Thursday, August 28, 2008

Faust, vol. 1

Edited by Katsushi Ota
Published in the US by Del Rey

Slugline: Maybe it is Japanese language not the people that is in love with convoluted sentences and recursive thought processes

Faust is actually an prose fiction/manga anthology that is originally published in Japan as a mook (with magazine dimensions with book-like thickness) in a US format more akin to a traditional paperback. Faust has a reputation of a showcasing new voices and cutting edge fiction in Japan. For the most part the stories were in the modern magical vein, in which the stories happened in the here and now, but there is something just beyond the normal human sight going on.

Is this anthology good in the traditional sense, as in having engaging stories and characters? It is sort of hard to tell. I think that there must several inherent levels of the Japanese language that simply don't exist in English, perhaps how the kanji is written can affect it's meaning? And when you translate those texts into English, unpacking those concise kanji that can have multiple layers and meaning results in long sprawling English sentences that seem to wander about. This problem does not appear as strongly in manga, because at least part of the story is being carried by the art. In short stories, the English tradition has been towards efficiency of word and action, dating back to Edgar Allen Poe who created the western short story. Every word needed to have meaning and carry forward the story in his work, and his successors have followed in Poe's trail. Reading the stories in Faust in comparison, they all seemed very meandering. Unpacking the plot sometimes took work and in one particularly surreal example I gave up and just went along with the ride. The characters would think aloud so much it was hard to determine what if any internal lives that they had. Because that is another example of the difference between the languages, the Japanese language contains so many different meanings in the same words that English speakers just pick up the dictionary meaning and so miss the rest of what is 'said', which would be unspoken and part of the character's internal life in an English short story. But in translations all this has to be laid out otherwise the meaning of the text would be lost.

I think. One of these days I will sit down and have a long talk with translator about this process.

That being said, Faust is worth reading, even if it seems difficult and meandering. It is an attempt to do something different and new in the American manga industry, even more so than the other light fiction that have been published. Only one short seems directly connected to anything already in the US (an xxxHOLic short) while 'Drill Hole in My Brain' seems to ferociously cling to surreal jumps and ignoring the niceties of plot. But the rest of the stories can stand alone without too much work on the part of the reader. There are also some interesting behind the scenes shorts, talking to writers in an odd format. I don't understand why some of the manga is repeated in color and black+white, but the color versions drew a deeper emotional response from me, while the manga that was presented only in black+white showed the excessive talkiness that seems to be the hallmark of Japanese fiction. While the plots are hard to decipher, it is the characters that are the anthology's strength, even if the most interesting and revealing of them tend to be not the one that you expect.

I also feel like I need to bring this up. Putting age guidelines on books that are mostly prose offends me on a basic level. Reading and learning is perhaps a fundamental right, and one should read what interests them and what one has the capability to understand. By placing arbitrary age limits on a prose title, you are inherently limiting people to that arbitrary category. It is an accident of legal history that we can place age restrictions on images but not on words (free speech is free, but free expression through art is not) but even though there is some art here, the majority of the work is prose and should be treated like prose rather than the age-limited art. If you want to see the damage of what even well intentioned age rating can do to a comic industry, just look up the history of Frederic Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent and the Comics Code Authority.

And yes, this is a picayune infraction, but this is one of the areas that I care deeply about, about everyone's right to read and write what they wish, and even the best intentioned limits should be pushed back against.

Faust, vol. 1 is also available from Right Stuf, Intl., an online retailer specializing in anime and manga.

- Ferdinand

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