, given emphasis by its position in the foreground of the panel.

As the image of Subaru’s sister enters the scene, the panel frames fall away, leaving her sitting freely on the page, indicating both a change of scene and a sunnier, more open space, in contrast to the darkness of everything that comes before. While this bottom left panel lacks the “cliffhanger” feel we saw in the Karakuri Odette pages, this change of time and place gives us a compelling reason to turn the page.

MICHELLE: I agree that the moment of Subaru’s lonely awakening is striking—even though it’s so much smaller than the panel below it, it still packs more of an emotional wallop, I think.

Are you familiar with the musical concept of an agogic accent? In one type, a note is accented simply by being delayed for a fraction of a beat. In other words, it stands out all the more because it’s been given a little bit of space. The bottom-left image of Hokuto reminds me of the same idea—because we’ve busted out of the panel framework and given her some space, she seems all the more significant. The white background behind her does a nice job of evoking happier days, as well.

MELINDA: Oh, what a perfect analogy, Michelle! Yes, I think this is exactly the same concept, applied to visual art. I suppose if you think about it, music and comics have something in common, both being sequential in a manner of speaking.

The first page here is drenched in light, with almost no background detail at all, aside from the mirror and one look at the floorboards, both of which help establish that the scene takes place in the same room that Subaru woke up in. It’s a warm scene in every way, from the brightly lit room to Hokuto’s cheerful dialogue. It would really be the sweetest scene in the world, if our eyes were not inevitably drawn to the heavy darkness of the top left panel.

Hokuto’s still there, of course, but it’s obvious that something is horribly wrong, with Subaru reduced to a tiny figure, trapped in the darkness with his own mirror image. I say “trapped,” because that’s what this feels like to me, with the oppressive darkness surrounding Subaru and the mirror. This feels even more dramatic to me than the lonely image on the first page—an impression enhanced by the violent panel that follows.

Again, we’re not seeing a cliffhanger here. This feels more like a period than an ellipsis, if that makes sense, though it’s pretty effective as is.

MICHELLE: In a way, CLAMP is using some of the same techniques mentioned in How to Draw Shojo Manga on these two pages. Using just enough background to establish the scene—”About one or two panels with backgrounds per page is good,” quoth page 86—and placing a striking image on the top left. And wow, there is just really no escaping the gloom of that left-side panel! Even if you’re not looking at it directly, it certainly registers and tinges one’s read of the brighter page with expectation of sorrow.

MELINDA: Oh, well said! Yes, it makes the bright panels bittersweet simply by being in the peripheral vision of that page.

I expect what we’re seeing here is just how basic and long-standing these visual techniques are, even the background guidelines which seem very specific to shoujo manga. It seems likely that these things became part of the rule due to their effectiveness in practice, rather than the other way around, and I expect we’d see most of these techniques utilized in any country’s long-form comics.

MICHELLE: Oh, definitely. These aren’t arbitrary rules imposed by some official body—they’re effective techniques distilled from what has come before. I could blather on with more comparisons to music here, but perhaps I’ll save that for another day!

Thank you for tuning in to this month’s column. If you have examples of shoujo techniques in practice you’d like to share, or opinions of where we’ve gone right or wrong, please join in the discussion! We’d love to hear from you.

Let’s Get Visual: Duds

MICHELLE: After a few months of this column, I feel like I’m better able to think critically about the artistic aspect of manga. I expected to be able to better appreciate good art when I see it, but hadn’t anticipated that I’d also more readily notice flaws. This month, Melinda Beasi (of Manga Bookshelf) and I turn our attention to problematic pages or, as I like to call them, “duds.” (Click on images to enlarge.)

Fairy Tail, Volume 10, Page 84 (Del Rey)

MELINDA: Wow. I’m… a little bit stymied by that image.

MICHELLE: It is a doozy, isn’t it? Actually, that page was the inspiration for this whole column. There I was, innocently reading volume ten of Fairy Tail, then I turned the page and was brutally accosted by that monstrosity!

So, as is probably pretty obvious, the speaker is unhinged. Mangaka Hiro Mashima has opted to depict this by freezing the guy in the act of making a weird face and forcing readers to read two huge bubbles full of ranting speech before we can proceed to the final (and uninteresting) panel on the bottom of the page. Now, maybe this is a tactic to make us feel as trapped as the girl does, having to sit there and listen to this lunatic ramble on, but it doesn’t do a good job at conveying his insanity. The page feels flat and lifeless; a better choice would have been to inject more movement into the scene, break up the speech, and maybe allow the guy the opportunity to change expressions throughout his tirade.

MELINDA: I honestly feel accosted by the page. Its primary image is loud, but not particularly expressive in any other way than that, and the text feels overwhelming to the point where I can’t really even bring myself to try to read it all. Not only that, the page is so top-heavy, I find it difficult to even look at. That bottom image is completely wasted there, not that it’s much of a waste.

