Japan gets a lot of praise around the World for its manga, but the stark truth is that most of this is turgid drivel. You know the sort of thing: formulaic characters, sketchy backgrounds, and 'cinematic' cuts and angles designed to spread one trivial scene over several monotonous pages. Then there are all those nerdy heroes, doe-eyed heroines, and pseudo-mythological transforming robots and whatnots.
The mass market dynamics of producing the equivalent of a disposable telephone book every week or month seems to dictate a lot of these negative characteristics, but, just occasionally, borne on the tide of the usual deadline-driven slapdash pen-and-inkery, comes a real gem, like Kenji Hamaoka’s Urayasu Tekkin Kazuko, which translates as 'the steel-reinforced concrete family of Urayasu."
With Japanese manga's reputation for the overblown, a title like this might lead you to suppose that it was about some tribe of giant mutants composed of that material. But quite the contrary. Now collected in a series of volumes from its days in Shonen Champion, UTK focuses on the everyday lives and adventures of a group of elementary school kids and their families.
What catches the eye at first is the wealth of meticulously drawn background detail – a cigarette butt stuffed into a coffee can, a seatless bicycle abandoned by a corrugated iron fence, a chewed pencil in front of a toothless student, etc. Not only does such detail create the texture of reality, but it also suggests that Hamaoka and his team enjoy their work.
The next pleasure for the reader is slowly getting to know the characters. This takes a bit of time as the realistic, underbelly picture that it presents of Japanese society probably prevents it becoming a candidate for translation to the international market.
The main character, if there is one, is Kotetsu, a simple-minded, hyperactive type, easily bored but also readily amazed by even the most mundane things outside his limited experience. Other characters of a similar age include Kotetsu's creepy-looking best friend Shin, who lives in a run-down shack with his ghoul-like mother, the naïve and decent Akane-chan, and her boyfriend the strangely rubbery Hanamaruki-kun whose clothes somehow always manage to wriggle off.
Perhaps the most interesting character is the children’s elementary school homeroom teacher, Harumaki Sensei, a character who epitomizes the apathy, gormlessness, passivity, and vacuity of the worst kind of public employee. Like a microcosm of the wider society, he is the 'vacuum at the centre' that experts on Japan often comment on.
In one story he is caught giving the students their grades by rolling a dice. While Western humor tends to be barbed, and is often designed to poke fun at targets, Hamaoka presents such absurdities with neutral detachment. This is possibly the result of the child-centered perspective, but it also adds something to the humor. In this case, instead of just Harumaki Sensei being the 'designated laughter target,' the whole system of marking and grading students and even public education itself is subtly called into question, creating a latent sense of the ridiculous that the more obvious gags capitalize on.
This is the subtle rhythm of Hamaoka's work. His hyper-realistic style creates a fresh-faced depiction of reality, but his eye for idiosyncrasies of character, oddball detail, and the quaint rituals of everyday life continuously builds up a nebulous sense of the absurd that is then crystallized by the more obvious gags, which often hit with the impact of a well-delivered punch line as you turn the page or translate the sense of the words into English. But, just as often, you find yourself laughing before the obvious triggers – often at some uncanny resemblance to things you have encountered in your everyday life in Japan.
There are many reasons to read UTK. In its rich details and identifiable types there is much information about Japanese society. For language learners it is a refreshing change from tiresome textbooks. But possibly the best reason is that it enables you to inform those around you that you are 'experiencing Japanese culture' by laughing uproariously.
19th October, 2007