So much of my time on my last trip to Japan was spent in bookstores. I think I was in a bookstore at least once a day, and usually not the same one twice. I tell myself that this is because reading books—Japanese books in particular—is my job, and so I have to spend all this time noodling around in aisles packed full of books. And this is true. But it’s also true that I love hanging out in bookstores, and that my friends also love hanging out in bookstores. It seemed only natural that we would do so together.
This time, it was me and my friend C. doing so together. Although it’s not usually something we talk about that much, we spent a lot of time discussing manga this go round. Maybe because she was being kind enough to let me pepper her with questions about the translation I was working on (Fallen Words, out this spring!), manga was on the table in a way that it usually wasn’t between us. So much so that nearly every outing together involved at least a brief stop at a bookseller so one of us could show the other that manga mentioned over dinner.
We have very different tastes though, with C. tending towards more ladies’ stuff, pages of women living their lives in ways that generally parallel reality, with a style of art she calls “non-distracting”—soft, rounded, nothing too distinctive in any way. And me, well, I love the stylized yon-koma of Ekoda-chan, and the over-the-top exaggeration of Papa Fell in Love Again. But I picked up one or two of the more interesting-looking things she pointed out just to try them, only to put them down halfway through. They weren’t bad, just too much on the ten-ways-to-get-that-man side of things for me. I don’t really care about women putting on makeup and having sexy problems.
But as a going-away gift, she slid a bookstore-paper-cover-wearing volume across the table at me, one of her favourite artists and she hoped I loved her too. Chameleon Army by Moyoco Anno. And flipping through it, I have to admit I was kind of put off by it. There are a *lot* of giant, exaggerated facial features, like hyper anime faces, in these pages, which I found kind of awkward and unpleasant at first. Plus so many close-ups of ladies’ eyes and their many, many eyelashes! And the first story, “Chameleon Army”, seemed to be just another tale of hot girl vs. dowdy girl at the office. But then dowdy girl sort of single white females hot girl and usurps her place, before moving onto greener pastures entirely. A new hot girl is hired, and the former hot girl sees her chance. The characters are surprisingly well fleshed out, and you actually care about Nitta (original hot girl) by the story’s end. As an added bonus, Anno manages to squeeze in a wicked critique of Japanese society and its treatment and expectations of women.
The more I read, the more her lanky ladies grew on me, with their oversized lips and enormous eyes. And the funnier the situations and stories seemed. Like “Prince of the Night”, a pair of stories that revolve around a mysterious man who, wishing “only to see every woman smile with happiness”, shows up at critical moments in the lives of women to make their dreams come true. With a lead-in like that, you’re expecting some kind of Prince Charming type stuff, but instead you get women struggling with their careers, what they want and what’s expected of them. And this Prince of the Night doesn’t carry them off into the sunset, but rather gives them the momentary support they need to become stronger so that they can keep fighting for what they really want.
And I started to notice more of the details in Anno’s work, the gestures she gives to her characters, the nighttime cityscapes they frequently inhabit. She moves from extremely detailed to the barebones of a sketch from panel to panel in a way that’s really effective at conveying not only the action but also the emotional intensity of any given moment.
Once I was really paying attention to this book, I realized that I knew this artist even though the name didn’t ring any bells when C. gave me the book. But Anno is also the author of Sakuran, a one-off book about an Edo-era prostitute that I really really liked, and that I wish I hadn’t sold when I moved back to Canada. Maybe this didn’t connect at first because the subject matter is so seemingly different, with Chameleon Army being populated by modern urbanites, and Sakuran being filled with pre-Meiji ladies of the night.
But like in Sakuran, Anno here displays a real playfulness and a kind of fearlessness, telling the stories of real women in often unreal situations. In possibly my favourite story in the collection, “X-GIRL-when her blood tingles”, Misa is a drab, boyish worker at a factory in the country. When an eighteen-year-old fashion princess from Tokyo becomes the new plant owner (yeah, right there, you’re thinking, what? Really?), she makes the factory the most fashionable in the country, going so far as to hold a fashion competition among the staff. Misa’s past as a Tokyo fashionista comes rushing back to her, and she pulls out all the stops, showing up at the final judging in a mask that covers half her face (stylishly!), a cape, a flowered sheer body stocking covered by a bra and some kind of bathing suit skirt thing. Extreme! When princess factory owner says that fashion is about making men want you, Misa delivers my own fashion philosophy dramatically and contemptuously: “It’s not for anyone. It’s for yourself!! Only me!! That is the path of those who give themselves up to fashion!!”
These are not the dull ladies of too many ladies’ manga, searching for love in the most stereotypical ways. These ladies own themselves and know what they want. And Anno’s evocative, exaggerated style is really the perfect fit, bringing to life grumpy heroines who don’t take shit. And you know I love grumpy heroines who don’t take shit; cf. previously referenced Ekoda-chan. If you don’t read Japanese, Chameleon Army is off-limits to you, but take heart in the fact that Vertical has licensed Sakuran, with a scheduled release of July of this year. So you’ll have some sassy ladies of the night to be your grumpy heroines!