The 'Hep 5' shopping mall in Osaka is a good place to avoid if you're self-conscious about age: nearly everyone inside the chromed-over complex is in their teens or very early 20s, smirking knowingly and swaggering around with bags full of import fashions. Actually, given the infinite number of other ways to enjoy your free time in Osaka, there's no real reason to go there at all- excepting maybe the spectacle of watching high school girls claw at each other for the remaining Snoopy plushes in the store which boasts East Japan's best selection of Peanuts-themed merchandise. It is morbidly funny watching them go at it; suddenly realizing that they can swear like the most two-sheets-to-the-wind businessman, and be twice as vicious in their relentless pursuit of original merchandise featuring Charles' Schultz sagacious beagle. Winning a life-sized Snoopy plush from an arcade is also, for the young professional guys, a chivalrous act on par with slaying a dragon for their sweetheart. Only after witnessing the objectification of Schultz' most enduring animal did I start entertaining curiosities about a truly Japanese counterpart : a pragmatic cartoon animal which spoke exclusively to the recessioned, deflated country; without any political grandstanding and with an impenetrable innocence. It took weeks of digging through formulaic Japanese manga, written about every specialty subject from fly-fishing to- that's right- making manga, to find what I was after. An obviously troubled, but talented lady going by the pen name of "Nekojiru" ('cat soup' in English) caught my eye with a pair of kindergarten cats named Nyako and Nyata.
Nekojiru's twin heroes carry the simple, practical wisdom of Schultz' best creations along with them, usually closing strips with contented 'that's-the-way-things-are' observations and the promise of brighter days ahead. However, the situations where they apply this wisdom are more suited to, well, the Grand Guignol than Snoopy's doghouse. Just a short sampling: they observe the fatal beating of a homeless man posing as an FBI agent in order to get a cheaper box lunch (the stubbly box lunch vendor is a former yakuza thug.) After getting bored of a hide-and-seek game with the neighborhood pig (a recurring victim in this strip), they inadvertently set fire to his hiding place (a pile of leaves) and enjoy his roast flesh. In their Christmas special tour-de-force, Nyata and Nyako ride on the back of a stolen donkey, blasting a group of door-to-door carolers with an acetylene torch (which itself was stolen by the kids' father- who felt guilty for blowing all the Christmas money on plum wine earlier.) They rarely set foot inside a school, maximizing their play time and their exposure to urban low-life. From time to time, the ultraviolent kitties use their talent for mayhem to good ends, like rescuing a group of seals from their human, junkie slavedriver's sweatshop. The cats are modeled after the 'O-maneki neko' good luck cats that Japanese shopkeepers place in their display windows for good luck: snow white with unblinking, headlamp eyes and eternal poker faces.
Nekojiru seems bent on confronting a Japanese audience weaned on ineffectual slapstick comedies and cuddly corporate mascots. Her parodic soldering of these elements was a gamble in a country in which the word 'irony' is often not included in dictionaries, but it was well-timed. After the twin nightmares of the Great Hanshin earthquake and the Aum Shinrikyo cult's gas attacks eroded away the population's trust in nature AND mankind, it was high time for some comics which would approach the cruel new world without completely neglecting the deep-rooted Japanese love of childish antics. Nekojiru developed a huge fanbase of teenage girls, many of whom are still posting adulatory reviews on the Japanese Amazon website, with proclamations like "this book is like taking medicine!" and rhetorical questions such as "don't you remember the time when YOU innocently killed an insect?" Nekojiru could have become a model for young, independent female artists looking to take manga outside of the relationship and light humor genres. However, this wasn't to be: Nekojiru committed suicide in the May of 1998. Coupled with the death of veteran 'nonsense gag' artist Yasuji Tanioka from cancer one year later, a pre-millennial hole was blasted in Japan's independent comics industry that has yet to be repaired.
