My Life in the Bathhouse of Ghosts: Undercurrent

I do not like the subgenre called “slice of life.” Oh there’s nothing wrong with the portrayal of the everyday mundane, but too often (read: almost every time) creators in virtually every entertainment medium pick up the name and heft it over their…

I do not like the subgenre called “slice of life.” Oh there’s nothing wrong with the portrayal of the everyday mundane, but too often (read: almost every time) creators in virtually every entertainment medium pick up the name and heft it over their heads as a tower shield against arrows of oh-so-ridiculous criticism claiming stories need to have “plot,” “structure” and, can you believe it, “a point.” No, these champions of slice of life reply with puff-chested gusto, you philistines have got it all wrong, these projects are all about vibe, got it?

Undercurrent is not one of those projects, and manga author Tetsuya Toyoda is not one of those creators. Rather than use the comic as a thinly veiled excuse to make some quick scratch off what amounts to a collection of practice-round background sketches boondoggled with a “story” that amounts to the Japanese equivalent of Andy Griffith gee-whiz vibe, Toyoda flexes artistic and story writing muscles modern manga probably didn’t even know it had.

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The premise to 2005’s Undercurrent starts off mundane enough: Kanae runs a small-town bathhouse with the help of her husband and a friend. At least she used to until her husband disappeared one day without a trace or a word to anyone. As the police investigation begins to taper off and her mind settles on the fact that she’ll very likely never see him alive again, Kanae decides to reopen the bathhouse and get back to work. The only problem is she needs someone qualified to operate the bath’s antiquated wood-burning incinerator.

Undercurrent is quick to drop in the hook of the missing husband, letting the reader know this comic actually has a story with real implications and stakes to tell(factor in that it has but a single volume in which to tell its tale and it’s obvious there is no intent to tarry). That’s what separates this slice from the pie. Toyoda’s slice forgoes the empty calories of sentimentalism and white-washed nostalgia and knifes into heartier, better-balanced fare.

Underneath the genial, slightly corn pone surface of daily life in Toyoda’s comics lies a darker side of the equation; a world rarely just or fair, never pleasant, but which always rings true and does not wallow in bathos. Goggles, a one-shot story by Toyoda about two male roommates babysitting a friend’s taciturn daughter, starts out as an airy trip through summertime in suburban Tokyo only to have reality, with all its ugly bits, rear its head to remind one character, and the readers, that it ain’t all braised tofu and water fountains. Undercurrent is no exception. The twin plot threads of Kanae’s missing, possibly dead, husband and the difficulties of keeping the bathhouse open affect the characters in a place deeper than an oversized sweat droplet, though you get those too.

The stakes are not huge, never ceding feasibility to seek ever-growing scope a la Naoki Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys, that other fake-out slice-of-life comic that recursively builds back upon its initially mundane trappings again and again to turn into something that, by the end, approaches the slightly ridiculous. Toyoda keeps his camera lens focused on no more than half a dozen characters or so. Only two of them are permanent fixtures in the plot, and of those two the reader is only privy to the inner life of one, Kanae the bathhouse manager.

It’s a testament to Toyoda’s characterization chops that he can work within such a narrow scope and never once have it feel claustrophobic or inconsequential. The secret–I’ll let you in on the secret here, modern manga–is characters that think, act and react realistically, believably, like, well, actual human beings would.

I’m about to call Tetsuya Toyoda the neo-realist of seinen manga right here. Characters in Undercurrent are realistic to a startling degree, down to the elderly gossipers who frequent the bathhouse not knowing whether Kanae is cuckold or widowed to a disappearing man (who “was always such a nice boy!”), but rattling off their theories amongst themselves anyways. People do not collapse into hysterical wrecks at the drop of a hat (or bathrobe) or stand there with dead, watery Rei Ayanami eyes, content to watch Rome burn as they strum the harp to their concerto of self-pity. Instead the reader gets some of the deepest range of emotion seen in manga. When, and if, a character breaks down or flies off the handle, there’s a damn good, damn believable reason as to why.

Credit must be given to the sharp art style in conveying that realism in both setting and character. Toyoda crafts comics with a film expert’s attention to perspective and visual depth. Here is a modern Japanese manga creator whose cinematic comics are better than most modern Japanese cinema. Undercurrent is drawn in a style that approaches minimalism, but is more like “economy.” Originally I thought the slightly airy style was Toyoda’s trademark, but I took a look at Goggles and saw lavish attention to detail in both background and character. Not to say Undercurrent is ugly, Toyoda’s economical style is such that it seems he knows the exact minimum amount of lines and strokes necessary to perfectly convey an emotion. Like the best filmmakers, he is an adept at framing a scene and knowing the utility of perspective and, strangely enough for a comic, sound and lack thereof.

At one point Kanae makes an awkward, out of practice attempt to move on past her husband only to get shot down. Her frustration, depicted in a single small panel, is true to life and hilarious. Without any overbearing dialog or monolog except the drone of ambient noise creeping across the panels, Toyoda depicts the amount of daily physical labor it takes to keep a slightly archaic bathhouse up and running. The reader’s appreciation for the characters grows only more.

Tetsuya Toyoda, you are enigma to me. I can hardly find any English-language biographical information on you, only that Francophones apparently like you. Undercurrent ran in French anthology Kana, won a nomination in this year’s Angoulême International Comics Festival and a pick from Belgian paper Le Soir on its list of best comics of 2008. Are you a former film student? The elegance of “camera” motion in your comics would suggest as much. Are you angling for a movie deal? The real question is if your readership can blame you for it. I doubt the advance checks from Afternoon are sufficient to pay the rent.

