Manga and Dating Sims: The Real Path to Japanese Mastery

While some Gaijin living in Japan develop their niche through obscure and unpredictable events such as getting hired to work for a Japanese newspaper covering crime stories, there’s an equal amount of people who get inspired by the more traditional pop culture of Japan in the form of games and manga.

Benjamin Boas is a former Brown University student who moved to Japan several years ago, and decided to write a manga— with help from illustrator Chika Aoyagi— that details how he got interested in Japanese culture. Boas’ experiences and means of learning Japanese range from a devout enjoyment of mahjong—which led him to studying Japan’s mahjong community and forced him to improve his Japanese—to many popular manga, dating simulators and traditional video games.

This is a good exercise for Japanese learners such as myself, as the kanji can be hard but not too hard to understand the main idea of each conversation. Like many recent manga, Boas provides the hiragana readings for all the kanji, and makes some interesting and possibly intended to be funny uses of katakana where kanji or hiragana would typically be used. For example, when saying “boku ha” for himself, he often uses ボクinstead of 僕, Boas seems to use this to depict his own gradual assimilation into Japanese lifestyle, often using katakana during scenes of him as young boy getting sick off a tuna bowl and less so when describing more challenging manga and games. Other highlights include an early obsession with Tokimeki Memorial, a dating simulator game that he couldn’t yet read the Japanese but could follow along with the virtual schoolgirls’ sad and pleased expressions.

Boas has an existential crisis when hearing his friend's grandmother speak in Kagoshima dialect.
Boas has an existential crisis when hearing his friend’s grandmother speak in Kagoshima dialect.

A decent portion of the book is dedicated to his interest in the differences Japanese manga and games have to American versions and the perceived ‘weirdness’ of the country’s pop culture. In one section, he and the animator discuss why many manga include girls with skirts that fly up at the slightest wind, Chika Aoyagi claiming Americans can’t get passed something sexual in manga that’s there for simple enjoyment and not meant to be creepy.

Most of all, I would recommend this book to those in the midst of studying Japanese and enjoy the quirky differences in the language from the gaijin perspective. I was similarly confused in the beginning when Boas–working as an intern salaryman–is told his co worker is leaving due to a shotgun wedding (a rushed marriage due to pregnancy), typically written as “dekichatta kekkon.” However, his friend then shortens this into “kanojo to dekichattan,” dekita meaning “was able to do,” and kanojo meaning girlfriend, thus making the naive intern think he was litterally saying “he was able to get a girlfriend.” After some brief searching of why dekichatta is used, the spelling implies that it was a spur the moment marriage with the implication of there being a pregnancy. It once piece of useful dialogue that helped me understand how “a wedding I was able to do,” then shortened further to simply “dekichatta,”  can be construed as its true meaning.

Boas also provides some useful vocabulary for the basic Japanese learner, particularly while exploring manga and anime’s odd visual effects to communicate emotion, such as veins popping to signal anger which often resemble traffic intersections, and teardrops the size of ostrich eggs to symbolize embarrassment.

In the manga section, Boas also touches on the fact that characters often respond to getting excited by girls’ underwear by getting intense nosebleeds or 鼻血(hanadji), which I first thought to be  chopsticks sprouting from their noses (pictured below).

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Whether you are a gamer–who laughed similarly at poorly translated English text in ported NES and SNES games such as “All your base are belong to us”—or you want to hear someone else’s story with very relatable challenges of getting into Japanese lifestyle and culture, Boas book is both fun and good practice that I recommend checking out.

 

Underwear designer by day, Underworld yakuza boss by night: The Quiet Don

by Giles Poitras

 Nitta Tatsuo’s Shizukanaru Don (静かなるドン), translated into English as The Quiet Don, began publication in November 1988 in the men’s manga magazine Shukan Manga Sunday (Weekly Manga Sunday) and ran until the January 2013 issue when it concluded with a 50 page chapter. The cover of that final issue had the two major characters set against a night sky and text announcing this final chapter of this long running series. The series was so long running there are a total of 108 tankobon of the series, the last volume being released on June 29, 2013, with well over 1,000 chapters selling over 44 million copies. The last volume had the same image of magazine cover except with a sunrise in the background.

Underwear designer by day, yakuza by night. The Quiet Don
Underwear designer by day, yakuza by night. The Quiet Don

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This is a gag manga about yakuza, not the most humorous subject. However laughter goes well with the contrast of the stereotypical scary tough yakuza of  Japanese entertainment and gags, often at their expense.

This is a tale of a mild-mannered salaryman who works in the design department of a lingerie company, and the tale of a tough young yakuza boss who is head of the largest yakuza organization in Kanto region of Japan. The salaryman is the bottom man in his office— short, sloppy, meek, picked on, yelled at. His habit of regularly producing bungled designs don’t do him any favors either. On the other hand the sharply dressed young yakuza boss radiates authority, impressing everyone who happens to meet him.

