August Favorites

I can tell that the summer is coming to a close because all I want to do is drink buckets of tea. I always love tea, but I slow my consumption down in the sweltering summer months. As soon as it dips below 75, however, my body decides that it is now autumn. Needless to say, I’m excited for more clement weather and my favorite holiday right around the corner. (Not that anyone is going to be trick-or-treating this year, but I’m determined to stay positive about Halloween anyway.)

My working life looks a bit different these days. I’m taking on less so that I can take care of my daughter during the day, but my focus is also shifting to things that I really want to be doing. I’ve been having a lot of fun with podcasting lately; it’s something I obviously have enjoyed ever since I became a permanent host of Manga Machinations, but now it serves as a tie to my pre-mom identity. And it’s a great bit of social time I’m able to look forward to every week. We wrapped up our Kasane retrospective this month, and phew! What a series! I enjoyed it way more than I anticipated, and I really loved talking about it with the guys.

Generally, with these monthly favorites, I choose to profile series that I haven’t talked about before. So if I’m continuing to read a series, I don’t always bring that up, even if I really love it. I just wanted to take a moment to acknowledge that I’m still enjoying BEASTARS. I’m a couple volumes ahead of release because I get review copies, so I just gotta say…if you’re keeping up with it so far, or if you’re on the fence as to whether or not to continue…it remains really solidly written, beautifully illustrated, and completely wild. Going forward, I’m going to try to mention series I’ve continued to read, since that usually means I’m really into it. (I have a tendency to forget about series if I’m only lukewarm on them, even if they had a strong start.)

I had a chance to read a few manga this month that I had been eagerly anticipating, so I’m excited to finally be able to share those with y’all!

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Venus in the Blind Spot — by Junji Ito, published by VIZ Media

It’s always a good month when there’s a new Junji Ito book on the horizon. I usually try not to read review copies of his stuff, because I want the experience of buying and reading the book. But this time, I just felt really compelled to write a review for Comics Beat. I really loved it; I think it might be the strongest of his anthology collections available in English so far. I was especially excited to see his adaptation of Edogawa Rampo’s creepy short story, “The Human Chair.” Ito did not disappoint — I had the same visceral reaction to this manga version as I did the original prose. My favorite offering in this collection has got to be “Master Umezz and Me,” an autobiographical piece where Ito talks about his relationship with Kazuo Umezz’s work. I have this (perhaps futile) hope that this story will inspire English-language readers to become more interested in Umezz’s work so that we can have a reprint of Cat-Eyed Boy….

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Slaughterhouse-Five, or the Children’s Crusade — written by Kurt Vonnegut, adapted by Ryan North, illustrated by Albert Monteys; published by Archaia, available September 15, 2020

I was in an airport on my way to Japan when I learned about Kurt Vonnegut’s death. It was a huge blow to me, though I had only read a couple of his books at that point. Vonnegut was a huge influence on me as a teenager, and many of his ideas remain an integral part of my personal philosophy. I was thrilled when I found out Ryan North, the writer behind Dinosaur Comics and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, was responsible for writing an adaptation of Slaughterhouse-Five. While I think that this comic is best appreciated if you’re already familiar with the original novel, I thought it was incredibly well done. I especially appreciate the in-story acknowledgement that it is an adaptation, talking about Vonnegut in the third person and pointing him out in crowd scenes to give the reader added perspective on his role during World War II. I’m not worried that Vonnegut will ever become an unknown name, but I like to think that this graphic novel version of one of his most beloved novels will help keep his legacy current.

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I Don’t Know How to Give Birth — by Ayami Kazama, published by Yen Press

I have been waiting for this manga forever. It was originally intended for release around my own due date, but delayed twice over. Needless to say, I was thrilled when I finally got my hands on it. I’ve mentioned before that I intend on writing a full reflection on pregnancy through comics, and the real reason I haven’t already is because I was waiting to read this, the only manga translated into English that deals directly with pregnancy. In it, Ayami Kazama talks at length about her struggles with infertility, the excitement of finally becoming pregnant, the struggle to find maternity underwear, and the uncertainty of becoming a parent. Though her experience was very different from my own, I always appreciate hearing other moms talk about pregnancy and birth. It really reinforces for me that there’s no single correct way to have a baby or to be a mom, and I find that really reassuring as a new parent, myself. Kazama’s husband, Azure Konno (also a mangaka), has little pages at the end of each chapter where he mentions his own experiences of his wife’s pregnancy. I thought this was a really nice touch, since it takes (at least) two people to make a baby! I Don’t Know How to Give Birth also reminded me a lot of chii’s The Bride Was A Boy, in that it was an autobiographical manga that used factual information to gently educate its readership on the topic at hand. I think this is a great read for anyone, but it will be of special interest to new parents, or those planning on having children.

A pretty solid lineup for August, if I do say so myself! September is gearing up to be busy (and I always get busier in the fall, but let’s see what happens since COVID prevents me from going anywhere). Hopefully I’ll have a nice little roundup for you next month, as well. Until then, stay well!

“I’m Just A Gun-Totin’ Weather Girl”

[HEADS UP: There are some very minor spoilers for the Cowboy Bebop series in this piece, so if that sort of thing bothers you I don’t recommend reading this!]

