September 17, 2006

Cracking open a copy of Secret Comics Japan: Underground Comics Now, my first thought was, “Wait, Viz published this?” Don’t get me wrong. I love a lot of the books in Viz’s various imprints, but if this is the kind of stuff they were publishing six years ago, somebody get me a time machine.

Edited by Chikao Shiratori, the book collects an eye-popping mixture of shorts with an experimental, Garo-esque flavor. In assembling the stories, Shiratori wanted to offer an alternative to the magic girls and young men with a dream who dominated much of the translated manga at the time.

The cumulative effect is dazzling. There’s a rich range of styles on display, from the adorably disgusting Junko Mizuno to the stylish, cinematic josei of Kiriko Nananan to the bizarrely detailed Usamaru Furuya. Narrative structures run from utterly straightforward to thoroughly abstract, and the subject matter is similarly diverse.

Each piece contributes something different to the big picture that Shiratori is trying to assemble. Diversity is a difficult concept to illustrate in a meaningful way, but Secret Comics Japan offers an absorbing cross section of ambitious weirdness.

Shintaro Kago’s “Punctures” is both visually revolting and hilarious. In it, society has become so paranoid about the possibility of injury that they’re resorting to preemptive self-mutilation. In a world where restaurants are forced to warn you that the contents of your coffee cup are hot, it’s depressingly plausible, even if Kago takes the notion to grotesque extremes.

Benkyo Tamaoki takes a surprisingly slice-of-life approach to erotica in “Editor Woman.” As Shiratori says in his introduction to the piece, Tamaoki produces “high quality manga that also happen to be porn.” The title character is painfully normal, and Tamaoki packs the story with mundane details and petty frustrations that somehow manage not to counter the story’s function as erotica.

My favorite selection in the book is easily Furuya’s “Palepoli,” gloriously weird, beautifully illustrated one-page cartoons. They’re disturbing, profane, and hilarious. (“Golgo 31” is one of the funniest things I’ve read in years.) I’ve really got to order his Short Cuts.

There’s glorious stuff in here, and fans of Digital Manga Publishing’s Robot series would do well to try and track down a copy. It’s an amazing collection of the kind of styles and stories you don’t generally see on the shelves at Borders.

(I ordered this from Viz’s on-line shop, but it’s also in stock at Amazon. Other books by some of the creators with work in Secret Comics Japan include: Tamaoki’s Blood: The Last Vampire; Mizuno’s Princess Mermaid and Pure Trance; Nananan’s Sweet Cream and Red Strawberries and Blue; and others I was too lazy to research.)