Postmodernism and Panties

After a work- and laziness-induced hiatus, I’ve returned to reading this series, about the detective/university student, Yakumo, and his friend Haruka. Yakumo can see ghosts, and works as a private detective in the ghost world; Haruka (pictured, in a rage) is his friend, and a university student as well, who becomes embroiled in his cases after initially inviting his help with a friend. At the end of Part 2, the pair – along with a rough and bullying private investigator called Gotoh – thought they had cracked the case of a child murderer, who had died in a car crash but managed to take possession of a by-stander in the moments before his death.

In this episode, we meet Yakumo’s uncle, a Buddhist priest, who helps them to deceive the ghost of the child murderer and trick it into possessing the body of a rat, thus freeing the girl it had possessed and dooming it to a life of cheese and over-sized testicles. Unfortunately, they were wrong about the culprit for the murders – a fourth victim is discovered just hours after they consign the supposed murderer to a life of medical experiments. There must have been two murderers, and they have only caught one. So, they are back on the hunt for the murderer and, as might be expected, through the development of sympathy with a related character and the decision to act kindly towards someone else, Haruka becomes the potential fifth victim. Yakumo, Goto and Goto’s long-suffering side-kick Ishii arrive just in time to save her from a horrible death, and the identity of the real criminal, as well as his twisted motives, are revealed. As seems to be typical of many putatively evil people in manga, we come to understand and sympathize with his motives, and someone is able to forgive him (though he still goes to prison, which is going to mean the death penalty).

This episode is reasonably light on investigative stuff and is primarily focussed on revealing more about our heroes. Haruka is forced to confront the ghosts of her past (having literally done so in the previous episode), and has a long and difficult conversation with her mother about her feelings of guilt over the death of her sister. This is quite a sweetly done conversation, and in fact much of this episode seems to be about deepening our understanding and appreciation of Haruka. Haruka is a very kind, very considerate and genuinely nice person but she’s also very feisty, open-minded, and quite tough when it comes to expressing her feelings or acting on something she thinks is right. This combination of traits seems to be very dangerous when you’re part of Yakumo’s world. In fact, I would go so far as to say that although this series is titled Psychic Detective Yakumo, the central character is really Haruka and it should be renamed Haruka’s Adventures with Ghosts and a Cold-hearted Bastard (would that be 冷たいあいつと幽霊を出会う春香の冒険?), because although we are learning to understand his history and motives, Yakumo really isn’t very nice to Haruka. He teases her and is always cold and rough.

By contrast with Haruka’s story, in this episode we mainly find out functional details about Yakumo, and particularly we discover that he has some kind of nemesis who has the same powers as him and was involved in setting the murderer onto Haruka. They have some historical connection, and he’s obviously going to be the chief enemy of future episodes because in the final scene, when Haruka is enjoying the cherry blossoms with Yakumo, they are given a note by a child that simply says “See you again soon.” This is an ominous sign for their future: cherry blossoms are a sign of the passing of things, and if they get this note while they’re walking through falling cherry blossoms then it probably means the end of their happy life so far (if being coolly treated by someone you clearly have a crush on and nearly murdered twice counts as a “happy life,” but Haruka doesn’t seem to be complaining). The fourth episode looms …

A brief aside concerning panties, and styles of representation

In the above frame, Haruka has just finished her conversation with her mother, and her mother asks her “Haruka, your readers could see your panties, you know …” And in fact we could. For the first time in 3 episodes, and only at this moment when Haruka is opening up to her mother about her feelings of guilt, we get several quite direct views of Haruka’s panties. This is interesting because there are lots of other times – going up railway station stairs, sitting on chairs, exploring mysterious houses – where we could have been accidentally exposed to this most hideous of sights; and of course the writer has complete control of the field of view, and Haruka isn’t exactly excessive in her use of leg-covering material, so we could regularly witness this sight, but we never have up until now. It could be fan service, but I don’t think so. I think that it is intended to emphasize her emotional vulnerability in this conversation – unlike when she is being beaten, drowned, tied up and about to die, at which points we never see her undies. So I’m wondering if actually the “panty-shot” so maligned by western critics of anime is actually a representational ploy to show someone’s naivete, childlike position, or vulnerability. I’ll be exploring this and other aspects of representational styles in manga in a future post.

Conclusion

This episode of Psychic Detective Yakumo gave us a complex and challenging crime, some more details of the workings of the ghostworld and its interactions with the human, and a deeper insight into Haruka, who is developing as a stand-out character. It has also set us up for a plot involving some dark nemesis, which promises to be a lot of fun but threatens to turn silly. The story is a page-turner and the characters, though still a little stereotypical – especially Gotoh san – and with sometimes somewhat too archetypical relationships (Haruka and Yakumo’s friendship/unrecognized love affair is as old as Japanese drama, I think), are sympathetic and generally enjoyable to read about. I’ve got another book to attend to now, but I’ll be getting back to number four soon. The series is certainly popular here, and is definitely good enough to hold one’s interest. Stay tuned for more adventures in ghost-detection, manga-style.

