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.
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.
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.
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.