My graphic novel for October is technically an ero-guro manga, given that it was created in Japan by Suehiro Maruo, a mangaka known for his work in the erotic grotesque genre and this established his name. Like much of what Disney produces, it's based on a classic story, usually titled Shojo Tsubaki, or The Camellia Girl, who's a standard in kamishibai, a form of street theatre storytelling that uses sets of illustrated boards to depict what's being narrated. Like much of what Disney adapts, this isn't close to being a pleasant, uplifting story for kids. Unlike Disney, Maruo refuses to sanitise it. You won't find any cutesy singing candlesticks here.
The Camellia Girl follows Hanamura Midori, an innocent twelve-year-old girl whose father leaves and mother dies, as she's taken in by Mr. Arashi and his travelling circus, at which she works for the freak show. And these are traditional freaks, as twisted on the inside as on the outside, none of them living by any sort of code, like the famous and highly sympathetic characters in Tod Browning's pivotal 1932 pre-code movie, Freaks. These characters are all deviants with odd fetishes, some of which are rather surprisingthe Word of the Day, kids, is oculolinctus, or eyeball licking.
Crucially, these characters are also all abusive, whether verbally, physically or sexually, and in many cases all three. And not one of them cares about the fact that Midori is seriously underage. This take on the story doesn't actually say how old she is, at least in the English language version translated by Yoko Umezawa and Laura Lindgren and published by Blast Books, but she's clearly prepubescent and that adds an extra layer of ick to the story, if it wasn't icky enough already. What's more, she's drawn in a way that reminds of silent movie idols like Clara Bow, innocent but also enticing.
There are a bunch of these characters, some of whom are so deformed that they require assistance to do anything, such as Hohichi the Human Pretzel, but we concentrate on a few of the ringleaders. The primary one, at least initially, is the Snake Woman, usually known as Benitsu but possibly unnamed in this adaptation. She's a voluptuous middle-aged woman who has the others under her sexual spell, as highlighted in a few early pages. However, it's the Mummy Man who rapes her first and it's Kanabun the boy-girl who stomps her puppies to death and has them cooked up for dinner for the troupe. And that's chapter one. Did I forget to mention that Midori is working in the role of the geek on the very first page, biting the head off a chicken, and she's puking up the blood a couple of pages later?
As you might imagine, this is a lot to take and that's kind of the point, because we wonder that early how Midori takes it. Maruo, who drew this as well as adapting the old story, has a surreal touch that has everything deliberately just a little off. As the story runs on, it gets more and more surreal, often as Midori is escaping the horrors of her daily life into her imagination. There are some wild segues as well, such as one when Kanabun exposes himself to Midori and her head spirals off into the sky like it belongs to Plastic Man, only to return in the form of the Human Pretzel.
Also, as you might imagine, some element surely has to be introduced to alleviate Midori's suffering and indeed there is, in the form of Masamitsu, a new act, who promptly steals the show, initially in a show business sense by being easily the most popular attraction, but then in a literal one by taking it over when Arashi leaves. Masamitsu is a dwarf, so he's about the same height as Midori, and he takes a shine to her from moment one. It's icky when they hook up too, given the fact that she's twelve, but it's depicted in a romantic way, Midori entirely on board, exactly the opposite of her interactions with the eyeball-licking Mr. Arashi, the sadistic Snake Woman or any of the others.
What Masamitsu does in his performances, under the name of the Bottled Wonder, is to climb into a bottle with a tiny neck, something clearly impossible given the size and shape of both him and bottle both. What's heavily suggested is that he isn't achieving this amazing feat through physical skill, like a contortionist, or through trickery, like the stage magician he so closely resembles, but through the application of real magic. Whether that's what's intended, I'm really not sure. Reading up about the original story, he's generally seen as a master illusionist who uses "special magic techniques from the West". So maybe he's the magician he seems to be.
The other aspect that's clearly up for a lot of interpretation on the part of the reader is the finale of the film. Masamitsu and Midori decide to leave the show, after its financial collapse, and they stand evocatively together under a cherry tree to wait for a bus to whisk them away from there. It's already surreal because Midori politely thanks all the freaks for taking care of her and they're all gracious in their well wishes in return. We know something is up. Then Masamitsu goes to get lunch and is knifed to death before he can return, leaving Midori stranded in an increasingly white background.
I remember taking this literally on my first read, a Chaplin-esque tragedy in which the happy ending that seemed to be guaranteed was cruelly whisked away and our sympathetic lead is returned to the normality they began the story in, maybe wiser but no better off. However, re-reading this with the benefit of age, I see that it's much darker than that. It may be that Masamitsu leaves on his own, so Midori, now without a guardian and with no future in a collapsed show, simply goes insane. Or, even darker still, Masamitsu's escape from this situation is murder-suicide and the surreal final chapter is what's going on in Midori's mind as she dies.
Whatever it means, this is a graphic novel that's absolutely not going to be for everyone, but which is an abiding piece of art that is difficult to forget. It's beautifully drawn and unflinchingly told, but it's not sadism and cruelty all the way. There are tonal shifts that we feel as much as we read, given how brutal an impact some of them have and that's what makes the book work. The other primary reason why it's so powerful is that everything is a little off, a little dreamlike even when we should be taking it as literal. That approach by Maruo makes this unsettling, even after we've recovered from the first balls-to-the-wall chapter. ~~ Hal C F Astell