Weekend reading: Ikigami, Sayonara, Kurosagi

March 1, 2010

The fourth volume of Motoro Mase’s Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit (Viz) nicely displays Mase’s strengths and weaknesses as a storyteller. Each volume contains two arcs, and the paired tales here include one mawkish affair and one smart outing. “The Last Lesson” displays what happens when Mase neglects his underlying premise – a pernicious government program that randomly kills young people to teach society the value of life – in favor of examining some other social ill. In this case, it’s all about horrible kids, willfully ignorant parents, and overwhelmed teachers, leading one character to wonder “What kind of evil has taken over our schools these days?” That bit of dialogue is in great big type in case you missed the fact that it’s the moral. “A Place of Peace” shows Mase at his sharpest, telling a character-driven story within his larger context. A young mother gets her death notice and must decide what to do with her child in the face of her husband’s complete aversion to responsibility. The human drama plays out with some nice twists and turns and some chilling overall implications. In spite of its inconsistencies, Ikigami is always a very readable series, even when Mase ramps up the melodrama. As always, the bleak little moments of death-dealing bureaucracy provide unsettlingly funny framing. I really wish Mase did four-koma salaryman strips about the death notice office.

I was a little worried when I heard that Joyce Aurino wouldn’t be translating and adapting the fifth volume of Koji Kumeta’s densely satirical Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei (Del Rey). I can understand it, because four volumes of copious end notes and incredibly fiddly references must be enough to send anyone off to a healing retreat on an island in a lake in the Alps that can only be reached by rowboat. (I have no idea if Aurino chose that recuperative strategy. I just like to picture the nuns greeting her with a warm bowl of broth and a hand-woven blanket while reassuring her that “Your work is done for now.”) In all seriousness, Aurino did a remarkable job delivering a funny, frisky script and a veritable encyclopedia of annotations to round out the reading experience. David Ury’s translation and adaptation don’t seem quite as… well… flawless as Aurino’s, but they’re still very, very good, and this tale of a suicidal teacher and his diversely horrible students maintains its grim, biting charm. Highlights of the fifth volume include a new student, “mean-looking girl” Mayo Mitima, and the ongoing descent of “methodical and precise girl” Chiri Kitsu, and Kumeta’s twisted dissection of human foibles never really falters.

There’s nothing game-changing in the 10th volume of The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service (Dark Horse), written by Eiji Otsuka and illustrated by Housui Yamazaki, but it does show the creators in top form. It occurred to me that Kurosagi’s intentions are the same as Ikigami’s – how people deal with death, and how they address their unfinished business. In spite of the fact that Kurosagi is a comedy, I think it has smarter and more interesting things to say on the subject. I also really enjoy the way that Otsuka and Yamazaki frame their mini-mysteries, both criminal and emotional. Their satirical edge is in evidence as well, tweaking everything from community health initiatives to moronic reality shows. There’s nothing quite as pleasurable as watching creators establish an intriguing, flexible premise and a quirky, engaging cast and apply them to a wide variety of stories that are still thematically linked. It does make the series hard to review volume to volume, because how many ways can you say it’s still really good?