Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Which one did you see - White or Black?

Naoki Urasawa's manga, Billy Bat is actually a fascinating story if you know the background. Set just prior to the Kennedy assassination, it ties together the 1949 death of Japan National Railway company president Sadanori Shimoyama, the events leading up to JFK's 1963 assassination, and the fictionalized version of Walt Disney who has stolen the character of a Japanese-American's comicbook (which in turn was unconsciously taken from a character drawn by a Japanese artist just after WW II and supposedly shown up in Jump magazine (the problem being that Weekly Shonen Jump started in 1968. Sunday and Magazine were the earliest successful boys magazines and they both started in 1959). Part of the story revolves around the fictionalized Disneyland, which in real life opened in California in 1955 (one of the characters states that because she's black the one in Florida won't let her in, but Disney World didn't open until 1971). Obviously, not all of the Billy Bat story is based on solid fact, but there's enough reality woven in through everything else to make for a compelling read.



Urasawa, as I've written before, has this tendency to make his intrigue stories twisted enough that it's better to wait for a large number of books to come out and then read them back-to-back several times. This is because he lays down so much ground work at the beginning that the rest of the story unfolds very slowly at the start, but it all ties back together again later when you've forgotten about all of it. Reading the story again, there's the "oh, THAT'S what that was about" feeling that justifies the wait.

Another thing that Urasawa likes to do is include contemporary pop-culture references. One of the sideline characters is a kamishibai artist that becomes the manga artist who draws the first "Billy Bat" strip in Tokyo. This guy, Zofuu Karama, wants to rival Tezuka, and he uses the original copy of "Shin Takarajima" as his incentive, claiming Osamu to be a "rival". Zofuu could be based on Shichima Sakai, the kamishibai artist that gave Tezuka his break in getting Shin Takara-jima published as a rental book.


(Advertising banner at a bookstore, for volume 6.)

Billy Bat jumps around in time and space, from Edo-era Iga province to post-War Tokyo, "modern" LA to Dallas at the time of the shooting. There are real players, such as Lee Harvey Oswald and the Jesuit priest Francis Xavier added to the mix. So, again, it takes time and patience to figure out what all the connecting threads are. I think it's worth it at the end.


(Xavier Park memorial - Anjiro on the left, Xavier in the middle.)

Actually, I consider the Francis Xavier plot thread to be interesting as well. I've written before about the memorials to him here in Kagoshima, His initial landing point when he first visited Japan was just a mile north from Dolphin Port. The Xavier Church is across the street from another memorial set in Xavier Park, just 6 blocks from my apartment (I walk past it whenever I go to Tenmonkan, or to the International Exchange Center). The public records here don't say anything about ninjas accompanying his trip, though. (Xavier's first disciple, Anjiro or Yajiro, actually was from Satsuma, now present-day Kagoshima. Yajiro had killed someone and escaped Japan to avoid sentencing. He went to Goa, where Xavier found him and picked him to be a guide back to Japan.) One other deviation from history is that Xavier is recorded as having died in China, while the manga puts him in Iga prefecture in Japan.

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Notable events for the next few days:

Birthdays:
Steven Brust, 11/23/1955
Boris Karloff, 11/23/1887
Harpo Marx, 11/23/1888
Forrest J Ackerman, 11/24/1916
Poul Anderson, 11/25/1926
L. Sprague de Camp, 11/27/1907

Died:
Roald ("The Gremlins") Dalh, 11/23/1990
Freddy Mercury, 11/24/1991

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