By Jason S. Yadao
Last week featured the monthly virtual gathering of the manga bloggerati for the Manga Movable Feast, that wondrous time when most of us discuss a particular series or artist’s work. I say “most of us” here because last week ended up being yet another in a long line of busy, exhausting ones at Otaku Ohana Central. Which meant that by the time I was able to really spend some quality time working on an essay related to January’s main course — the works of Usamaru Furuya, hosted by Ash Brown over at Experiments in Manga — the Feast participants came and left after engaging in much worthwhile conversation, the dishes prepared were devoured, the leftovers were wrapped up and taken home, and the only thing remaining was a lovely embossed menu with the words “MANGA MOVABLE FEAST / FEBRUARY 19-25, 2012 / CHEF: Osamu Tezuka / HOST: Katherine Dacey, mangacritic.com” printed on the cover.
Yet it would be terrible to let what I’ve already written go to waste, and Furuya’s an artist whose work is certainly worth talking about. So consider this a between-MMF snack, featuring one of Furuya’s most accessible series. This also gives me the opportunity to resurrect some chatter that I haven’t used in this space for far too long, considering the backlog of anime and manga titles that we have available to review:
From the Pile is a semi-regular feature in which we profile something at random from our large pile of yet-to-be-reviewed anime and manga. Believe us, we’ve been in this game for several years now and have had only limited space in the print edition to share all our thoughts, so there’s quite a bit of catch-up work to do on our backlog. So without further ado …
Today’s profile: Genkaku Picasso (3 volumes, complete)
Suggested age rating: Teen+ for older teens (some nudity and violence)
The Picasso of Genkaku Picasso is an aspiring young artist, Hikari Hamura. He actually admires the work of Leonardo da Vinci more, but everyone just ignores his wishes and calls him “Picasso.” While the nickname bothers him, peer perception ultimately doesn’t matter to him; his trusty sketchbook and his 2B pencil are the only things he says he regards as his friends, and he’s perfectly content to ignore everyone and draw in his corner of the classroom. There is, however, one person he tolerates: Chiaki Yamamoto, the only person willing to join his Riverside Club for drawing pictures of water on the riverbank. Granted, she never draws anything — she just reads her psychology books about Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud — but they still seem to get along.
And then a helicopter falls from the sky during one of their club meetings, killing her.
Given how Chiaki’s death happens within the first 25 pages, the potential’s there for the story to take a dark, twisted turn. Furuya’s certainly taken stories in that direction in the past; Lychee Light Club and No Longer Human come to mind, in the ways those series’ outcast characters were thrown into increasingly depraved and depressing cycles of life. But those two series weren’t part of the manga anthology Jump SQ in Japan. And Jump SQ is home to a number of fantasy manga, Blue Exorcist, Claymore, Gate 7, Rosario + Vampire and Tegami Bachi among them. A more lighthearted approach is certainly called for here.
So while Chiaki-as-Hikari’s-human-classmate checks out, another version promptly checks in: Chiaki-as-Hikari’s-guardian-angel, a small sprite who reminds me a bit of Seraphim, the whip-smart, sensibly dressed guiding light of Piro in Megatokyo. As Chiaki explains to Hikari, she prayed to the gods and Buddha that he would be saved, and he was, on one condition: He has to emerge from his comfortable bubble of solitude and help others, lest he rot away into nothingness. He also gains the ability to see the dark shadows around people’s hearts, draw whatever it is that’s troubling them, then jump into those pictures and act as a conscience to other people, healing them of their psychological ills in the process. One classmate holds a hidden resentment toward his father; another, a hidden crush on the class representative. There are issues of gender identity and self-worth also lurking beneath the surface that must be resolved, with the help of our lead duo.
It’s evident that Furuya had fun creating this series. “The editor said he wanted me to do something totally my style rather than something that suited Jump or would sell a lot,” he explains in the afterword in the final volume. “When I heard that, I wanted to pack in all my favorite elements and the result was Genkaku Picasso.” The artist becomes a virtual superhero in the world Furuya creates, where reclusive Hikari can transform into Picasso the Savior of Troubled Youths with his cry of “SKETCHBOOK! 2B!” The sketches Hikari draws of the scenes he sees within people’s hearts are the perfect canvas for Furuya’s imagination to run wild, whether it’s something as simple as a mecha standing over a crystal, as complex as a giant rabbit keeping watch over a melancholy baby, or as mind-numbingly surreal as a giant rose hovering over Tokyo Tower in the rain with a rapidly rising sea. Much of the fun in reading this series comes from how Hikari and Chiaki interpret these sketches and change people’s lives for the better.
As further proof of the fun, there’s even a surprise cameo by the Lychee Light Club. For those of you who actually read Lychee Light Club, with its scenes of a female teacher getting stripped naked and dissected and young men performing sexual acts on one another, rest assure: their appearance here is much cleaner.
It’s Furuya’s playground, and we’re incredibly fortunate to be allowed inside it to take a look around.