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What we mean when we say “Naruto”

Naruto. It is the name we utter as we shake our fists towards the heavens. It is the name we utter with joy when we want to kick back and enjoy ourselves. It is the older brother we compare ourselves and those around us to. It is the child prodigy whose qualities we search for in other potential candidates.

So what’s in a name?

In Naruto, it’s “phenomenon.” Yeah, phenomenon. Naruto has won a Quill Award, made a home on the USA Today top 100 booklist, spawned a population of future readers (and aspiring ninjas) who’ve skipped Pokemon and have gone straight to the good stuff by way of the anime, and Naruto, the second generation of the series, returned to the U.S. this past March.

Yes, it’s manga. Yes, there’s been an anime adaptation, a number of feature length animated films, a trading card game, a number of video game (the newest addition available for Wii, by the way – and yes, in fact, it is ass-kicking fun) endless merchandise, and all the while the mastermind behind Naruto, Mr. Masashi Kishimoto, keeps churning out the volumes. (We’ve caught up to Japan with volume 27 of the series.)

So let’s go back to the beginning. It’s a comic. It’s from Japan. It was first published in Japan back in 2000 and hit the U.S. market in 2003. From there, it’s been one consistently mushrooming cloud, billowing upwards and outwards. (Of course, that the Cartoon Network picked up and began televising the anime series only helped sales.) Last year, for four months, publisher Viz Media simultaneously published three volumes per month from Sept. – Dec., flooding, saturating, bloating the market. And sales for volume one of the series is still going strong.

Naruto has sold over 1.9million copies in the U.S. alone (the series has been licensed to Hungary, Mexico, France, Sweden, Denmark, and I’m sure I’m missing a few) and the initial print run for volume 14 (which was released last June) was something obscene and on par with actual summer books – not comics. And the people who are reading it? Teens. 1.9 mill copies sold to an audience of teens. That’s the only reason why it’s a phenomenon. If it crossed over to people who appreciate action, can identify with an outsider mentality, remember their days of rebellion – if it crossed over to the mainstream by way of the potential adult market (everybody remembers high school, right?) then it wouldn’t be considered a phenomenon. It would be considered fucking awesome.

For everyone who is sick of Naruto or who won’t even give it a shot because of all the hype, I’m gonna do my best to tell you why this series rocks.

Naruto is about Uzumaki Naruto, a ninja in training cursed by the spirit of a nine-tailed fox, in a mythical town with modern day trappings. Actually, this is only the premise of the story. What the story is really about is coming of age in a fantastic world where anything imaginable can happen, and being faced with choices of life or death.

Masashi Kishimoto gets it right – right off the bat. It’s anchored by Naruto – he’s the mascot, the less than perfect, less than average, underdog with big dreams, a big mouth, and a huge heart. But it’s about all the aspiring ninjas in his class, their specific talents, and how they work to their strengths while making note of their weaknesses.

It’s essentially high-school fantasy – all of the factors of adolescence (naiveté, confusion, insecurity, loyalty, obedience, rebellion) guided by the steady hands of a few reliable and consistent adults who live by the rules that they teach. (Possibly the most telling sign that this series is fantasy – not that a 12 year-old ninja-in-training can control and communicate with bugs, and use them to dislocate another ninja’s chakras and kick his ass, but that the adults actually practice what they preach.)

Kishimoto fleshes out every character, primary and secondary. He puts as much thought into the supporting cast as he does the star ensemble. This series is fertile with secondary characters that could carry their own storylines. Additionally, his world is its own character – think Taiyo Matsumoto’s Black and White. Hidden Leaf Village is a gritty, urban, town where buildings and houses stack high on top of each other and build themselves into the hills. A huge facade of previous village ninja leaders (hokage) are carved into the side of the village’s mountain – Mt. Rushmore style. Naruto lives by himself in a tiny studio apartment, eats cold cereal for breakfast, wears goggles around his head, then trains as a ninja with throwing stars and other knives, while concentrating his chakras into his feet so that he can walk up trees.

