This review is light on pictures because the book's the same way: Jog on the oddest release of 8/20

Faust Vol. 1

Boy, Tim Vigil sure has changed.

No, no wait - this is something else, in every sense of the phrase. Faust, just to get one thing out of the way right up top, is not primarily manga - it's an irregularly published Japanese literary journal, albeit one with a comics section, founded in 2003 by editor-in-chief Katsushi Ōta and published by book giant/Big Three manga publisher Kodansha. It's fashioned as a squarebound 'mook' -- a supple book with the glossy design and continuing features of a magazine -- and runs anywhere from 500 to 1200+ pages per volume. Vol. 7 was just released in Japan a few weeks ago.

The particular item we're looking at today is Vol. 1 of the English edition of Faust, a 432-page, 7.1" x 4.8" softcover, published by Del Rey at $16.95, with one eye doubtlessly fixed on the project's promotional quality. Here's another thing I'd best mention quickly - over 100 pages of this book's total space is spent on portions of prose projects that Del Rey plans to release in full, later on down the pike. They're largely self-sufficient portions, mind you, but still materials you'll be paying for again if you like them enough to continue.

Don't let that cloud your thoughts too much, though - this edition of Faust does function pretty well as a cohesive aesthetic endeavor. There's no credited editor (I think Del Rey's Tricia Narwani serves in that capacity), but Ōta's introduction sets the tone so neatly that he seems present throughout - everyone involved is very proud and enthusiastic of their mighty work, seemingly every contributor is a genius and a revolutionary that has already set the Japanese literary world aflame, and there's a grand, unifying theme at work, "that feeling of self-consciousness in early adolescence," transmitted through "an avant-garde crossover in which Japan's manga, anime, and video game-based pop culture collide, tempestlike, with the hottest young writers on the Japanese literary scene."

Then again, Ōta has elsewhere described the series as "escapist reading for young men without jobs, money, or girlfriends," so you never quite know.

Now, for longtime J-pop dead-enders like myself, the mere positioning-of-influence of 'manga' and 'anime' is going to raise an eyebrow. That's because manga is a very large, egalitarian thing, far greater in scope than the boy and girl-targeted samples that rule the day in North America (although that material does top the charts in Japan too), and a genuine force in the national reading of a people that's noted for such.

Anime, in contrast, is more of a marginal thing, overwhelmingly male-dominated and increasingly fixated on servicing the harder-than-hardcore otaku fanbase that can be relied upon to make the dvd and merchandise purchases necessary to push most productions into the black. There's exceptions -- Miyazaki being the most obvious example -- but an awful lot of it leans heavily on formula, panders frantically to fandom peccadilloes (like the dread moé) and writhes under the constraints of low budgets and ruthless schedules that sometimes render these alleged animations barely mobile. There's still good stuff, though. There always is.

But that leaves this project in an odd position; if you're seriously dealing with something as small and insular as anime-at-large, it's inevitably going to exert the most influence on things, simply by being so damned particular. And, sure enough, Faust is crammed to bursting with heavy-duty urban isolation, beautiful and menacing women exerting scary-but-not-unpleasant power over milquetoast young men, sci-fi/fantasy/horror concepts slamming head-on into arrested romantic development, and miscellaneous philosophical presentations presumably adding weight to the whole business.

The trick of Faust, and it's a pretty good one, is that it takes that lattermost trait especially seriously, and sometimes takes a few extra steps back to specifically consider the function of genre tropes in the midst of actual genre pieces, some of which (by the way) are actual franchise tie-ins or preexisting works that share in the anthology's concerns. Most of the stories are in the style of 'light novels' -- fast-reading prose fiction illustrated in a manga/anime-informed manner, often serialized in anthologies -- all the better for shoring up those pop cultural connections. They vary in quality, as you'd expect them to, but there is nonetheless a shared vision at work, one not so much present in the other light novels I've gone through.

Emblematic of the anthology's approach is The Garden of Sinners: A View from Above, one of ths volume's five long works and among its two 'excerpts,' deemed noteworthy enough that a bonus interview with writer Kinoku Nasu and illustrator Takashi Takeuchi is included in the back. Oddly, I'm not sure if the material ever appeared in the Japanese Faust - while there's some background info provided with every story, mostly author's bio tidbits and the like, there's rarely anything about where most of the material was originally published.