MICHELLE: Yeah, it’s weird how an amount of text that would be perfectly reasonable to read in a prose novel suddenly looks so daunting in a speech bubble, but it really does. And you’re absolutely right that it’s loud without being expressive. Everything about this page is just so glaringly bad that I knew we had to build a column around lousy art so that I’d have an excuse to talk about it with someone!

MELINDA: Well, feel free to talk as much as you like, because I’ve rarely seen something so pointlessly hideous. And though I hate to think that I’m reacting purely out of aesthetics, I can’t deny that it offends me greatly on that level.

MICHELLE: I think that’s pretty much the only basis on which you can be expected to react, since you haven’t read the manga in question. For me, it completely yanked me out of the story, which I find inexcusable.

And though I appreciate the offer to further vent my spleen, perhaps we should proceed on to your dud of choice.

Baseball Heaven, pages 133-134 (approx.) (BLU Manga)

MELINDA: Okay, then. My “dud” comes from Ellie Mamahara’s Baseball Heaven, a BL manga I expressed no great love for in our BL Bookrack column a couple of months ago. I assume I don’t need to describe what’s happening in the scene, and chances are I don’t need to tell anyone what’s wrong with it, either, but of course that’s why we’re here.

I look at this scene, and there’s simply no passion in it. None at all. Here we have a guy, supposedly in an altered state of mind, making the moves on his teammate who has rebuffed him in the past, and not only do we not get any real sense of how either of them are feeling (we wouldn’t even know the one was drunk if it wasn’t for indications in the word balloons and flushed cheeks), but there’s absolutely no sexual tension between them conveyed through the artwork. And while I can appreciate that perhaps we’re meant to believe that athletes might be stiff and awkward with each other, surely the drunk guy, at least, would have a little heat in his body language here.

The artist goes through the motions, placing them physically near each other and indicating that the one is, perhaps, touching the other’s behind, but there is just no real feeling between them at all. Even when their faces are so close together, Mamahara is unable to provide any magnetic reaction between them. I should feel that they *want* to touch each other. It should feel painful for them not to. Instead, it leaves me completely cold.

MICHELLE: I definitely see what you mean! Personally, I keep staring at that first panel on the second page. They look so stiff and awkward. It’s not that I expect the position of a character’s legs to help drive the emotional content of a scene, but when they’re as oddly placed as the blond guy’s are, it feels unnatural and, by extension, makes everything else going on in the scene feel the same way.

MELINDA: I think I’d go so far as to say that in a scene like *this* one, I kind of *do* expect the position of a character’s legs to help drive the emotional content of the scene. It’s just as I was saying before, there should be a sense that the characters want desperately to touch each other (this includes legs) even if they might be scared to do so. I should see that in the legs and every other part of the body, at least in the drunk guy who is initiating the contact in the first place. It’s a seduction scene with no actual seduction going on.

Also, I feel like the panels are getting in the way of us viewing the scene, which is a weird and uncomfortable feeling. And unlike in last month’s selection where this was done to elicit response from the reader, here it just feels like clumsiness on the part of the artist. She provides these little glimpses of their faces and legs in the smaller panels, but since there is no tension in those panels, they don’t add anything to the scene. They just steal space from the main action, such as it is.

Wow, I’m really ranting now, aren’t I? Please stop me.

MICHELLE: You’re quite right, but I shall stop you as requested by introducing my second dud!

Moon Boy, Volume 9, Page 3 (Yen Press)

MICHELLE: Initially, it was the affronted rooster in the lower left that caught my eye and made me pause to really take in the complete and utter randomness of this page.

You’ve got a young person of indeterminate gender, swaddled in coat and boots, flushed and exhaling a gust of wintry air, possibly due to the exertion of just having decapitated a nearby snowman. This person is surrounded by such seasonal items as a piece of pie, a cookie, a beehive (with fake bees), an inverted dog bowl, and a pair of barnyard pals.

This was enough to have me snickering, but closer inspection reveals several problems in proportion and perspective. For one, take a look at that snowman’s nose. I’m pretty sure that is supposed to be the traditional carrot, but the artist was unable to draw it from a head-on perspective so instead it looks like a giant almond. Secondly, check out the boots. The right foot is clearly much larger than the left, and I don’t think it’s just an issue of angle—the detail on the top of each foot is different! Finally, actually wearing the mitten dangling by the person’s right hand on said hand would cause the heart pattern to appear on the palm side rather the back of the hand, where such designs typically go.

This is just sloppy and, above all, weird. What do these items have to do with each other? I also found it odd that one of the designs in the border is actually a musical symbol called a mordent. The mordent belongs to a class of musical embellishments called “ornaments,” which could carry a Christmassy connotation, except that I don’t credit this artist with that much cleverness.

