Woe to the World – Darkness! Drear! Humanity Sucks? – Misery and Kio Versus Asano

(Spoilers for Punpun and Gonensei)

1.

The scariest movie I have ever watched in my life is probably Still Walking by Hirokazu Koreeda. Ten thousand Lovecraftian tales of cosmic horror could not stand up to it. Its fundamental picture of humanity is so terrifying precisely because of its strong emotional core and hyper-focus onto what really constitutes our day to day relationships.

On the other hand, it’s also a film that contains things like kids running around and playing while adults talk about their daily life.

The bleakest movie I have ever watched probably has to be a tie between The Insect Woman by Shohei Imamura and Killing of a Chinese Bookie by John Cassavetes. Both hold deep understanding that suffering and darkness is essentially a mute and ridiculous aspect of life – and it is neither to be romanticized in the Gothic sense nor aggrandized in the Misery porn sense. The true crux of the matter comes from the fact that suffering, being a biological staple, enforces necessity onto the human spirit, and returns it to its base apathy. Thus, the main characters in both films don’t really moan about their own suffering – they continue through with cold pragmatism that this is what life has thrust upon them.

The Insect Woman alone easily triumphs all of the other films and works out there that depict subject matter like rape, the suffering of poverty, prostitution, patriarchal systems etc… with such embarrassing melodrama. This is because Imamura also has no qualms about displaying his own subject in the worst possible light – the heroine is a schemer, opportunist, and all-around bitter human being. Still, in a trick that only the most powerful artists can pull off, he manages to catalyze genuine emotion towards her in certain scenes, such that you actually find yourself resonating on the same wavelength to such a creature. It leaves you wondering how such a sterile and cold directorial technique could actually create such deep feelings.

2.

The greatest sin of a work of art is to be self-serious. Critic Alex Sheremet characterizes this as a ‘push-pull’ factor that is necessary in all great works. You can choose to sketch out the scene as you want it, but you also have to know when to pull back into something more detached, ironic, or sublime. Take note that ‘irony’ here is not in the cheap sense of merely undermining – but providing a different view of the scenario through laughter, while still keeping the basic character and emotional components. Which is something that passes over the heads of so many people who split a false dichotomy between ‘sincerity/irony’ and sanctifies one or the other – as if doing that thing is enough, rather than doing it right.

Now, with a bit of detachment, I can also pinpoint a few problems with say – something like Oyasumi Punpun – which is usually touted as a good example of how to do the misery factor correctly. Admirers, like myself, would probably say that it strikes a good balance between genuinely sincere sentiments (e.g. the talk that Punpun’s uncle and a cab driver has about life in chapter 49), depression, and irony. Getting in touch with quite a number of other works, though, would place that view under greater scrutiny.

One of the great things that Punpun has going for it is how the art complements the feelings, while simultaneously drawing away from them. Depicting the characters as cartoon penguins will definitely place the emotions in a more detached light, but then allowing for expressionistic brushstrokes will allow one to push for emotional resonance when needed (like how Punpun’s angst is always drawn out with crazy fervor and dark lines). That schism is a technique wholly special to the comics medium, where the artist has tight control over every aspect of the work.

So, when you have a scene as ridiculously melodramatic as Punpun’s uncle having this talk with the cab driver who can say such blatant sentimentalities as “I’m just an old fool so I could be wrong but I think that what people who’ve committed crimes needs isn’t punishment but rather the knowledge of the pain of being forgiven” – and then you have this extremely melodramatic image of his cartoon penguin form standing on a pier with the sun rising (which is like one of the most generic metaphors in the world) – the art actually allows for your mind to process that scene as what it is rather than just face it in complete disbelief.

But that’s the problem with Inio Asano overall. He only goes ‘out’ with his art, but he rams the ‘in’ a thousandfold with the structure of his narratives. His character arcs will frequently overload on the angst before drifting away into a melodramatic conclusion. Even the ironic moments are attached to either plain non-sequiturs or merely positing a single idea like ‘the world is ridiculous seen through the eyes of a child’ or ‘society is mad and therefore weirdo cults capture the most truth’. This problem isn’t special to Punpun. In fact most of his works have it. Even as he gets better at execution – the structure is still more or less in such kinds of character arcs.