Still, it's made clear that the piece is chapter one of a seven part series, published online in 1998 to little reaction. It was only after Nasu & Takeuchi formed the amateur software group TYPE-MOON and authored the hit porno computer game ("eroge") Tsukihime that the material (included on a bonus disc and subsequently self-published for convention sale) took off, eventually becoming a smash seller for Kodansha (and COMING SOON FROM DEL REY) and spawning an anime adaptation in the form of an honest-to-god theatrical serial. Old-school too, with episodes running 50 or so minutes as self-contained units! It's currently up to episode 5 (of 7), unless the internet is whispering lies.

All of this background makes it especially interesting to read the 'part one' included in here, because it's such a fucking odd little thing. It's not particularly well written, lurching from one narrator to another with little warning and slathering every perspective with the same heavy narrative voice. It's pretty orthodox in plot, with a mysterious girl waking up after a two-year coma with the ability to see strange things, and the occasion to stab them with a trusty blade. There's a nice, bland reader-identification guy who's her friend and potential romantic partner, and a spooky/smart mentor-benefactor, and a tragic ghostly antagonist (for this chapter).

Yet Nasu is singularly uninterested in story beats, burying these very typical tropes under long, ponderous dialogues and night-wandering narrations that seek to render everything in sight a metaphor for young adult detachment, from the image of staring down from a skyscraper to mechanics of a floating body splitting away to haunt the living. Everything else is elliptical to the extreme - I think a major character is kidnapped at some point, but the act occurs between paragraphs, and is only even acknowledged by a passing comment made by the heroine before a climactic clash with the piece's antagonist, a conflict that ends with virtually no fuss or struggle.

I mean, I can't call this a good story, but it does throw itself into its themes with an admirable lack of inhibition - I've seen the corresponding anime serial episode, which cleans up the storytelling, dials down the chit-chat, explodes that one fight scene into a rooftop-jumping action set piece and modifies the heroine's personality into a more fan-friendly tsundere-type thing, thus making the tricky cerebral nature of the original stand out more.

The other of the book's excerpts is a short story from a xxxHOLiC tie-in book (COMING SOON FROM DEL REY) written by "NisiOisiN" -- best known in North America for another franchise novel, Death Note: Another Note: The Los Angeles BB Murder Cases -- and blessed with a grand total of one double-page illustration by megastar creators CLAMP. It's a supernatural mystery story in which supernatural elements and a mystery steadfastly refuse to appear, leaving the series' nice, bland reader-identification guy and its spooky/smart mentor-benefactor character to discuss the balance humans maintain between happiness and anxiety, while some time is spent in the head of a young woman prone to screwing up her life at crucial moments; those latter bits are pretty effective, very particular and seemingly lived-through, enough to charge up the tale a bit. The story was actually adapted into an episode (#17) of the xxxHOLiC television anime; I'm not sure if many of its plots are like this. Regardless, it fits in neatly with the Faust approach.

The remaining three 'long' stories adopt similarly distanced/contemplative stances. I presume F-sensei's Pocket by one "Otsuichi" (with a few illustrations by Death Note's Takeshi "name value" Obata) will prove to be the book's crowd-pleaser, being a decidedly simple story about a proudly bitchy tattletale high school girl and her manga-loving girly nerd sidekick who discover various wonderful items from the classic manga Doraemon in the real world. It's all fun and games and fourth-wall breaking comedic asides (you can just feel the characters popping into SD mode) until the latter uses the magic technology to take revenge on everyone that ever picked on her, leading to a pulse-pounding showdown, tearful affirmations of the value of friendship and a nod toward the power of manga in informing people's worldviews. Somehow, this takes 60 pages to play out.

