Showa 1944-1953: A History of Japan

By Shigeru Mizuki. Released in Japan as “Comic Shouwashi” by Kodansha. Released in North America by Drawn & Quarterly.

I was somewhat deceived by the cliffhanger in the last volume, where I felt that I’d gotten to the incident that caused Mizuki to lose his arm. In fact, it’s yet another breathtaking escape from the jaws of death, and the arm is lost much later in the narrative, when he lies delirious from malaria in the camp hospital. It’s fascinating how often he was nearly killed – indeed, it’s especially amazing given how often his squad was sent on suicide marches. He was the only survivor from his original squad, and this is looked upon as extremely shameful by the officers – why didn’t he die nobly? As ever, though, Mizuki seems not to think too hard about all of this, and is mostly concerned with food. At least, the Mizuki we read about here. The author knows very much what he’s saying in this volume, condemning the Japanese higher-ups for needless sacrifice.

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The story continues to shift back and forth between Mizuki’s account of his own experiences during and after the war and the historical narrative being presented by Nezumi Otoko (who is briefly joined by two other yokai from the Kitaro series, possibly as Mizuki wanted to distract from some especially dry history). In the earlier volumes, I was more riveted by the history than I was my Mizuki’s biography, but here my interest began to shift, and I found myself wanting to learn more about this man and his determined survival traits, which again are consistently portrayed as being due to happenstance rather than any cunning or intelligence. Mizuki drifts through life during and after the war, and his creation of Kitaro – then known as Graveyard Kitaro – doesn’t even merit a panel, instead being framed as part of the larger narrative of his inability to succeed – Kamishibai, the style he’s trying, is on its way out, and manga is the brand new thing that may actually work out.

This is not to discount the history, of course, which remains excellent. Mizuki is very good at showing multiple sides of each situation, being sure to mention the heroic moments in the Pacific War along with the atrocities, and pointing out how the occupation post-War did help the economy recover (mostly due to the Korean War) while noting how hypocritical and unrelenting MacArthur and the GHQ could be in their promotion of democracy and search for communists. There’s a scene where the students are reading a book talking about the freedoms of Western capitalism which is heavily censored with black magic marker to remove references to Japanese patriotism. It helps to raise a generation of cynics.

As this volume ends, things are looking a little better for both Shigeru Mizuki and the people of Japan. The last volume, due out in the spring, will take us to 1989, the final year of Showa. I look forward to it greatly, but hope it will be a bit less harrowing than this one, which does not flinch in its portrayal of Japanese commanders sending their troops towards “noble deaths”, and one man’s ability to drift through life allowing him to survive that conflict – though not without sacrifice.

Assassination Classroom, Vol. 1

By Yusei Matsui. Released in Japan by Shueisha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Weekly Shonen Jump. Released in North America by Viz.

A few years back, when Weekly Shonen Jump was just getting started in North America, there was a rumor that one of the series brought over would be the quirky, somewhat popular Majin Tantei Nōgami Neuro. Unfortunately, what it ended up being was one of the first examples of those “mid-range” Jump titles that get to 15-25 volumes in Japan but never quite garner enough success to come over here. After a break of a couple of years, however, the author came back with an even larger hit: Assassination Classroom, the story of an alien teacher and the misfit kids who have to kill him to save the Earth. Initially thought unlicensable due to the basic premise, it’s now reached double digit volumes and an anime is on the way, so Viz is releasing it as a Shonen Jump Advanced title.

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There’s another good reason why Viz decided to license this title after all: it’s fantastic. Technically the story is about the kids trying to find ways of murdering their teacher – attempts are made every single chapter, after all – but what this *really* is is another in the genre of ‘oddball teacher comes into class full of misfits and shows them they are all better than they think they are’. Think GTO, Gokusen, or Hell Teacher Nube. The background regarding Koro-sensei’s decision to blow up the Earth at the end of the school year unless he is killed is kept deliberately vague, though various hints suggest he may have been human once. It’s more a plot widget to allow for the killings, which range from deadly serious to hilarious.