One of the best methods that Asano used in Punpun, though, although people would disagree and argue that that is the part that becomes heavy-handed (conveniently ignoring that majority of the manga is rife with melodrama), is during the finale when it’s just Punpun and Aiko walking around lost to each other. It sets up a grounding to all of the exuberance that came before hand. It tells you that this is finally the moment where reality comes to the forefront.

Problematically, though, that moment goes on for too long. It has the same tone to the part in the Killing of a Chinese Bookie where Cosmo is sent running through a dark and cold world trying to find the mansion of the bookie so that he can perform his assassination – but the Punpun version goes on for a ridiculous amount of chapters and still suffers from incredible angst, while the Cassavetes version is detached and allows for the atmosphere to unfold – even having a moment where Cosmo takes refuge in a restaurant and allows the temporary banality of the waitresses and customers to outline, deeper, his internal state. If Asano had cut down on that arc to about maybe half or even a quarter of its length, and excised the most overbearing parts, it would have been closer to a better counterpoint (which, I’m guessing, was what he tried to do).

Overall, even though I like him personally, I still have to place Inio Asano as a trailblazer – one who’d come up with a whole variety of new possibilities before they’d be put into greater use by later explorers of the medium. He shows how these techniques can be placed into proper structures, although he himself is not as good as coming up with the structures themselves. His worlds feel wide, hearty, and emotional, on first glance, but there’s something that prevents penetration.

3.

What took me to this conclusion, though, was coming in contact with Kio Shimoku’s Yonensei + Gonensei. It only lasts 37 chapters long, yet it condenses enough psychological meat in that short span to the point where Asano’s pace feels sluggish in comparison. True, it’s a bitterly cynical take on University Life and suffers from its own excesses and dreary monologues at certain points in time – and the art is merely functional without being anything grand – but how it resolves its character arcs places it far above many things that Asano has.

A quick outline of the plot: the manga charts the declining relationship between Shima Akio and Soma Yoshino as they navigate through university life. Much of this comes from the fact that Akio is a perpetual slacker while Yoshino is a pragmatic overachiever set on becoming a top attorney. Much of the flak the manga has received probably comes from the sadistic bait-and-switch that Kio pulled. He ended Yonensei on a calm and bittersweet note, implying that the couple had progressed to a comfortable level, but decided to push the drama and conflict all the way in Gonensei.

Yet, even when he pushed the drama in the second series, it was completely fair and fell in line with the character personalities. Gonensei starts off with Akio finding out that he lacked the points to graduate, and has to continue on into a 5th year at university – while Yoshino not only graduated, but managed to find a top tier job at a law firm, and is set on taking her bar exam. This means that the couple basically has to start a long-distance relationship, and that’s where all the trouble happens.

A problem might be that sometimes the characters sound too self-analytical – sometimes bringing up tropes and romance genre trappings and then saying that ‘it’s not like things would go like that’ or something. Possibly it’s a result of this being Kio’s early works, that he has to eschew his inspirations openly rather than mesh them together in a more invisible form. I definitely suffer from the same problems at my current stage of writing. Furthermore, he likes to milk the most dramatic scenes for all their worth – with the major point of conflict in Gonensei being this long post-coital conversation where both characters go into long tirades of self-analysis. This kind of writing in soliloquy places it closer to stuff like Chekhov and Dostoyevsky. Woody Allen, on the other hand, is significantly better at hiding these sorts of analytics or putting it in a more believable light.

But, speaking of Woody Allen, Kio Shimoku’s greatest trick is the creation of Akio as a character. He’s our primary viewpoint even though Yoshino is also a focal character. We see the world primarily through his eyes, and even get to look at scenes where he’ll walk into video stores and ruminate about the intricacies of porn – that kind of self-effacing humor. We also get to see his loneliness and suffering in full extent. This places the heft of the empathy onto him, but, it’s all a trick. Frequently, other characters will drop hints that he aggrandizes his suffering to play the victim, while seeking to maintain his loafing lifestyle. In other words, he’s rather unreliable and self-delusional. Allen did the same trick with his humorous characters in films like Annie Hall and Manhattan – he made them empathetic although secretly they were the bearers of their own troubles.

