Monday, January 18, 2016

Manga Monday: Short speculative fiction from the God of Manga

No one represents the beginnings of the manga art form quite the way Osamu Tezuka does, and his anthology Clockwork Apple gives the reader a taste of the suspenseful.

In 'Miraculous Conception' a scientist and his domestic android are working on Saturn's moon Titan. They've lived alone together for seven years, and slowly they've fallen in love. After holding a wedding ceremony for themselves, the scientist Hiroshi is killed by escaped convicts who have decided to use his science station as a hideout. A tragedy, to be sure, but what explains the increasing waistline of the android?

The titular story 'A Clockwork Apple' shows the reader a town under siege. The roads in and out of town have been closed indefinitely for repairs, and cars are turned back by force if they try to get out. Food could be an issue, but the main employer in the area has plenty of supplies for its cafeteria, and the stores have a large stockpile of rice. Everyone seems okay with the situation and doesn't question it, except for Shirakawa, whose wife serves bread instead of rice. Even the pharmacist, who took a sample of the rice to the next town over to run a few tests, hasn't been seen in days. Is Shirakawa descending into madness, or is there a conspiracy at work?

Readers of Tezuka's Black Jack will find 'Sack' eerily familiar. The narrator meets a wonderful woman named Rika. After a whirlwind romance, he travels to her home to ask her mother for Rika's hand in marriage. Strangely, her mother doesn't have a daughter named Rika. Her only daugher, Mari, is a perfect copy of Rika, though, even though she professes to have never met him before. At a later meeting, Rika begs him to prevent Mari's surgery on the 20th, but can't explain why. Is there something sinister going on?

These stories of the late 1960s and early 1970s give the reader a snapshot into the thoughts and fears of postwar Japan. Throughout the collection weaves a distrust of the government and authority, as well as an undying optimism for the future, even if there are many ways for it to be derailed.  Once again, Tezuka is able to mine the depths of the human psyche, and reveal more than a traditional author ever could.

Highs: Whether a statement about the follies of war or a creepy suspense story, all of Tezuka's works leave an indelible mark on the reader.

Lows: Even with the footnotes, it's hard to be familiar enough with the era in Japan to fully follow a few of the narratives.

Verdict: Best suited for a reader very familiar with manga in general, Clockwork Orange is a masterpiece.

Further Reading: Black Jack, A*tomcat, A Bride's Story

Thursday, January 14, 2016

A look at how childhood really is

Somehow, in the process of growing up and having responsibilities, adults forget what it's really like to be a child. They forget the leisure, of taking a book into a field in the morning and only wandering back home when hungry or it gets dark out. They forget what it's like to have people tell you what to do, with arbitrary reasons that you're not allowed to question. They forget the discomfort of knowing that a situation isn't okay, but not having enough experience to know why it's wrong, or the experience to know what to do about it.

Neil Gaiman never forgot. And by not forgetting, he's written the truest young characters in The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

The book starts out with the narrator coming back to where he grew up for a funeral. He's dressed in the proper clothes, says the proper things, and takes a certain comfort in knowing what he's supposed to do and say during a difficult time.

As he drives from the funeral to the cemetery, he has a bit of time to himself, and finds his car pointing towards where he once lives. The fields and small homes have been replaced with housing estates, the flint-strewn country lane with tarmac. His childhood home is long gone, and the home of his adolescence isn't what has brought him back here.

As he rolls his car along, the road regresses to the lane of his childhood, and eventually to a footpath. He gets out, and walks up to a house he hasn't thought of in too long, and slides sideways into memories of his seventh year.

As with most Gaiman tales, to lay out the story before reading it is to take away some of the magic. It's not an easy read, because childhood isn't easy. There's monsters, and some of them are the adults he's supposed to be able to trust. There's heroes, even if they wouldn't call themselves that. There's bravery and fear, sometimes at the same time, and there's sacrifice.

There's the magic that Gaiman brings to his tales, which transcends description.

Highs: No one combines childhood, fantasy and fear like Neil Gaiman

Lows: Sometimes being reminded of the hard parts of childhood isn't fun

Verdict: Yet another amazing tale from one of the greatest fantasy authors

Further Reading: Coraline, Trigger Warning