Dark Horse Comics
Shinji Kaijo / Kenji Tsuruta
A couple of years ago I wrote a review for Kenji Tsuruta’s Wandering Island, a slow-paced, offbeat, artistic manga that was given literary presentation from Dark Horse, the Grand Old Man of English-language manga publishing. I found it to be a fascinating work and while I expressed frustration at the time that it was a truncated story cut off with unpublished chapters, to my surprise the story does go on – against all expectations I’ve recently seen volume 2 of Wandering Island in a bookshop in France, but like the wandering island of the title it’s yet to meander its way across the seas from the land of the bande-dessiné to British shores. In the meantime you can feel a companionable spirit with another Tsuruta manga, Emanon. This particular manga is not exclusively Tsuruta’s project – he is now adapting a prose story from Japanese science-fiction author Shinji Kaijo, who has been writing a long-running series of Emanon stories since 1983 – but has that influence changed his idiosyncratic work into something unrecognisable or will it just be turning a page onto a new chapter like how the characters in this manga span generations?
A university student is bumming around Japan in the year 1967. The world is in a ferment and from the early disaster of the Apollo 1 space launch to The Beatles revolutionising pop music with their new album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band everything seems to be frothing in the pot. Our protagonist doesn’t really notice it as he bobs about on top of the foam, though – his preoccupations are more prosaic. A serial suitor who’s stuck in a funk after suffering yet another in a series of unimpressed rejections, he’s gone on a tour of Japan to shake out the cobwebs but his money’s finally run out so he’s sailing on the car ferry back to home on a cold winter night.
Perhaps appropriately for a man who still honestly considers himself to be a genuine romantic, this student has a mind that’s up in the clouds and so he’s an avid science-fiction fan, which makes this simple sail between the islands all the more startling. The slender, long-haired girl sitting next to him trying to get comfortable around the blankets on the hard metal deck is intrigued by his reading material: the fanciful far-out fantasies of sci-fi indicate a flexible mind that’s accepting of radical concepts, and so she wants to know what this lover of the unusual makes of her own history. She calls herself Emanon – “No Name” backwards – because she ran out of names to give herself long, long ago… for she has lived since the very beginning of life on Earth and her perfect memory can recall everything that’s happened to her in the last three billion years.
It sounds ridiculous, but Emanon speaks with such detail, clarity and certainty that you can’t just dismiss it as the detached ramblings of a “hippy chick” who’s toked too hard on her reefer. So the student listens, and as her story unfolds it becomes part of the strangest and most fascinating night of his life.
At Its heart, Emanon could be seen as a Hollywood-friendly script of a Meet Cute, where two strangers bump into each other in serendipitous error and their encounter sparks a shock of electric connection. The down-to-earth scenario is immediately engaging – not just because it’s ‘authentic’ like some drearily bland late-1980s artless Socialist Realism street scene cranked out by the paper mill, but because the setting complements the characters. The ferry is at first a very mundane, material place – all steel and corners – but it is a lonely thing that churns through an inky void of the night-time sea. This at once says that our characters are creatures of society and that shapes their perceptions, but that their conversation is still a private and personal one and the conclusions that they come to are still theirs alone.
There’s a small but important detail that shows the insightfulness of the text – in a caption Emanon is referred to as looking like a “hippy chick”, even though she’s in a fairly conservative jeans and a jumper – remembering that not every hippy in the world was the stereotype of a San Francisco flower child. That said, her jeans do have an, erm, snug fit – this is still manga we’re talking about. There’s also one scene where Emanon talks about living through the evolution of Man, accompanied by a panel of a 2001: A Space Odyssey-style ape-man flinging bones while she stands to one side, topless with her tits out and looking entirely human except with a bit of hair on her shoulders. It’s a perfect stereotype of high fantasy races where the males are monsters while the females are sexy (there’s even a NSFW Oglaf cartoon about it) but while it’s a bit silly the incident is short, ultimately brief and harmless and doesn’t detract from the observational quality that carries through to the rest of the art. Backgrounds tend to be something that manga artists up against a deadline struggle with (I was listening to Andy and Elliott’s Screentone Club podcast discussing Marginal Operation recently and they observed how it was comical how the action almost universally occurs in featureless office rooms) but Tsuruta positively luxuriates in detailed mise-en-scene that is photorealistic but hand-drawn (carefully and respectfully touched-up by Dark Horse to translate signs into English). The characters are often in the background and half-masked by bottles and stairwells, including one lovely little private moment delicately drawn behind a curtain of railings, illustrating how the world trundles onwards even as Emanon discusses high-minded concepts of immortality and the final purpose of Man, appropriately reinforcing the theme of her still trying to find her place within it.