This understanding is what really places Gonensei a far cry above other examples of misery and infidelity-angst works out there. It doesn’t always push ‘in’. It goes ‘out’ as well. Also Yoshino is manipulative and egotistical, Akio can’t see his own flaws and is quite willing to merely cruise around with life. The only reason why they change by the end is because they come into contact with characters who have even worse personalities than them. Yoshino almost gets stabbed by a jealous wife, while Akio gets played around with by a seductress.

It’s quite telling of the differences in tone when you compare the infidelity arcs of Oyasumi Punpun and Gonensei. In Oyasumi Punpun, as I outlined above, Punpun’s Uncle’s bout of infidelity ends with a sentimental conversation with a cab driver who tells him to live life meaningfully, while his wife, in her angst, decides to seduce Punpun. It’s all played out as extremely overdone.

What happens in Gonensei is that Yoshino tries to get into an affair with a man who constantly keeps her at distance. Due to her failures, she gets into a bit of self-angst, and suffers from biological repercussions at her job due to stress. She receives some advice from a doctor, and merely goes back to having to deal with it – at least until the shocking knife encounter occurs which completely breaks all that apart. Interspersed between this is scenes of Akio getting seduced, which will lead up to the start of his own growth and self-awareness.

Now, you’d consider the knife attack as a plot device to be quite excessive as well, but this exact moment, I feel, is probably one of the best turns within the story itself. During the moment when Yoshino gets attacked with a knife, her mind immediately draws back to a conversation she was having with Akio about the application of the Law to real life – and how, as mere written or verbal devices, have little influence on a situation directed by passion. Not only does it place a mere standard infidelity trope into a new light, but it also outlines a couple of the primary themes of the story, all in a single chapter – how society is really reflected in the passions of its individuals, how Yoshino personally has to retain her sense of order amidst the recklessness of her passions, and how much communication, over deceit, is the underlying method to solve all this. This call to emotional integrity amidst our passions is what creates that sense of calm optimism in the final chapter, where the couple, after falling backwards for so much of the way, finally manage to move slightly forward and are more comfortable with their failings.

The story, as a whole, is probably too excessive in some portions to definitively be marked as great – and Kio would go all the way to the flipside later with his comedy series Genshiken. Even then, at 37 chapters of dense characterization linked up to greater themes of society, there’s a clear rift between Gonensei and Inio Asano’s works overall.

4.

The point of all this, though, is that the power of a work always lies the emotional core outlined by structure and characters – no matter whether the work itself is miserable or optimistic. It’s also outlined in the way that the creator can step away from the work itself to create strong counterpoints which can provide a detached or sublime view of whole.

Most importantly – it does not matter what stylistic techniques are used to but how they are used. The realistic art juxtaposed against the cartoonic figures in Punpun is an ‘out’. The detached analysis of characters in Gonensei or (to a better extent) The Insect Woman is an ‘out’. Romeo Tanaka placing together quick emotional, psychological and poetic turns amidst overblown comedy scenes is an ‘out’. The ironic style of Vonnegut and Kundera is an ‘out’. The improvised and mumbling characters of Cassavetes is an ‘out’. The ridiculous fanciful turns in Mahler symphonies are ‘outs’. The caricatured characters and cold cinematography of Kubrick Films are ‘outs’. The moments of startling natural ferocity in the middle of Kurosawa films are also ‘outs’.

A problem with Literature, which only has a linear text dimension, is that it’s harder to create disjuncts in the text without breaking the structure. Image and Music add an extra dimension in film. That is the problem with much attempts at experimentation with styles – only being able to outline an intellectual play without really getting to any core – then falling back on ‘theory’ when questioned. There is a difference between actual chaos, and a sly depiction of chaos which is actually well-controlled behind the scenes. A difference between Picasso, who used chaos in specific ways to depict a variety of human emotional states, no matter whether crude (Guernica) or gentle (Green Leaves and Bust), or even a mixture of both (Girl Before a Mirror) – with many other abstract painters out there.

True experimentation, in other words, is exceedingly rare, while people who are frequently ‘experimental’ carry the same style everywhere. Herman Hesse’s Siddartha – a work that is able to depict so vivid and general a mode of human existence in such a short amount of time even though it’s main character is merely a philosophical mouthpiece with a thin personality, is an experimental achievement far above many other works.

