Asian Beat is interesting in its artistic approach but falters when it comes to actually telling a story.
Writer/Artist: Hakase Mizuki
Translated by: N/A
Adapted by: N/A
What They Say
A negligent mother, an affair, a broken family, domestic abuse, and drugs are among the subjects in these Goth short stories that revolve around the lives of teenagers with complicated problems.
The cover for Asian Beat plays up its ties to Hakase Mizuki's The Demon Ororon and Demon Flowers (both published by Toykopop), advertising the title as "Hakase Mizuki presents Asian Beat" and giving a "From the creator of" tagline prominent placement on the back cover. Mizuki's minimalistic drawing on the front cover (probably of Maria from the collection's first story, but drawn in a subtly different style) comes in sharp contrast to the cluttered back cover, which crams in schizophrenically-arranged chunks of story summary alongside English and Japanese banners.
There are no extras included.
Mizuki likes to apply a minimalist touch to her artwork, and Asian Beat is no exception. There are really two distinct stories compiled in this collection, and they have slightly different twists on this style. The short "The Town Where Snow Falls" has the most realistic look of the two but still bears a lot of her trademarks: lots of barren white backdrops, and lanky characters that can be hard to tell apart from each other. It's a sort of style that often looks very good but can take some getting used to, and trying to tell who is who and where is where can sometimes get in the way of following the story (fortunately, since there aren't a wide array of characters and settings in "The Town", this is mostly a non-issue).
The remaining chapters crib so their art design so heavily from Mizuki's The Demon Ororon (which had wrapped up about a year before Asian Beat was published) that they might as well be an alternate-universe side story -- in fact, that's what I thought they were for the first couple of pages -- rather than a stand-alone short story with a distinct setting and cast of characters. The lead character Mushi, for example, is an almost-exact carbon copy of Ororon, right down to their clothing and mannerisms. I don't really blame her for wanting to copy the look she established in Ororon: I really liked the wild and lanky character designs before, and I still think they look really good here. With that in mind, I was still kind of disappointed that Mizuki seemed to be content with recycling the look of an older story rather than going for real artistic growth.
The script is stilted and awkward, but the story reads like this is by design instead of just a side effect of the translation. I didn't catch any syntactic problems with the English translation.
Tokyopop doesn't handle SFX and signs in a consistent way throughout the release: some SFX is left untranslated, while English translations are provided alongside the original lettering in other places, and in other places still the art is touched-up to completely remove the Japanese lettering with English. Unfortunately, the tiny font that Tokyopop often uses for whispers and asides is back with an illegible vengeance; I have 20/20 vision, and even still in some places I had to hold the book pretty close to my face just to make out the text.
Contents: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
"The Town Where Snow Falls", the first of the four chapters in Asian Beat, revolves around the teenaged Kaji Sakurai, who finds herself out on the street after her stepmother kicks her out. Kaji has a chance meeting on the street with a stranger named Maria Hagiwara (his mother "always wanted to have a daughter", he later explains), who she ends up choosing to shack up with for the night rather than returning home. Even after the two sleep together, Kaji doesn't open up to Maria much about her home life; she tells him that her father left abandoned his family but never says exactly why her relationship with her stepmother has become so strained. (We later find out that Kaji attacked her stepmother's boyfriend; I think that these are two separate incidents, but the story jumps around in time enough that it's hard to say for sure.)
Later scenes of Kaji at school reveal that she's a loner, and that the few people she's established close ties to aren't much better off than her: Maria is involved with a married woman, Kaji's friend Riko is constantly cutting class, and even Kaji's stepmother turns out to be overworked and pained by having her biological sons taken away from her. The plot has vaguely to do with Kaji and her stepmother trying to make peace with each other, though with its meandering pace and just over 100 pages of content it doesn't do much more than scratch the surface of their relationship. (By the same token, Maria's and Riko's problems are basically left unresolved at the story's end.)
The remaining three chapters -- "Asian Beat", "The Grey Town", and "The Scar" -- are all parts of a larger story, each of which is told by a different key character in that story. These chapters focus on Mushi and Jam Shiyoa along with their common friend Yuki Yoshii, who has become somewhat of a surrogate father for Jam ever since her real father has slipped into absenteeism and alcoholism. What happened to Mushi and Jam's mother is never really discussed -- or at least if it is, I completely missed it -- but it's implied that, whatever her fate, she's not coming back.
"Asian Beat" is told from the POV of Mushi, who in spite of all of his problems has been discovering that others may have things almost as bad: an honors student has been pestering him to help him become a drug dealer so that he can keep making payments to students who are extorting him. In "The Grey Town", Jam takes the reigns of the narrative, and we find out that she's got even worse social problems than Mushi. Mushi, for all his problems, still goes to school regularly and is able to smooth-talk his way out of trouble; Jam, on the other hand, seems to be emotionally underdeveloped (she carries around a stuffed animal, gives people the silent treatment, and gets violent when her buttons are pushed) and relies on Yuki to solve her problems. The last chapter is much shorter and deals with Yuki's interactions with his real and surrogate families, mainly focusing on the way he watches over Mushi in the aftermath of his father's visits. These three chapters are even less organized around a straightforward plot than "The Town": while they are laid out chronologically (barring the occasional flashback), almost all of the conflicts explored in this section of the book are left unresolved by last page.
As someone who enjoys good writing as much as (if not more than) good artwork, my first instinct after reading Asian Beat is to not like it very much. Neither "The Town Where Snow Falls" nor the titular three-parter that follows it have much of a strongly structured plot, and instead lean much more in the direction of pure character dramas. The problem is that the characters in Asian Beat spend most of the manga being distant and prone to random outbursts, even relative to the stereotypically angst-ridden teenagers that populate most high school dramas. It all just feels so stilted and ... well, cold -- which is obviously the tone Mizuki's reaching for, but it's not one that's good for getting the reader emotionally invested in her stories.
But after reading enough of Mizuki's body of work, my second instinct is to feel like my first instinct misses the point completely. There's something about the surreal style and darkly rich atmospheres that she imbues into her art that keeps me coming back to her English-language releases, and I think I'm starting to "get" that her stories are about the atmosphere first and the writing second. Her distinctive style doesn't always make up for serious storytelling deficiencies (see also: Baku), but in Asian Beat it works well enough that I'm willing to give a lot of the writing problems a pass.
I'm still not sure I'd recommend this title to a general manga audience, but readers who like some of Mizuki's other series and know what they're getting into will probably get their money's worth out of Asian Beat.