A new style of television that is part horror, part sci-fi, part drama and part comedy, Psychoville represents a huge artistic step forward for the makers of the League of Gentlemen. Of course, when we use the word “artistic” in connection with something by this group we don’t mean “beautiful” or “aesthetically pleasing”; but a step forward it undeniably is. They have taken the basic comic horror format of that original (brilliant) show and developed it to a new level of drama. This new drama combines the creepiness and horror of the original League of Gentlemen with poignant human drama developed between carefully constructed characters, whose motivations unfold in great detail over the course of just six episodes. The characters are developed in great depth over a mere 6 episodes, some (like the fag-hag Hatty) drawing on classic stereotypes to build classic horror characters; while others, like Mr. Jolly (“keeps kids quiet!”) show a depth of creative talent that is hard to believe is possible in such a short format. Simultaneously repulsive, engaging and affecting, Mr. Jolly the failing clown is a leap forward in comic horror. For examples of his brilliance, see the Clown Court (poor quality) or the Clown Funeral. The Sourbutts (mother and son) show the true creativity of this team, though. They are very, very disturbing in their closeness and their hobbies, hilarious in their stupidities, very touching in their human warmth, and ultimately a great example of a sad and close familial relationship. I think this is a new form of television, in which the grotesque and classically horrific is combined with comedy and real human drama. The development of the Sourbutt relationship over two short seasons – a total of only 12 episodes – shows, I think, really tight and carefully developed writing, as well as extreme acting skill.

These achievements are made all the more memorable by the fact that most of the main characters are played by the same three (?) people. Occasionally the make-up breaks and you can see what they’re up to but mostly it’s brilliant. But in this show – unlike League of Gentlemen – they have not used excessive levels of macabre to hide the effects. The differences are carried by the acting, and the careful mixing of the separate stories across the series so the viewer never becomes accustomed to any single person in the play. The plot itself is also very clever, drawing together disparate stories and mixing in new ones where necessary to bring a group of seemingly completely unrelated people together into a very carefully integrated story. In both seasons the climax is very clever and complete, drawing together even the smallest parts of the previous episodes to make a complete whole. Anyone who GMs regularly knows how hard this is to do, and a lot of screenwriters have failed in this task at the last hurdle, but the creators have done a sterling job of drawing the threads of the story together to a satisfying end.

This style of television is definitely not to everyone’s tastes. It’s by turns disgusting, pathetic and disturbing; sometimes the make-up fails and the viewer is left depending on their own willingness to suspend disbelief. But if you can stomach the terrible characters and the occasional excesses, you will witness something new being created for television. The whole thing is on youtube, and I recommend watching it if you have the chance, if only so you can watch masters of plot and acting in the fullness of their craft – or alternatively, just for the clown court…

Curiosity killed the...

In part 2 of this manga series, Yakumo and Haruka have to investigate the strange possession of a young woman by the ghost of a man, against the backdrop of a serial murderer in their town. The serial murder has been abducting schoolgirls, holding them for a few days and then killing them, but this isn’t Yakumo’s case; he has been approached to deal with a young woman who has been rendered catatonic by possession, and in investigating her situation he finds she has been possessed by a man.

In this episode we find out more about Yakumo’s friend Gotou san, who is a private investigator assisting the police with the serial murderer case and is central to the plot, because it turns out that the possessed girl and the serial killer are intimately linked. We also find out a little more about Yakumo’s family background, and Haruka reveals she too may have a talent for seeing ghosts, probably because her older sister – for whose childhood death Haruka blames herself – hangs around her spiritually, and is guiding her to certain scenes and situations.

There’s an interesting contrast in this story between Yakumo’s self-imposed isolation from a society that has always scorned him, and Haruka’s connectedness, both of which are directly related to their ability to see the supernatural world. We see increasing hints of a possible relationship between them, and it seems likely that Haruka is going to draw Yakumo back to the mundane concerns of the world (and out of his “movie research club” at university, that is really just a front for skipping class and sleeping). The development of their relationship is going to be slow, however, and no doubt form the central plot tension of the series.

Part 2 of the series doesn’t involve any high-risk situations or combat, it’s pure investigative work, and as usual the final resolution has to wait until the start of part 3, but it looks like it’s going to be a high risk play that may go pear-shaped. As an investigative story, part 2 was interesting, and although we work out early on who the serial killer is, the task of unravelling his motives and his connection to the possessed girl held my attention well; it was also more than a little disturbing. It’s worth the effort to read, which is just as well because Part 2 was a lot harder to read than part 1, involving a lot more casual and slang Japanese, and more unusual words. Nonetheless, my mad scramble from Tokyo wasn’t so crazy that I couldn’t chug my way through to the end of this book by Shin-Osaka, so not tooooo hard.