Thus, true ‘misery lit’, a depiction that allows us to see its constituents straight in the face rather than wallow in the mere ‘aesthetics’ of it – is just as rare. It’s hard, after all. Quite frequently you’d want to write a work where you want to seriously depict misery – simply because it’s such an important aspect to you when you yourself are within it. With all the crying hearts in the world, very little people can see the mute and dumb aspect of it. Other times, like with Asano, we’d want to give it too quick a reprieve through a sentimental counterpoint, so that we can get a sense of that alleviation passed through the characters. An optimism that is just as bad a tendency because it rarely stakes out the matter in a precise fashion – although it may warm the hearts of those involved.

To grapple with such a thing requires absolute control. Not to say, though, that one must relinquish emotions – but that emotions can still be applied in a smart manner. A balance of everything involved, and nothing out of place, and you’ll be able to see it for what it truly is.

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Bite-Sized: Brandon Graham’s King City (and, also, Multiple Warheads)

(King City is an indie comic masterpiece-objet d’art by Brandom Graham. It’s hard to explain what his style is like, so you should go Google-Image search it yourself. Clutter after clutter of detail, strange alien scenery mixed with brief descriptions of everything everywhere, and pun after pun after pun. His other comic, Multiple Warheads, is also a same kind of Beast. This review was written on Goodreads, as a response to two primary critiques of the comic: That the story was non-linear and ‘nothing happens’, and that Graham, with his background as a porn artist, is objectifying women. So… spoilers, but, really, it doesn’t quite matter, because the ‘spoiler’ stuff isn’t the core of the comic.)

Brandon Graham’s closest analogue, in another medium, is probably the French Comedic Master Jacques Tati, especially his film Playtime. Both are less linear works and more spatial set-pieces that seem to expand multitastically into actionic and comedic structures.

It’s getting to be a critic cliche to say that ‘the main character is the setting’, but Graham is the artist to actually make that line ring true. Multiple Warheads is narratively slacker, and explodes even wider into landscape after landscape after object after object after person after person, but King City isn’t lacking on that front at all. The amount Graham crams into a single image is ridiculous. His sensibility is wholly Manga + Underground + Graffiti… actually, its probably everything ever existent. I’m following him on Twitter, and he posts some of the most obscure subversive art stuff from everywhere.

There’s a quote at the end of King City, which I will probably keep in my head forever

“With Great Power comes a great response: Go fuck yourself”

This is the essence of the story. Joe is a Cat-Master. He’s given one of the most powerful abilities in the world he lives in. He spends his time floating in and out of various dangerous jobs (usually given by a mysterious femme-fatale anarchist-revolutionary, Beebay), strange conspiracies, and lusting silently after his ex-girlfriend. It’s revealed as the Nature of the City, to be perpetual struck by that kind of dangerous. It’s a wild and flamboyant style of life that requires a heady detachment to churn through.

On the opposite side is Max. An ex-vet from zombie-Korea. It’s a brilliant touch that he’s suffering from a drug-addiction, where he himself is turning into the drug. Compared to Joe, he spends most of his time re-cuperating from his war experiences, and his ghosts. He’s at the farthest end of the King City lifestyle. He’s toned down. This reflects off those moments which shows him in full battle-gear, revving up zombie hordes with double chainsaws. He remembers a time when he felt ‘invincible’, until it all slowly went downwards. King City is a kind of drug.

Yet Anna attaches herself to Max. In Joe’s reminisces, she’s seen as the ‘pixie-dream girl’ character (although, actually, the whole cast is high, but still…). She’s anarchistic. She spray paints billboards. She rocks, basically. Yet, you can get some sense that the degraded relationship occurred because King City was too fast for both of them. They were split by the tide. King City flows with alien prostitutes and mysterious femme-fatale bomb-revolutionaries. Scenes after scenes after scenes state that largeness and fullness, and, yet, sometimes, emptiness, of the streets. Joe’s relationship is with the city. It pushes into him, sends him into strange trajectories, and just doesn’t let go.

