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Talking manga: DAI-HONYA
when satire is very funny until it suddenly very isn't
It feels like for as long as we’ve had books people have been trying to ban them. Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Naked Lunch and Ulysses (all omega-bangers btw) were all the focus of major trials regarding the “moral” value of art in the States; in Japan, author Tatsuhiko Shibusawa was found guilty in 1969 of obscenity for his translation of Marquis de Sade’s Juliette, a trial that maddeningly took nearly a decade to conclude (Lady Chatterley also had a similar case in Japan around the same time, which is true icon behavior).
It also feels like it’s as bad as it has ever been, Florida politicians ramping up their anti-LGBTQ bigotry into an attempt at some kind of fascist-led genocide, chomping at the bit to ban any book that might imply non-cis, heterosexual people exist, or that racism is A Thing. They are desperate to convince everyone, make everyone believe: books are dangerous. Books challenge and make people think and can not be allowed to continue. Books are tools of corruption.
Fun stuff! We love to laugh here.
You know what else is a total laugh riot? Tori-Miki and Kansei Takita’s manga, DAI-HONYA. It is joke on joke, a barrage of surreal asides and non-sequiturs and classic vaudevillian bits stacked up on top of each other so densely it can almost be hard to tell what is even happening. It is silly and irreverent and consistently absurd. It also won maybe Japan’s biggest sci-fi award. They made the right choice.
A self-described “hard-boiled gag” series that ran for a year starting in ’92, DAI-HONYA is a razor sharp, uncomfortably prescient satire on capitalism’s suffocating relationship with art. Set in a world that has seen the book industry shrink and subsequently taken over by a giant company after a comics convention was bombed, near the entire manga takes place within the walls of one of the last remaining bookstores in Japan — a monstrous 200 floor monolith and world its own — as the heroes try to stop a violent heist.
You read this and it’s hard not to think “oh no”. We live today in an entertainment landscape made of up like, three mega-corporations rapidly buying up and merging with every straggling company still left, which they then do their absolute best to run into the ground in the name of profit. HBO Max is baffingly now just Max; movies are made only to never be released in some nightmare financial play, or if they do get released are mercilessly deleted from existence; just recently Embracer Group, a video game holding company, bought up a host of developers only to immediately announce layoffs and studio closures. This has long been true of books, small sellers beaten down by big chains, then those chains beaten even worse by Amazon. Every day we are being stuffed plump to bursting with the increasingly rotting food of capitalism. Comedy has become reality.
Luckily DAI-HONYA’s crystal clear satire (shoutout to the incompetent police, who’s patrol cars are literally snails) is accompanied by just plain ol’ Good Jokes and a real love for the medium. The first chunk of the manga is spent setting up its high concept through a veritable comedy assault. I’ll spare you me listing every great bit (psychic-Nosferatu astral projecting is maybe my single favorite image in history??) but there is plenty of good-hearted industry ribbing. A store for books carried around as fashion accessories, an infinitely expanding bookshelf holding nothing but volumes of Legend of the Galactic Heroes, a robot writer who is the prized author of a publishing house because he can complete an entire novel in a second flat and…oh. That one’s not as fun now, huh.
So DAI-HONYA is funny and pointed and creative. But that’s not what made it win the Seiun. What made it win is what comes after the jokes.
The entire back chunk is the kind of writing feat that makes my brain hurt trying to imagine pulling off: an unbelievable cavalcade of call-backs where every single gag, every little random bit from the first 100 pages pays-of. And not only are they funny, they matter. All of it, from psychic-Nosferatu, to the two panels of a guy dressed like a baby at the very beginning, to the VERY stupid chicken jokes, have a direct and real impact on the story. What’s more, they start to take on an emotional weight.
Spoilers here, but this emotional evolution and knowing weight to its comedy is best exemplified partway through, when one of the main characters is shot. As he takes his last breaths, the protagonist cracks joke after joke to him. And then this happens:
It’s all jokes. Sometimes you can’t tell if you’re crying because you’re laughing, or laughing because you’re crying.
By the end, DAI-HONYA becomes a near perfect manga, one lending an almost transcendental appreciation to the art of the gag. Through humor it manages to exciting, thrilling, heartfelt. Honest.
There’s infinite power and potential in a joke. The gag is you and the gag is me. The gag is a weapon and a shield. The gag is everything. Make it a good one.1
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Music of the Week: MENU - Re-Face
Classic obnoxious new wave. Fully of squeaky vocals and shrill repetition from singer Mayumi Chiwaki, this remix album of older MENU tracks is the perfect intro to a band that joyously captures the energy of when you’re trying to get to sleep but your brain just won’t shut up. I cannot stress enough how much of a compliment that’s supposed to be.
Movie of the Week: Ultra Q The Movie
The Ultraman director, Akio Jissoji, takes the barest bones of the original Ultra series to craft a meditative, mystic mystery. This was originally meant to be in collaboration with the legendary art-house production company ATG and it shows; what should be another celebratory adventure in one of Japan’s most iconic kid-friendly franchises is instead a slow, dense, and challenging exploration of land and faith and history.
Next week: death, deviancy, and detectives, oh my!
tragically, DAI-HONYA doesn’t have an English translation — the pages here were fixed up real quick by yours truly. Hopefully one day that will change!!