Sunday, December 14, 2008

Urban Youth: 『Afro Tanaka Goes to Tokyo』 and 『Shinjuku Swan』

Shinjuku Swan (新宿スワン) by Wakui Ken (和久井健) and Afro Tanaka Goes to Tokyo by Noritsuke Masaharu (のりつけ雅春), two newish manga, both tell gritty stories of young men trying to make it in Tokyo with little education and no particular skills. Afro Tanaka’s hero, Tanaka Hiroshi (田中広), age 20, finds a job digging subway tunnels and finally scrapes together enough money to move out of the company dormitory and into his own apartment (a necessary first step toward getting a girlfriend, which is his ultimate goal at this point). Shinjuku Swan’s character, Shiratori Tatsuhiko (白鳥タツヒコ), age 19, turns to a more illicit line of work as a “scoutman,” recruiting young women to work in a range of barely legal forms of paid companionship.

Debuting in 2005 in Kodansha’s “Weekly Young Magazine” and picked up in 2008 by TV Asahi for the channel’s Midnight Drama series, Shinjuku Swan takes the easier route as it appeals to more prurient interests. Focusing on an industry that’s way too close to prostitution, Shinjuku Swan is not likely to be released in the United States. That said, Shinjuku Swan does an excellent job showing its main character’s qualms about his line of work. Although he’s clearly enamored of the pimps’ bling — and has no intent of quitting the business — he refuses to follow certain orders from his jaded boss, surprisingly earning the boss’ respect.

Afro Tanaka Goes to Tokyo, on the other hand, deals with less racy subject matter, but is a bit stronger in the storytelling department. The artist, Wakui Ken, quite talented and innovative, introduces visual storytelling techniques that I’ve never seen before (see the ojisan conversation on page 13). He also creates one of the funniest pieces of visual humor that I’ve ever seen (page 98). (BTW, Two other specimens of visual humor that I particularly like are Borat’s hotel wrestling scene and Monty Python’s 100m dash scene in “Silly Olympics.”) Besides humor, though, Wakui drew me into Tanaka’s struggle to make something of himself, including the emotional roller coaster — the pain and the elation — of his search for an affordable apartment. If you’ve ever looked for an apartment in Tokyo, especially on a student budget, you’ll feel it, too.

I think these two manga contrast interestingly with Shima Kosaku (島耕作), the masterpiece manga of the 1980s bubble, in which Shima, a salaryman’s Everyman, used his wits, political instincts, and rudimentary English to rise through the ranks of the fictional conglomerate Hatsushiba Corp. The series continued with fantastic success through the heady 1980s and 1990s and into this century, the title changing every few years as Shima’s title at Hatsushiba changed. The optimism of the Shima series, and the bubble period itself, is starkly absent in both Afro Tanaka and Shinjuku Swan. The pimps in Shinjuku Swan, who themselves work as male companions in smoky “host clubs,” lament the extinction of the well-heeled women clients who frequented their clubs during bubble.

I suspect that Shinjuku Swan and Afro Tanaka will both be around for a long time, tracing the lives of their main characters for many years to come, just as the Shima series did (and continues to do) for the previous generation.

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