Ikigami, Volume 1 OR How to Read Manga, Part 1

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fantasy and science fiction book reviewsIkigami: The Ultimate Limit, Volume 1 by Motoro Mase

Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit, Vol. 1: v. 1 Kindle & comiXology by Motoro Mase (Author, Illustrator)or “How to Read Manga, Pt 1”

Though I haven’t read too much manga — pronounced “mahn-gha,” in case you were wondering — I am starting to acquire a taste for it. I think part of my problem was trying to read it slowly like I do American comics (and like I recommend in my essay here on FanLit, “How To Read Comics“). Watching my daughter devour quickly the entire 20-volume set of Bakuman, an excellent manga about the creation and culture of manga in Japan, I started wondering how she did it (and she wasn’t merely skimming; her recall of details was solid). As much as I want to brag about my daughter (because she is brilliant, of course!), I know that her way of reading manga is normal. So now I want to suggest that you read manga at a nice, quick pace to get a feel for a story that might otherwise seem too slow.

In my reading on the art of manga, I’ve recently discovered that Japanese fans of manga read their books much faster than American fans read American comics. In fact, I’ve learned that most manga are MEANT to be read much faster than American comics. As Frederik L. Schodt writes, “a 320-page manga will usually be read in about 20 minutes.”ikigami 9He gives a fascinating explanation for this speed, an explanation that is understood by considering manga a unique visual grammar and by noting that manga is tied to the visual quality of the Japanese written language itself: “manga are merely another ‘language,’ and the panels and pages are but another type of ‘words’ adhering to a unique grammar. Japanese say that reading manga is almost like reading Japanese itself. This makes sense, for manga pictures are not entirely unlike Japanese ideograms, which are themselves sometimes a ‘cartoon,’ or a streamlined visual representation of reality.” With panels and pages as words, multiple pages become sentences and are capable of being read much faster than American comics that have multiple conventional sentences made of words on every page and often in every panel. It’s just not possible, nor pleasurable, to read an American comic with this speed.
Schodt notes that the distinction between manga and comics is collapsing some as we start to see the manga style appear more and more in American comics and American comics impacting manga in a variety of ways, including the use of cinematic techniques borrowed from Will Eisner — the man who coined the term “graphic novel” and who is credited with creating the first official one, A Contract with God. Still, Schodt says that there is a generalization that makes clear this overall distinction between Japanese manga and American comics, a distinction that has a major impact on my point about pacing and the speed at which one can and should read manga compared to American comics: “if one were to make a gross generalization, it would be that until recently many mainstream American comics still resembled illustrated narratives, whereas Japanese manga were a visualized narrative with a few words tossed in for effect.” Being aware of these differences is helping me be a better reader of manga comics.

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I plan to write more about manga in the coming year as I continue to learn more about this important popular art form that is a major part of Japanese society, but for now I’ll end by recommending one book as a good start: Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit by Motoro Mase. In this book, the world seems to be largely the same as it is now — with one major difference: The government runs a strange program based on giving all the citizens unique vaccines as children. Of these vaccines, one in one thousand will contain a nanocapsule that slowly “moves through the body, eventually coming to rest in the pulmonary artery.” Here’s the fun part: “When the citizen is between 18 to 24 years old, the capsule ruptures on a predetermined date, killing them.” How’s that for a nice set-up? Anybody feel like rebelling yet?

About that rebelling, by the way: if anyone speaks against this wonderful governmental plan, or even expresses doubts about the government’s good intentions in having this plan, the inquisitive citizen gets to try out a faster acting version of the nanocapsule. So what are the government’s good intentions? The claim made by the government is that it will be good for citizens to “grow up wondering if, and when, they will die [because] this uncertainty makes them value life more and increases social productivity.” The government also claims, “ever since this law was established, national suicide and crime rates have fallen.” Obviously, this story is begging for rebellion, but we don’t see it in the first volume. Just some seeds are planted.

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I do like the premise, but there’s a little more to the set-up than what I’ve explained, and it’s what makes the story so good: An “Ikigami” is an official notice sent out by the government letting a person with a scheduled death know that they have exactly 24 hours left to live. And the “Ikigami” is personally delivered by an employee who works for a government-run office that has conducted a background check on a person just prior to the need to contact this person via the Ikigami. Our main character in this series is a young man who has this job. He is handed a short stack of Ikigami to deliver each month: The government takes the job seriously, and this young man carries a heavy weight on his shoulders but is highly valued for the social role he plays.

Here’s what I love about the story: One, our main character is starting to have doubts about this government system, and since we are reading his story, we are privy to his thoughts. And we worry about him because if he lets his co-workers or superiors know he is doubting the value of his job at all, he could be killed immediately. The second aspect of the story I love is the background report on each person who is to receive an Ikigami. Our main character is required to read this background file, and as a result, we get to know the life story of every character who is about to die. We get invested in who these people are. It helps us understand why they react the way they do. And ultimately, I think that’s one of the main points of the book, or at least one of its main goals: To explore the potential reactions people might have to such devastating news.fantasy and science fiction book reviews

Volume One was excellent, and the art was even better and more detailed than most manga I’ve read, but it’s still a very fast read. The book was organized in two, three-act sections. Basically, two characters who die are dealt with in the book, and their stories are told as a three-act movement. Though I have not read the other volumes yet, my understanding is that there are two characters who get an Ikigami in each of the other eight volumes currently out in English (I don’t know if there are going to be any more). The intended audience is older teens and up (depending, as always, on specific parental expectations and concerns).

I’ll be back with reviews of more manga in the future, but if you want to look up other titles, I recommend the out-of-print, but easily found, Beautiful People. Also at the top of the list: Akira, Mushishi, Lone Wolf and Cub, Pluto, Fullmetal Alchemist, Bakuman, Death Note, and Case Closed. Note that if you have a manga aimed at the same age group at which an American comic is aimed, the manga will probably have more violence and will most likely have more sexual humor and sexual images, or just plain nudity with no sexual suggestion at all. However, the fact that manga is usually in black-and-white, isn’t realistic, and often renders nudity in wonderfully inoffensive ways often counters the content that is technically more mature and explicit than American comics aimed at pre-teens, teens, and older teens. No matter what, concerned parents should always read manga before passing them along to kids.

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BRAD HAWLEY, who's been with us since April 2012, earned his PhD in English from the University of Oregon with areas of specialty in the ethics of literature and rhetoric. Since 1993, he has taught courses on The Beat Generation, 20th-Century Poetry, 20th-Century British Novel, Introduction to Literature, Shakespeare, and Public Speaking, as well as various survey courses in British, American, and World Literature. He currently teaches Crime Fiction, Comics, and academic writing at Oxford College of Emory University where his wife, Dr. Adriane Ivey, also teaches English. They live with their two young children outside of Atlanta, Georgia. Read Brad's series on HOW TO READ COMICS.

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