A Short Appreciation of Manga-ka Usamaru Furuya

Hi there! My name is Christopher Butcher and in addition to running this fine blog, I’m also the Director of the 2011 Toronto Comic Arts Festival, or TCAF as we call it. TCAF is an annual comics event held in Toronto, Canada, inside the massive Toronto Reference Library. It attracts about 12,000 people over two days, and features readings, panel discussions, interviews, gallery exhibitions, and a massive exhibition of talented cartoonists from around the world, selling and displaying their wares. The next Festival is May 7th and 8th, 2011, and you can find out more about it at http://www.torontocomics.com.

Earlier this week, it was my great pleasure to announce that TCAF will be welcoming acclaimed Japanese manga creator Usamaru Furuya to the 2011 Festival. Furuya-san will be on hand to support his brand new English-language manga Lychee Light Club, published by Vertical Inc. and which will be debuting at TCAF. Furuya-san’s series for VIZ Media‘s Shonen Jump Advanced line, Genkaku Picasso, will also be finishing its three-volume serialization in May with the third volume possibly making an early appearance at the show. We appreciate the support of Vertical Inc., VIZ Media, and Japanese publisher Ohta Books in making this appearance happen–it’s a rare and unique thing to have one manga creator at a North American event–last week we announced the fabulous Natsume Ono as a Featured Guest–but to have two such talented and Japanese cartoonists is frankly unprecedented.

I want to talk a little bit about Furuya-san’s work. First and foremost, he’s one of my personal favourite cartoonists. He’s a unique, compelling, and incredibly talented creator with a vivid back-catalogue of work. His manga is incredibly varied, first appearing in North America in the cutting edge manga magazine Pulp with the series Short Cuts, published by VIZ Media. This humourous exploration of Japanese youth culture, and where it intersects with the ‘adult’ world, moved rapidly between strips, and sometimes in the same strip, from outré to shocking to laugh-out-loud funny to bizarrely touching, and is fondly remembered amongst alt-manga fans… myself included. Quite honestly much of the deeper appreciation for Japanese culture that I’ve developed came out of Short Cuts and its serialization in Pulp, a fact which is doubtlessly horrifying several of the people who read this. It shouldn’t be so surprising though–Short Cuts engaged an emerging Japanese youth culture and also explained it to a larger Japanese audience, and to have something like that translated for a North American audience was about as ‘inside’ and ‘authentic’ as you could get. Floppy-socked Japanese school girls, taking paid dates and listening to the hottest visual rock bands, all of this is taken for granted as a staple of Japanese culture from a North American vantage point here in 2011; in 2000 it was revelatory for me. The serialization in Pulp and the two-volume collection published by VIZ Media were enormously affecting; I’ve read and lent the series out many times.

An excerpt from Short Cuts. © Usamaru Furuya

A page from Palepoli. © Usamaru Furuya. Click for full size.

His debut manga Palepoli ran in the seminal underground manga magazine Garo, and has been lightly excerpted in North America in the sadly out of print works Secret Comics Japan (an amazing anthology of alternative Japanese comcis featuring the likes of Junko Mizuno and others) and Tokyo Edge (a mostly-text guide to Japanese underground culture written by the Editors of Pulp). Furuya’s mix of surrealism, superior craft, and an unwillingness to be bound by social mores in Palepoli was instantly appealing to me, and repeated rereadings of those precious few pages have revealed even greater depth, meaning, and humour. I wish, one day, that the series would be translated into English.

And that was it for a while.

Pulp sadly folded, taking with it the majority of alt- and underground manga releases for a little while, and seriously stalled manga-for-grownups for a little while, and the industry became very focused on boys adventure comics and girls romance comics for a little while. Not a bad thing, but not generally where my interests lie. Luckily Furuya’s career continued unabated in Japan, and surprisingly, in France. Owing to our bilingual heritage we stock French comics (including manga) at The Beguiling where I work, and new works from Furuya would appear from time to time. His manga are championed by Nouvelle Manga movement originator Frederic Boilet (whose own comics have been published in English by Fanfare/Ponent-Mon), and consequently where anglophones had a 9 year gap between Furuya projects, popular series like La Musique de Marie, Le Cercle du Suicide, and the recent Tokyo Magnitude 8 have continued to impress French audiences. His work is also very popular amongst scanlators and the grey market, it must be said, though I feel like popularizing that fact will hinder future releases of his work.

On that note, it was on my trips to Japan starting in 2007 that I started picking up Japanese editions of Furuya’s manga. By Japanese language skill is still almost non-existent, but anyone who’s looked at one of Furuya’s manga will agree that you can get a lot out of the drawings. I own 10 or 11 of his works in Japanese, and I’d love for them all to be replaced one day with English editions. His 51 Ways To Save Her was one of the announced but unreleased works from the doomed CMX manga line. Will we see it one day?

Recently, surprisingly… almost bizarrely, Furuya showed up again at VIZ with Genkaku Picasso, a gloriously demented short manga series about the inner lives of teenagers, and a boy tasked by God with helping the lives of those around him using his profound artistic talent. One element of Furuya’s work I haven’t touched on is his incredible draftsmanship. His work has a clarity and skill that is above average even in Japan, and he’s an expert at the human figure (especially cute girls…). He’s also incredibly creative, drawing objects and situations that most people couldn’t conceive of… and when you’re drawing the dreamish, nightmarish inner worlds of teenagers, that is a skill that will serve you very well. The series looks great, and is hilarious and disturbing and entertaining… of much more interest to an older audience than the “Shonen Jump Advanced” tag might imply.

Which brings us to Lychee Light Club, debuting at TCAF from Vertical Inc. I’ve got the Japanese version, and while gorgeous it’s certainly bizarre–learning that the series is actually a comedy (a dark comedy), set against the beautifully rendered violence and gore of the original? Well that’s going to add a lot I feel. But really, let me say again, the book is gorgeous. I’m really looking forward to reading it in English.

It was also just announced that Vertical has picked up another 3 volume series from Furuya, debuting this September and being released every two months, so I have that to look forward to too! And quite honestly, so do you. I feel incredibly lucky to share the work of one of my favourite manga-ka with all of you, and for those of us who’ll be in Toronto this May getting to meet him will be an additional thrill. Even if you can’t come, make sure to check out Genkaku Picasso, track down the two trade paperbacks of Short Cuts, and pick up Lychee Light Club when it appears in stores this spring.

And learn French. Musique de Marie and Suicide Circle are highly unlikely to be released in English.

For more on Furuya, check out:

– Unofficial Website: http://www4.airnet.ne.jp/mikami/UsamaruFuruya/en/index.html

– Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Usamaru-Furuya/204452936604

– Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Usamaru_Furuya

– Lambiek (Short Cuts era): http://lambiek.net/artists/f/furuya_u.htm

– Anime News Network: http://www.animenewsnetwork.com/encyclopedia/people.php?id=7174

– Future Shipwreck’s Appreciation: http://futureshipwreck.com/2010/07/usamaru-furuya/

– Christopher

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