I read this book on the strength of Seth Fisher’s art alone. Impressed with his work in the ‘Fantastic Four/Iron Man: Big in Japan’ book, I grabbed the only other thing my library had that featured his work.
It’s split into two parts: two wholly different teams telling two radically different tales – one set in Tokyo and another set in Bangkok.
Fisher’s work appears in the Tokyo story, as well as on the cover of this tome and the covers of each issue of the ‘Tokyo’ four-part mini-series. He also apparently did the covers to the ‘Bangkok’ issues, but they are absent from this collection for some reason.
The two sets are completely different in style and tone. Whereas ‘Tokyo’ is meant to be light and loopy fun, ‘Bangkok’ is darker, more realistic, grounded. They are both quite good in their own right, but they offer extremely different types of entertainment to their readers – something which could limit the series’ monthly appeal.
‘Tokyo’ was conceived for (and likely by) fans of Japanese pop culture. It’s one big fiesta of west meets east madness, as our protagonist goes to Japan to immerse himself in its seas of stimuli but ends up getting carried away by a typhoon of girl named Makiko – whose ultimate aspirations is to become a pop icon (and who will do anything to make it happen, creating havoc everywhere that she goes ).
It’s filled with tons of delicious touches, both visual and literary. In Fisher’s work, there are countless nods to the massive consumer culture there, as he peppers his landscapes with a million details. It’s a total feast. Jonathan Vankin, meanwhile, seems to understand the culture enough to create the perfect cartoon rendition of it. Is it a good transcription, or is it merely a gaijin’s take on Japan? I couldn’t say for sure.
Of particular note is that he wrote half of the book in Japanese. While that is commendable because it provides a level of realism that one wouldn’t expect in an English “funny book”, it limits its accessibility to the uninitiated: although some of the expressions can be understood contextually, large parts remained unexplained – a problem which was not resolved by the disappointingly brief glossary at the beginning of the collection.
The ‘Bangkok’ segment, was a more sober set. It starts off sombrely, firstly with some sisters who were sold into prostitution by their parents and followed by a couple on the edge of a break-up due to sexual infidelity. There is pathos, bitterness, even sarcasm in those first few pages. Not all is well, and it would only get more complicated as the two worlds converge. West comes crashing into east again.
This segment can be brutal – not necessarily in a visceral sense, but more on an emotional level. The world of prostitution is anything but glamourous, so you can imagine how gritty this gets. I’m happy to report that it mercifully never gets too violent or dismal, even though it presents a perspective on Thailand that not everyone would enjoy. Furthermore, it can be both moralizing and uncompromising.
The artwork is excellent in this book. Camuncoli’s art is pretty much flawless, eschewing the cartoonish appearance in ‘Tokyo’ for a more photo-realistic style. That’s not to say that it doesn’t look like a comic book. It does. But one can more easily imagine the scenarios as being true-to-life. It echoes the emotional content and plot in its realism, which is exactly the correct thing to do here.
‘Tokyo Days, Bangkok Nights’ is an excellent book. The only reason I’m rating it so low is because I couldn’t follow a lot of the first book due to the half-@$$ed glossary, and because the second one has such a grim tone throughout. As well, the characters in both stories are so flawed that it makes it difficult to root for any of them. If only we were given some form of attachment, that’d be one thing, but I didn’t connect at all.
I’d recommend this volume to fans of East Asian culture, to people who relish exceptional comic book art, and to those who want to read something that’s not entirely familiar, but not entirely foreign either. It’s an enjoyable mix on many levels, and one could find quite a lot to savour in it.