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Pop-Gothic: the Dark Side of Manga(21 May 2013)
By Miss Maria Cohut
Greetings, IGA readers! I thought I might start the week by dipping my toes into one of the many crossovers between the Gothic and pop-culture, so today I’ll be (very briefly) discussing what might be referred to as ‘Gothic manga’.
Manga – Japanese graphic novels – developed sometime between the second half of the nineteenth-century and the first half of the twentieth-century, though please don’t take my word for it, since its exact origins are still under debate. Either way, manga seems to have flourished after World War II, as the ideal means to carry and/or relieve social and psychological anxieties. It is also a medium that comes full circle in terms of influence: on the one hand, ever since its emergence on the Japanese market, the various kinds of manga have incorporated Western/European influences, interpreting and reinterpreting them; on the other hand, the ‘inflation’ of manga in translation in Europe and the US in recent years ensures that Western pop-culture is, in turn, increasingly influenced by its Asian counterpart.
There are many types of manga, of course, and one thing they would all seem to have in common is their peculiar humanistic aesthetic. As Sharon Kinsella observes, ‘[m]anga characters tend to embody aspects of caricature, they have exaggerated facial expressions, they swoon, they sweat, they cry, they bleed, they are visibly excited, shocked, distraught, embarrassed, and annoyed’, which makes it ‘possible [for manga] to trace the deep veins of yearning, dejection, frustration, obsession, desire, euphoria, disappointment and fantasy not so apparent in other media’ in post-war Japan (Adult Manga: Culture and Power in Contemporary Japanese Society, p 7). The sea of manga genres is almost too vast to be sailed confidently, as it varies from the saccharine shōjo manga (romantic manga generally targeting a female teenage audience) to the surrealistic psychological manga (itself ranging from the mildly unsettling to the scarily bizarre). Also, more often than not, manga tends to combine so many genres so unscrupulously that trying to label it in some specific way becomes an almost futile endeavour. And yet... There’s a strand of manga – rather more gruesome, but also more ‘literary’ than the rest – which, I think, leans heavily towards the Gothic, in spite of being labelled as ‘horror’, ‘psychological’ or ‘mystery’. This type of manga often combines psychological horror, an ambiguous hint at the supernatural, the ‘obligatory’ maze-like environment and a pervasive feeling of oppression and unease.
One of the best examples in this sense is Uzumaki (literally meaning ‘spiral’) by Junji Ito. The twenty volumes that make up the series (published for the first time in English in 2001) follows the lives (and extraordinarily gruesome demises) of the inhabitants of a small provincial Japanese town, Kurôzu-cho. The town in itself is a quite blatant Gothic space: cramped, isolated, remote, it traps its inhabitants in their day-to-day routine. It is a ghostly space, and as such it is haunted, though its spectre is rather abstract – the spiral from the title. The spiral is an obsession, something that drives the inhabitants of Kurôzu-cho, one by one, mad. They see and feel spirals everywhere – in the human ear’s cochlea, in seashells, in hair, in the grass they tread on, in whirlwinds, in fishcakes, in everything and anything. They are afraid of spirals, disgusted by spirals, fascinated by them, in need of them, they create them and reproduce them over and over again with their own bodies. Some say the town is cursed – and here is where the supernatural and psychological crash, as there is no proper explanation with this morbid obsession for a pattern. The inhabitants of Kurôzu-cho see in the spiral the structure of the microcosm and macrocosm and they surrender to it in life as in death. But their infatuation is absurd – it is petty, useless and inconclusive. Why are the inhabitants of the town followed by this – seemingly random – curse? What are they guilty of? Are they guilty of anything? Is it a side-effect of their relationship with the town, that some hate it, some are too attached to it, and yet others are too complacent about it? Uzumaki explores themes of guilt, disease, the grotesque and it is particularly close to the Southern Gothic in the issues it approaches and the intrinsic (magical realist) narrative style.
