After the madness and delight that was TCAF, I am essentially in hermit mode, recovering and reading and pondering the many wonderful moments from that time. In case you were wondering, Taiyo Matsumoto is even nicer than he led me to believe when we first met. And he stayed overtime at every signing he had, reluctant to disappoint those fans who had waited so long to meet him. I also managed, in the five free minutes I had, to pick up books by David B., Frederick Peeters, and Glyn Dillon, artists who in some weird constellation of coincidences were all sitting next to each other when I sought them out. So naturally, I had them sign books for me assembly-line style. (And they all drew the most beautiful things for me! Seek them out if you have the chance at some local comic fest!)
And normally, after an intensive Japanese experience like this weekend, I retreat into English books (and I have now, although you’ll hear about that later), but for some reason, Kami no Kodomo caught my eye, after lingering on the shelf of unread books for some months now. And once I started reading it, I realized that although I have expressed my love for the sister-brother Nishioka team on more than one occasion, I have never devoted any space to one of their books. Which is clearly a mistake because their long-form work is even more intriguing than their short stories.
Kami is the tale of a young psychopath, told deftly in that way the Nishiokas have. No dialogue at all, just narration boxes to the side of each panel. The sister-brother team almost never include any dialogue or sound effects outside of these narration boxes, which creates an interesting distancing, and also an unexpected literariness. Reading their work, you get the feeling that the piece is a story written by some author somewhere that the pair decided to adapt to manga, even when it is their own creation as it is here. Maybe this comes from the fact that one of the siblings writes and the other draws, but I’ve read more than one such collaboration between comic writers and artists that did not skew to this strangely literary technique of narration boxes (Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples leaping to mind as an example because it is just such a good comic). (Seriously, though, Saga is pretty good. You should be reading it.)
So the nameless narrator of Kami guides us through his distanced and unfeeling life, from birth until his untimely death. In the first chapter, he guides us from his conception to his ultimate birth in a toilet “from my mother’s asshole”. This ugly beginning doesn’t quite fit with the middle class upbringing that follows, and after finishing the entire book, I imagine that it is more figurative, a way of suggesting early on his filthy nature and the depths he will stoop to. Because he stoops. Waaaay down. He is massacring millions in his imagination by the time he is a toddler, and he does not stop at imagining.
More than once, Kami reminded me of No Longer Human (manga or novel version, take your pick), mostly due to the narrator realizing that being around other people is a carefully crafted stage play of sorts and taking great pains to make his play a success. He notes that it won’t do to simply stay quiet and out of the limelight. To succeed in school, in society, you have to be “normal”, you have to play the part of “normal”; laugh at the right times, be weird at the right times, study the right amount, goof off the right amount. (There is even the same pencil-in-nose scene as in the No Longer Human manga by Furuya.) The concept of wearing a facade in society comes up in a million different works, but what struck me here was the similarity of phrasing, the similarity of the mindsets behind the facade-building. I’ve noted influences on the Nishiokas before, and given the grimness of their overall body of work, it doesn’t surprise me at all that they would have incorporated Osamu Dazai as an influence.
And not just in the grimness. Dazai had a lot to say about the hypocrisy of society in general and the Nishiokas do not shy away from social commentary. I like to imagine that the anecdote in the second chapter about tying a mochi rice cake to the back of any toddler who walks before the age of one to make her fall down and thus rely on her parents longer is a jab at ridiculous and at heart, meaningless social customs.
Art-wise, no one is seen at any angle in a Nishioka work. Everyone is flat, faces are in ninety-degree profile or else dead on. There is no depth, no perspective. Everything is in the plane with everything else, which might help to take some of the sting out of what would otherwise be horrifying images of disembowelled children. (Yeah, they’re in here.) I triple love this flatness, which only seems to add to that distanced feel created by the narration boxes. Which is basically perfect for a story about a psychopathic serial killer. Plus the tiny lips, the large almond eyes, the impossibly long and elastic bodies, they all add an extra element of the surreal.
And again I wish that someone would license this in English. Or any of their work. Maybe not Kami since there are some underage peeps involved in some sexual things and we have laws about that sort of thing here in the Great White North. But the Nishiokas always manage to present such an honest, unflinching look at the darker side of human nature that is worth serious study on this side of the ocean as well.