MELINDA: I’ll admit I’m not too picky about things like perspective and such, but I am somehow disturbed by the way his fingers are digging into the poor snowman’s head. What did that poor (decapitated) snowman ever do to anyone? It’s as though he’s digging right into its scalp. Which looks oddly fleshy. And now I’m feeling shuddery.

MICHELLE: I don’t think I would have noticed the perspective problems if not for the chicken, to be honest, but spotting it here did spur me to notice other problems in the rest of the volume, notably a few deformed thumbs and some confusing action scenes that I wrote about in my review of the volume. I wasn’t sure what to make of the hands, honestly. If it’s that cold, why aren’t you wearing your mittens, kid?

MELINDA: If he put on his mittens, he wouldn’t be able to grab that piece of pie when it comes down. 😉

MICHELLE: Well, pie is important…

And that’s it for us this month. Do you have some duds of your own you’d like to share? We’d love to hear about them!

The Return of the NANA Project

I’ve reached a point with NANA where, instead of wanting to write a review all by my lonesome, I save all my thoughts for the always-enjoyable roundtable discussion with Danielle Leigh and Melinda Beasi. Their perceptions of the work cause me to look at it in new ways, and it’s a testament to the depth of the story that we’re on our eighth column and still haven’t run out of things to talk about!

This time we discuss volumes fifteen and sixteen and touch on subjects like the commercialization of Blast’s sound (and how this affects their fan base), Yasu’s motives regarding Nana, Nana’s complex desires and Ren’s surprising ability to ennumerate them, “Why don’t they just break up already?”, the importance of Nobu in Nana’s life, and several unspoken comparisons between Nana and Hachi’s current relationships and how they pan out in the future.

You can find that discussion here! Don’t forget to help us decide on our next topic (since we’ve only five volumes of NANA left) by leaving a suggestion in the comments!

Review copy for volume sixteen provided by the publisher.

Let’s Get Visual: Of Sakura and the Sea

MICHELLE: Welcome to the November edition of Let’s Get Visual, a monthly column in which Manga Bookshelf’s Melinda Beasi and I attempt to improve our understanding of manga art!

We don’t have any particular theme this month, but that hasn’t stopped us from assembling some interesting pages to talk about! Melinda has chosen a two-page spread from the fourth volume of Children of the Sea, which is due out from VIZ next month. (Click on images to enlarge.)

Children of the Sea, Volume 4, Pages 328-329 (VIZ Media)

What is it you find noteworthy about these pages, Melinda?

MELINDA: Well, there isn’t a *lot* I want to talk about here. Mostly I want to discuss panel size and how it affects the reader’s experience and understanding of this scene.

Certainly it goes without saying that a mangaka may use a full-page panel to give weight to a specific scene or piece of dialogue, but what I hadn’t considered before analyzing these pages is how much the panels leading up to a full-page panel can be used to influence the way a reader feels when he/she gets there.

In the first page I’ve provided here, mangaka Daisuke Igarashi chops everything into pieces. Our view of the characters who are speaking to each other in the scene is limited to a single eye; half of a face; legs; a brief, narrow profile; and finally a view from a doorway that shows us their entire bodies, but with a maddening lack of clarity. No matter where we look on that page, we are prevented from getting a clear view of either of them. Our efforts are obstructed at every panel, creating a sense of frustration that I, at least, felt keenly while reading that page.

As a result, when I finally reached the full panel page that came next, my first reaction was a sense of relief. This feeling eclipsed everything else, including my understanding of what was actually being said. And honestly, it affected my feelings about what was being said, which is significant particularly since the character doing the talking is generally unreliable. My strong sense of relief actually gave him more credibility than he would have had with me otherwise. I believed him, because he was the one who eased my frustration. That’s some pretty powerful storytelling.

MICHELLE: What surprises me in what you said is “either of them.” From the way the panels are constructed, to someone who has never read the series before it seemed like several people were actually present. Even so, I too experienced a profound sense of relief at escaping the claustrophobic first page into the open space of the second. That’s pretty appropriate for a scene talking about birth!

MELINDA: Well, and I did misspeak on one point, which is that actually only one of them is speaking. The other is being led along in confusion and frustration, just like the reader, right up until the moment that the full-page panel appears.

Iarashi’s artwork is stunning to look at throughout this series, but this was the first time I really paid attention to the way it was structured and how that alone might affect me as a reader.

MICHELLE: Yeah, I think this is a very clear example of how panel size makes a difference. Good choice!

MELINDA: So what have you got to share with us today?

MICHELLE: My selections come from the omnibus collecting volumes four and five of the josei series, Suppli, and are actually not consecutive pages. A little background information is required.

