I am by no means a manga or anime fan. They’re as valid art forms as any other, I suppose, but my experience of them is incredibly limited. I’ll occasionally joke that Neon Genesis Evangelion is the reason I first came to Japan, but that’s a story for another time. And a lie.
It’s incredibly jarring. For me, at least. I’m clearly fine with comics that tackle the less fluffy side of human nature, but this is a hugely cynical and bleak piece of work decked out like a Saturday morning kids’ cartoon. Imagine a never before seen story by Hergé was discovered that revolved around Tintin developing a crack addiction and his subsequent spiral of depredation and humiliation, leading to an inevitable nadir where he’s forced to turn tricks for drug money and pimped out by Captain Haddock. Or a lost Goscinny and Uderzo draft where Getafix just gives up on the whole ‘magic potion’ lark and starts a meth lab. Requiem for a Dream starring Calvin and Hobbes.
The antiheroine of Human Insects is Toshiko Tomura and is she ever a nasty piece of work. Seducing men all over the shop before stealing their ideas, passing them off as her own and either killing their originators or driving them to suicide.
Now, it’s sometimes suggested, not least by me, that in terms of gender politics Japan is about two to three decades behind ‘The West’. It’s not an entirely watertight concept, but it’s still pretty robust. If you bear in mind that this was originally published in Japan in 1970, and then factor in that time-lag, you’ll have a pretty good idea about how this particular female protagonist is portrayed. This book is very much of its time and place.
Aesthetically that means you get late 60’s fashions depicted by manga’s ur-stylist, which makes this perhaps the kitschiest thing I’ve ever owned. It’s very cool indeed, if you can ignore the Rule 34 vibes of certain sections (you can’t though, you really can’t). Ethically, however, it’s so very, very far from even being within sniffing distance of cool. The blurb describes it as ‘a prescient critique whose actuality registers only today.’ I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean exactly, or even at all, but unless today’s actuality consists solely of conscienceless women out to deceive weak and venal men through calculated deployment of their evil, thieving vaginas then I’m not sure it’s a claim that holds much water.
In truth, it’s actually quite an interesting angle for a story; noir from the femme fatale’s point of view. The trouble being that the femme fatale is normally nothing more than a cipher who exists solely as a device to motivate the protagonist and impel the plot. If you shift that character front and centre then you’re actually going to have to give her a, well… a character. Or at least one more nuanced than ‘bitch’.