Review: Tanpenshu vol. 1

Well, now that spring break is over, I ought to get back into the routine of procrastinating as long as possible, even if it means blogging.

impulse buy cover art ahoy!

On that note, I got Tanpenshu volume 1 out of a small order from rightstuf a few days ago. As it’s one of the few things the only thing out of the order that AWO hasn’t reviewed, I figured I would start with it first. Please be warned that there are probably what you could consider major spoilers in the review, so you can scroll down to the bottom to see my final thoughts if you want.

The first volume of Tanpenshu, by Hiroki Endo of Eden fame (or so the ad copy tells me,) is a collection of three short stories that the back cover promises are “mature explorations on humanity’s constant, fumbling attempts to find hope and meaning in a confusing, violent world.” To be honest, the description really didn’t sell me on this, the cover art did. I was looking for something to bring my order up to $50 to get free shipping, and figured I’d take a chance. After all, how could pandas, swords, and naked teenagers that are drawn in a style, at least on first glance, a lot like Kei Toume’s go wrong? And of course, I was right. I’m always right! (Well, except for when I scraped a good foot of my car across a support pole in a really tight parking area this afternoon… er, review, Ko. review.) Of course, the front cover art, as well as the inside cover art of a naked man and woman lying on a bed with knives at each other’s throats, doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the actual stories in the volume. Oh well.

The first story of the three, “The Crows, the Girl, and the Yakuza”, is the story that was most like what I expected the three stories to be like. In regular short story form, Endo drops us right into the spiral groove of the story after where long-winded character development might have been. We get introduced to the somewhat stock characters in what is honestly not the most original of stories as the camera cuts between the main players:

The wounded yakuza member, Aoki,in recovery and hiding from the men trying to kill him!

The nameless, homeless teenaged girl, who takes some time off of her regular caretaker of wounded crow duties to help Aoki recover. Ah, you see what he did here? Yes, I thought you would. She’s also missing her left eye. (one guess about what happened to it! Guessed that one too? Jeez, you’re almost as good as me!)

Aaand The old cop and the rookie, fresh on the beat. Thankfully, the older one is not gettin’ too old for this shit. They play the part of the more detached bystanders, and some of their short dialogues give us a little bit of the backstory while the others give us some top-notch philosophisin’. For example, “According to Freud, a pistol is actually a phallic symbol. So when you think about it, War… War’s kinda like men shooting loads of cum all over each other.” Well damn, now that you put it that way…

But you know, despite the fact that you can probably see the entire story coming once you’re about ten pages in, it still works pretty well, especially as the first story in the volume. By the inevitable end of the story, you have a good taste of Endo’s rough and honest but still attractive art, as well as a good look at his dialogue, which gives you a strong feeling of the characters while simultaneously establishing the big themes of the book, all while not feeling forced at all. Just like a good short story, right? (This is an honest question, please be warned that the only short stories I have read recently are by Murakami.) Oh yeah, we also get introduced to this kind of annoying, rough font that gets used for side-comments that looks like it’d be named “kidz talk” or something, but it only gets used a few times, thankfully.

Anyway, the themes– the themes that we get introduced to in “The Crows…” that seem to underlie the whole volumes are pretty simple themes: Figuring out how to make your life worth living, and the somewhat more Freudian (Freud again! Always Freud! ARRRGH!) theme of childhood trauma having an effect on figuring this whole life business out. Note that I said themes of the entire volume, because that’s a lot of what really made this one for me. He doesn’t seem to sit down, pick a theme, write a short story about it, then move on, but instead makes everything in the volume deal with all of it. So by the end of the volume, you can close the book, maybe not until the second read-through like me, and think “Huh. That was honestly very interesting” (Or at least that’s what I did. I’m not very well read, to be honest.), all while feeling a little warm inside about…things. For me, it was kind of a halfway point between finishing an episode of Aria and finishing a marathon of Narutaru.