Nekojiru's career and pen name were both kickstarted by a crude debut strip, set in a noodle shop run by a surly tomcat. Another feline customer happens upon his shop and harangues him to help her with her restless, uncontrollable kitten. After repeat warnings of "this is a noodle shop, not a doctor's!" the tomcat decides that the best course of action is neutering the kitten. Said kitten gives up the ghost in the next panel after some haphazard knife work, and the only recourse is to make it into cat soup. To be honest, it's not the funniest gag in Nekojiru's bountiful bag of tricks, but it was enough to impress Garo magazine. The monthly Garo, by the early '90s publication of this strip, had already survived twenty odd years battling the weekly comics digests and their gender-specific, safe-bet tales of dating and baseball to become the primary lifeline for comics infused with contemporary social issues. Nagai Katsuichi, who was at the editorial helm of Garo since its '60s inception, and had survived both combat in Manchuria and the post-war struggle to start an independent publishing house (Seirindoo), wasn't about to lose his composure over some coarse feline follies. Nekojiru's eponymous strip found a happy home in Garo over the course of the 90s- and while it's something of an Easter egg hunt to find these issues in retail outlets, they still rest snugly on the shelves of Hiroshima's fine manga library and on the racks of all-night manga reading rooms. And deservedly so: few other titles on the global comics scene of the previous decade, save maybe Miguel Angel Martin's 'Brian the Brain', have mixed tender innocence and wanton destruction with such ease. In her strips, humans and animals share a chaotic world in which they may be peacefully sharing a meal one moment, and devouring each other the next. Her characters even manage to survive without fingers or toes (many of them resemble the Pillsbury doughboy on a bender).
While Nekojiru was unquestionably a unique presence in the manga world, her work didn't really gain prominence until her husband and collaborator Hajime Yamano began illustrating the skewed visions that she had written in her memo books and dream journals. A quick side-by-side comparison of the debut strip with later work inked by Yamano shows a slight, but substantial difference: Nekojiru's wobbly, caffeinated inking gives way to Yamano's perfectly squared away, clean, vibrant panels. Which is not to say that Nekojiru was a completely slovenly artist, but it is the Yamano versions of her characters which made the grade to be immortalized as a line of merchandise. Like the mega-selling Hello Kitty products, Nekojiru's cats lend themselves well to babydoll shirts and PVC handbags. At times it even seems like the two mischievous, vocally disobedient cat progeny in Nekojiru's strips are little more than a parody of the characters in 'Kitty-chan's' idyllic dayglo universe, solving all their curiosities about the outside world with experimental acts of violence: sending uppity grasshoppers to makeshift gas chambers, or beating up God himself when they can't understand his parables.
Hajime Yamano still labors on under the commemorative pseudonym of 'Nekojiru Y', but without the acerbic storylines of his former partner. The books penned under the Nekojiru Y moniker are, sadly, only similar to the previous strips in cosmetic appearance. Nekojiru's trademark lamp-eyed cats travel through lots of exotic locales in adventure stories like "Indo Jiru", and feature plentiful 3D touch-ups, but no further leaps forward in the writing style that Yamano has coined 'violent relaxation'.
For all the hype that followed it initially, Nekojiru's suicide at the age of 31 was no anomaly within the Japanese comics world. Another prodigious artist of her generation, Hanako Yamada, hurled herself from an 11th-floor apartment window in 1992 (she was only 24, and had made her professional debut while in her third year of junior high school.) Yamada's hypersensitivity, nerve damage and experiences with school bullying came to the fore as her final journals were published in 1998 by Ohta Books, the hip Gen-X publisher du jour who had released a "Complete Manual of Suicide" 5 years earlier. More likely than not, Ohta acknowledged the influence of Yamada's melancholic, waif-like characters on their newer crop of artists. A quick look at Yamada's resumé shows telling titles like "God's Bad Joke" and "Empty-Headed World", with her listless, disembodied face on the book covers betraying even more about her emotional state. In an editorial review of a "God's Bad Joke" collection, it's suggested that her thin, meticulous pen strokes were symptomatic of a series of nervous breakdowns (note to internet researchers: beware of a peppy member of Osaka's famous Yoshimoto comedy troupe, who shares her name).