What I do know is that this guy doesn’t have a single official release in the English-speaking world, and that’s a shame. Undercurrent, with its subtlety, attention to detail and dedication to realism, is one of those short works you can show to someone who does not like comic books, a dying breed in Japanacomics. Viz, if you can bring over goddamn Tokyo Flow Chart as a Signature title, you can definitely bring over an artiste like Tetsuya Toyoda. Come on now.

5 Comments

  1. I haven’t read the material in question, but perhaps if you expanded your definition of “slice of life”, it would then gain more meaning. For instance, are you watching Tokyo Magnitude 8.0? If you consider it slice of life, then how does it inductively change your attitude towards things that “strive to be a slice of life”?

  2. Mark and I have been going back and forth on Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 in the IRC channel (#colonydrop on irc.esper.net!) lately. We’re not really fans. I’ll just clean up a chatlog and post that because I’m tired. It probably won’t answer your question, but neither of us really feel like addressing the topic tonight.

    Jeff: I keep waiting in the hopes that maybe, maybe, it’ll stop being so irresponsibly good-natured. It’s like, “we are a serious disaster show. Wait, no, actually it’s pretty by-the-numbers melodrama where people are generally good, and boy, it’s hard to survive a major disaster, but you gotta keep goin’. Let’s not worry about all the bad things that are actually happening during this event, as our heroes continually narrowly avoid death. Nobody does any looting, conditions are bad but bearable, the nobility of self-sacrifice, etc.”

    I think the show reflects a cultural myth, the Japanese society as this big happy collectivist family who’ll all work hard to help each other get along. When people act like assholes in this show, it’s always in a pathetic, meaningless way, like “Oh no, someone cut Mirai in line for the toilet.” And when I think of what actually happened with Hurricane Katrina, a major, real first-world disaster, it’s like, what the fuck?

    Mark: Basically, it’s doing a disservice to the viewership by touting itself as such a well-researched and all-but-public-service project and then proceeding to portray a pretty rosy best-case-scenario hypothetical. A lot of people are going to defend this show by saying “No, this is the way Japanese people would really react in a catastrophic-scale natural disaster.”

    Disaster fiction works very similarly to war stories — the primary hook is that it’s played at the highest Who Lives, Who Dies stakes, with that knowledge always hanging over all the characters’ heads and affecting their actions differently. In fact, one of the primary drivers is that different characters react differently to the dire circumstance, and not all of them very positively or congenially.

    So when you have a story where the sense of mortality is rather remote and the characters’ reactions all kind of same-y and cooperative, well, for me there’s little impetus left to keep following the story.

  3. Well, don’t feel obliged to respond to this last comment, but I think what I meant was “what would TM8.0 be like if you pretended it were s’life” instead of “try to logically interpret TM8.0 as s’life.” The first is inductive, the second deductive, and always viewing anime/media/etc. deductively is a self-fulfilling prophecy on part of the viewer. Is TM8.0 “supposed to be” a real disaster show? I don’t care what it’s “supposed” to be, I’ll decide that and interpret it as such. TM8.0 seemed interesting to watch as s’life for the very reasons you seem to dislike it — and for that very reason, to each his own…

  4. Lelangir do you actually write these sentences or do you use some sort of comedy text generator to create the slobbering, incoherent ramblings you smear all over the internet?

  5. lelangir: I have not personally watched TM8.0, but I doubt that “pretending” it was a slice-of-life show would much change the opinions of either Jeff or Mark.

    Their characterization of the show suggests that the show is entirely too evocative of standard up-with-people Japanese TV melodrama fare, and to be honest, most of the rest of us here at Side 2 are inclined to take their word for it. This is not nearly so much out of a sycophantic instinct (though we do think Mark and Jeff are the “bee’s knees”, as the kids would have it) as it is because we tend to observe a lot of the same tendencies in other shows we watch that make similar casual plays at slice-of-life. I think we’re all in general agreement that the tendency towards insipid melodrama is one of the hardest tropes for anime as a medium to overcome because it’s not a trope unique to anime.

    Also, I most certainly don’t agree that the reason your opinion on TM8.0 differs from that of Jeff and Mark is because of your use of “inductive logic” versus “deductive logic”. What you seem to be implying here is that since Jeff and Mark do not share your favorable impression of the show, it must naturally be due to a needlessly cold-blooded dissection of a fundamentally subjective text; their opinion is supposedly the product of flawed methodology more than anything else. I think you do Mark and Jeff entirely too little credit here. I can assure you that their opinion is just as much the product of charitable consideration as yours is. But when it really comes down to it, to the sensibilities of many of Colony Drop’s contributors, TM8.0 isn’t really our thing.

    (And really, when it comes to anime blogging, aren’t we all working more or less on the inductive level by default? Mind you, I’m only mechanically familiar with deductive logic [read: I took Logic I and passed], but it doesn’t seem that there’s a lot of concrete details to deduce absolute truth/falsehood from when it comes to anime, barring production details [who did what] and explicit statements about thematic material from the creative staff [“with x, we wanted to convey y”]. Since we’re so steeped in the subjective to begin with, doesn’t induction prevail by default when we render our interpretation?)

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