Kingyo Used Books starts from a simple premise: an eccentric group of people run a second-hand bookstore in an out-of-the-way location. Various customers stumble upon the shop — usually by accident — and, in the process of browsing, find a manga that helps them reconnect with a part of themselves that’s been suppressed, whether it be a youthful capacity for romantic infatuation or a desire to paint expressively.
Is there such thing as agit-manga? I ask this because Kingyo Used Books seems like the brainchild of an editor who’s desperately trying to convince adults that one never outgrows manga. In the first story, for example, a salaryman tries to unload his collection at the store, telling the owner, “I’m not a kid anymore. Besides, it’s kind of pathetic to keep reading manga forever.” He gets a gentle comeuppance at a class reunion, where his friends’ fond memories of Dr. Slump remind him what an important role manga played in their young lives. The story is pleasant and enjoyable, but suffers from a bad case of predictability; as soon as the salaryman sees his friends engaged in tearful, rhapsodic discussions of their childhood reading habits, he’s overcome with emotion and — natch — a strong desire to keep the manga he’d previously hoped to sell.
Other stories in volume one follow the same basic template. In “Far Away,” for example, an archery champion discovers that laughter and downtime are as essential to winning as practice, thanks to a pair of Kingyo employees whose snot-rolling-down-the-face, tears-in-eyes response to Moretsu Ataru inspires the archer to pick up a manga instead of his bow and quiver. “Fujiomi-kun,” another chapter that adheres to this formula, focuses on a frustrated housewife who makes some small but important changes in her life after rediscovering Chizumi and Fujiomi-kun, a romance about a handsome athlete who falls in love with a clumsy but kind-hearted girl.
The series’ episodic structure cuts both ways, see-sawing between a fun exercise in formula — which manga will feature prominently in this story? who will be drawn into the store? — and a frustratingly obvious collection of beats culminating in a character’s decision to make a change in her life. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit the appeal of a series that highlights some famous (and, sadly, untranslated) manga, or that validates my own experiences as an adult manga reader; like many of the characters in Kingyo Used Books, I, too, have found titles as different as Suppli, Phoenix, and Night of the Beasts an outlet for emotions that don’t always find expression in my daily life. In settling for such a tidy approach to dramatizing manga’s transformative power, however, author Seimu Yoshizaki misses an opportunity to really move readers, instead treating us to sentimental, sometimes mawkish, scenes in which adults recover childhood memories of favorite books. Yoshizaki never acknowledges the messiness or risk that her characters take when acting on their epiphanies or experiencing personal growth, choosing instead to end every story on a positive note.
The artwork is clean, conveying the characters’ interior lives with directness and simplicity. Though her style isn’t particularly distinctive, Yoshizaki does a fine job evoking other artists’ styles, recreating images from famous series and altering one of her own characters to look like the hero of his favorite manga. The most striking image in the book is just such a recreation: it’s Hokusai’s iconic wave print, drawn in the sand by two students who then watch the incoming tide erase it. In the story’s final panels, the two reflect on their emotions as they watch their work vanish. One is pensive and wishes the work was permanent; the other responds by noting that permanence can be its own trap. “I’ve seen the pictures Hokusai drew when he was our age,” he says. “They really sucked.” Here’s hoping that volume two has more of these frank, funny, and true-to-life moments and fewer scenes of tearful housewives and salarymen reliving their childhoods through manga.
KINGYO USED BOOKS, VOL. 1 • BY SEIMU YOSHIZAKI • VIZ • RATING: OLDER TEEN (16+) • 208 pp.
Jade saysApril 20, 2010 at 3:22 pm
Ah, another spot-on review, Kate! Overall, this is the sort of series one likes the idea of loving, but it’s seriously lacking in a certain something that keeps it from being a square meal. The story of the artists was probably my favourite and I fully admit it’s due to bittersweet note it went out on. The quirks of the main characters also come off a bit grating since they’re utterly without pathos; they remind me of certain second-year recovering alcoholics who try to jockey into sponsoring for some reason…some sort of false introspection that’s supposed to place them on a higher level of understanding.
