Iou Kuroda is a weirdo. One does not even have to read any of the bizarre, outlandish comics he writes and illustrates to make the conclusion. Just look at the little washed-out sepia-tone photographs of the man accompanying many of his volumes. Remember the neurotic high school teacher from Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei? The one that wears Taisho-era kimono and yukata and resembles a nervous anorexic? That’s Kuroda down to a tee.
To not read the man’s work would be to do yourself a great disservice, though. Many if not most of the people already familiar with Kuroda know him through Sexy Voice and Robo, a comic about a detective duo comprised of a terminal-level super otaku and a phonesex operator. If not that, then perhaps they know him by Nasu, his collection of shorter works all featuring the recurring theme of eggplants. None of these are manga one would expect to see gracing the pages of Shonen Jump any time soon, but the one that takes the cake is Kuroda’s sprawling supernatural pseudo-noir series from 1995, Japan Tengu Party Illustrated.
Tengu Party is all about the eponymous creature of Japanese folklore. In the world of the comic they are portrayed as a race of long-lived sentient crows who can perform a sort of shapeshifting by crawling into the stretchable mouths of hollowed-out suits of human skin or magical automatons built out of clay and animated by magic. In case you were still wondering, Tengu Party is among the most outlandish and out-there of Kuroda’s comics, so it is remarkable, and a testament to his abilities as a storywriter, that the story and its characters stay as relatable and sympathetic as they do, perhaps even more so than those in the far more grounded settings of Nasu and Sexy Voice and Robo.
The central character of the story is Shinobu, an orphan girl found and raised by a small group of destitute tengu who, it is implied, have been wandering the streets of Tokyo for quite some time. In her the reader gets something far more interesting than a fish-out-of-water story. Shinobu, it turns out, is a self-made orphan, having disappeared from home after her first day of school years ago. What ensues for several volumes is a sort of Dickensian narrative shot through with equal parts noir and bizarre as she and her surrogate family of talking, misanthropic crows struggle to get by on the fringes of a society that has almost wiped them out of the “historical” record. Eventually after several volumes this side of the story grows in scope by several magnitudes as, after a series of unfortunate events and indignities at the hands of their human oppressors, the ringleaders decide on a quixotic plan to band together the last remaining tengu holdouts in Japan and go public. The end product is the Japan Tengu Party of the title, their diet coalition whose sole overriding political purpose is the establishment of tengu rights and the reestablishment of the sort of the folkloric mysticism they represent in Japanese society.
Do not even attempt to read this comic if you have a stunted ability to suspend your disbelief. On paper the premise of Tengu Party sounds a lot like those one sees in many contemporary magical realism or science-fiction television shows or miniseries’ — think True Blood or Heroes — where an inherently implausible scenario or situation is played “straight.” That is to say, an unrealistic scenario played off upon a backdrop of realistic/grounded setting and characters. This is the best, most nuanced approach to speculative fiction that exists today. I know a lot of people do not like this approach and say that a writer must be over the top and larger than life in telling stories that, from a grounded real world perspective, are “inherently ridiculous;” I think these people’s idea of what constitutes good storytelling is inherently ridiculous.
Playing it straight is a far preferable approach to narrative than the one that seems to be gaining prominence in some literary and “indie comics” circles (to say nothing of Japtoons and many modern neo-shonen manga) which mandates that “hysterical realism” is the best way to tell stories in the 21st Century. Here one gets the polar opposite of what was described in the above paragraphs. Settings and scenarios are mundane and quotidian, the proverbial office water cooler, but the characters that inhabit them are, surprise, hysterical. That is to say they are prone to histrionics, generally sociopathic and completely over the top and larger than life cardboard cutouts. The only credible way to express credible emotion in this MAD MODERN WORLD is to shout them out into the sky with fists clenched, usually around someone’s neck. I have tried to think of some perfect hypothetical example, but the only image my mind can produce is that of an unholy fusion of Excel Saga and Infinite Jest. Come to think of it, though, I would be more than willing watch an anime in which Nabeshin is a compulsive hyper otaku tennis star at some Midwestern polytechnic whose full and utter incomprehension at the The System (normal human emotions, the nuances of human interaction and institutions) causes him to lash out with necktie hachimaki across his forehead only to receive a frontal lobotomy at story’s conclusion.
The bizarre increases by several orders of magnitude with each increase in the story’s scope, culminating in assassination attempts and the avatar/vessel of all the tengu’s aspirations, a King Kong-sized simulacrum of Orson Welles in full-on Citizen Kain attire. Throughout, however, the main character remains believable, as do all of the human players in the story and the majority of the tengu as well. In particular, the ongoing side story of an off-kilter cryptozoologist-type professor and a sickly narcoleptic family member under his care sways wildly from oddly affecting to supremely creepy and back again, often within a page or two of each other. Hell, one of the most sympathetic characters in the story turns out to be a pedophile, though the revelation of such a fatal character flaw is not such a shock in the climate of contemporary anime and manga. Like in many other of Kuroda’s comics virtually every character has a dark side. It’s those that cannot tread the balance and end up too often dark or too often light that end up receiving the short end of the stick.
In a way, Tengu Party is a little cousin to Naoki Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys. Both involve a small band of close friends becoming gradually embroiled in a shadow society existing just underneath the placid surface of Tokyo life. Both indulge in time skips and following protagonists at different points in their lives, usually increasing the story’s scope with each skip. Unlike with 20CB, however, there was no point at which I felt that Tengu Party‘s scope went too far. Everything felt like a natural extension of the central elements with which the story began. Urasawa, a student of economics, has a knack for creating sophisticated, salable stories built around the structure of serialized pulp fiction (as most of his comics began their lives in the pages of weekly or monthly manga anthologies, it is not so surprising a style for him to have adopted). Kuroda on the other hand seems firmly entrenched on the more experimental side of things.
Kuroda’s art style is a cross between charcoal sketch or black-and-white watercolor and the angular shadows of noir. Whereas most Japanese comics don’t seem to attribute any artistic or stylistic weight to their lack of color, one cannot imagine Tengu Party rendered in anything except black and white. Anyone familiar with Sexy Voice or any of the stories in Nasu will be at home with his flat, almost child-like character designs. Similarly, his backgrounds are only defined as much as the “in-world” light sources (often dim to nonexistent, Tengu Party, and the tengu themselves, being primarily nocturnal) will allow. Many times a background will be nothing but a series of white rectangles, street lamps, receding away into the dimensionless well of black representing a starless night. Eventually one starts to wonder how much Kuroda spent on black India ink in which to drench every single page.
Not everything in Tengu Party is going to make sense by the fourth and final volume. Not every secret will be revealed or even fully addressed. It’s no big deal. Virtually every major character with a few disappointing exceptions has a full character arc, some of which may end abruptly or violently, but never oh-so-conveniently.
In the end Kuroda strikes a happy medium between the fantastically outlandish and the imminently human. That’s one secret most every storyteller would love to crack.