by Taiyo Matsumoto
BW, 216 pgs w/ ads
$9.99 US / More in Canada
If you follow any sort of popular culture for any length of time you are likely to find yourself settling into specific genres of styles for periods of time. This is easier to do when your access to genres and styles is limited. I had always heard manga offers a far more wide range of stories then North American comics, mainly because manga is the pop culture mainstream and not a fringe stream like comics in our own country. This certainly may well be the case, but after reading and reviewing English translated manga for a period of years, I have come to realize that while our Japanese brethren are enjoying a full spectrum of manga, we here in North America are getting only a minor segment. Recently, the quirky comedies, mecha, magical girls, beautiful boys and unlikely romances have started to blur together. This is a frustrating state to be in as a reader because you lose sight of moments of originality in each story. It is downright hazardous as a reviewer because you start to lose sight of what makes a good story…well…good. All you start to focus on is how much everything is so similar.
Thank god then for books like Blue Spring, a manga that is so different from anything currently being offered that it snaps you right out of that dangerous mind set with its multitude of unique perspectives in both story and art.
Written and illustrated by Taiyo Matsumoto, Blue Spring is a collection of seven short stories, each of which tells the tale of disaffected youth, male students so lost in their own adolescence that they go to great lengths to feel something, anything, as a reaction to the establishment that is trying to shape their lives.
In the first story, “If You’re Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands”, a group of boys, a high school gang, engage in a potentially deadly rooftop game. The idea is you stand on the outside of the rooftop rail, letting go and clapping your hands as often as you can before you feel yourself starting to lose your balance and have to grab the rail once again. It is a status among these boys and among other similar gangs at school, who can clap the most. That status is important, but more important is the feeling of uncertain confidence when they let go of the rail, that feeling of literally living on the edge. In the humdrum days of school, it is good to feel something.
The other tales follow a similar format, following a group of boys or an individual male on a quest to find their own place in a society that does not value the individual: A revolver gives a group of three friends a chance to reboot their lives; A young male accepts a gang lord’s offer to join his crew, oblivious and perhaps immune to the consequences; A power struggle in a high school gang pushes one member to murder; and a group of friends are caught in the endless cycle of empty banter and long nights spent at restaurants.
There are two stories that stray from the path. The first is “Mahjong Summer”, an affective tale in which a group of ballplayers try to forget their own loss in the playoffs by engaging in an endless game of mahjong. It’s not about accepting the consequences of one’s choices (the choice here being the pitcher’s decision to throw a particular pitch). It’s more interested in demonstrating youth’s inability (whether conscious on unconscious) to accept these consequences. It’s easier to hide one’s feelings in a game of mahjong.
The second comes at the end of Blue Spring, “This is Bad”, an odd and dark tale about a boy that doesn’t make it to his first date. Matsumoto is making a statement perhaps on the various predators that prey on youth, though the impact and point is somewhat lost in the brevity and extreme nature of the tale.
Having something to say appears to be the reason for Matsumoto for creating Blue Spring. He fondly remembers in an epilogue the own rough crowd with which he ran in his own youth. His tales, regardless of whether or not they were inspired by his own adolescence, feel relevant to today’s youth, both Asian and North American. The fact that these stories, in which the characters and settings are clearly Asian, can have relevancy to other cultures, speaks to the common nature of adolescence.
Matsumoto’s art has always been original, a combination of European and Japanese styles. It is distinct to the eye, a real mash of realistic settings and character designs, with just enough surrealism to keep you on your toes, reminding you that not everything you see if to be interpreted literally. Take for instance the first story in which the adults and many of the students are illustrated with solid black bars across their eyes, making them almost indistinguishable from one another. Only the main characters’ eyes are uncovered. This presentation can be deciphered in any number of ways: the adults are blind to what teens need and desire; the core gang of boys do not see anyone outside their own tormented clique as individuals (hence the black bars on other people’s eyes) because they are so inwardly focused on their own perceived troubles.
What is obvious as you move through the pages of Blue Spring is that your eyes are opening to a style of manga unlike anything being translated and released in North America at the moment. Blue Spring is completely and unapologetically grounded in the real world, offering real insight and making real statements through experimentation with writing and illustration. It is a manga that lets you know there are no limits to the kind of stories that can be told in this medium. (Chad Boudreau)