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July 13, 2009


David Welsh On Yuji Iwahara

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By David P. Welsh

I'm always glad when a publisher releases a new comic by Yuji Iwahara. His art is unusual and absorbing, and, more importantly, it gives me an excuse to revisit Chikyu Misaki (CMX), the first of his works to become available in English.

It's an endearingly odd series, and it reads like a novel. Many comics, even very fine ones, eventually create the impression that they'll run as long as they're popular with readers. Chikyu Misaki is a three-volume fantasy-mystery that feels like it was shaped to be exactly as long as it was.

imageThe book is set in the small, snowy village of Hohoro, known for its legendary lake monster, the Hohopo. Junior-high student Makishima Misaki moves to Hohoro with her widowed father to claim Misaki's ancestral home. Her dad is pleased to escape the crowds and noise of city life and ready to make a stab at a serious relationship with the local lady lawyer, but Misaki is rankled at being uprooted and disapproves of her dad's budding romance.

A number of things happen fairly quickly to distract Misaki from her discontent. She makes a new friend at school, the timid daughter of the local dairy farmer. Then she meets the lake monster, a sweet-tempered beast who can transform into a mute, wide-eyed boy. Then a plane crashes in her front yard. It was the ill-fated getaway vehicle of a trio of kidnappers and their crates of loot. The pilot is dead, and a thug is hospitalized, but the third conspirator bails with the gold before anything fatal transpires.

The third kidnapper is self-identified bad girl Reiko Fujikawa. She ingratiated herself with the wealthy victim and her family as the girl's piano tutor, and the botched getaway forces her to linger in Hohoro until she can figure out a way to retrieve the ransom. Unfortunately, the kidnapping investigation causes various forces to converge on the village -- detectives, more conspirators, and, most formidably, the victim herself. Tokuko is roughly Misaki's age, the granddaughter of a wealthy industrialist. High family expectations have led her to develop a hard shell, and she's livid that Fujikawa slipped past her defenses.

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All of these concurrent threads complicate Misaki's desire to protect and conceal the Hohopo that she impulsively names "Neo." Misaki also finds herself subject to flashes of repressed memories from a fateful past visit to Hohoro. She begins to wonder if she's met Neo before and how her late great-grandfather and mother were linked to the secret of the Hohopo.

Iwahara does a marvelous job of weaving together the various narrative threads. Mythical-animal stories and tense noir elements don't intuitively seem like they'd comfortably co-habitate, but they do. The pacing of plot twists and revelations is unfailingly solid. The characters, vivid and fresh from top to bottom, hold everything together. Even if they initially seem like stock types, they're capable of surprising the reader and earning complicated sympathy.

Iwahara's visual style represents a similarly successful juggling act. His illustrations have some of the attributes that people conventionally associate with comics from Japan -- cute character design, energetic staging, eyes so big that even other characters comment on them -- but those elements are contextualized with a very convincing sense of place and a strong focus on storytelling. Sequences range from adorably adventuresome to sexy and sly, but the look of the book coheres. The adorable-sexy juxtaposition has led to some discomfort over whether or not Iwahara might not be doing a little bit of leering at his barely-pubescent heroines. That concern didn't register with me at all as I read the book; I was too caught up in the story and characters. (For a fascinating examination of the phenomenon of the suggestively rendered child, sometimes known as "moe," read this piece at ComiXology by Jason Thompson, comics creator and author/editor of the indispensable Manga: The Complete Guide from Del Rey.)

I wish I could say that all of Iwahara's work was created equal. It always looks great, but I've found that his follow-up works lack the force and complexity of Chikyu Misaki.

imageTokyopop published Iwahara's six-volume King of Thorn, which can best be described as The Poseidon Adventure guest-starring murderous lizards. In it, a bizarre pandemic has swept the world. It crystallized people. A small, demographically-mixed group of the disease's victims was put into cryogenic suspension. When they wake, they find their facility derelict and beset with the aforementioned lizards, among other perils.

It's entirely competent survival drama, and Iwahara draws and paces it well. Unfortunately, the cast had yet to make any meaningful impression by the three-volume point, so I dropped the series. It amounted to a collection of vividly drawn, cleverly conceived set pieces populated by one-note stock characters. If you want tense survival drama set in a bizarre dystopia, I'd recommend Minetaro Mochizuki's creepy and terrifying Dragon Head (Tokyopop). If crystallizing diseases as plot ignition are your thing, try Hiroki Endo's Eden: It's an Endless World! (Dark Horse). And if you want a grab-bag of characters muddling through ridiculous peril, you can always fall back on The Poseidon Adventure (the original, not the remake).

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Iwahara freely admits to a lack of conceptual ambition in his latest English-language release, Cat Paradise (Yen Press). In his end notes, Iwahara confesses that "this time I went back to the most basic of the basics -- the school setting. Then I added another old standard -- talking animals (cats)." I'm inclined to be generous towards Cat Paradise, because Iwahara executes the standards with his customary visual skill and some extra flourishes.

Its heroine, Yumi, picks the Matabi Academy because it allows students to bring their cats. Unfortunately, the school is built on the site of horrific demonic violence, and the worst of the worst of cat demons is sealed beneath it. Fortunately, the student council and their companion animals are on hand should the monster ever break free of his imprisonment. Yumi and her scruffy feline are surprised to be chosen by the school's guardian spirit to join the council's ranks.

The first volume is devoted to introducing circumstances, friends and foes. It's predictable but lively, and the human and feline characters show promise. And honestly, I'd have picked a school because it let me bring my cat.

*****

* Chikyu Misaki, Yuji Iwahara, CMX, 196 pages, ISBN: 978-1401207991, Sept. 1, 2005, $9.99.
* King of Thorn, Yuji Iwahara, Tokyopop, 192 pages, ISBN: 978-1598162356, June 12, 2007, $9.99.
* Cat Paradise, Yuji Iwahara, Yen Press, 192 pages, ISBN: 978-0759529236, August 4, 2009, $10.99.

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