Even less impressive is Outlandos d'Amour, by Kouhei Kadono of Boogiepop and Others and the Jiken series of fantasy/mystery novels (COMING SOON FROM DEL REY). Its plot involves a nice, slightly less bland reader identification guy with the strange ability to see when other people are in grave danger, and the occasional tendency to summon lightening from the sky. He's wildly neurotic about his shy, beloved wife -- who may or may not be a Saikano-style girl weapon -- and spends time wondering if his abilities might be reined in to prevent him from hurting her, even if it means causing pain for himself. It feels incomplete, like a pitch for a larger project that didn't get accepted.

But then, as luck would have it, there emerges one genuinely startling work, a special little ditty called Drill Hole in My Brain. The saga begins with teenage narrator Hideaki Kato calling his mother a piece of shit, which is understandable considering that her spurned lover-on-the-side has just burst into Hideaki's home with an assortment of bladed weapons, slaughtered most of his family, and driven a screwdriver into his head. As Hideaki lays bleeding, he finds himself inside the head of alter ego Makoto Muraki, a junior high superhero with a hole in his head who fights aliens and humans made seemingly at random into superpowered enemies bent on destroying the world, which appears to be more-or-less like Hideaki's world, save for the phallic screwdriver tower jutting up from the ground. This will be the story's most subtle symbol.

Makoto, you see, is wildly in love with his first-ever girlfriend, Akana, who has a unicorn-like horn sticking out of her head - the two have sex via Akana sticking her horn into Makoto's hole, which doesn't actually give Akana a lot of pleasure, but Makoto doesn't try anything else due to anxiety over the size of his penis in comparison to her horn. This causes a rift between them, which is only made worse on the day the art club's vice president becomes an enemy and gets the desire to eat Makoto's hole out, accessing the world she believes is alive in his brain (not Hideaki's world, mind you - that's another one), although she eventually settles for fisting his head hole in front of the entire class.

This causes several important things to happen, including Makoto's realization that sex isn't a particularly special thing hardwired to True Love, just as Akana also becomes an enemy and threatens to obliterate the world, all while Hideaki tries to steer Makoto into finding the alternate version of himself (Hideaki) that also must live in this parallel world, in hopes of sorting everything out. Also: Makoto's penis falls off and is replaced with a flower-shaped super-clitoris that causes him to vomit bubbles, all while sinister government forces prepare a head dildo machine to keep Makoto in line, since a young boy so often is ruled by base bodily pleasures, much to the dismay of the older, wiser Hadeaki, who's stuck experiencing the trauma and angst and sexual confusion and dirty naiveté of adolescence all over again, in dramatic shōnen action form.

I don't know who the hell writer/illustrator Otaro Maijo is, although I'm pretty sure he's seen a lot of Gainax anime, since FLCL and Neon Genesis Evangelion loom large over his story. But he goes much farther into the broil of emerging sexuality than either of those works dared, allowing bluntly pornographic elements to seep in and mark boyish fantasy clashes as a prolonged struggle with the onset of all-consuming erotic desire, something that won't necessarily calm down as a boy grows. It's wonderfully funny, lively work (the translator is Andrew Cunningham); hell, we could use more comics like this, but as a story it carries out the Faust mission splendidly.

And there's other, smaller aspects of that mission in this book. Several shorter stories and essays are included, many of which (interestingly) take a concerned look at extreme isolation, as if knowing a segment of the otaku audience will be attracted to the project's features. There's also some comics, mostly high-gloss visual poems (see: Robot), three out of four of which are presented in a glossy color section, then repeated in tones immediately thereafter. The fourth sees NisiOisiN team up with artist Yun Kouga of Loveless (the manga, not the Vertigo series) for a story about a man interrogating a brilliant, imprisoned weapons designer; it all turns into a metaphor for longing to be the best while lacking the supreme natural ability some are born with, a concern that's surely popped into the head of many readers of boys' comics. Shit, did you expect anything less? So, while I can't say this material is much better than OKAY on the whole, it's a peculiarly forthright, coherent type of OKAY, one that'll probably hold some extra value for readers who've had their attention piqued. It does take its pursuits seriously, mining the culture and accoutrements of visual media for personal revelations from the inside, and occasionally striking something affectingly immediate and perverse, gold enough to pay off the sluggish and pretentious that I suppose will have to come up as well.