Obnoxious appetites

Published Sunday, June 26 2022 at 9:31 pm
Obnoxious appetites
Screenshot from a Sega CD adaptation of Rumiko Takahashi's Urusei Yatsura, 1994.

“My father was a doctor. He was also very good at drawing.”

So begins “My Sweet Sunday,” an autobiographical comic by the mangaka (manga artist) Rumiko Takahashi. First published in 2009, the one-off was only released in English this past February as part of Takahashi’s anthology Came the Mirror & Other Tales.

Came the Mirror is old news to Japanese readers, as they’ve had it since 2015. Not that American readers were deprived of Takahashi in the meantime. Mangaka tend to be prolific, but Takahashi is truly behemoth. Her last complete ongoing, RIN-NE, counted 40 volumes. The series before that? 56 volumes, starting in 1996. Takahashi began her career in 1978.

It’s not just the size and volume of Takahashi’s oeuvre; it’s also the demand. At least four of her ongoing series have sold over 25 million copies. Multiple sources declare her the best-selling woman cartoonist in history. Takahashi hasn’t been trendy this entire time, but she’s never been out of style.

Anyone who grew up watching the anime adaptations of Inuyasha or Ranma 1/2 is already familiar with her work. Inuyasha was one of those shows with a seemingly endless number of episodes. In the early 2000s, its presence on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim block gave it the force of a collective memory. Inuyasha echoed through countless preteens’ late nights.

Takahashi in the collective conscious: on the left, the vinyl rerelease of a Tanuki record featuring characters from Urusei Yatsura. On the right, an Inuyasha meme I've been seeing on Facebook lately.

The Western echelons Takahashi entered weren’t just teenaged ones either. The Eisner Hall of Fame inducted Takahashi in 2018. A year later, she scored the Grand Prix de la ville d’Angoulême, an ultra-prestigious lifetime achievement award that’s usually given to Franco-Belgian artists—mostly men. Takahashi was the second woman to win the award.

Despite the international fanfare, Takahashi has head-scratched at her Western popularity before. In an interview from 2000, Takahashi noted that while her books contain “enough substance” for non-Japanese readers, an indulgence of culture-specific humor made her wonder “if American readers understand what they’re reading. Maybe they just like the comics because they’re exotic.”

Case in point: I started reading Urusei Yatsura, Takahashi’s first series, after seeing the characters featured on the cover of a future funk record by Tanuki—a record made by a Scotsman but littered with Japanese script and references. Future funk, as a whole, tends to indulge an Orientalist fantasy, imagining something like a Japanese disco circa 1985. Being a product of that actual time, Urusei fits such an aesthetic readily.

The generally episodic Urusei Yatsura, however, is a lot more funny than it is sleek. Some gags do rely on knowing Japanese culture; footnotes are supplied to help English readers in on the joke. But there are also plenty of instances where no other context is needed. The title, which translates to “Obnoxious Aliens,” describes the two main characters perfectly. Ataru Moroboshi is the lecherous, outcast and unlucky teen who serves as the narrative punching bag. Lum, meanwhile, is the alien girl with a penchant for bikinis, Ataru, and comedic electrocution. There are all sorts of supernatural and sci-fi mishaps along the way. The bedrock of it all is Three’s Company-type situational comedy. We’re permitted to laugh at how horrible we are.

Panel of Ataru from Urusei Yatsura (volume 1). Reads right-to-left.

I was so taken by Urusei that I then picked up Maison Ikkoku, which was published simultaneously. This is a gentler, slice-of-life comedy, with less slapstick and greater narrative stakes. Here, Ataru is swapped out for the basically identical-looking Godai, who falls into an awkward “Will they, won’t they?” relationship with Kyoko, his apartment complex’s manager. The shared living arrangements heighten the comedy and frustration, just like real nosey neighbors do. Some moments are profound even if you know the resolution, like when Godai learns that Kyoko is a widow—during a visit to her husband’s grave.

