By Shohei Manabe
The seedy underbelly of the criminal world is one frequently explored through manga. However, the bizarre and deeply psychological inner workings of criminals is a less prevalent exploration. Smuggler by Shohei Manabe presents a perspective of the criminal world in Japan unlike most others in the genre. But Manabe doesn’t stop at stretching the limits of generic convention, he distorts it, twists it, balls it up, and sets it ablaze. Crime stories typically have a caper, something to motivate and drive those engaged in illegal activity to action; they typically have an element of revenge. Strangely, Manabe uses these elements as a sort of surface experience in order to navigate through a world of intensely personal narratives. The characters in Smuggler are all working towards their individual goals and motivations, but their actions never really hold much weight in the story. Sure, much of Smuggler’s story is shocking and grotesque, yet neither holds much weight against the overall experience of Manabe’s storytelling.
One of the biggest hurdles to overcome while tackling Smuggler is understanding how Manabe’s art functions on the page. At times the art can feel crude, simple, or just plain bad. Especially in the depiction of faces, Manabe seems to distort and alter anatomy between panels, let alone between pages. Heta-Uma, the style of storytelling masquerading intentionally bad art as skillful, would be an oversimplification of what’s going on in this comic. Similarly, stylistically refined could be an applicable definition to the art, although it doesn’t quite pinpoint the subtlety of Manabe’s visual experience.
To properly understand what’s happening on the page, it’s best to look at the art as an abstract distortion of reality. Character proportions, movement, and depth on the page are in a constant state of flux, each element is altered depending on the scene at hand. Amidst a moment of humor or location establishment the art will have a more conventional feeling of realism, lacking any sort of stylistic embellishments. Immediately once the scene shifts the art takes a dramatic turn, thus creating a dynamic imbalance in feeling and perspective. In the blink of an eye Manabe shows us how easily reality can be distorted, how our perception of the world in a natural, organic way makes us blind to otherworldly possibilities.
Manabe’s characters make this transition effortlessly, jumping between reality and abstraction like they were born to exist in both worlds simultaneously. Although they may get abused, even killed, their representation on the page produces an effect similar to, yet more succinct than, expositional storytelling. We see desperation, fear, anger, even sorrow in the eyes of Manabe’s cast, and sometimes all of the above simultaneously. Distortions expose his characters’ full spectrum of emotions in the space of a single frame. Effectively, this unique abstract world doesn’t afford room for concealing emotion, every character completely exposes themselves to the reader. There are no secrets capable of being hidden, no ways to deceive the reader.
An inability to hide from the reader is what makes this a particularly challenging read. Generally as a story unfolds an author seeks to hide details, only revealing them at a point when such details can create a dramatic moment, or pivotal shift in the direction of the plot. Manabe’s refusal to conform makes reviewing the plot, especially how it unfolds through each chapter, a difficult task. Since nothing is truly concealed from the reader, and even though unfolding plot developments, the story as a whole feels hollow. It’s straightforward to the point of being quite predictable.
The plot is such an afterthought, it almost serves as a kind of background noise to everything else going on in the comic. Between a move to more abstract storytelling, and character depth through extreme emotions, Manabe delves into telling his story by means of individual philosophies. We learn, for the most part, that each character is driven to a life of crime and delinquency through either necessity or by coincidence. The fact these characters engage in illegal activity never seems to irk or cause dilemmas of any sort. They may acknowledge their existence outside of regular life but they never try to justify or rationalize their lifestyle as being one of non-conformity.
One particularly strange development comes from Kinuta, an aspiring actor who turns to crime to pay off his debts. He is mocked for being a failure, for never taking his passions seriously. And for some strange reason he approaches his job as a “cleaner” with a passion most bosses dream about. Kinuta’s motivation is so extreme he endures a horrific sequence of torture as recompense for a mistake, only to be fired out of compassion shortly after his escape. The pain and suffering Kinuta experiences is disturbingly real, yet neither his release from bondage nor the ejection from his job conveys a sense of relief or absolution. Kinuta’s movement from the real world into and out of Manabe’s abstraction is the substitution for an otherwise empty resolution.
As far as bizarre and unique manga is concerned, you can’t do much better than Smuggler. Shohei Manabe constructs one of the most unique and interesting reads out there, genre notwithstanding. Where the art may seem crude or unrefined, Manabe challenges us to skew our perspective, in a somewhat similar way to how Kirby offers so many readers the same challenge. This new edition from One Peace Books is a welcome licence revival (from Tokyopop), and it also contains two additional stories: one a prequel, the other an unrelated, tangential short story. Through and through, Manabe shows us the flexibility and fluidity of manga storytelling. He shows us not all stories have to have polished and refined, pointy chinned and big eyed characters; that action and page presence doesn’t necessarily mean clean, polished linework. Prepare to expand your mind, and maybe even your artistic perspectives.
Smuggler is available for mature readers from One Peace Books.