For the time being, the best insight we may have into the minds of these artists are 1st hand accounts like Hanako Yamada's journals and Nekojiru's reproduced notebook scrawls, which pop up from time to time in Nekojiru anthologies (all of which are named after Japanese foods: there's 'Nekojiru rice crackers', 'Nekojiru udon noodles' and so on). Nekojiru's diary entries reveal a very one-sided fascination with communication breakdown and bodily malfunction, objectively noting every unpleasantry from vomiting dogs to accident victims. These documents will still be disappointing for anyone looking for a sense of closure- they suggest, rather than state outright, the reasons for these artists' untimely departure. The same can also be said of encounters with Japanese comics fans on the street. During the last few years in Osaka, I found it nearly impossible to get anyone to articulate on Nekojiru's death beyond the stock utterances of "she was crazy!" and "hmmm…Nekojiru is Nekojiru." Whether out of respect for the dead, embitterment at having been let down by an artist who could have bloomed into a genuinely potent media presence, or a combination of the two, people are not too eager to talk at length on the subject.
While there is something of a 'suicidal manga artist' archetype in Japan, it should be emphasized that there's no easy comparison to, say, the Western cult of suicidal rock stars. Just the absence of a real hard drug scene in Japan is enough to separate these two planes of unexpected stardom. 'Societal pressure' is the nebulous term usually attributed to the manga suicides, but what kind exactly, and who within society is most responsible for applying that pressure?
The Japanese manga industry, with small exceptions, works like this: usually a writer courts a weekly magazine first and is contracted to do a weekly serial work. The weeklies, with unassuming titles like 'Shonen Sunday' and 'Young Jump' are phone directory-sized slabs of multi-colored, cheap newsprint. As such, they don't do as much justice to the respective artists' styles as the glossier single-artist anthologies- these come after a serial has been in enough weekly issues to warrant a full-volume review. The same publishers who issue the weeklies also hold the rights to releasing artists' work in volume format. The volumes are shelved in the shops according to stereotypical male/female interests, and are then subdivided into publishers' sections rather than genres. In the sleek 'MangaKan' shop where I first found Nekojiru's anthologies, there is another section simply marked 'comics'. At first it seems absurd to see a section within a comics shop labeled as 'comics', but on closer inspection you begin to see why: therein lies a mixture of Western artwork, manga on imprints too small to warrant their own section, and subject matter still considered too marginal/controversial: Suehiro Maruo's slashing mockeries of heroic nationalist art, or Takashi Nemoto's tales of superhuman semen.
The Japanese manga artists face the same struggles to make deadlines that can be expected anywhere, although the sheer volume of work that must be done in any given week can make even the staunchest artists have second thoughts about their career: anything up to 20 letter-sized pages of high quality drawing every week until the artist's series fizzles, or is overtaken by another serial work. Rapid burnout is common, and suicides from previous decades have resulted from this kind of workload. Still, the direct linking of a heavy workload to termination of life, without any other contributing factors, seems like too lazy a conclusion to reach. I'd propose a different situation: one in which a Japanese population simultaneously praises its manga as an inimitable cultural treasure, and damns it as a corruptor of traditional values. It's true: 76% of Tokyo residents recently cited comics as being central to the corruption of youth, and even more dangerous to the kids than the internet. This same set of mixed attitudes towards comics extended to a friend of mine, who refused to import the volumes I was missing from the Nekojiru back catalog, on the grounds that "it would be embarrassing." I could have sworn this same individual was singing Nekojiru's praises a few months before the fact. From all the limited information that I could gather from such skittish sources about Nekojiru, Hanako Yamada, and other suicidal manga artists, one thing seemed devastatingly certain: these individuals, while doing courageous work on par with the most well-adjusted artists, were of no temperament to last long under such unpredictable critical gear-shifting. They were all reclusive and despondent, in varying degrees, before attaining star status: being thrown to the sharks of critical discourse made their attempts at reconciliation with society into futile homework assignments. Maybe the best illustration of Nekojiru's disillusionment with working in this society is her spirit-crushing short story "Tankobu (head lumps)". Here we witness a youthful monkey who is repeatedly whacked over the head with a mallet, and has the resulting swollen bruises cut off his head and served as a novelty item in a snack shop. He keeps a pliant grin on his face throughout the whole agonizing process, only breaking down in tears when his inquiry of "well, I'm tasty, aren't I?" is met with an indifferent "Eh. You're just average," from taste-tester Nyako. If that doesn't characterize society's low opinion of the comics creation process, I don't know what does. Let's hope that future Nekojirus persevere long enough to turn that low opinion on its head.