Leaf Village doesn’t exist. Neither old Japan, nor new Japan, nor Japan at all. It’s got the feeling of modern day anywhere, and is derived from the rubbish filled landscapes of major cities built against mountain backdrops. But it’s nowhere in history or in the world. It only exists in Kishimoto’s fertile imagination. I keep using this word, “fertile” and it’s not just because of my limited vocabulary – it’s because it’s the best word to describe Kishimoto’s mind. He’s taken the familiar and woven something completely foreign that we can all relate to.

Naruto targets teens – essentially, it speaks directly to the adolescent experience. There are clear and dangerous missions every day (much like going to a normal high-school). There is fierce loyalty and devotion to each other – as well as fierce rivalries. There is danger around every corner and no one to trust – things are never what they appear to be. Deception and trickery is required and encouraged. Protection of information is vital. (See? It’s just like high-school. In fact, if you read these last three sentences out of context, I could be writing about Gossip Girl.)

Additionally, the sense of risk involved in the everyday tasks somehow becomes wildly disproportionate to the skills being taught. Naruto and his team find themselves in situations where – as kids – they’re way over their heads. They’re thrown into an adult world of criminals and death matches, grown shinobi (ninja) who’ve already cultivated their power. They are out matched, out skilled, inexperienced. But sheer determination, and other uncontrollable emotions, release their inner potential and they always manage to survive. Faced with high-stakes risks, without a right or wrong answer, without a clear outcome, Naruto and his gang are forced to make decisions.

Remember when that gorgeous brunette Claire, who’s mom was a model, asked you to steal something from her from the mall? If you did it, you could hang out with her, but if you didn’t, she wouldn’t even so much as look at you. So what do you do? What do you do? WHAT DO YOU DO?

Steal = cops (but could also = Claire)

Don’t steal = safe (but also = no Claire)

A lot of the decisions that kids have to make are tough ones. They feel like decisions of life and death. Gossip Girl is closer to Naruto than you realize. There are serious repercussions to every decision and severe wounds. Kishimoto gets it. (Maybe GG gets it too, but I haven’t read any of it and I’ve only seen two episodes.)

The other thing that Kishimoto embraces and utilizes is that both the plot and character progress together. The characters growth hinges on the adventures and challenges that they face. Naruto’s characteristics shape him without defining him. He’s a kid that’s going to grow.

A few weeks ago I was attempting to help my son with his homework – yes, I’m going off on a tangent, but bear with me, it makes sense – where he had to discuss character growth in a story series (i.e Magic Tree House or Boxcar Children.) Captain Underpants didn’t make the cut – his teacher’s decision, not mine – so he went with the Hardy Boys. And guess what? Through all 14 Hardy Boys volumes that he’s read, neither of them age. Each volume is a repackaging of the same experience over and over again. Granted, these books are of a different generation. Likewise, there’s plenty of that in manga, too. But the assignment – character growth – is a wonderful one. Unfortunately, we’ve only encountered it in Harry Potter.

I’m not well versed in YA novels but I do know that after this homework assignment, I swapped out his 14 volumes of Hardy Boys for my 10 volumes of Naruto and told him, “This is where your character development is.”

Okay, admittedly, not the best move. (Although, truth be told, he’s opted for Captain Underpants instead.) But character development has caught on in comics – superhero and indie alike. Why do you think all the boys love Frank MIller? What do you think made Super Bad (a chick-flick in Sean John drag) super good?

At this point, there are only a few things getting in the way of non-Naruto readers turning that corner and becoming Naruto readers. Unfortunately, they’re big things and things that I’m too tired to get into after typing something so long winded and disorganized. Naruto doesn’t need more readers. It’s getting the recognition it deserves. But aren’t you curious? Don’t you want to know? Don’t you want to see what it’s all about?

Now watch the one person who reads this buy a copy of Naruto vol. 1 and send me hate spam

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Appealing to both sides

One of the reasons why Japanese comics is so successful is in their research and thorough targeting of specific demographics. American comics – not so much. The interesting thing about American comics is that many of them could really appeal to both sides of the gender divide. There’s nothing more romantic than an anguished, emotionally damaged man (Wolverine) who is in constant struggle with his past demons (Bruce Wayne/Batman) or going through the daily motions of a carefully choreographed dance that bridges two worlds (Peter Parker/Spiderman). That’s stuff we can all relate to – especially today’s woman who is torn in two by career demands, family aspirations, and the eternal dreams of somehow managing both.