The contrast between these two is especially interesting because, in reality, they are one and the same person. Born into a high-ranking yakuza family, Shizuya Kondo wanted to distance himself from the dark dubious trade of his parents and walk in the light of day as an ordinary person. He worked at creating such a life for himself and became a designer for the lingerie company Pretty. However fate had something different in store for him. One day, after scolding him for another failed design, Shizuya’s boss turns on the office TV to watch the first broadcast of the company’s new commercial. A news alert comes on: Isamiashi Kondo, the head of the Shinsengumi, has been shot by members of the Choshu-kai. Shizuya is unable come up with an excuse to leave early and after work rushes to the hospital, only to find his father has just passed away.

At the funeral for their kumicho, the tension is thick between the major oyabun in the group as they vie for the organization’s most prestigious seat. Shizuya’s mother takes him aside and explains that the only way to prevent a bloody internal struggle is for him to take command. He reluctantly does so on the condition that he keep his day job and carry out his role as a yakuza boss at other times. Comedy ensues as Shizuya works to balance the two sides of his life, and the two sides of his persona.

This is a story that will delight Japanophiles of all kinds. As seen from the names above, the story contains characters and groups named after many famous foes and persons from the Bakumatsu period of the mid 19th century. On a more contemporary front, The Quiet Don began near the end of the bubble economy of the 1980s, giving readers a glimpse of a booming Japanese economy, the glitter and glamor of hostess clubs included. We’re also taken to see small neighborhood eateries, middle ranking yakuza operating modest enterprises, and salarymen trying to do their job in a very competitive environment. Another interesting touch is Shizuka’s mother. She’s drawn in a dramatically different style that manga fans will identify as the high realism of Ryoichi Ikegami, a manga artist who has also drawn yakuza manga such as the Sanctuary series.

For all of the drama contained in The Quiet Don this is a gag manga filled with slapstick, very earthy humor, humorous situations, and a great mix of references to 19th century history with late 20th century reality.

The yakuza are portrayed as competitive as the corporations, both between gangs and internally, trying to rise up the ranks. Often, this is a gag manga after all, they are buffoons whose grandstanding is obvious to the reader. The yakuza side of Shizuya Kondo at first comes off as eccentric and weak, but those around him soon start to realize just why his mother says he is most capable of leading the organization. There is in fact a beast lurking inside this mild office worker, one more than capable of strategies and action to handling the fiercest opponents, one-on-one or in a showdown against other bosses at a major event. But then, as a salaryman, he is also capable of  lowering himself to dancing in his underwear to amuse drunken coworkers at a hot spring resort. Romance also plays a role in the story with Kondo having to keep his darker persona secret from the woman he loves and who knows him as a bumbling co-worker.

Behind those sunglasses lurks a nice guy who just wants to make great women's underwear.
Behind those sunglasses lurks a nice guy who just wants to make great women’s underwear. In the final issue, is he finally united with his true love? It’s not quite clear…but one can hope. 

The first 15 volumes of the manga are available in English for the iPad via the ZQ Books app created by NTT Solmare, you can get the app from the iTunes store. Also, don’t expect to pick up yakuza related vocabulary from this translation. The translation is rough with many terms in English that could have been left in Japanese. These days readers of English translated manga are used to Japanese terms left un-translated when there is no real English equivalent. One example of a word that could have been left untranslated is oyabun consistently translated as “father”.

Also the English translation of the first two volumes is available in the US, and possibly other areas, as an app for the iPhone and iPod Touch. Each volume is broken up into four parts that are sold separately. It will also display on an iPad in a small window. There is a free app that gives a preview of the manga, so it’s easy to try out some of the early story. The downside with the iPhone version is that reading manga on small screens leaves plenty to be desired as you are basically doing it one frame at a time, making it hard to maintain a reading rhythm as you have to tap to go to the next image (or in the case of large frames, wait for the system to scan across).

All in all, the story of The Quiet Don is compelling, the characters full of depth, and it’s easy to understand how this series ran for over 20 years. There have even been adaptations of the story, including an OVA (straight to video anime), a TV drama series and two movies, both of the movies have been released in subtitled versions through iTunes in North America and perhaps elsewhere.

When the series ended the author stated that he had written enough of this series in the 24 years it ran. Less than 6 months later the “Grand Finale” issue of Shukan Manga Sunday was published with a group image of  characters from many series, including Shizuya Kondo, on the front cover.

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 (Jake’s note: In addition, there is a long out of production computer game/interactive manga based on the book that in some ways may have been the model for Sega’s popular Yakuza series. I don’t know any yakuza with sons that went into the apparel business but I do know one mid-level yakuza enforcer who’s son became a hairdresser. He is not interested in taking over “the family business”, and his father seems very happy with that decision.)

*About the author of this piece, see below. Check his blog out for more on Anime and Japanese pop culture.