I agree that it could be a nice series if the fluff were toned down a bit though.
Katherine Dacey saysApril 20, 2010 at 4:12 pm
Thanks, Jade — I’m glad to know I wasn’t the only one humming “Is That All There Is?” while I was reading Kingyo. So many folks seem stoked about this title that I wondered if I’d just become impossible to please. I’ll be curious to see how other folks review it.
I couldn’t agree more with your comment about false introspection, BTW. The archer, in particular, seemed way too tight to have a Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus epiphany about his training. And the housewife! That story actually depressed me, considering how dreary her day-to-day routine seemed. Get that woman a copy of The Feminine Mystique!
Jade saysApril 20, 2010 at 6:13 pm
“That story actually depressed me, considering how dreary her day-to-day routine seemed. Get that woman a copy of The Feminine Mystique!” Hee, yes that story struck me too. I always hate little stoic fables like that, I’m just a very self-determined person.
On a bit of a tangent, it’s easy to look at gender in a manga and misread it as a microcosm for the whole society, though. You never seem to have that problem, but I’ve seen my share of ‘The World Known as Japan According to an Offensive Manga that Garp Once Read’ floating around the blogo-whichever. The truth is, there just aren’t that many mangaka in any sort of relationship. Many creators are also recruited directly from high school, especially shojo creators. Japanese readers also have a much greater appreciation of melodrama and higher tolerance for a lack of realism. The disconnect there is just far too big to pass anything in a manga off as even a cultural difference.
Katherine Dacey saysApril 20, 2010 at 10:22 pm
I’m sure I’ve been guilty of making generalizations about gender roles in Japan; I knew next to nothing when I first started writing reviews back in 2006, and could probably find a few cringe-worthy statements peppering some of my first critiques of shojo and josei manga. That said, I found “Fujima-san” depressing for the same reason you did: not because it accurately portrays the lot of married Japanese women, but because the character simply decided to suck it up. Ugh.
Jade saysApril 21, 2010 at 4:52 am
Ah! I just realised what so completely grates on my nerves about Kingyo. Every single story celebrates manga as the ultimate escape, each character sees it as just that and revels in using the books for that express utility. Even in the story about the artists, manga only provides the most tangential connection to the ‘real’ art of Hokusai, if I remember the story correctly. The manga itself, for the most part is presented as a childish doorway to memories of childish distraction. I can’t believe there are people in this century who still think comics are exclusively for children or have no capacity for artistic expression, but these early stories seem to hint at that in the authour. Besides, there is plenty of human experience and social commentary and general zeitgeist in even the stupidest media, I feel too lazy using anything as pure escape, that would be like…like some sort of lazy porn, hee!
Chuck saysMay 5, 2010 at 2:43 pm
I can see what you’re saying about it coming off as an editor’s attempt “to convince adults that one never outgrows manga.” But is it that, or is it more a kind of referential kind of meta-comic that speaks to those who have dedicated large parts of their lives to following the genre?
I guess it depends on your point of view.
Katherine Dacey saysMay 5, 2010 at 3:26 pm
Hi, Chuck! I have no doubt the author of Kingyo Used Books was striving to write a referential meta-comic that speaks to life-long manga readers (a nice turn of phrase, BTW). Yet manga plays such a minimal role in the stories that it seems like an afterthought; one could achieve exactly the same results by substituting records, movies, TV shows, or trashy YA novels for the five series that are highlighted in volume one. Hence my somewhat cynical assessment.
Michelle Smith saysMay 14, 2010 at 11:44 am
Aw, I actually quite liked the housewife chapter. I didn’t read it as her sucking it up, but more realizing why she was there in the first place. The part I disliked the most was Billy, who needs some psychiatric help.
Katherine Dacey saysMay 15, 2010 at 9:29 am
I’m certainly not dismissing the value of what she does for her family, just reacting to the fact that neither her husband or daughter seems particularly grateful for mom’s help. Maybe if reading a manga had inspired one (or both) of them to treat mom with more courtesy, I’d have liked it more!