Add to that the amount of comics out there that work outside of the superhero realm, and there is a whole medium for avid television watchers or instigators of social drama to feed off of.

But sometimes even the best laid plans come up short – not on the creator side, but on the reader’s end.

I’m speaking abstractly. Let me instead put it into concrete terms. I finally got around to reading Girls by the Luna Bros. Much darker and edgier than their premier comic, Ultra, the twin brother comics duo drop the Sex in the City posturing for something deeper and more mature. I loved Ultra, but something about Girls got me – and got to me – in that twisted, morbid, soft spot I’ve got for only the most depraved and fantastic of storylines.

Girls is about a town that is taken over by alien girls who lure all the men into having sex with them while killing and feeding on the women. There is a distinct battle-of-the-genders that breaks out, as well as a girls-against-women war that is all out grotesque. The perversion lies with the the alien girls whose motivation to fulfill all sorts of sexual fantasies is derived from their sole effort to produce more girls – that go on to killing the mothers, wives, and daughters in the town. Essentially, if a man has sex with the girls (they always seem to gang up on individual men in groups of three or four – or more) he’s producing more girls to kill his family.

Am I doing this series justice?

Throughout the story, the Lunas give their characters well thought out dialogue and twist the survival situation to bring out the worst possible scenarios – painting both men and women at their most fallen, with no character innocent or victim, perpetrator or abuser.

It’s well done.

So what am I getting at with all this?

Girls is so well done, that I tried recommending it to a friend of mine who also reads comics. Unfortunately, the problem with Girls is that it may be done too well. See that paragraph above where I describe what Girls is about? That’s pretty much all he heard.

HIM: So these alien girls come to earth, offer me all the sex that I want, and as an extra bonus, kill my bitchy girlfriend, too?

ME: Yea, it’s about that, but there’s also this element of danger because then who is going to raise your children?

HIM: I don’t have kids. What’s this comic called again?

ME: It’s not just about some porno fantasy! It’s about sex with repercussions! The more you fuck these girls, the more girls they make that will kill off the entire female population!

HIM: Do you have your period? Are you PMS-ing?

ME: Okay, just listen for a sec. These guys are good. There is whole stretches of dialogue where the men invert the situation and are like, “What if it were a bunch of Michael Phelps looking aliens that were screwing all the women and killing us off? And the women couldn’t resist?” There’s real thought put into this series. It’s not just about being chased by naked Victoria Secret model clones that happily service your every desire.

HIM: Victoria Secret model clones….

ME: Look, are you really going to read it or are you just going to “read” all the dirty pictures.

HIM: Victoria Secret model clones…..

ME: Forget it. You know what? Just forget I said anything.

HIM: Oh, come on. I’m listening. I just, I mean….I miss my girlfriend. I guess I just miss her, that’s all.

ME: (pause) Sorry. I didn’t mean to get so frustrated. It’s just…It takes a really good look at the fundamental rift between men and women – which is totally the stuff that women get into. And you just reminded me of all the reasons why guys would get into it.

HIM: Hey, guys aren’t just pigs. They do have that sensitive side.

ME: You’re right. Sorry for phreaking like that.

HIM: That’s alright. (pause) So what was the name of the comic?

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Chi!

Kodansha sends me issues of their manga anthology magazine “Morning”. I interviewed the editor, Mr. Shimada, last summer at the San Diego Comicon and since then, the magazines come like clockwork. Morning is a weekly anthology, meaning that comics stories are serialized in it and continue from week to week.

Think of it like television and it becomes clearer. Friday Night Lights, when it was on, aired on Friday nights. The comic, Giant Killing, runs in Morning magazine, which comes out every Tuesday (or something like that- I notice it in my mailbox around Tuesday). So if you’re following Giant Killing, you look forward to reading the next installment every Tuesday.

