Thursday, December 29, 2011

Review; Sayonara Nippon

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Most people know of Katsuhiro Otomo from either his Akira or Steamboy movies. Some may have seen his work in Robot Carnival, Memories or Metropolis. But, he's been drawing manga since 1973, when he graduated from high school, although he didn't really get rolling until 1979. One of his earliest pieces was Sayonara Nippon, released as a collection of short stories in 1981. The Akira manga began serialization in 1982, and while there's a notable improvement in the character designs and pacing from Sayonara, the background artwork is just as good.

Sayonara Nippon (Farewell Japan), by Katsuhiro Otomo, Grade: B+
As mentioned above, SN is a collection of short stories, but they mostly have a common theme and overlapping characters. In the first story, "East of the Sun, West of the Moon", the owner of a small bar, a dowdy older woman, gets bored with waiting on a sleeping drunk and three deadbeat members of a rock band. To shake things up, she decides to wave the band's tab in exchange for them backing her up at a nightclub. When showtime arrives, the band is shocked to see her all glammed up, and even more stunned to discover that she's packed the place with top staff members of various record companies. Turns out that back in the day, she was a knockout torch singer. The band members fail to sign a record deal, and the old woman falls asleep at the end of the night before the group photo is taken. Later, she's back behind her bar with just the photo as a souvenir, and the band members continue to bicker over which of them is the worse player.

(The bar owner, and the photo at the end of the torch song performance.)

This is followed by "Sayonara Nippon" parts 1-5, which revolve around a starving karate and judo master who is attempting to take over his late father's dojo in New York City. Over time, he befriends a Japanese woman living on the floor above him in the hotel, and a black kid that wants to take up lessons for free (the kid's father is a pro boxer, who beats the crap out of the karate master in exchange for a $50 fight fee to be used for the dojo lessons). Later, the "hero" rescues a white woman who's being assaulted, then gets insulted by her when he finds her coming out of a brothel with a client. She does relent and returns the gi jacket he'd given her (because her clothes were torn in the assault) with a Japanese flag sewn on the back.

In the next chapter, a Japanese businessman on a trip to his U.S. branch office gets lost in Harlem, and because he doesn't understand English, thinks that the black guys trying to point him in the right direction are trying to rob him. He gives the two all of his belongings and runs away. The businessman encounters the karate master and begs for help in getting money. (The master's response is "just go into the bathroom and cry"). Later, as the two Japanese are working at a restaurant to raise some cash, the businessman sees the two black guys and alerts the karate master. The fight is brief and succinct. But, when the master discovers that the two are undercover cops on a stake out, the situation gets muddled. Eventually, the businessman gets his stuff back and happily returns to Japan, leaving the karate master behind to gripe about not having gotten paid for his efforts.

(The karate master getting attacked in his dojo by angry gang members.)

With "Sayonara Nippon 4", a traveling Japanese guitarist makes his way from LA to NYC and decides to crash at the dojo for a few days. He's recognized by the girl on the floor above as a former band member from a big group in Japan, but the guitarist is realizing that there are a lot of people better than him. He then hitchhikes his way back to the west coast to return home. The karate sensei, on the other hand, is starting to develop an addiction to drugs and alcohol, and is getting close to losing his job as a part-time dishwasher at the restaurant.

(Points if you recognize the reference.)

Part 5 is probably one of the funniest things I've read from Otomo, ever. A Japanese cart vendor selling tai-yaki in NYC goes toe to toe with an Italian pretzel vendor. Initially the turf war consists of the tai-yaki vendor offering an "eat 30 tai-yaki and they're free campaign", while charging customers fifty cents per tai-yaki when they fail. The pretzel vendor tries the same thing, but the Japanese guy hires a shill who can wolf down all 30 pretzels easily. The Italian counters by hiring the karate master for two days in a row to eat the 30 tai-yaki. The first day goes without a hitch, but the second day, the tai-yakai are made double-size and the sensei gives up. The other shill returns for more pretzels, this time bringing a homeless guy with him. So, the sensei brings 5 homeless guys along himself. Eventually, both carts are swarmed by homeless guys that take all the money as well as the food and both carts. When the two groups run into each other at an intersection, the Japanese and Italian vendors declare war on each other and the rumble begins with both sides being backed up by hordes of homeless. The sensei prepares to attack, but the other shill simply asks how much he's getting paid. The shill is getting $5, and the sensei got $3. The shill adds that he went to Harvard, and this is the best money he can get afterward. The sensei and the Harvard grad then stand side-by-side and watch the brawl unfold.

(Jazz and small club venues make several appearances in SN.)

Chapter 7, "The Saint Comes Along the Road", follows several people as they interact within the Japanese music industry. The president of a record company is living a colorless life, both at work and at home. His assistant is about to be tasked with producing the record of a no-name young female singer. The singer runs away from her rich parents to work in a restaurant to succeed on her own. The three musicians from "East of the Sun" drop in on the record company assistant in order of bum money off him (they'd gone to school together and as their senpai he's forced to help them out). One morning, the company president receives a letter saying that four friends he'd made when he was working in New Orleans are planning to fly to Japan to meet him. The president then tasks the assistant - who can speak some English - to act as a tour guide for the 4 black jazz musicians. The 4 Americans are incredibly lively and shake things up wherever they go. They talk the assistant into booking a small club in Shibuya for them to perform for a small party for the company president. The next day, the female singer arrives at the studio, but the three deadbeat musicians are late - the one had hocked his drums already, and none of them have the money to take the train to the gig. Instead, the three run across Tokyo. Only the lead guitarist can cover the full 4 miles, and even he arrives 2 hours after the start time. The president gets called on the carpet by a rep of the corporate umbrella that owns the recording company, who complains that the company hasn't released a good record yet and it may be time to let the president go. He returns to the studio to find that his 4 friends are the ones backing the girl in the session and the sound coming out is really good. They're all using electric instruments, because even they had to change with the times (they're playing part-time at a disco club on Royal Street). When they finally leave for their flight home, the company president starts feeling that his life has infinite possibilities again.

(The chapters all have realistic splash pages that don't actually show up in the story itself.)

"The 'A' Murder Incident" wraps up the book. A Japanese part-timer is having a bad week. On the way home from his job, he walks in front of a construction site and gets hit on the head by a falling bucket. In compensation, the work crew gives him 50,000 yen ($125 USD at the time), but he has to share it with three of the deadbeat neighbors in his apartment building. When he gets to his room, he finds the dead body of Hiroshi, his neighbor, propped up against the outside wall in front of his window. He tries to figure out who could have killed Hiroshi, but the only suspect he can think of who had a grudge is himself. Two of the deadbeats come back to the apartments with a bottle of sake and descend on the guy's room to do some drinking, and one of them decides to play "tell a secret", adding that he once killed someone. The injured guy accuses the friend of killing Hiroshi and opens the door to show them the body. Later, the other two are walking along the street commenting on how someone can have forgotten that they were a murderer, while the injured one is at the police HQ trying to explain that someone else had done it and it's just a matter of figuring out their "trick". The detective in the room is looking annoyed. (The entire story revolves around the one guy suffering short-term memory loss after receiving a concussion.)

Summary: "Sayonara Nippon" is a gritty look at life in the ghettos in NYC and Tokyo, filled with fighting and some drugs. It's a brief introduction into the much grittier world of "Akira", minus the really black humor that Otomo revels in. If you like Otomo's later work, then you may be disappointed by SN. But, it's still funny, and several chapters have been fan scanilated already. Recommended.

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