First!

Okay, now that that little bit of juvenile Forum humor is out of my system, Happy New Year!

You may have noticed that I use very few images in this column. For a column that talks about comics (and especially given the detailed commentary of the other columnists on meaning and composition,) this might seem weird. As much as I love anime and even more so manga, images are not what I notice.

Sure, I like a pretty picture as much as the next person, but I’ve been describing myself as “graphically impaired” for many years. I can see the art, and when called upon to do so, I can describe the art. I have only some of  the vocabulary to critique the art,  and none of the critical vocabulary to compare and contrast the art to….whatever.  But, the reality is, I don’t *look* at the art all that often. Not until I already like a story. For me the story is about the words.

What do you get when you take the art out of manga?

Very often,the words alone are not enough to carry the story. Removing the art, or part of it, can turn a slice-of-life comic strip into a surreal experience, such as Garfield minus Garfield. But this doesn’t stop Japanese companies from finding a way to make it work. Which brings us to my favorite way to experience manga – Drama CDs.

I mentioned Drama CDs briefly last month in my discussion of Hana no Asuka-gumi. Drama CDs are the step between manga and anime; a dramatization of the story performed by voice actors and actresses, without the visuals of either still art or animation.  The best of these are original stories that give a fan more time to spend with beloved characters, many are performaces of an already-known story, much like BBC Radio Dramas.  I find them appealing on several levels – they give me a deeper relationship with the story, as I hear it “come to life,” they add a layer of understanding to the characters as scenes are acted out, and they challenge me to understand spoken Japanese, something that I’m much weaker at than I’d like to be. (The side effect, I should warn you, of practicing Japanese listening skills by listening to Drama CDs is that your vocabulary becomes irrevocably skewed. I can follow detailed conversations about certain technical things, but cannot follow a conversation about everyday average things overheard on a subway.)

Not all manga is profound and likewise, many Drama CDs may be entirely absurd. And yet, there are moments that make it all worthwhile. Sometimes, it’s the moment when Sid and Nancy finally make their appearance and get to blister our ears with their rendition of hardcore punk cursing (Hayate x Blade,) sometimes it’s in the moment when Touko’s voice drops down into thrillingly sexy tones (Hatsukoi Shimai) and sometimes it’s in the after moments, during the cast talk, when actors blur the lines themselves and the roles and we explode from an adorable non-canon moment. (Maria-sama ga Miteru: Parasol wo Sashite.)

The as-yet-untranslated series Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou (Yokohama Shopping Log) has, ironically, some of the most beautiful art I’ve ever seen. There is very little dialogue -whole chapters pass with no words at all. In the manga, android protagonist Alpha has developed a quiet lifestyle of her own. During the day, she runs a coffee shop (which rarely receives visitors, as she lives off the beaten path.) Alpha likes to craft whirylgigs, and and she likes things that are fished-shaped. She rides around on her scooter, taking pictures. And sometimes, when she’s in the mood, or when her friend and admirer Kokone (another android) visits, she takes the Moon-Lute down and plays, and sings. As a present to start off the new year, I offer to you a quiet moment with Alpha, a cup of coffee and the Moon Lute.

Humming to the Moon

Sometimes the best part of a manga are the moments when we stop thinking and just listen.

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