Manga Madness: Tropic of the Sea by Satoshi Kon
What seems like ages ago now, and when I was far too young to do so, I was taken to see Perfect Blue at a local theater. To say my young mind wasn’t able to fully process what I saw would be an understatement, but that didn’t stop the movie from leaving a significant lasting impression on me. Needless to say when a comic came along by the writer and director of a movie that had a significant impact on my visual aesthetics, checking it out was a no brainer. I expected something weird, something unique; a comic that give me new perspective on the medium. What I didn’t expect was for Tropic of the Sea to create similarities between how a movie and comic unfold become synonymous, making it a very confusing reading experience. Where words and pictures should lie flat on the page, Tropic turns all those rules upside down. The wind and the sea howl and splash, characters’ speech becomes just as audible. It’s a truly bewildering experience.
Interestingly enough it’s not the plot of Tropic which makes it such an engaging read. Entirely straightforward, no secret twists, it unfolds much of the same ways a summer action flick. Small town on the coast of Japan faces the imposing threat of big business, and a huge resort wrecking the sleepy nature of the isolated local population. A youth on the brink of college is reunited with a childhood friend, and crush, and is at the center of the fight. Little guy versus big business, industry versus rural living, good versus evil. Eventually good must succeed, evil sees the error of its ways and recants, everybody lives happily ever after.
It’s a neat little package that is so easily consumable it’s impossible to be out of reach for any audience. So what makes a comic that stays true to the plot of most current, major Hollywood movies, that sticks so closely to the screenwriter’s handbook, so appealing and unique? In this case, Tropic is an example of process rather than content. The way Kon delivers this standard package is so well executed and articulated it makes standard feel fresh and new. Kon’s control over panel progression and humanity makes it easy to fall head first into the story.
The most stunning aspect of this comic is easily how movement is portrayed from panel to panel. As if pulled directly from the pages of Understanding Comics, Kon moves his characters and panel angels in a consistently logical and easy to follow manner. The eye glides from panel to panel like frames rolling on a movie reel, and because of this precision each page is extremely engaging. Every page becomes a simultaneous study-worthy spectacle, and an easy speed reading comprehension intake.
While individual panels and panel progression become easily digestible, another force is at work while enjoying the flow. Because everything is presented so clearly, the gutters between panels subconsciously present all movement not shown on the page. Any unrepresented action becomes implied at the barriers of the panel, and is picked up while moving the eye from one panel to the next. Through that process we are given an even more complete story than most comics are able to offer. Kon’s clarity is so on point he doesn’t even have to draw the image for it to show up on the page.
But when it is drawn the level of detail is absolutely breathtaking. Kon not only brings the fictional coastal city to life, making it seem like a real destination, his people are equally lifelike. Adding to the accuracy of his action, this detail gives agency to the movement, making it a key component of the cinematic feel and making pages come alive. Particularly in the way he presents expressions, both through posture and facial expression, Kon’s people lack any kind of stiffness or awkward anatomy, becoming actors on the stage.
Overall I look at Tropic of the Sea as a fantastic entry point into both comics and manga as a whole. Its nonthreatening plot, and extremely easy to read style make it a great place for new readers to start. But on the other end of the spectrum seasoned comic veterans can find plenty of amazing elements to study and devour. Every page is worth a deep, panel by panel analysis just on a movement progression basis alone. Kon’s control over the medium is on a level rarely seen in comics, and given Tropic is the only story of his available in English (for now), it’s definitely a must read.
Tropic of the Sea is available now from Vertical.