Some things I’ve read lately

Most recent depressofests I have endured: Funny Games, Anatomy of Hell and Irreversible.

Funny Games is one of those have-your-cake-and-choke-on-it movies about how, like, the viewer is totally complicit in cinematic violence, man, and that means YOU. The best thing about this strategy for the writer/director Michel Haneke is that, if you like the film, he’s right, and if you don’t like it, he’s still right. Emo rating: when I slap you, you’ll take it and like it. I didn’t like it.

Anatomy of Hell was alternately dull and ridiculous, a softcore porno scripted by Sartre. The female character’s vagina is memorably described as “The horror of Nothingness that is the imprescribable All.” That might sound pretty entertaining; it wasn’t, although the bit with the garden-tool was (unintentionally) funny. Some enterprising nerd should dub the soundtrack and subtitles onto a real porno. Emo rating: Gerard Way writing an apparently good comic.

Irreversible was much more like it, an amazing, deeply unsettling and virtuosic bit of film-making. The two infamously gut-wrenching scenes are as unflinching as the cutting scenes of In My Skin. Plus, the DVD has the most disturbing film clip ever,* for a song from the soundtrack (by one of the Daft Punk guys). Emo rating: Ivan Brunetti when he’s off his meds.

* Yes, even more disturbing than that Aphex Twin video.

Onto the graphic novels!

Path of the Assassin, Volumes 1 & 2. Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima. Dark Horse, 2006. $9.95 each, 320/312 pages.

At the risk of losing all my manga-credibility, I have a confession to make. I’ve never been able to get into Koike’s and Kojima’s more famous samurai epic, Lone Wolf and Cub. I can appreciate the artistry on display in the volumes I’ve read, but it just never grabbed me. And Koike’s Crying Freeman (with Ryoichi Ikegami) is just flat-out ludicrous, with one of the silliest “high concepts” ever: “A sensitive young artist is mind-controlled to become the world’s deadliest assassin. The one thing they can’t control? His tear-ducts!” If you thought Crying Superman was the height of graphic novel kitsch, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

So it was with considerable trepidation that I approached these first two volumes of yet another manga series from Koike and Kojima.

Well, I needn’t have trepidated. This is excellent stuff, the sort of unputdownable, must-get-the-next-volume experience that this manga reader is always looking for but rarely finds. What makes the difference, from LW&C, at least, is the characterization. The leads here aren’t ciphers like Ogami Itto, but roguish allies and friends who live by their wits. Their interplay is enjoyable, and drives the need to read on and find out what they do next.

Also, ninjas doing cool shit trumps samurai doing cool shit.

Warning–there are some seriously dubious sexual attitudes on display. But I, for one, thought they got away with it (barely!) thanks to the general 70s and pulpish vibe.

Drifting Classroom Volume 8, Kazuo Umezu. Viz, 2007. $9.95, 192 pages.

Aw, yeah. The previous volume dragged in the middle, and gave us less of the stark raving bugfuck craziness that this series trades on. But this volume is a fast-paced return to form, several panels inducing laugh-out-loud horror.

Yes, laugh-out-loud horror, and I don’t mean that it’s campy. Umezu fans, you know what I’m talking about.

Walt and Skeezix Book Three, Frank King. Drawn and Quarterly, 2007. $29.95, 400 pages.

Yes, believe the hype. Gentle, understated masterpiece etc. etc. Three volumes in, and we’re starting to see some of the strip’s most famous feature, the ageing of its characters. Wee Skeezix, introduced as a mere stripling in Book One, is old enough to go to school by the end of this volume. What’s remarkable about these changes is how imperceptibly they occur, just like in real life.

The only work I can think of that does something similar is A la recherche du temps perdu. There’s a remarkable scene towards the very end of those books where the narrator suddenly realizes that he’s grown old, and so has everyone he knows. What’s startling about the scene is that it should have been obvious that, while he was out chasing Albertine and being generally neurasthenic, the narrator was getting on in years. But he hasn’t ever thought about it, and nor has the reader–or this reader hadn’t, at any rate. The message: one day you’ll wake up and realise that you’re a sad old fuck and your life will soon be over. That sounds like a platitude when explicitly stated, but it really resonates when it’s experienced over thousands and thousands of pages.

And if it was good enough for Proust, it ought to be good enough for King.

In this volume, Madame Octave continues her fiendish schemes to take Skeezix away from his adoptive father, Walt. But the anxiety is overall much more subdued than the last volume. Here Octave pops up more as a nuisance than as the sinister embodiment of early death that she seemed before. The general tone is rather dreamier and more romantic, as Walt’s relationship with Blossom blooms (sorry). In keeping with the more romantic tone, King draws several strips in a striking style that I don’t remember from previous volumes, a lovely impressionism which is all shadows and light, silhouettes and dappled splashes of white, clouds of hatching that emanate from street-lamps. It’s beautiful stuff in little black and white (well, yellow) panels.

So: buy it and be reminded of your own inevitable mortality. Memento mori, suckahs!

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3 Responses to “Some things I’ve read lately”

  1. Jog Says:

    The trick with Koike is that he works pretty extensively in both serious and ludicrous works… but for a long time, Crying Freeman tended to get boxed in with Lone Wolf and Cub, because Koike’s English-language exposure was so limited, even though the former is often deeply absurd and the latter comparatively high-toned. I think that was a mistake, in that Koike’s goals seem to be different with both series.

    They’re both meant as entertainment, but Crying Freeman is much more of a seat-of-your-pants pulp fiction trash epic, prone to throwing in all sorts of bizarre, proudly sensationalistic twists and notions into its loud storytelling. It is silly, but it’s part of a fairly coherent aesthetic Koike employs (always when he’s working with Ikegami), which is different from the more subdued style that informs Lone Wolf or Path of the Assassin.

    Which obviously isn’t to say that’ll make you like the Crying Freeman side of Koike’s (huge) body of work any more, but it is operating under a somewhat different set of values than some of his ’70s sword-swinging tales. My favorite work of that type is the two-volume Offered, also with Ikegami, which follows the almost breathtakingly nonsensical journey of a young man with a secret connection to the frozen sperm of Gilgamesh. I wish every first volume of manga concluded with the heroes founding a nudist colony and ripping off their clothes to frolic in the waves…

  2. Matthew J. Brady Says:

    I haven’t seen the first two movies, but yeah, Irreversible is a hell of a nasty ride. I’m glad I saw it, but good god do I never want to see it again. I haven’t watched the music video though, and I’m probably happier for it.

  3. Jones, one of the Jones boys Says:

    Yeah, maybe I would have enjoyed “Freeman” more if I’d gone in with a different set of expectations. On the other hand, since I don’t really like LW&C, my expectations were pretty low to begin with…

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