Sunday, 11 January 2015

Henshin by Ken Niimura Review


Ken Niimura, the artist of Joe Kelly’s brilliant I Kill Giants, has put out his own book made up of 13 short stories called Henshin (Japanese for “transformation”) - and it’s rather good! 

The stories are a mix of fiction and nonfiction with change as the theme. The fiction gets a bit dark and intense in a couple of spots but the book mostly has a lighthearted tone to it. Like the opening story where a girl goes to visit her uncle in Tokyo, thinking he’s an awkward and lame adult until she discovers he’s a contract killer and his day off has suddenly turned into a day where he needs to hit a target - and she’s his getaway driver! 

Watermelon in Summer sees a family go for a picnic in the woods and encounter a kindly old man looking for a water bottle - and then suddenly suicide is on the table?! A foreigner’s outburst at being unaccepted into Japanese society despite having lived in the country for years leads to explosions and giant avatar monsters?! They’re very imaginative, enjoyable stories to read and Niimura strikes the right balance between the written word and the visuals. 

There’s a family of superheroes trying to blend in to a normal neighbourhood by hiding their powers, but not all the fiction is fantastical with quite a few low key stories standing out as among the best. A salaryman misses the last train home and ponders how to spend the night, breaking up a fight where a pimp’s beating his girlfriend/prostitute, leading to an unexpected party. Things get a bit sentimental too in the story of two lifelong friends as we see them meet as kids right up through to their death beds. 

Not all the fiction works. Merci is a weak entry where a Japanese man living in France has trouble communicating, not knowing the language - it was a very uninteresting tale that didn’t really go anywhere. First Snow is a silent story that totally passed me by. It was only when I was flicking through the book after I’d read it that I realised I’d completely forgotten about it! Re-reading it a second time and I could see why: kids, snow cones, sunsets, whaat?!

The best parts of the book was the nonfiction starring Niimura himself. In two of them he talks of his love of cats, particularly the one he’s never met but knows is out there because he leaves food out for it and each day the bowl’s empty. I really liked the story about his creative process, how he comes up with ideas (which mostly turn out to be memories of stories he’s read elsewhere!) and the relentless search for ideas that culminated in this book. He comes off as a very likeable man, innocent without being naive, optimistic and charming - but then he’s also writing the book so why not make himself look great too? 

What’s weird is the recurring appearance of poop in the stories! In his nonfiction story about cats, he talks about tripping up on cat poop in the corridor, then later he talks about how he can’t take poops in strange bathrooms, it always has to be his home toilet. His friends talk about poop, there’s even a story where he’s making a stew, a cat wanders into the kitchen, poops into the pot, and they unknowingly eat cat poop! There’s more cat poop later on and in the superhero family story the young boy defeats the bullies with a ghost fart warrior! 

That’s not to say the poop is gratuitous in any way - bizarrely, they do serve the story and always have a purpose - it’s just weird seeing it repeatedly show up! 

There’s also a kind of symmetry to Henshin with the last story being an extension of the first and the second to last story being a continuation of the second story. But generally they’re all connected thematically via “change” rather than being a series of interconnected tales a la Pulp Fiction. 

As you would expect from the artist of I Kill Giants, the art is fantastic and switches from pure manga to a more Western style with beautiful cinematic shots of backgrounds. There’s excellent use of space so that some pages are just a couple of panels showing the barest of objects/people, contrasting to more ambitious shots like building layouts, crowd scenes, action sequences with gunfights and car chases, etc. Niimura’s very talented with a helluva range. 

Like most short story collections, Henshin isn’t 100% perfect but there’s a lot of great stuff here to recommend it. Fans of well-crafted comics who also like manga and variety will enjoy Henshin. And of course fans of poop in comics!

Henshin

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