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March 18th, 2010

09:05 pm: there are lots of things i love about buso renkin, but one thing i love more than all the rest.
And what I love most about BUSO RENKIN is this: the liner note extras are FANTASTIC. Now, let me point out that this is just how Nobuhiro Watsuki rolls - his RUROUNI KENSHIN tankobons are full of fascinating tidbits too - but BUSO RENKIN's liner notes are far more interesting because of how much more candid and informative they are about the business of making manga, what it takes to simply exist as a WSJ title. Because BuRe was not a flagship title for WSj - unlike RuroKen, which rose to the stratosphere at just the right time, BuRe grew up in the shadow of the decade-long stranglehold ONE PIECE, BLEACH, and NARUTO, all three of which had benefited from the path RuroKen and the series around it blazed for them. And BuRe, for all its fun, does demonstrate one pretty simple fact: Watsuki is a very straightforward and conservative writer when it comes to plot and character archetypes. In terms of his interests, his style, and his structure, he remains indebted to most of the same influences as he was when he drew RuroKen in the '90s. Outside of a growing influence by and fondness for horror tropes and 19th-century architecture and clothing (an influence that bore fruit in his current series, EMBALMING, which is ... a horror series set in the 19th century, of course), the Watsuki of BuRe is in almost every way that counts the same Watsuki of RuroKen. (Although I doubt the Watsuki of RuroKen would've given the world Papillon.)

Frankly, that's all right by me; when I got interested in BuRe, "more of the same Watsuki" was exactly what I wanted, and it ended up surpassing my expectations a few times. I was more than happy with that.

But I can see why it never managed to unseat the reigning kings of modern shounen. It never really did discover a unique enough identity that would give it the strength to even attempt toppling them.

And that makes the liner notes to the manga even more fascinating, to me, because that struggle is all over the BuRe extra pages.

You see, to expand on what I was saying earlier, it's a Watsuki trademark that he fills extra space in the tankobon volumes with design notes, background detail that couldn't fit in the manga proper, and most importantly, a detailed running commentary about what he was doing and why he did it and often what he thought about the response the audience had to what he did ... for every single chapter. He did this for RuroKen, too, but IIRC, to nowhere near the fanatical level of behind-the-scenes detail that exists in each volume of BuRe.

He talks about how the audience polls work. he talks about what it's like to change the entire concept of the manga ten chapters in based on negative audience response. He talks about dealing with editors, about what kind of decisions a shounen mangaka ought to get used to making instantly if they want to succeed, the difference between audience growth and personal growth, about how mangaka often ask fellow mangaka to help them out with design work sometimes, and about his unending fascination with French cinema and X-Men. And he talks about how much he wanted to do, and then didn't, and he talks about why it worked and why it didn't.

It's a catalogue of missteps and triumphs and successes that is incredible to read because every single word of it just hammers home that what Watsuki does is a labor of love, and nothing else. He is a mangaka because he's wired that way: he doesn't know how to be anyone else.

One anecdote Watsuki tells is, if I'm remembering the exact details right, about a high school reunion, and the feelings he has knowing he would have to face his old high school class knowing that they were all planning to go on to college, and Watsuki's only plan was to drop out and become a mangaka, and how awkward that is to face people with. I don't remember if he ever went, but his talking about how he felt thinking about it still sticks with me.

I don't know why he decided to tell anyone about that in the liner notes. I honestly don't. I mean, it's an incredibly brave thing to tell anyone, much less an audience full of people who don't even know you. But I am grateful he did. I'mn grateful he cared enough about his audience to try and treat us like friends who he could share even sad stories with, because even if the words are carefully considered, he wanted that kind of close connection that made his audience feel like he was listening, and that he wanted them to listen too.

Some mangaka can get away with being mysterious, flighty, or incredibly rude to their audience, and that's just how they are - the early volumes of GINTAMA, before the manga got too boring for me, were full of passive-aggressive rage directed at any audience who thought the manga was supposed to be "entertaining", and I thought it was hilarious - but Watsuki just wants to make people feel welcomed, and that, I find, is the reason I can return to BuRe so often, and even when it pisses me off (like with parts of the early LXE arc) and even at its most painfully generic I can still find it rewarding.

It's honest. Everything about it is completely transparent. There are no hidden tricks that make it work. It's a naked expression of the author's earnest desire to connect with an audience who will like him. It knows what it is, Watsuki knows who he is, and every single page reflects Watsuki trying to convey that sense. Not every page succeeds. But every page tries, and that it's honest about admitting when it fails makes its failures miniature successes instead.

It's a treasure trove of insight into how the business works and what the cost of survival in the WSJ pressure-cooker really looks like from one of the most thoughtful voices working in the field today.

That's just fucking wonderful. No other extra-page filler in any shounen manga that I've had the chance to read comes even close.

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