Closer, in a way, to the original ‘Romantic Gothic’ genre is, perhaps, K no Souretsu (literally The Funeral Procession of K) by Maki Kusumoto (not yet licensed to be published in English, though unofficial translations freely circulate online), originally released in 1994 and usually tagged as ‘psychological drama’ and/or ‘murder mystery’. The narrative of the two-volume manga takes place entirely in an uncanny block of flats with a spiral staircase – it would seem the Japanese have a weak spot for the spiral! – in an uncertain time, inhabited by a bunch of utterly strange characters with utterly strange and unexplainable habits. The main character, Mikaya, is a recent inhabitant of this strange building, who has moved in after the sudden and mysterious death of the even more mysterious previous tenant only referred to as K (signposting Kafka much?). Mikaya’s job in the building is to knock, every morning, on each of the other tenants’ doors and collect something called the ‘morkwall’ from them. We don’t know what the ‘morkwall’ is, but Mikaya’s work seems rather important, and in the illustrations the ‘morkwall’ looks very much like actual wall fragments. This job, however, is only a front. Mikaya is here to investigate K’s death on his own, and the daily routine of collecting ‘morkwall’ allows him to talk to every tenant in part and to slowly piece together their relationships with K and with one another. But nothing about anyone is as it seems and I’ll leave it at that, just in case you’ll ever want to read the manga for yourselves. I don’t want to spoil the story! It is difficult to say if there is anything supernatural taking place in K no Souretsu, but the story is filled to the brim with ambiguities and everything is one hundred percent uncanny: every single character is strange (even otherworldly) and the building itself (which people never seem to leave unless they’re no longer alive) is an unsettling, oppressive space and its every nook and cranny holds a new puzzle to be solved. Kusumoto’s manga has it all: repressed desires, repressed memories, oppressive spaces, exotic/bizarre ‘laws’, mysterious death, grotesque characters, a sense of permanent anxiety...
Which takes me to my final example of ‘Gothic manga’ (though there are oh, so many more!): Kopernikus no Kokyū (literally The Breath of Copernicus) by Asumiko Nakamura (also, sadly, not yet licensed for publication in English, though incomplete unofficial translations are available online) originally released in 2002. Vaguely reminiscent of Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus, the two-volume manga follows the life of Torinosu (literally ‘Bird’s Nest’), a runaway adolescent boy in 1970’s Paris. At first glance, Nakamura’s manga is more dynamic than the other examples, as Torinosu moves from place to place constantly; every place he moves to, however, is a claustrophobic space that entraps him: from the circus whose ringmaster sells the performers each night to wealthy and perverted customers, to the overbearingly lavish quarters of a sadistic elderly diplomat, to the birdcage-orangery of an incestuous female tutor and so on. Torinosu/Bird’s Nest is also haunted by his personal ghost: the ghost of his dead brother, Michel (who is also his uncanny reverse/double and the voice of his conscience). It is unclear whether Michel’s ghost – which appears only when Torinosu is alone – is a direct manifestation of the supernatural in the story, or whether he is an ‘incarnation’ of Torinosu’s thoughts, fears and desires. Either way, the manga not only approaches but insists (in an almost painful kind of way) on issues of sexual abuse, decadent social mores, guilt, unrequited/impossible love and in Freud’s words, ‘the death drive’, which seems to be the main (if not only) motive behind Torinosu’s every action.
What links all these manga together is a persistent enquiry into the world of the subconscious: do natural and supernatural punishments/curses come from an outer, randomly punitive source or do they originate in internal guilt, fear and angst? All the exaggerated, ‘caricatured’ facial expressions that are usually a source of humour in manga are, in these instances, rendered grotesque, ugly and tortured rather than funny. In Gothic manga, the ‘visual fantasy’ enhances the sense of uncanny, of fear and resentment.
Japanese pop culture, in general, has a reputation for being unabashedly ‘weird’, which is often seen as a counter-reaction to the ‘strict’ unspoken social rules which must not, under any circumstances, be transgressed (openly). Whether that is or isn’t so, it is difficult to judge, what with the danger of amplifying the already abundant stereotypes. But what the dark, dramatic manga ‘of the repressed’ actually does, in its Oriental-Occidental come and go, is, I believe, to flesh out universal ‘ghosts’. Manga does this really well through its mix of written and visual narrative and its peculiar graphic style. I would be interested, at some point, to compare this kind of manga with its Occidental graphic novel counterpart and see what comes out of it. In the meantime, here’s a question for the pop-culture knowledgeable readers: are there (m)any graphic novels out there that could be labeled as ‘Gothic’ and if so, how do they set the Gothic to work?
Ito, Junji. Uzumaki vols I-XX (Viz Media, 2007)
Kinsella, Sharon. Adult Manga: Culture and Power in Contemporary Japanese Society (University of Hawaii Press, 2000)
Kusumoto, Maki. Kの葬列 / K no Souretsu
Nakamura, Asumiko. コペルニクスの呼吸 / Kopernikus no Kokyū