(Disclaimer: your reviewer is pals with a translator on this book, Vertical marketing man Ed Chavez. You are welcome to assault the objectivity of this review in the comments below.)
We recently looked at something that straight-up knocked off Studio Ghibli, and now we’re going to look at something that does so sideways. Maybe diagonally. Jiro Matsumoto wears his otaku influences on his sleeve in this book and frequently breaks the fourth wall with them, but his Velveteen and Mandala is anything but a knockoff.
It’s a riff on a common Miyazaki motif: the rejection of human civilization (perhaps by means of its destruction: see Future Boy Conan, in which Miyazaki devastates man’s creations with obvious glee) in exchange for the lush, wild beauty of nature. The country we see in Velveteen is likewise beautiful, but not nearly so idyllic: it’s a panorama strewn in refuse, insects, ash, fecal matter and pieces of the dead.
Velveteen and Mandala took me two reads. It isn’t hard to follow, it’s just very visually dense. Matsumoto’s art appears sketchy (the stunning panoramic views of the riverside are some of the most beautiful pages in the book) but the level of detail is intricate. The claustrophobic, trash-strewn hovels people live in, leftovers, decay and excrement: this is a dirty book in many ways. The blurb on the back of this book, apparently as much at a loss for words as I was, is only three sentences long. It still manages to fit the word “scatology” in there. That’s how dirty it is.
The title characters are a pair of severely deranged teenage outcasts who wander the pastoral outskirts of war-torn Suginami Ward. Our heroine Velveteen is a violent, antisocial runaway who lives in a tank. Her best friend Mandala is a total raving lunatic, mind completely detached from what’s going on around her. (She is, of course, a big Tomino fan.) The two girls have retreated from polite society and spend their days playing with airsoft guns in a grassland which happens to be populated by zombies.
Thankfully, Matsumoto’s use of geek culture’s most played-out monster is also unique. The zombies in Velveteen are quite conscious… and in a way they aren’t. They don’t groan or shamble, they just wander around the fields aimlessly, acting like average workaday Japanese. They’re called “deadizens.” Salaryman and schoolgirl alike, they simply arrive on schedule (quite literally so!) and are executed. It’s a profession, you see. The place has a superintendent and everything. The world of Velveteen and Mandala has basically adjusted to its circumstances: this is not a story about saving the world.
Maybe it’s a story about the title characters’ friendship, if indeed you could call it that. Velveteen and Mandala take turns being awful to each other for the 300-page duration of the book. They’re both a little too unhinged to keep a friend without making regular threats (or earnest attempts) to murder them. In other words, they are perfect for each other. The story is loosely structured around Velveteen coming of age and finding her place on the riverside, while Mandala… well… I don’t think anybody knows what the hell Mandala is up to.
I mentioned filth, and this is definitely not a book for those weak of stomach. It’s no Lychee Light Club, but that’s a tall order. In the space of a single chapter, Velveteen and Mandala gives us defecation, vomit, zombie rape, and the ensuing zombie mutilation. The violence is presented in perhaps the least detail of those. Extreme scenes like those are disgusting and offputting, of course, but Matsumoto also has a knack for drawing ordinary messes– eating, crying, insects gobbling trash, and leftover sukiyaki in Mandala’s hands– and making them nearly as repulsive as a face being split open on the street.
As usual with Vertical, the cover design is gorgeous (if disorienting), the pages are high-quality, and the price– $17 for a single 300-page volume– reflects that. Worth it? Absolutely: this is damn good stuff and I definitely want to see more from Matsumoto in English than just this one book.
Lame puns aside I wouldn't really say the art is sketchy, that sort of implies the composition is incomplete. You can tell Matsumoto knows where he wants everything spatially. He captures the whole and the details, so it's like a very refined gesture.
Found these two on his blog, there's more, along with pictures of toilets, military stuff and a soap bottle in the shape of a duck...
I wish I could read it, maybe it has the same sort of rants endo writes at the end of his manga.
Was it the first two pages? Check out http://groups.google.com/group/rec.arts.sf.composition/msg/3a83912c3b36903b
Mary Gentle wrote on Usenet:
'In article [bg92ks$m00o...@ID-174602.news.uni-berlin.de,
'annause...@iol.ie (Anna Mazzoldi) wrote:
''Mary Gentle" [mary_gen...@cix.co.uk] wrote in message news:memo.20030721162926.2620N@roxanne.morgan.ntlworld.com...
'''The scene in _Ash_ /is/ an exclusion scene, in the sense of where it's placed -- if you're a reader who doesn't want to read about violence treated in a particular way, and _Ash_ is a book that will foreground a /lot/ of violence, then it's just as well you know it before you get further into it. That scene tells you a number of things about the nature of the book and the character, and one of the things it tells you is whether you'll be distressed by the treatment of various subjects.'
''Indeed. And did you consciously choose to put it there for that reason ? (I would have assumed so, but you never know with writers...)'
''My reaction was the opposite of Dorothy's. I have put down a fair number of books on getting to a rape scene (usually on an adult woman), but Ash didn't do that to me. It's all in _how_ the subject is treated. Precisely as you said: it told me that it was the kind of handling of sex+violence that I _could_ cope with. ''
'I'm pleased that it worked that way for you, since that's what I was
hoping for. (Well, I'm also pleased that it worked that way for Dorothy,
even if I personally would have preferred that everybody like the book! But I can't complain if a filter filters...)
'And also, I guess: this is Ash, by the time she's seven years old she's
already herself, and if the character isn't to your liking, this is going
to save you reading rather a lot of words. :)...'
BTW, the way Mary Gentle handles the rape and other violence is very good; she shows it as brutal and painful to the victim, not as fulfilling a fantasy.
One problem I have, though, is that most manga like this tend to depict characters that are too black or white. They either accept everything with bubbly enthusiasm, or they're so deranged or out of touch they don't question anything. It's the latter in this case, but ironically (or maybe intentionally?) it seems to work for the strung out characters in this book.