And now for something different: Saiyuki (volume 1), by Kazuya Minekura, a.k.a. my very first manga.
A number of smart people I know on LiveJournal read and talk interestingly about manga, and after reading Mely’s post on what appealed to her about anime and manga, I thought I might give manga a try sometime. Not so long ago, Borders had a sale on graphic novels, and after some recommendations and serious in-store browsing, I ended up with four opening volumes, spanning a reasonable range of the genre. (The others were Planetes (near-future sf), Hana-Kimi (romantic comedy), and Revolutionary Girl Utena (fantasy).)
I picked up Saiyuki because it fit the fantasy-action niche, I’d seen it widely recommended, and Mely made it sound like a lot of fun:
Summary: A whacked-out retelling of the Chinese classic, The Journey to the West, in which the four protagonists travel in a jeep (which is also a dragon) across an anachronistic ancient Chinese landscape in order to save the world from a plague of insanity that’s descended on the formerly peaceful youkai (demons). Or at least as peaceful as humans, which — okay, not so much with the peaceful. But formerly sane. In Minekura’s version, the holy monk Genjo Sanzo gambles, smokes, drinks, curses, and shoots people at the slightest provocation; about the only sin he doesn’t commit is unchastity, and that’s clearly because he doesn’t like people enough to let any of them touch him. The Chinese trickster figure, the Monkey King, is a naive teenager with an endless appetite and an extremely violent alter ego. The kappa (water sprite) Sha Gojyo is a womanizing gambler with a vulgar mouth and a heart of gold; the last companion, Cho Hakkai, is a soft-spoken, well-mannered scholar with by far the most violent and disturbing past of the four; Kanzeon Bosatsu, the goddess of Mercy, is a hermaphrodite with a wicked sense of humor and a taste for transparent dresses.
Also, for those looking for plot connections to Journey to the West, the people creating the plague of insanity (as a side effect to trying to free a seriously bad-news youkai) are using the stolen holy scripture of Sanzo’s murdered master.
I spent a good while browsing this in the store, to see if I could get used to reading right-to-left and if I could parse the black-and-white drawings. I’d previously flipped through randomly-selected manga and foundered visually on both these aspects. I decided that I could probably manage, and the snark of the characters appealed, so I brought it home.
Normally I’d wait and log the entire series, rather than just the first volume (as I’m doing with Lucifer), but since this is my first manga, I thought I would note down my experience processing a new form of art while it was still fresh.
Manga is quite different visually from Western-style comics; Mely (again) has a post on visual conventions that I found very helpful, when I remembered its existence halfway through reading Saiyuki. The most important piece of advice I got out of that post is that the first thing to look at is not the text, or even individual panels, but the entire page. This is rather hard for me to do—I’m a very text-oriented person—but it really is far more difficult, if not impossible, to read this type of manga without considering the page as a whole first. Once I remembered to do this, there were only a very few panels that I had difficulty with—mostly action scenes. (There were also one or two very narrow panels close to the inside edge that I nearly missed, because I don’t like to crack spines of my books. While manga often goes straight to the edges of the page, I’ve also heard it said that Tokyopop’s binding is sub-optimal in this regard.) Generally speaking, even (or especially) to my ignorant eyes, Minekura does a very nice job with making the characters look individual in black-and-white (a problem I’d had with some other manga I browsed), and with composing panels (look! more Mely posts! One, two, three close readings of pages from a later volume of Saiyuki).
[Edit: telophase also has interesting things to say about Saiyuki in a Manga Analysis Series; I haven’t read the other posts in the series yet.]
Perhaps the other main point of note about reading manga is the prevalence of sound effects. In this edition, they’re left untranslated, with translation notes keyed at the back by page number. I mostly gave up on the sound effects, because the vast majority of the pages didn’t have a page number displayed, making it too much work to look up the meanings. Also, the sounds I did look up didn’t seem to add a lot to my comprehension of the panel.
(I think my understanding would also be enhanced by knowing more about the clothes that the characters are wearing—including the crown-like thing Sanzo wears—so if anyone has explanations or links to references, it would be appreciated.)
Overall, reading this took more effort and a different kind of attention than reading Lucifer, but it was not unduly difficult or burdensome. And it is pretty.
What about the story itself? I enjoyed it and want to know more about the characters. Structurally, the volume has its peculiarities: the prologue is oddly redundant, and the main body of the story is made up of two somewhat-similar episodes: the four pause on their journey, get attacked by youkai, kick butt, and provide a Valuable Life Lesson for the people around them. However, they get through these episodes with snark (like deducting points from the assassin in the second episode: “Poor maniacal laugh. Minus 15.”) and tantalizing hints about their backstory and what’s to come. What will happen regarding the debt that Gojyo so pointedly tells Sanzo he’ll need to repay? Why are Goku, Gojyo, and Hakkai the only youkai who aren’t going insane? How did they all meet in the first place? What’s going on with the divisions among the bad guys?
I’ll be indulging my narrative craving very soon: starting tomorrow, Borders is discounting books 20% for Public Service Workers, so I’ll grab volumes two through eight [*]. I should have no great problem stretching them out until next month, when the concluding volume is released. (There’s a sequel, which has been licensed for US distribution, and a prequel (incomplete at one volume?), which has not.) I’m looking forward to it.
[*] Ten dollars per volume is less expensive than Western-style graphic novel collections, both absolutely and probably in value as well, but it still adds up; and Amazon appears not to discount manga.