Cowboy Bebop is one of those series that literally every dude between the ages of 25-35 tries to recommend to every casual nerd. It has the distinction of being one of the best examples of anime, and of dubbed anime, from a very specific point in time, so people latch on to it as a classic and insist on acting completely scandalized when someone hasn’t seen it or doesn’t like it.

It’s that kind of behavior that I’ve mentioned before that I completely hate. And yet…I love Bebop. In fact, I recently convinced my coworker to watch the whole series — not because I told him he had to! But because he’s been enjoying noir comics lately, and I thought some of the themes would scratch a similar itch for him. He’s enjoying it thus far, I’m happy to report.

In general, I’m content to leave my discussions about Bebop in the past, or among like-minded friends. But on Thursday I had the incredible experience of being able to see the movie in theatres, and I can’t stop reflecting on how much I enjoyed it. I’ve seen the movie before, of course, but when it first hit US shores, it wasn’t in any theatres near me. At age 13, living in the middle of Connecticut, there was no option for me to see it that didn’t involve a multi-hour trip to either New York or Boston. I was heartbroken.

But I was finally able to live out my dream. I bought my ticket nearly a month in advance, I got to the theatre early, I bought way too much popcorn for way too much money, and I had an excellent time of it.

Before the movie, instead of endless previews or ads for other events, there was a short Q&A session with the dub voice actors. It lasted maybe ten or fiifteen minutes, but it was a nice little reintroduction to the characters and the movie specifically. It was amazing to hear how the VAs didn’t really alter their voices overmuch for their dub performances, so that these incredibly recognizable voices were coming out of the mouths of people I’ve seen before, but less frequently than their animated counterparts. Getting the little bit of background, and learning about the excitement of the actors to have worked on this project, definitely helped set the mood for the feature presentation.

Cowboy Bebop‘s opening sequence and song, “Tank!” are iconic at this point; for me, so too is the opening credit roll of the film, with its black and white panorama of Martian city life (that always struck me as looking a lot like New York City life). Whole books have been written about Yoko Kanno’s scoring prowess, and the entire Bebop OST is a musical masterpiece; but I do especially love the movie soundtrack and the film’s sanguine opener, “Ask DNA.” This series is one that is based firmly around music and mood — as themes, not just as enhancements to the story. The film is no different.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the plot, Cowboy Bebop: Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door takes place before the end of the series, but after we have already been introduced to all the core cast. The crew of the Bebop is on Mars, following small-fry bounties and trying to keep themselves from starving. Spike and Jet go after some small-time convenience store robbers, while Faye ropes Ed into tracking down info on a hacker. Everything goes sideways when Faye witnesses a terrorist bombing and Mars is suddenly beseiged by a completely inexplicable viral warfare.

As our intrepid heroes dive further and further into this case, they have to untie the threads of military experimentation, memory loss, doomed romance, global terrorism, and a crooked pharmaceutical company. It seems like a lot, but it all comes together in a seamless tapestry, peppered with the usual humor and a lot of really adorable jack-o-lanterns.

There was a practice, when I was young, of hating female characters in anime because their presence either got in the way of your gay ships, or got in the way of your two-dimensional love interests. Faye Valentine is a ripe subject for this, an easy target in her tiny yellow outfit, with her gambling vice and her vanity. But something always prevented me from hating her outright, and it wasn’t until the last decade or so that I realized I actually really love her. In the film, she’s the first person to witness Vincent Volaju’s terrorist attack; she’s the one who takes the initiative to go after the bounty; and she’s the one who remains defiant in an otherwise hopeless situation. It is poignant, we later realize, that she should be the one to have a conversation with Vincent about lost memories — a touch that I’m not sure I had noticed until this most recent viewing. She is a stark contrast to Spike’s Julia, the perfect, mild-mannered (though disloyal) woman who also happens to look good in a catsuit.

The movie reminds me, also, that the things I like best about Cowboy Bebop are all the things that don’t directly involve Spike’s eyeroll-worthy hang-up about his girlfriend and his best friend having a shag. I love the adventure, the puzzle-solving, the use of music, the references to old film, the late-90s vision of a terraformed future, the comedy, the comraderie…the things that set Cowboy Bebop apart are the ways in which it defies the conventions of science-fiction while placing it self firmly within that boundary. There is a sort of self-aware pseudo-philosophical thread running through everything, including the movie, that feels more like a nod to the spaghetti westerns of a bygone era than an actual moral the audience is expected to believe. But it’s such a loving and respectful nod that it makes the heroism of those once-worshipped cowboys seem worthy of consideration.

I don’t really expect every anime fan to lose their minds about Cowboy Bebop these days, not when there’s such a wealth of animated media at everyone’s fingertips, and new and incredible works are being made all the time. But I’m glad, once again, to have watched it when it was still so fresh and new, and to be able to feel so strongly about it even to this day. No matter what I say, I can’t deny that I’m completely taken in every time I hear those first audacious horns blasting, that deep base thrumming over the James Bond-esque opening sequence. I’m completely taken in by the warmth of the cel animation, the absurd theatricality of film references and seamless blending of old film genres. And damn it if I’m not a sucker for every episode’s distinct musical theme.

Also, Cowboy Bebop is like…the one anime my mom would occasionally catch snippets of an genuinely enjoy, so that’s gotta be good for something, right?