Currently, I’m halfway through One-pound Gospel, a short work by Takahashi standards, numbering only four volumes. (The last one has been incredibly hard to find.) The story so far: a young boxer can’t control his weight. He loves to eat steak and ice cream. Slurp ramen. Guzzle soft drinks. He’s also lusting after a nun. Everything hinges on appetite here.

Many of Takahashi’s narratives seem to laugh: Gosh! Men are stupid! Their lack of self-control, their horniness, their dimwittedness—I suppose these are funny only insofar as you don’t have to tolerate them all the time. Granted, greed or rapaciousness aren’t inherently gendered. Across history, men have had more access to things, and access empowers appetite. The human tendency is to overindulge. Men have long felt themselves free from consequence in this regard. An ethic of: Why hold back? Take as you much as you want, bro.

Panel from One-pound Gospel.

In Urusei, though, it’s not just men with big appetites. In “Food Fight,” (Volume 3, Chapter 9), the exorcist Sakura eats for free when she devours “The Hell Course: The Full Course Meal from Hell,” which ends with an entire roast cow. I suppose extending utter gluttony to women is some kind of equity. Still, these are hardly characters to emulate, because their behavior is already possible in our baser, meaner instincts. “It’s Always Sunny” in Takahashi’s Rumic World.

Per her own admission in that 2000 interview: “I’m not the type who thinks in terms of societal agendas.”

It’s not stretching much to assume the 1957-born Takahashi as representative of an older Boomer-type consciousness—especially in the 1980s, when such positions would still feel fresh and insightful. Her works came of age in the last decade of the Shōwa years, the longest Japanese era to date, that spanned 1926 to 1989. Her formative years aligned with the nation’s, it makes sense that Takahashi said: “I was happy that people from my same generation could enjoy my manga.”

There are uncomfortable moments in Takahashi’s early comics that make me hesitate to recommend them as general reading. That they’re often played for laughs makes it worse. And yet a sensitivity and gentleness often rise above, communicated either by the story at hand or Takahashi’s deeply expressive line. I can’t speak much to her newer, digital work, but Takahashi’s early, analog stuff is brilliantly drawn.

She also has a knack for drawing young men. Even behind the layers of style and exaggeration, I can often empathize with their being stupefied, annoyed, embarrassed, or utterly determined to make a fool of oneself. Takahashi’s earliest works frequently star men who are losers. Their pathos is evident in her line.

Urusei, Takahashi once said, “is a title I had been dreaming about since I was very young.” The work an artist makes in their twenties can be a kind of exorcism. An extinguishing of earlier obsessions. When Japan’s Heisei era began in 1989, Takahashi was only 31 years old, with her “obnoxious aliens” behind her and the fame they helped nurture right ahead.

It’s astounding to consider the impact of a truly popular artist. A singular person’s output can rival, if not outsize, the content of their own lives. What is adored, becomes multiple. And what’s multiplicable, fosters appetite.

Panels from a French translation of Maison Ikkoku (Volume 1, chapter 9)

We might say Takahashi has a fierce appetite for drawing. For work itself even. Fielding Twitter questions from fans in 2021, she divulged a schedule that includes a three-day marathon of production. Takahashi apparently sleeps only a few hours before working through day and night.

The drawing habits obviously run deep. Remember? Takahashi’s dad was a doctor. But he was also very good at drawing, and made his daughter pictures to put underneath her pillow at night. But the young Takahashi didn’t stop at dreaming. She picked up a glass pen in the sixth grade and has drawn since.

Per a boxing coach in One-pound Gospel: “The weight of a punch comes down to how tight you clench your fist.”

The weight of drawing comes down to how tightly its lines achieve their purpose. In this respect, Takahashi’s work is some of the best drafting in any popular medium. Her forms are as economic as they are expressively satisfying. The end results are an oeuvre that literally towers. A challenge to even the hungriest appetite.

[30 days of June: No. 26/30]