Technically the other protagonist of this series is Nagisa, a bishonen-looking young man who’s good at research and analysis but apparently bad enough at school to be in class 3-E. So far he’s mostly there to be the narrative voice, but I sense that there’s more coming in the next few volumes. The series clearly has something to say about bullying and the Japanese educational system, even if it’s filtered through a SF-comedy vein. The regulations against 3-E are designed deliberately so that the children are scapegoats for the rest of the school, and that once there it’s very difficult to climb back out. Indeed, the only person on their side seems to be the alien they have to kill.

Matsui got his start as an assistant on Bobobobo-bobobo, and the influence can sometimes be seen in the sheer loopy surrealism of Koro-sensei’s remarks and attitudes. This isn’t a gag manga, though, and the kids have very real problems – a bully hunter who was betrayed by a teacher has lost all faith in the profession; a baseball pitcher who imitates his favorite player finds he can’t move forward; and a girl who’s good at chemistry but poor at speaking finds you can’t simply kill someone by asking them to die nicely. These are good lessons Koro-sensei is teaching, and the kids are beginning to realize what a great teacher he really is. Shame he plans to destroy the Earth.

Speaking of which, not *everything* is left to these kids (who I suspect are meant to be scapegoats to the entire world if their mission fails). A Ministry of Defense employee becomes their gym teacher, and teaches the kids genuine assassination techniques. And there seems to be another assassin being sent to kill Koro-sensei at the cliffhanger to this volume, and she gives quite a first impression. It’s going to be another two months til the next volume, but this is a terrific debut from Jump, and I cannot wait to see what happens next.

Accel World: The Red Storm Princess

By Reki Kawahara and Hima. Released in Japan by ASCII Mediaworks. Released in North America by Yen Press.

Much as I’m enjoying Sword Art Online, it was very much complete in one novel, and the subsequent second volume ended up being a series of world-building short stories that filled time while the author regrouped (or so it seemed to me, I know this series began as an online web fiction). Accel World seems to be more planned in advance, and so its second light novel can delve right into fallout from the first: Haruyuki hitting a wall in his gaming and feeling pathetic and useless about it; Takumu and Chiyuri not quite broken up but no longer really together; and Kuroyukihime trying to be a guide and mentor for Haruyuki while attempting to convey that she has feelings for him (she succeeds in only one of these things, of course).

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The main thrust of the arc, though, is a new character, Yuniko. She’s only 11, and reminds us how young everyone in this cast is (our hero and heroine are 13 and 14, respectively). That’s by design – the Accelerated technology is designed so that only people below a certain age have the possibility of using it – but you do occasionally wish for some adult supervision in amongst all this gaming, particularly as the effects of the gaming world can seep out psychologically into the real world. The plot involves Yuniko, the “Red King” and a Level 9, teaming up with Kuroyukihime’s team to try to stop an armor that possesses its wearer and drives them insane.

Haruyuki remains the most fascinating character in these books. The bullies have been removed from his school, and he’s dating (well, sort of not really) the school “Princess”, so you’d think he would feel better about himself. But that’s not how minds work, particularly when one was bullied for years as he was. Haruyuki is now desperately afraid of failing Kuroyukihime, and sets up masochistic VR games in order to grow stronger that mostly just serve to beat him up. It’s depressing, and you are relieved that when Kuroyukihime eventually finds out he’s doing this she screams at him. The disconnect between ‘it’s just a game’ and ‘but it’s MORE than a game’ isn’t as obvious here as it is in Sword Art Online, but it’s still a major theme of the books.

The second half of this novel is almost entirely devoted to one big fight, and it’s very well done, filled with action and betrayals and the like. There’s a minor villain, the Yellow King, who’s designed to be hated by the reader, and succeeds very nicely. (He’s reminiscent of the villain from Fairy Dance, only a bit less obvious.) We get a flashback of the scene where Kuroyukihime put in motion the events that led to her being hunted, and it’s both informative and shows us how much succeeding in this game requires strength of will. Which is why, despite all his whining and terror, Haruyuki gets to save the day. (Well, apart from the cliffhanger that suggests he may become possessed and evil in the future…)

For gamers, fans of light novels, and those who like heroes that are a bit out of the ordinary, Accel World is a great read, and a nice contrast with Kawahara’s other series.