A collection of three short stories, Hiroki Endo’s TANPENSHU Volume One is a hyper-dramatic punch in the gut. The sheer brutality of these stories sucks you into one of the morbid world of gangsters, melancholy shut-ins, and abusive romantics and by the time you crawl out you feel like you’ve really been somewhere worthwhile. Endo’s frank, unflinching storytelling style isn’t entirely perfect, but his knack for finding redemption in (and sometimes through) brutality is invigorating.
The first tale “The Crows, the Girl, and the Yakuza,” is powerful story about how everything is part of a greater whole and how, because of this, no one is truly alone. The wounded gangster, the disfigured girl, and the crows she takes care of are all interconnected and the bond they form is touching, tragic, and shocking all at the same time. It is due to Endo strong characterizations of the characters that the seemingly revolting ending becomes a moment of transcendent liberation. “The Crows, the Girl, and the Yakuza” is probably the most accessible story of the three as it features the most straight-ahead story, lots of action, and the portrayal of misfits bonding together. It reads very much like a classic John Woo movie.
The second tale, “Because You’re Definitely a Cute Girl,” is the weakest story in the bunch; which is unfortunate, as it once again showcases Endo’s mastery of characterization. Everything about the central character, Mina, is compelling (And not only because she’s definitely a cute girl). Mina is definitely a sympathetic character who is strong and pathetic at the same time. The fact that she’s a teenage girl coming to terms with her sexuality in the face of having lost her mother and older sister in a car accident, and only having her father’s pornography as reference for sexuality, as a device to show anger, confusion, and isolation is employed with great touch. With such a killer set-up, it’s a shame Endo took what can only be seen as the easy way out with the relatively trite climax.
The star of the show is the final story, “For Those of Us Who Don’t Believe In God,” a long rambling study in love, death, and forgiveness set during the preparation and presentation of a student play about a serial killer. The characters are morally ambiguous and the story features the kind of metaphysical brutality Endo’s always been adept at presenting. Tajima, the director of the play, beats his girlfriend, Kogure, because he’s father beat his mother. The girlfriend stays with him because she also had an abusive father. We sit and observe without prejudice or outrage. It’s hard to designate the Tajima as a horrible person in spite of the fact that he punches his girlfriend in the face. Everyone is questionable in this story; everyone is also noble, tragic, and charming. What gives them these qualities is that they are a melting pot of neuroses and issues for Endo to dive into. These people, particularly the upperclassmen, are a mess. Even Kusano, the knight in shining armor-type who wants to save Kogure from her abusive situation, admits to a friend that he used to hurt weaker animals as a youth just to prove he wasn’t completely powerless.
Endo’s artwork is clean and slick, yet decidedly organic and naturalistic. Through her gestures and expressions, Endo shows the disfigured girl in “The Crows, the Girl, and the Yakuza” is a beautiful person. His action sequences are a sight to behold as time compresses and decompresses from panel to panel as if animated. Even that cliché of manga art clichés, the speedline, is given new life in Endo’s hands. They actually look like a fresh innovation on Endo’s beautifully crisp and intricately rendered pages. The title pages introducing each story are works of art unto themselves, beautifully composed drawings that tell stories with their haunting imagery.
Tender, bleak, and extremely literary, TANPENSHU Volume One is a wonderful representative of the comic’s greatness as a storytelling medium. Endo places us into the ugly worlds of these misfits and takes us on a journey of liberation as seen through their eyes. Another bonus is that it’s the first volume out of two, so it’s perfect for anybody not willing to invest time and money in a 20-volume set, but still wants to get that manga fix. It’s a very remarkable book and highly recommended.