There’s a handful of “underground” manga in English, most of it fairly interesting. I’ve always hated the designation “underground manga” since it feels like a marketing term, but it’s a neat category for any book that doesn’t fit in with the genre and age group tropes you find in most manga. Yoshihiro Tatsumi is probably the most widely-read and has the largest body of work available in English. There’s also a handful of books by artists like Yusaku Hanakuma (Tokyo Zombie), Imiri Sakabashira (The Box Man), Seiichi Hayashi (Red-Colored Elegy), and Yuichi Yokoyama (Travel). Those artists all range from thematically and visually similar to Yoshihiro Tatsumi to… much more out there, to say the least. But one of the most infamous is Suehiro Maruo. He is first and foremost a fantastic illustrator. Favoring the time period from 1910-1930, his work usually has a modern antique feel to the settings, clothing, and characters. He has a very stiff, ornate drawing style that is clearly inspired by Japanese ukiyo-e work, but the period flourishes and accurate figure drawing make it feel very western. But most people walk away from his books remembering the outlandish but beautifully-rendered violence. Violence so intense, in fact, that I had trouble finding a good example for the header that wasn’t too gross to put above a cut. Because he is an illustrator first, his comics don’t flow that well, but his panels are frequently interrupted by bizarre, very shocking tableau.
Only three volumes of his work have been translated into English. I mention them all here, mainly because The Strange Tale of Panorama Island came out a couple weeks ago, and it’s worth reading. For the curious, there’s also a Maruo short story in the collection Comics Underground Japan called “Planet of the Jap,” a bleak and violent what-if story about Japan winning WWII that is not for the faint of heart.
Mr. Arashi’s Amazing Freak Show (aka Midori, Camellia Girl, or Shoujo Tsubaki) (1 volume)
Likely Maruo’s best-known work in English, Mr. Arashi’s Amazing Freak Show is a simple story about a girl named Midori. Midori is orphaned and winds up as a chore girl at a traveling circus (specifically, a Freak Show), where she is horribly beaten and abused. Older male performers continually try to bed her. A fellow performer smashes the puppies that are the only bright spot in Midori’s life. She is absolutely miserable in her environment. Then, a new performer shows up named Masamitsu. His trick involves forcing himself into a small bottle, a seemingly impossible task. He begins to protect Midori from her terrible tormentors, and Midori begins to grow closer to him, but eventually finds out he’s just as cruel and controlling as the others, as well as a bizarre magician that uses his powers for evil. The narrative is very basic, and admittedly rather unclear at times. Again, it’s Maruo’s visuals that hold this up and make it worth reading. On the first page, a woman with a kimono falling off her body in a traditional Japanese room is biting into a chicken head that has separated from its body, with a long red blood trail stretching across the entire room from its body to its head. Her eye appears to be missing. On the next page, a naked woman sits in a vat of writhing snakes, pulling two from inside her mouth. A few pages later, the woman biting the chicken head vomits graphically. The emphasis on the graphic details of the Freak Show itself abate after the first couple chapters, but the shock value never quite goes away. As I mentioned, Maruo’s art doesn’t flow well as a comic should, and as a result, the illustrations are somehow more horrifying, making you linger on them over-long since there’s not a place to go sequentially after them. Many will find it somewhat repulsive, but the artwork is strangely compelling. It’s one of Maruo’s earliest books, and very rough both in terms of story and art, but his illustrations are still absolutely worth seeing. Unfortunately, the adaptation isn’t the best. Blast Books uses a strange format where the cover makes it look as if it’s flipped to read left-to-right, but the book itself is unflipped, and you start on the back cover. The text isn’t set very well, the visual edits to the Japanese text boxes are clunky, and narration is small and sometimes lost in the intricate artwork. The translation is also quite awkward. But it’s still interesting that this is available at all in English. It’s been out of print for many years, though, and used copies usually start around $50.
