Well after having finished Velveteen & Mandala, the English-language debut of mangaka Jiro Matsumoto (Freesia), I can’t shake the memories of Makoto Aida’s Mutant Hanako. Maybe it’s some strange trigger caused by Matsumoto’s sketchy-detailed art style, though the two aren’t really all that similar. It can’t be the subject matter; there’s not much of an overlap. Perhaps, then, it’s the unflinching nature of Matsumoto’s work that’s bringing me back to that Aida short published oh so many years ago in Viz’s Secret Comics Japan.
The story here follows the eponymous pair of schoolgirls, who spend their days and nights milling about the riverside of Suginami Ward, which, like the girls themselves, has its own laundry list of perplexing issues. You see, bodies that end up by the riverside have a strange tendency to just get up and keep on walkin’, and somebody’s gotta keep these damn undead under control. That’s where the Super comes in. This pantsless man—constantly hanging out “Porky Pig” style—lives in a shack and is more than happy to let Velveteen and Mandala continue their lives on his land, so long as they help with the cleanup.
What follows isn’t about zombies, so don’t get too caught up on that aspect. It’s not about the war-ravaged world in which our protagonists live under the perpetual threat of bomb raids. These details, while part of the story, are simply circumstances. Matsumoto spends so much time in the heads of his heroines—whether indirectly, or through Velveteen’s dreams—that it’s the reality of the manga that starts to seem surreal. Velveteen and Mandala’s school life is like some sort of lucid nightmare, for a variety of reasons. The few scenes that take place in public, around “normal” people, then become the least trustworthy moments. Maybe we’re just empathizing with Velveteen but life seems a little better away from the masses, down by the river with the shambling undead.
But it’s not, is it? Velveteen & Mandala is as disturbed as its protagonists, and maybe that’s because it manages to be both fun and sad. It’s at times absurdly referential—with overt nods ranging from Gundam to Evangelion and beyond; a real otaku laundry list—and at other times downright abusive. It can be sexual, but it’s not titillating (your mileage may vary). It’s a “gross-out” book that plays with the reader, creaking open the door to hint at something more before slamming it shut on the reader’s fingers and gleefully scooting along to more head-popping and scat humor.
Still, just like the way Mandala obsessively shouts “Tape recorder!” at the top of her lungs, Velveteen & Mandala will stay in your head and beg to be reread. Here’s hoping Vertical, or an equally gutsy publisher, pumps out more material like Matsumoto’s in the direction of an otherwise unsuspecting North American audience.
Publisher: Vertical Inc.
Story & Art: Jiro Matsumoto
© Jiro Matsumoto 2009