The ending is pretty much the perfect way to tie it down. Joe learns to wind down. He helps Max and Anna. He rejects Beebay’s advances. He chills down with his friends in an apartment, watching the other Cat Masters deal with the destructive Lovecraftian beast. Afterwards, life carries on. He’s gotten slacker, taking his own stride within the flow of the city.

And people said there was no character development.

Of course, if you come in expecting linearity, or resolution, none of that is ever to be found. King City is a subtle mood piece placed together under a razzle-dazzle of profound activity. Multiple Warheads is the same, except that it expresses the opposite flow. In MW, Sexica starts moving from stasis. In KC, Joe gets it together. Multiple Warheads is a Journey, King City is a pit-stop. Multiple Warheads is Discovery, King City is Observation. Together, both comics provides one of the fullest expansions of a whole World.

In the meantime, people critique female body proportions, and objectification, forgetting that within these pages (MW and KC combined) Brandon Graham has created probably more than a thousand different body types of ambiguous alien genders. Beebay’s helper for one, is this rotund lipsticked masked thing that she kisses with slight adoration. In MW, beyond Sexica, her double exists in the form of an adventurous masculine-looking blue -haired bounty hunter. In other pages of MW, a feminine male dancer is a couple with this small blue armadillo thing, and their bed has about three other aliens in it.

Such an expectation and critique probably results from the eschewed linearity. People see the pulp sexploitation plot, rather than the larger aspect of Joe’s relation with the City as a whole, pushing in and out into a state where he realizes, that, his own meagre story is really not that important. Furthermore, he doesn’t get the girl, and it isn’t played in a cheap way, nor is it played didactically, to prove a strained point. It is what it is. A lot like Life.

Likewise people focus on Sexica as the ‘porn character’, although most of MW isn’t even her story. And the parts that are, aren’t about her sexuality.

(Now, if you want to see sexual objectification played didactically, AMAZINGLY well, just go read the whole Empowered series by Adam Warren – which goes beyond plain sexual politics into a whole larger larger picture, of media as a whole, and what it means to be a Hero or a Villain).

Such smallness of interpretation is really saddening, because Art like this should be breathed and trumpeted from the heavens, while the rest of the industry is being consumed by a flaming fullisade of Superhero comics.

You don’t ‘get’ King City. You breathe King City. You don’t ‘read’ the story of Joe. You read the story of a World.

In the words of the Cat-Master: “Go fuck yourself, I’m not your pet Cat-Master”

Bite-Sized: The Sinfest Effect

http://www.sinfest.net/

For the uninitiated, Sinfest is a webcomic that started in 2000, and its basically been continuing one strip a day ever since. The format is in the style of old newspaper comics (kind of like Sluggy Freelance) whereby the first 6 days of the week are 4 panel single strips, and the Sunday strip is in full color. The plot started off as some kind of supreme American satire, with its respective ‘normal’ main characters duking out its various matters with a whole host of archetypes like God, Satan, Buddha, a religious fundamentalist archetype, Uncle Sam etc…

If you go and look at any kind of review online though, you’ll know what the main deal with Sinfest is.

I’ll just quote TV Tropes since it describes it a whole lot better

“However, in October 2011, Sinfest began a huge shift in theme and focus with the introduction of the Sisterhood. This was the first step in the comic ditching almost every aspect of its old nature and turning toward a radical brand of second-wave feminism. In the current setting, society is brainwashed by a Matrix-like Patriarchy controlled by the Devil, and the comic’s world is connected to an alternate reality where greed, lust, and other traits fueled by the Patriarchy are the norm.”

So kind of like Dave Sim, except that while Sim went crazy and started to espouse heinous reactionary views against the mainstream in favor of things like misogyny and mysticism and all that, Tatsuya Ishida went, instead, to take the mainstream extreme of espousing radical feminism. And many claimed the change was so sudden that they felt alienated by what the artist was doing, and they also felt he used too many strawmen in setting up his cases, and of course Ishida did not help by supposedly attacking the detractors by accusing them of not upholding egalitarian ideas and that kind of stuff.

