The Strangest Pictures I Have Seen #10

Posted by on September 22nd, 2010 at 12:03 PM

To be a truly irritating manga nerd, it’s important to obsess over at least one untranslated manga, boring people with long descriptions of its veiled glories and bitching about the myopia of the U.S. manga market and/or the unappreciative gaijin audience for allowing it to remain unlicensed. The more obscure (at least in the West), the better; anyone can wax regretful about the unavailability of The Rose of Versailles, but the epicure mourns for Train Journey or Wall Man or Honey Honey’s Wonderful Adventures. It keeps the lightweights in their place.

It took me a while to find my manga cause obscurité, mostly because I can’t read Japanese, but last year an impulse buy at the Mandarake store in Akihabara opened my eyes to the equally whimsical and disturbing charms of Hiroshi Masumura’s Atagoul. Now I’m in love.


Atagoul
by Hiroshi Masumura

I wrote about Atagoul for Comixology a year ago, as part of my list of favorite untranslated manga (as one of the leading nerds in the field of irritating manga nerds, I have to maintain a list). Since that time, one of my picks, Everything by Moto Hagio Ever, has edged into the realm of licensed translation with the fantastic A Drunken Dream, the first of a series of Hagio collections from Fantagraphics. But I want to share a little more of Atagoul, because it’s great.

Since there’s little information about Atagoul in English, my knowledge is sketchy. The manga started in 1976 and has gone through four separate series, the most recent of which, Atagoul is Cat’s Forest, launched in 1999 and is now at least 11 volumes long. All four series are the work of Hiroshi Masumura, who likes to draw his characters as anthropomorphic cats because he’s not all that great at drawing humans.

The manga’s iconic lead character is a big yellow cat who loves sake and food (especially octopus) and lives in a forested world full of giant fruits and flowers and populated mostly by cats. In each storyline, he and his friends encounter dreamlike, quasi-Jungian adventures in the seemingly endless expanse of forests, fields, lakes, seas, and mountains surrounding the cat village. These adventures typically start out cheerful and whimsical, but then unsettling things happen: characters get skewered on long, sharp objects, are infected by crystals or other substances growing on their skin, change size, distort into strange shapes, or have rays shoot out of their bodies. This usually happens without warning mere pages after everyone has been happily swigging sake and tripping the light fantastic. Still, it always seems to end all right. Again, I can’t read Japanese, so it’s taken me a while to piece this much together.

In Japan, Masumura is known for Atagoul and for his manga adaptations of the works of beloved children’s novelist Kenji Miyazawa, author of Night on the Galactic Railroad or Milky Way Railroad. (Miyazawa’s books have been adapted into manga by many, many creators, as chronicled in this chapter of the manga-about-manga Kingyo Used Books.) The haunting 1985 anime adaptation of Night on the Galactic Railroad, released in the U.S. by Central Park Media and now, sadly, very hard to find in English, is based on Masumura’s adaptation, which is why the main characters were changed to cats. He just really likes cats, is all.

Atagoul shares Galactic Railroad‘s dreamlike atmosphere, wondering delight at the universe, and tantalizingly suggestive visual symbolism (one could spend a lifetime or a graduate thesis unpacking Miyazawa’s idiosyncratic, mystic fusion of Christianity, Zen Buddhism, astronomy, and evolutionary theory). But where Galactic Railroad is spiritual and melancholy, Atagoul is pragmatic and cheerful, a weird and unpredictable but ultimately reassuring fantasy adventure. Studio Ghibli, in its early days, approached Masumura about adapting it into a movie, and Ghibli’s My Neighbor Totoro, with its big furry totemic hero and fascination with the magic of the natural world, resembles a gentler, more childlike Atagoul.