Gilles Poitras

Profession: Librarian    Obsession: Anime

http://www.koyagi.com – cowpunk@koyagi.com

http://gillespoitras.blogspot.com/

 

Competition In Japanese Digital Comics Gets Bloody; Mamoru Oshii haemophobic?

The competitive world of digital comics is about to get a lot bloodier. Japanese digital publisher, Comic Animation Inc, has just released two new types of hybrid manga/anime  for the iPhone/iPad that add new dimensions to the digital comic platform—and include new original works by legendary manga character designers and creators Mamoru Oshii (Ghost In the Shell) and Kamui Fujiwara (Dragon Quest).

Today at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Japan press conference (January 23rd, 2013)  the usually somber Oshii spoke about his latest creation, Chimamire Mai Love (My Soaked In Blood Love or Blood-Stained Mai Love), which is a black comedy about a high school student with a fetish for donating blood and his strange friendship with Mai, a wandering Transylvanian vampire–who is too timid to actually bite anyone. When the two form a friendship–well in situation comedy parlance, “whacky, blood chaos ensues.”  The young boy’s attempts to procure more blood for his beloved turn into low comedy far removed from Let The Right One In.

“I can’t stand the sight of blood myself but I love getting IV transfusions. I get them whenever possible. It makes me feel great.–Mamoru Oshii

Mamoru Oshii's dark comedy, "My Soaked In Blood Love aka Blood-Stained Mai Love"
Mamoru Oshii’s dark comedy, “My Soaked In Blood Love aka Blood-Stained Mai Love”
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Mai-chan may be a vampire too timid to bite her victims but she’s very fussy about her blood and has quite a temper.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s the kind of slapstick comedy that Oshii said he has not done in years.

The story is told almost from entirely from a first person perspective, with a minimal amount of animation, highly detailed drawings which are intricately colored, and some sparse sound effects.

When we asked Mr. Oshii why he thought so many Japanese teenagers were drawn to giving their blood, the so-called 献血マニア (Kenketsu-mania), he laughingly quipped, “I can’t stand the sight of blood myself but I love getting IV transfusions. I get them whenever possible. It makes me feel great.”

He then launched into a long monologue on Japanese fascination with blood, including the practice of defining people’s personalities by their blood types. “Blood is the only part of the body that we can take into ourselves and put back. It has no shape in and of itself.  We can store it up and put it back—derive power from it…. Like certain athletes,” he added, making an oblique Lance Armstrong joke.

Mamoru Oshii laughing. Apparently, this is not as common as imagined.
Mamoru Oshii laughing. Apparently, this is not as common as imagined.

Oshii stated that part of the inspiration for the comic strip were his thoughts on blood itself and from wondering about how different types of blood would effect a vampire. He himself seems to have more sympathy with the vampires than with the serial blood donators but did admit, “I don’t want to sound like a dirty old man but I don’t think I’d mind having almost all of my blood drained out of me by a very attractive young vampiress.”

Kamui Fujiwara’s Gin-Iro-no-Usagi (Silver Rabbit) follows the the adventures of a boy who wakes up as a Cyclops with magical powers, such as near X-ray vision, in a world populated by Japanese mythological characters and monsters, including everyone’s favorite, monster umbrella (傘お化け)*.

Don't you hate waking up as a cyclops in a Japanese mythological world? If you'd only stopped before having that final glass of 東洋美人.
Don’t you hate waking up as a cyclops in a Japanese mythological world? If you’d only stopped before having that final glass of 東洋美人.

Fujiwara has modeled the structure of the comic book artwork so that it is presented in three layers; if the reader gently shifts the iPad, objects slide, other layers can be seen, giving the work a faux 3-D aspect. “There are changes in color and close-ups available with a flick of the finger, or even a change of perspective with minimal movement. However, if you just want to read the work as a plain ordinary digital comic strip, you can do that as well.”

The structure for Fujiwara’s piece was inspired by the 18th century Nozoki Karukuri, which were viewing machines for looking at comic-like art. These viewing machines and the stories told with them  are considered the roots of Japanese anime. If you’re not a student of Japanese culture but you’re old enough to remember the stereoscopic 3D wonder-toy called the Viewmaster, you may find that reading Silver Rabbit seems oddly familiar and fun.

The U.S. version of the app is in English—and to be honest, the English is a little off, but readable. The app download for the comics is free, but chapters are $2.99.

There have been many attempts to popularize digital comic books but both Oshii and Fujiwara said they participated in the project because they feel the app allows them to utilize technology to give a better reading experience for the manga fan and make their original work more widely accessible.

Check it out here. You may feel it’s worth $2.99 and you don’t have to donate any blood to read the work either. (Although, no one will stop you if you want to….)

 

 

*Personally, I’ve always felt that that monster umbrella wasn’t mythological but an actual creature in Japan because every umbrella I’ve ever had here vanishes after a few rainstorms or walks away. And since Japanese people are generally very honest, I can’t believe people are taking my umbrella. So it only makes sense that after a certain amount of time neglected umbrellas become sentient and roam the land causing trouble.