Morning is a magazine of comics aimed towards older readers. Vagabond, the fictionalized life of master swordsman Miyamoto Musashi, has run in Morning. So has Hataraki Man – the female working man (zzt! fingers to forehead!) which is essentially an OL (office lady) manga.  I’m not doing it justice by describing it like that, but it deals with the frustrations of being a woman in a male dominated work environment.  (Was that redundant?)

My son, however, has become quite fond of Chi. What is Chi?

This is Chi.

Beyond adorable and so chipper! He is always smiling and running around and acting cute! cute! cute!

This is the only comic in the magazine that I let him read. There’s some inappropriate stuff in there that I don’t want him seeing just yet. But here’s the thing with Chi:

I know that there are comics series that have run in mature magazines that are completely benign. However, since Morning is a mature comics magazine – a Japanese comics magazine – I am just waiting for Chi to take a turn for the perverse, and become PORNO-CAT MANGA!

There is no way that Porno-Cat isn’t a genre of manga in Japan so I’ll just keep an eye on Chi. So cute! So cute!

Oh my…Bad cat! Bad cat! Stop licking yourself, Chi! Stop licking yourself like that!

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Baby!!!

My friend Yan’s baby is already a month old!  I had written to her four days before he was born and this is what she said:

” now everything’s approaching the end, soon,
soon.  a bit nervous, thought, don’t know what gona
happen on the big day.  it’s another week to go (march
24th)  and it s a boy! he’s estimated 7 or 8 pounds.
guess i’ll follow the nature and my senses :/)”

He was born March 18th. Happy Birthday Happy Parents!

(photos on Mathieu‘s blog which is a kick-ass and introspective rolling commentary on the Chinese art scene)

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Freesia

The New York Asian Film Festival kicks off later this month – and all anyone can talk about is DeathNote. “Death Note this” “Death Note that” “Death Note is a phenomenon” “Death Note has been banned in China”

Death Note, Death Note, Death Note!

Sure both the first movie and its sequel both make their U.S. premiers together, sure director Shusuke Kaneko will be present at all screenings but can we all just sit down for a moment and hear about the franchise that is yet to be?

In all the breathey Death Note anticipation, one manga to movie adaptation seems to be flying in under the radar. Jiro Matsumoto‘s 2003 series Freesia was released in movie form in Japan just this year! Lucky for us, Matsumoto’s story of an extremely level-headed hitman working in the Japan of a parallel universe – one that is governed by revenge killings – has been transferred onto the screen by the adept hands of Kazuyoshi Kumakiri (Antenna, Kikuchi).

Some how, visual beauty and visual brutality always find a way to intersect in movies and manga. At least American audiences will have a chance to experience a little bit of Matsumoto’s brain-crushing psychosis – even if it has to be through a Kumakiri filter. The Freesia manga has yet to be licensed for the American market.

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I know it’s around here somewhere….

It’s been so long since I’ve posted anything here that I got lost getting to my blog.   I almost contemplated asking for directions.  And that was before I realized that I forgot my password.  Geez!  I really do need directions!
Ah, life.

Summer is pretty much here – even if my son still has school up to the last day of June – so things are rolling.  More posts and more stuff that’s actually interesting (yes!) to come.

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Avril’s Chinese Connection

Avid youtube watchers, Avril fans, and faux punk-rock merge – thanks to Avril Lavigne’s Chinese version of Girlfriend.

I too, was wondering why Canada’s mainstream-punk princess was doing a serious (blink) 182 with Girlfriend – and if you look at the itunes response page, apparently I’m not alone.

But seeing it done in Chinese clears all that up.  Girlfriend is made for Chinese audiences – that she sings the chorus in Chinese is just icing on a song that combines bad-ass with cute, punk with pop, black with pink.  It’s what’s normally regurgitated from Japan or Hong Kong – except that Avril does it herself, essentially meeting a demand for this type of product and spoon feeding her fans in the three Chinas.

So nevermind the naysayers and disappointed American fans.  Going Chinese (and 12 other languages) with Girlfriend makes Avril the shrewdest woman in music since…Madonna.

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