Suppli, Volume 4, Pages 151, 162, and 164-165 (TOKYOPOP)

Single again after her boyfriend, Ogiwara, takes a job in America, Minami Fujii is nursing a growing attraction for a pervy photographer named Sahara. When they’re on a group trip scouting locations for a commercial shoot, with sakura blooming all around and memories of Ogiwara intruding, Sahara catches Fujii when she stumbles. Though she knows he’s bad news, the shock of contact prompts the realization, “I don’t want to be careful.”

A few pages later, she ends up hurting her ankle and Sahara misses an important meeting to take her to the hospital. As he ruffles her hair and tells her not to worry about it, wispy trails of sakura begin to appear. It’s like a sort of visual shorthand mangaka Mari Okazaki is using to reveal Fujii’s emotional state. The sakura has come to represent her attraction for this man—a kind of mental static obliterating the reasons why she shouldn’t want him.

The feeling only grows when Sahara touches her leg to replace the bandages, and when Fujii realizes he must have carried her into her apartment, the sakura runs amok across the bottom half of the page, symbolizing how she’s being swept away into a possibly doomed relationship by feelings and associations that she can’t control. It’s quite effective!

MELINDA: As someone who hasn’t read these volumes of the series yet, I was particularly struck by the way everything you’re talking about is brought together in a single box of narration. “The memory of contact.” Perhaps I’m way off base, but I feel like that’s a verbalization of exactly what you’re talking about. It begins with the “shock of contact” as you mention, and is carried through by repeated physical contact—even just the ruffling of hair. And you’re right, it’s very effective! You can follow the thread of contact through the sakura blossoms.

MICHELLE: Okazaki has used symbolism in Suppli before, but this one is more subtle than most. When I read page 162 for the first time, I thought, “What are those frazzly little thingies?” It wasn’t until I got to pages 164-165 that I realized they were significant, and then had to flip back and find the point of the story with which they correlated. Then I went, “Ohhhhh!”

MELINDA: It’s one of those things that would just move along quietly in your subconscious if you weren’t actively thinking about it.

MICHELLE: Probably so, yes! Both of our examples today highlight the care and consideration mangaka put into their work—especially, it seems, those writing for older readers. In addition to being able to draw beautifully, they can also wring sympathy and (perhaps unfounded) allegiance out of readers by the simple way they structure their stories.

That’s it for this installment of Let’s Get Visual! Thanks for reading and please feel free to share your feedback and personal interpretations of these selections!

Breaking Down Banana Fish 9-10

The fifth installment of Breaking Down Banana Fish, covering volumes nine and ten, is now up at Manga Bookshelf!

These volumes feature the dramatic conclusion to the fight between Ash Lynx and his rival, Arthur, and the resulting fallout, somehow culminating in Ash having to escape from a mental hospital. As ever, it’s pretty awesome.

The story is very well balanced, too, giving each group of characters something to contribute. Ash and Eiji barely glimpse each other, but are never far from the other’s thoughts. Reporter Max Lobo gets more aggressive about outing Dino Golzine’s misdeeds. The detectives from the NYPD must watch helplessly as their investigation into the gang war is taken over by (corrupt) federal agents. Yut-Lung and Sing from the Chinese mafia interact with each other—and with Eiji—in interesting ways. Even Papa Dino—ousted from his position with the Corsican mafia thanks to Ash—shows unexpected depth when he urges his nemesis to escape from the hospital and later smugly enjoys watching his successor attempt to handle the chaos that ensues when Ash seizes his chance.

You can find our discussion here!

Off the Shelf Gets in the Spirit!

Such is the gravitational pull of Soliloquy in Blue’s Halloween Week that it has even sucked Manga Bookshelf into its orbit! Well, for one day, at least.

Check out the latest edition of Off the Shelf, in which Melinda Beasi and I discuss supernatural offerings like From a Twisted Mind, Nightschool: The Weirn Books, Demon Sacred, and Higurashi When They Cry: Beyond Midnight Arc!

Halloween Week 2.0!

Welcome to Soliloquy in Blue’s second annual Halloween Week! Beginning today, October 25, and continuing through Sunday, the 31st, I’ll be posting daily reviews of novels and manga with a supernatural bent. Some may be cute and fluffy, some may be genuinely creepy, but all will fit the general theme.

Last year I asked for recommendations for future Halloween reading, and I’m happy to say I’ll be fulfilling two of them! My review of the gothic classic The Mysteries of Udolpho has already been posted to the site, and my take on the two-volume horror manga, Gyo, will be up tomorrow. Once again, if you’ve got any spooky suggestions for me, I’d love to hear them! After rereading last year’s comments, and reading Jason Thompson’s excellent piece on ANN, I’m thinking The Drifting Classroom has already secured a spot for next year.