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Mumbling Kitsune: Inspiration Beyond Borders
and anime sometimes pick up really weird, and really cool, ideas far from home.
By Nadia Oxford
January 28, 2009
Me and the Devil Blues
© Del Rey
Though manga and anime often aim to innovate, or at least improve upon old ideas, there tends to be a general sense of "been there, done that" for long-time fans. That's why one of the greatest joys in the medium is a finding a manga-ka who devotes study, time and effort into doing something far out of the usual bounds.
It's not as if manga is nothing but mech battles and ninjas; like any creative output from any country, you have some writers and artists who have dug themselves into a cultural rut. Oftentimes, magnificent things still come out of that rut because the handling of story ingredients matters more than the overall idea. Bounty hunting, space travel and futuristic criminal organizations are old hat in science fiction manga and anime, but nobody's about to argue that Cowboy Bebop, which contains all three, is less than fantastic.
Beyond the Homeland
Even so, there is a special place for writers and artists who are so moved by some aspect of history or culture that they are willing to break down walls in order to share it with others. Japan has long been seen by the Western world as a homogenized culture where conformity is king. While it's historically true that Japan's exposure to outside countries was considerably restricted compared to Europe or China, that began to change rapidly after World War II. Gradually, outside influences, particularly American influences, slid into Japanese culture, including music, art, movies, and, of course, manga, a medium Osamu Tezuka re-invented with heavy inspiration from Disney.
History and Fantasy
Manga and anime don't shy away from historical fantasy, and some very favorable results have arisen in the genre (such as Emma, a Victorian romance by Kaoru Mori). Even so, there occasionally comes something that transcends its country of origin and leaves an indelible impression. One of the most remarkable examples of a manga-ka breaking out of the mold is Akira Hiaramoto's Me and the Devil Blues, a manga based on the ghostly life of bluesman Robert Johnson. Hiaramoto combines culture and legend with an accurate rendition of the life a black man was condemned to in the southern U.S. of the early 1900s.
It's not overly surprising to read a manga that visits Venice (Aria by Kozue Amano), Victorian London (The Cain Saga by Kaori Yuki) or even the cusp of the French Revolution (Le Chevalier d'Eon by Tow Ubukata). Me and the Devil Blues is as much a historical fantasy as those titles�it is, after all, based around the legend of a man who supposedly sold his soul to the Devil�but Hiaramoto took special pains to bring the dense woods, small towns and sprawling plantations of the Mississippi Delta to life--a world far from his own.
Far From Home and Loving It
Hiaramoto writes about the creative process in each volume of the manga (published by Del Rey), and talks about how hard he worked to put himself in the role of R.J. (the manga's protagonist, who fills the “role” of Robert Johnson without explicitly being him). By doing so, and by thoroughly exploring R.J.'s surroundings, the reader gets a lock on his motivations and feels like they're being carried along through his life.
This is the sort of cultural crossover that will keep creative works healthy. Not just anime and manga, but comics and cartoons as well. As the world grows smaller, hopefully artists and writers will take advantage of our coming-together and continue to find inspiration through different cultures and histories.