This series is holding my attention and the ghost stories so far have been interesting and well done. I’m seeing the development of an internal logic to the supernatural world, which is going to make future stories more predictable but also more believable; and I like both the main characters, as well as their slightly antagonistic relationship. They both have past problems whose resolution we may see in the future, and lots of scope for development and exploration. So, I continue to recommend Psychic Detective Yakumo.

Can he see you...?

As part of my new year plan to improve my Japanese, I am on a manga collecting binge, starting with Psychic Detective Yakumo (Shinrei Tantei Yakumo,心霊探偵八雲) by Manabu Kaminaga. This is a series of case files about a cynical and slightly misanthropic college student called Yakumo, seen mostly through the perspective of the slightly eccentric college girl Ozawa Haruka. Yakumo was born with a single red eye that enables him to see spirits and ghosts, and the trouble that this eye has brought him has turned him into something of a recluse and a bit of a bastard. His mother even tried to kill him and then abandoned him when he was a kid, so he’s understandably a little cynical about people. Haruka, on the other hand, wants to help others because when she was about 8 years old she accidentally got her older sister killed, and ever since she’s wanted to be the child who everyone loves, but behaves eccentrically in her quest for this fulfilment. What she doesn’t know – but finds out through Yakumo’s red eye – is that her sister’s ghost is following her around as a kind of guardian angel – and maybe this is why Haruka is the impetus for the adventures that we read in the manga.

In the first episode we also discover that Yakumo is a bit of a fraud, cheating at card games through a mirror pinned to the door of his club room in the University, and then offering to exorcise a ghost from a completely normal memorial picture of the English professor’s dead daughter – in exchange for higher marks and attendance records. “I sell peace of mind,” he tells Haruka, “And it’s an awesome business!” However, he is basically good at heart, and although very off-hand and cool with Haruka maybe he has a bit of a thing for her. By the end of the first instalment we have seen hints of a love triangle, and then tacked on to the end of the book there is an amusing “interview” conducted by the intrepid report “M” who ambushed Yakumo as he was waking up, in which we see the depths of his misanthropy and lack of interest in ordinary life.

The story itself is simple but effective. From here on I shall give a few spoilers, but since there’s no english translation of this manga as far as I know, i doubt you will be reading it, gentle reader (if you can read Japanese, maybe skip this paragraph). Haruka approaches Yakumo for help, having never met him before, because her friend Miki is in a coma in hospital after a strange incident, and a friend suggested Yakumo could help. Miki visited an abandoned house with her boyfriend Kazuhiko, and was attacked by a ghost from behind the door of “the forbidden room,” a room whose door had a sign on it saying “do not open.” Subsequently Kazuhiko “commits suicide” on the train line. Yakumo visits the girl and identifies that she has been possessed by the ghost of a girl called Yuri. Haruka and Yakumo do some investigating on the computer system of the university (which Haruka has access to through a part-time job) and discover that a girl called Yuri went missing a little earlier. The girl was from Haruka’s class, and by tracing rumours of attachments they identify Yuri’s ex-boyfriend, who Haruka goes to talk to. He tries to kill Haruka, revealing as he does so that he had a brief fling with Yuri and got her pregnant, even though “after we had sex just a few times she started acting like my girlfriend.” But Haruka’s sister’s ghost gets Yakumo, who comes and saves her, revealing as he did so that he had guessed that the boyfriend killed Kazuhiko as well. The reason? When Kazuhiko and Miki were fooling around outside the abandoned building, Kazuhiko took a photo of Miki and in the background was the faint image of Yuri’s boyfriend carrying her body away from the scene of the crime. In good Japanese style, having been discovered, the boyfriend turns himself in. The story closes with Haruka and Yakumo getting involved with the case of a serial killer.

The story is pretty simple, but it works as a basic detective story, and a lot of it is about boy/girl interactions between the lead characters. In fact, the manga is probably better called “bumbling helper Haruka” because it seems to focus more on her (and the story of her sister’s tragic death) than on Yakumo, who remains an enigma. The narrative force is largely with Haruka, who though a little ditzy and physically weak is a clever and forceful character, possessed additionally of an emotional depth and moral depth that Yakumo definitely lacks. In all it’s a good story and an amusing tale of a burgeoning friendship (or love affair?) between two people whose characters are guaranteed to create trouble for each other, and it is clearly set up so that we will slowly learn more about Yakumo, while we watch Haruka become a skilled ghostbuster and reconcile herself with her sister.

The artwork is fine, typical manga black-and-white drawings, though everyone seems to have the same features, which makes it hard for me to work out who is talking. But the clear plan in this series of manga is to focus on the story and interactions, not the pictures, so it works as basic background information to support the basic story. I can recommend this to anyone who is able to read Japanese (and I might add, the kanji are entirely supported by furigana, so it’s smooth and easy to read compared to, say, Emma or Shuna’s Journey). If you’re looking for an easy introduction to intermediate Japanese with a fun story and good characters, this is the manga for you!