The Strange Tale of Panorama Island (1 volume)
After a wait of several years, Last Gasp finally released this book, a recent work by Maruo and an adaptation of a Rampo Edogawa short story. A man named Hitomi is living in poverty in the city, barely making ends meet as a novelist. Then the Taisho Emperor dies in 1926, signaling the change of an era. Just when Hitomi is wondering how he will pay his next month’s rent, he gets the news that an old friend, Genzaburo, has passed away. He’s known Genzaburo his whole life, but more importantly, the two have always been physically identical, and Genzaburo is fabulously wealthy. Hitomi has had dreams of making an adult paradise where money is no object, and he realizes that if he concocts a scheme about “Genzaburo” coming back to life, he can make his dreams become a reality. The ruse works, and Hitomi drives Genzaburo’s businesses into the ground by developing his paradise island. This is a bizarre story that appears to be building to something sinister, but never really does. The worst thing that happens is that Hitomi steals Genzaburo’s life and eventually commits a quiet murder to cover it up, which is completely unlike the other gross-out work I’ve read by Maruo. The art is fantastic. With so much time between this book and the others published in English, Maruo has polished his sequential art noticeably, and I was shocked by the difference here. My favorite flourish is that the book starts out completely drab, set in a mundane and rather everyday existence, with flashes of greatness. As Hitomi comes closer and closer to his vision, Maruo’s art gets more ornate and fabulous. The last chapter or so simply tours the island. The island looks amazing, and the description of the terrain and design flourishes involved in the architecture of the island are incredible. Maruo does it justice. The story is somewhat lacking in detail, and we never really learn about or get close to any of the characters, so there’s a remoteness to the narrative that may be somewhat off-putting. But it’s still an unusual and enjoyable book, and was released this month from Last Gasp.
Ultra Gash Inferno (1 volume)
Ultra Gash Inferno has one of my favorite Maruo illustrations on its cover. A short story collection, Ultra Gash Inferno is one of the most depraved manga available in English, and one of the most twisted comics I’ve ever read, period. Most of the nine stories were among the first that Maruo wrote, from the early 80s, with a pair from the early 90s at the back of the book. The stories are short and cover rather profane subjects. “Sewer Boy” is one of the more well-known stories, about a mother that dumps a baby boy into the Japanese pit sewer system (it looks like outhouses connected city-wide). He survives and lives down in the sewers. He comments on various perversions he finds down there, and towards the end, he turns rather perverse himself (this goes into scatological territory I’d rather not discuss) and finally meets his mother. Another story, “The Watcher in the Attic,” may also be an abridged and heavily adapted version of an Rampo Edogawa story. A man spies on a woman from a vantage point in a communal attic, and watches her give birth to, then kill, a baby. He believes she saw him watching, and the next day, finds the body of the newborn in the attic. He puts it back in her apartment, and the two continue to swap it without speaking from day to day. “Shit Soup” is an exercise in depravity, and includes many sexually deviant behaviors with nothing to link them together. The longest and most developed of the stories is called “Non-Resistance City,” and is one of the only stories that includes a plot. A woman and her son are barely surviving on the street. The woman is waiting for her husband to come back from WWII, and is slowly befriended by a dwarf. She resists his aid and friendship at first, but with nothing else for her and her son, begins accepting his help. She worries that he expects a relationship in return, and throughout the story, it is variously implied that they are taking advantage of each other. It takes a strange turn when the dwarf kills her son and feeds him to her. Unfortunately, this is the worst of the Maruo books available in English, and is mostly depravity without much form. His art is still good, but doesn’t approach the decorative excesses found in the other two books, and is mostly just violent or gross. It doesn’t read very well sequentially, so without the over-the-top detailed flourishes, it’s mostly just crude. The adaptation in this book is also not so hot, with some clunky touch-up work and poor font choices. Published in English in 2001, this book has been reprinted at least once and is currently available, but if it goes off the market, prices tend to shoot up drastically for it, starting at $80.