Now I’m basically a non-standard reader of Sinfest, in that I like to take lengthy breaks rather than follow a strip day-by-day, so that I can get the full rush of reading multiple story arcs at once without anticipation, so it was probably about 2-3 years since I read the last strip, and only caught up with the whole thing now. I think that’s the best way to read it, because really when you have a daily strip like that, and when it’s fully self-created without any backing from a major newspaper and editors and all that, you have one of the most organic styles of art you can find out there. You get to experience day by day shifts in mood, changes in art style, subject matter, all that kind of thing.

So Sinfest is interesting to me because it represents how an artist adapts and accommodates new visions within himself, and how he reacts to the world in opposition to him.

It’s quite interesting because David Foster Wallace spoke about the easy and cynically destructive qualities of satire, and tried to make a manifesto calling for new forms of sincerity, and Ishida lives up to the task completely. He shows us what it’s like to be brutally not-funny and preachy and trying to live up to some ideal after spending several years laughing everything away with excessive amorality. How many satirical cartoons or whatever you’re seeing nowadays have ever even tried to stake a claim on some sort of belief at the cost of alienating everyone who just wanted the laughs and the quick and easy critiques without any resolution? No matter how wrong or extremist you think the stand is, its quite a thing to do in this day and age.

By 2015 I feel that Ishida has pretty much full control of his vision and has quite frankly a CRAZY BEAUTIFUL art style Now every single Sunday strip is just an exercise in pure mood. His Sunday strips are usually tied to the plot, but they can also set up a single atmosphere just within one strip:

http://www.sinfest.net/view.php?date=2015-01-25

http://www.sinfest.net/view.php?date=2015-02-08

http://www.sinfest.net/view.php?date=2015-04-19

http://www.sinfest.net/view.php?date=2015-07-19

And it never fails to be beautiful even while he’s espousing the most radical of his views

http://www.sinfest.net/view.php?date=2015-05-17

That’s probably what happens when you draw a script reclusively every day for 15 years.

At the bottom of it all, to probably appreciate Sinfest at its finest, you probably have to realize that the main character of the story isn’t any of his archetypes or any of his strawmen or whatever, but its really Ishida himself. Although the way he’s fine tuning his characters per strip, making them more rounded, less straw-like, more empathetic, while also using the Sunday strips as emotional punctuation to develop their character further, makes me genuinely interested in their stories. In fact I don’t get why people levy that his pacing is off, but then again not only did I read the whole thing in bulk, but I also read it in such a way that my speed was fully controlled, so any place that felt like a drop in the story, I was quite okay with going through it at quite a fast pace. I guess that’s the great curse of being a daily artist, in that people are never able to see the broad strokes you’re painting out because they experience things so minutely.

Anyway the great narrative of Sinfest is Ishida’s Osamu Dazai level male angst towards himself hidden behind all of his character arcs and political messages. Because while an abrupt shift into feminism is jarring from a narrative point of view, you have to read the respective epiphanies behind it. I wouldn’t say something like Sinfest is Ishida’s strangled cry or something stupidly interpretative like that, but when you have a work that is built day by day over the gradual changes of a personality, then how can you not have the artist put himself fully into a strip? The whole shift is like Kanye West levels of interesting.

In fact what Ishida is seemingly doing to himself per strip is kind of amazing and beautiful. Destroying the various relationships of his characters and re-orienting the comic away from the males to the female characters wholly opposite of his main sensibilities, and mixing satire with stuff that looks suspiciously fraught with personal grief (like the whole Uncle Sam going to strip clubs of ‘oppressed countries’ and indulging in ‘XXX Imperialism’ on his computer), yet despite all that still trying desperately to retain heartwarming and warm character moments everywhere with his new artistic capabilities. Most of the male characters are locked up in this horrible cage of sexual self-devastation (which may possibly be Ishida’s own), while the female characters are desperately trying to carve a spot for themselves in a world where they have to receive the excess brunt of the pent-up rage, and they’re the main ones who are getting any genuine friendship or romance or calm heartwarming moments.  There’s a whole struggle behind it that we aren’t seeing and quite frankly, in my opinion, it all the more reinforces the now radically feminist message of the comic, because while the arguments, on a logical level, are quite superlative, the strife of depicting the amount of self-loathing a man can do to himself is wholly real.

And so that’s Sinfest, one of the greatest male psychosexual internal dramas you’ll ever read on the web in your life.