All the scans in this post are from the most recent Atagoul series. I also have some volumes of the earlier series in reprints from Sun Comics, purveyor of cheap editions of a lot of old shonen manga. The stories are similar but shorter; the early volumes comprise self-contained, chapter-long stories, whereas nowadays storylines can cover several chapters and even multiple volumes. Masumura’s art gets more polished over the thirtysomething-year run, but even his latest work retains the old-school, organic look of manga from the days before million-copy circulations and home studios with teams of assistants. He’s still pretty bad at drawing humans, but that hardly matters when he’s so good at drawing, say, a cat with an eyepatch fighting an army of crystal people, or a pub made out of a giant apple. Masumura is easily one of the top cat artists in manga. I see a little of his cats, for example, in Leo-kun, Moto Hagio’s recent manga about her cat Leo:

There’s always the danger, “reading” untranslated manga with no comprehension of Japanese, that the translation will never live up to the version in your head. For instance, Hagio’s early story “Girl on Porch with Puppy” was hypnotically fascinating when I only had the untranslated version and had no idea what the hell was going on in the final pages. When the story was translated in A Drunken Dream, finding out what the characters were saying almost kind of ruined it for me. Maybe that’ll be the case with Atagoul, but I’m not too worried. I mean, the cat’s still going to be drinking sake, right?

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11 Responses to “The Strangest Pictures I Have Seen #10”

  1. Bill Randall says:

    Beautiful– the art, scale & flora remind me of Akiyama Ayuko’s “Mushikera-sama” & kids’ books. Though this is earlier & a likely influence. There’s also this: http://image.blog.livedoor.jp/atagoal/imgs/c/a/ca9fd5f7.jpg

  2. […] Tell it, Shaenon: To be a truly irritating manga nerd, it’s important to obsess over at least one untranslated manga, boring people with long descriptions of its veiled glories and bitching about the myopia of the U.S. manga market and/or the unappreciative gaijin audience for allowing it to remain unlicensed. The more obscure (at least in the West), the better; anyone can wax regretful about the unavailability of The Rose of Versailles, but the epicure mourns for Train Journey or Wall Man or Honey Honey’s Wonderful Adventures. It keeps the lightweights in their place. […]

  3. That’s amazing stuff. Do you have the ISBNs for any of these books?

  4. My totally inarticulate response to this article: WANT.

  5. Eric Henwood-Greer says:

    I’ve been a little obsessed with Masamura’s work ever since I became obsessed with Gisaburo Sugii’s film (I remember I saw it at an anime marathon the local university held, as a teenager–and that nearly everybody else seemed tofind it incomprehensible or boring). Of course when they made Spring and Chaos, the anime about Miyazawa’s life, they went again with the cat imagery.

    As a *massive* Moto Hagio fan (and someone who never thougth he’d see any more of her work in English–so maybe this is too much to hope for), I have to ask… Should I be hopeful by your comment: “Since that time, one of my picks, Everything by Moto Hagio Ever, has edged into the realm of licensed translation with the fantastic A Drunken Dream, the [b]first of a series of Hagio collections[/b] from Fantagraphics.” ^_^

  6. […] Tell it, Shaenon: To be a truly irritating manga nerd, it’s important to obsess over at least one untranslated manga, boring people with long descriptions of its veiled glories and bitching about the myopia of the U.S. manga market and/or the unappreciative gaijin audience for allowing it to remain unlicensed. The more obscure (at least in the West), the better; anyone can wax regretful about the unavailability of The Rose of Versailles, but the epicure mourns for Train Journey or Wall Man or Honey Honey’s Wonderful Adventures. It keeps the lightweights in their place. […]

  7. Eric Henwood-Greer says:

    Oh and I grew up with the French version of Honey Honey–I think it was a hit in nearly every language except English (though there was a dub released with some pisodes to video, apparently). Very cut but defintely for small kids–I’d still rather, when talking Hideko’s classic 60s work, see Fire! or one of her amnesia melodramas translated…

  8. […] For her latest Strangest Pictures I Have Seen column, Shaenon Garrity discusses Ataghoul, an anthropomorphic manga by Hiroshi Masamura that looks… well, amazing. I could see this being a great choice for a smaller publisher like Fantagraphics or Top Shelf. [The Comics Journal] […]

  9. […] Atagoul, by Hiroshi Masumura, […]