~edited by Chikao Shiratori
Secret Comics Japan: Underground Comics Now is a manga anthology edited by Chikao Shiratori with adult American audiences in mind. At one time, Shiratori worked in the editorial department of Garo, a monthly manga magazine published in Japan from 1964 to 2002 which specialized in alternative manga. Many of the creators collected in Secret Comics Japan were also contributors to Garo. Secret Comics Japan was released by Cadence Books, an imprint of Viz Media, in 2000. The manga included in the volume, a total of ten short selections, were all initially published between 1996 and 2000. I first learned about the Secret Comics Japan collection, now out of print, while preparing for the Usamaru Furuya Manga Moveable Feast as it contains excerpts from Furuya's debut manga work Palepoli. The cover art for Secret Comics Japan also happens to come from Palepoli.
After a brief introduction by the editor, Secret Comics Japan opens with "The Life of Momongo" written by Norimizu Ameya and illustrated by Junko Mizuno. I'm a big fan of Mizuno's creepy-cute aesthetic and so was happy to see an example of her work included. Following next are two selections from Hiranori Kikuchi's Gedatsu Man, "The Character Wars" and "Collector's Characturd." Gedatsu Man is a little too nonsensical for me to really enjoy, although it still managed to make me laugh. The volume continues with "Swing Shell" by Yuko Tsuno. It is a wonderfully evocative and affecting tale with a touch of the surreal to it. Tsuno's linework is simply lovely. Yoshitomo Yoshimoto's "Jr." is an odd but engaging story inspired by Donald Barthelme's short story "Me and Miss Mandible" about a thirty-two-year-old man sent to elementary school as a student.
Secret Comics Japan continues with two shorts by Kiriko Nananan, "Heartless Bitch" and "Painful Love." Both stories are particularly effective because of their realism and Nananan's page layouts. Next is Shintaro Kago's extremely bizarre and vaguely erotic horror manga "Punctures." Apparently it's one of his more subdued works, which isn't to say it isn't intense. Mutant Hanako is a manga created by the fine artist Makoto Aida. It's chaotic and shocking. It's also somewhat confusing, perhaps due to the fact only an excerpt of the entire work is included in Secret Comics Japan The next selection is a legitimate porn manga by Benkyo Tamaoki. Entitled "Editor Woman," the characters, who have actual personalities, also happen to work in the porn manga industry. Finally, the volume concludes with excerpts from the aforementioned Palepoli by Usamaru Furuya. Palepoli is a series of intentional and innovative four-panel manga, certainly different from any other yonkoma that I've read.
Shiratori provides a short introduction for each individual creator and their work. They may be brief, but they are informative and allow the manga selections to be put into some context. Many of the introductions also include a personal message from the artists to the readers of Secret Comics Japan. The creators selected for inclusion are all successful and well-known within their particular niches. Some, but not all, of the mangaka included have other works available in English. In the introduction to Secret Comics Japan, Shiratori argues that the lines between underground and mainstream manga have become blurred and that there is now less distinction between the two. Perhaps it is appropriate then that most of the manga in Secret Comics Japan is fairly approachable and not too avant-garde. Still, it is a nice collection that shows a good range of diversity. But to be completely honest, I wish that Secret Comics Japan was a bit longer and showed even more variety.