The next story, “Because You’re Definitely a Cute Girl”, is a little toned down in a lot of aspects when you compare it to the first. Again, the story might seem like you’ve seen it somewhere before. Quiet, awkward girl tries for once to be less awkward and fit in, quiet, awkward girl thinks she’s doing well, quiet, awkward girl finds out that she actually wasn’t doing very well at all, then quiet, awkward girl kills someone. This is probably where I got the Narutaru vibe from. (Actually, this was originally published right as Narutaru started, in ’98. It really doesn’t feel its age at all, and seems very well-timed in terms of an American release.)

I was probably the least impressed by this story, and I’m not really sure why. Endo manages to switch the mood of the story in just one page turn just as excellently as he does in the other stories, and he also gives us just enough clues to see that the story is a subtle downward spiral, whereas “The Crows…” felt more like a flat spiral coming to a logical ending. The theme of childhood trauma takes center stage in this one, almost to the point where, once again, you feel like you’ve read this story somewhere else before.

So here I am, having read through two fairly standard but still solid, entertaining stories, thinking to myself that the $9.70 – potential shipping cost that I spent on Tanpenshu was worth it, but maybe not quite as worth it as preordering another volume of Golgo 13. At this point, I’ve also made my earlier observation about Endo sticking to his guns, in terms of overall themes, and I’m interested in what he’s doing, maybe even hoping a little that he’s honest-to-god minorly neurotic about this whole growing up business. Kind of like Anno with Eva, except done in a way that doesn’t make me hate it. (AM I RITE??) All the works just feel a little more personal that way, and that really endears an author and their works to me. Perhaps, you could say, it’s as if producing this art is the author’s form of therapy… (YES EXCELLENT SEGWAY, +3!!)

WHICH BRINGS ME TO the last story, the story that caused me to re-read the volume, write this review, and feel like my money was very well spent, For Those of Us Who Don’t Believe in God”. The reader is once again dropped into the middle of the action… in the form of a play. The story focuses on a variety of college students, actors and crew, putting on a play about a young woman confronting her brother’s killer, himself a victim of child abuse. Outside of the production, we see the relationships between the various characters, including the abusive relationship between the once-abused-themselves pair of the playwright/director and the girl on the lights. Woah. Meta. For reals.

What the story might lack in the SWORDS AND NAKED CHICKS department that the cover might suggest, it more than makes up for in being a top-notch “slice of life” (I’m not sure if that is a wholly appropriate label outside of the anime/manga world, kind of like how Kino gets called slice of life) short story while bringing the book to a really satisfying conclusion. You get a lot of negativity and almost a sense of despair from the first two stories, but the third is the hope that you find floating around at the bottom of the whole thing. Oh yeah, and you also find a joke about masturbating to Eva characters. So while the play might end with a message of forgiveness in what very well might be a meaningless world, the inhabitants of the story end up in a much more satifying place, where the freshman virgin male gets not one, but two first kisses, new relationships form, and the director admits “For the time being, all I want to do is know for sure where I stand. Anything else, well… kind of like figuring out which way I should start walking.” Progress is being made, and that “hope and meaning in a confusing, violent world”? Yeah, it’s there, somewhere.

So all in all, I really enjoyed Tanpenshu 1, and I’m planning on buying/preordering volume 2 once I make another order from internet retailer of my choice. I’m glad that Dark Horse is able to pick up titles like this, and I’m starting to understand why their titles are taking up more and more space on my shelf. (Actually, that’s a lie. Between Koike and Carl Horn, there’s never really been much confusion.) If you’re just looking for NAKED BITCHES GETTIN’ SLICED UP or something, I can’t exactly recommend this to you, but if you’re in the market for some really satisfying one-shots, this would be at the top of my list. In fact, I will probably try to push this on astrange and maybe he will write a counterpoint review to what seems to be my fanboyish point, since he’s generally more level-headed than I am.

And there you have it, it’s 2:50AM and I don’t have any work done and I need to get to sleep. Mission accomplished! I’ll try to do this again, and maybe it’ll be with something that lends itself to a shorter review. Hopefully.

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