written by Mink
illustrated by Yoshitaka Amano
Dark Horse Books, 2010. 185 pgs. $29.99.
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Recently Yoshitaka Amano, the famed anime and video game artist, illustrated a novel by Mink (aka Christopher Morrison), Shinjuku. It is not exactly a manga, nor is it a light novel in the style of Haruhi Suzumiya—the oversize illustrations resemble a blend of traditional Japanese ink/watercolor painting and abstract art more than the standard anime/manga character design and backgrounds. They are mostly black and white with bloody splashes of red, a fitting counterpoint to the hardboiled, violent story it illustrates.
Shinjuku tells the tale of Daniel Legend, a “Scout” (something like a high-tech Interpol) who searches for his long-lost sister Angela in the depths of the yakuza-dominated Tokyo neighborhood of Shinjuku. It is the year 2020, and Daniel is equipped with a pair of OPTIK glasses, which when worn provide augmented reality information on anything he sees. In the search for his sister, he encounters a gang run by Shi, who is not only one of the three main yakuza bosses in the area, but may also have certain supernatural powers and connections that reach not only into the underworld of crime but also the supernatural Underworld. Along the way, geisha girls, schoolgirls, fight clubs, and pretty doctors all gather and soon Daniel is involved in a conflict that puts the safety not just of himself and his sister but the entire world at stake.
The first thing that strikes the reader of this book, of course, is the dramatic ink and paint artwork by Amano. Amano covers entire page spreads with splashes and splotches of black and red ink, often leaving the drippings of his paintbrush scattered over the picture. Once in a while, especially with characters, there is some of the thin-eyed, thin-lined figure and facial drawings many have seen before in his Final Fantasy character designs. And then there are illustrations that are almost abstract, leaving only the barest hints of representation in the suggestive curve or shape of certain lines along the canvas.
The artwork by Amano is, in a word, gorgeous. It will not be to every anime/manga fan’s liking—it barely has anything to do with manga’s visual conventions. The sheer, stark artistry and the boldness of presentation are undeniable, however. Amano is often able to convey character and setting and mood with only a few splashes of ink, and with many different artistic approaches throughout the story. It is nothing that I have seen in a Japanese or American popular culture work, and the book is worth purchasing for the artwork alone.
The story written by Mink is more pedestrian by comparison. It is sufficiently gripping and propulsive to be read in a single sitting—the writing is perfectly competent and, unlike many genre stories, relatively free of florid phrases and overwriting—but the central characters appear to be more focused on accomplishing various plot points than on fleshing out who they are as people. Many interesting sci-fi and fantasy concepts abound: parallel universes, augmented reality glasses, the bakemono demons. Some of them, however, feel more tacked on than integral to the story. Most of the story is told through the eyes of Daniel, who is the best developed character, and in keeping with the hard-boiled detective story tradition he is generally a reserved and taciturn man. The best hard-boiled stories would give plenty of hints at the darkness within, however, and at the end there is not much empathetic connection between the reader and the protagonist. He arrives; he finds a way to get the job done; there is an ending.
Mink’s approach to Japanese culture is also a bit odd. Copious Japanese phrases, sometimes untranslated, are included in the dialogue. Yet there are also explanatory paragraphs that tell the reader, for instance, about the origin of Shinjuku, Roppongi Hills, and other Tokyo landmarks. Geishas, schoolgirls, and hostess clubs figure prominently in the plot alongside the gangsters. The overall impression one gets is that Mink knows a bit about Japanese pop culture, about as much as a well-informed anime or Japanese movie buff perhaps, but has chosen to use the setting of Shinjuku to play up the “exotic” aspects for the English-speaking audience. Paired with the original artwork of Amano, this works sometimes; at its best it achieves a kind of glamour and cool that was probably the intent of the authors. Other times, it feels awkward. There is an understated “clash of West and East” conflict present in the use of an American protagonist in underground Japan in this story that ends up only being partially successful.
In a way, that describes this collaborative work as a whole, not just the story. Yoshitaka Amano has created striking, beautiful illustrations for a story that, while interesting, does not go much further beyond that.
This book is recommended for fans of Yoshitaka Amano’s art, or fans of gritty artwork in general, and for those who enjoy hardboiled sci-fi noir stories. Purchase it from Amazon and you’ll help support our site!