One of the questions the book poses is whether Emanon is telling the truth that she has lived for billions of years or if she’s just telling tall tales, spinning a yarn to while away the night on a boring commuter crossing. Truth be told though it’s not much of a mystery, particularly when the manga opens with a prologue of Emanon emerging from the sea and wandering like Eve through primordial jungles. You could criticise this as a failure of planning but to be honest, I don’t see it as a problem – I doubt many people reading a manga in the first place looking for completely humdrum meetings, so there’s not much point in asking a question when most people have already guessed the answer: so the mangaka is deciding to dispense with any distractions of tepid minor mystery and focusing attention on the more engaging matter of Emanon’s character and working out why would she try to act the way she does given what we know about her past.
A major appeal of Dark Horses’s manga is their wealth of supplementary information that transforms each volume not just into a collection of pretty pictures but a cultural artefact. You’ll have noticed when reading my reviews that I like to place both books and films into their wider context by finding associations and resemblances between them and other titles as much as possible – so Dark Horse resonates with me perfectly and brings these books to larger life. There are no less than three afterwords to this manga: a historical essay from Dark Horse editor Carl Gustav Horn, plus two separate commentaries on the manga from Kaijo and Tsurata themselves. Delightfully, even these footnotes have footnotes! They even demand your thought and engagement: not just reciting dates and titles but, for instance, weighing in on that thorny issue of “translation versus localisation” that the manga fandom is frequently snagged on, with a take that’s actually fairly atypical too. To call this stuff an “omake” like the little comedy yonkomas that you get at the back of more mainstream manga really undersells it: I enjoyed them so much that it’s really worth the price of the book on it own, and the manga they’re attached to almost feels besides the point.
The content of these essays does tread on one of the dividing lines in science fiction – I’ve seen it discussed by science fiction chronicler and editor of the long-running Ansible newsletter David Langford, although the topic is much older than him – between “soft sci-fi” (rayguns, warp drives, lightsabres, the fun stuff) and “hard SF” (physics, social change, evolution, the serious stuff). It’s a distinction that I’m not terribly fond of myself as it really only indulges pompous luvvies, the sort who call their science fiction and fantasy “speculative fiction” and “magical realism” because vulgar skiffy is so beneath them, but Emanon does lean into the latter with these supplementary essays taking the form of literary biography, recounting anecdotes of Big Names like how Robert Heinlein was chauffeured around Tokyo in Osamu Tezuka’s car after they attended Go Nagai’s wedding reception, but I don’t resent it for that at all. Seeing the life of an author beyond the list of titles he’s penned actually cemented one of the important points that the Emanon manga was making.
A few years ago I wrote a review for the live-action Japanese film The Story of Yonosuke. In it, I remarked about how it inspired a sense of nostalgia, but importantly not the common sort of nostalgia of throwback references to old shows that we typically associate with the term in the context of our geeky anime-watching pastime but our own actual involvement in the world around us: “It is nostalgic, but rather than it being the insular played-out nostalgia of music and videogames it's the much more fulfilling nostalgia of the experiences we witnessed”. The distinction is an important one – Kate Beaton, creator of the history- and literature-inspired comic Hark! A Vagrant, devastatingly showed us the alternative in one of her strips “Regrets” featuring the elderly manchild who couldn’t remember his son’s wedding but could remember that he liked watching Thundercats. Just as the lonely science-fiction reader of Emanon comes to understand how he relates to the strange young girl on the long watches of a cold night, so too is life not what we read but what we do and those memories of what we make are truly the ones that will last forever.