Petr Khazizov: Manga (2005)

reviewed by José Alaniz© 2006

Manga by any Other Name…

Petr Khazizov’s debut film Manga, a flashy and seemingly “empty” exercise in style, continues post-Soviet Russian (and world) cinema’s fascination with Japanese visual culture. Khazizov, known as a music video director and head of the special effects firm Cinemateka [1], crafts an urban dramedy about young(ish) Russians loving, flirting, clubbing, and grappling in an all but anonymous Moscow of sleek ads, polished surfaces, and driving techno beats. In its brisk 70 minutes, Manga makes clear that Khazizov has a flair for the sort of split-screen, flying-camera, pixilated-slow-motion, simulacra-driven experimentation that would earn a nod from Dziga Vertov; that the director, who co-wrote the script, gamely shapes a vision of 21st-century Russian youth as no less beautiful, hip, spoiled, “plugged in,” and shallow than monied young people anywhere else in the Western world; and that all this, in the end, and despite the film’s marketing, has only a superficial connection to actual manga (Japanese comics).

Manga and Chinese Food

We can say that at least the superficial look of a particular kind of hyper-modern manga—from the Japanese “man” (nonsensical) and “ga” (pictures)—has exploded onto the Russian cultural scene in the last half-decade. This has been sparked chiefly by Japanese anime films on television and videotape (available to aficionados since the 1980s) [2] and the rise of the internet. A casual drive around Moscow brings home the influence of “manga” in advertisements; a leisurely scan of television channels reveals it in such fare as the pop princess Gliuk'oza’s early animated videos (in which she appears as an anime-type avatar); and it pops out from the pages of magazines aimed at young people such as Phantom, Gameland, and Anime Guide. But no group in Russia has embraced manga with such alacrity as the Russian komiks subculture. [3]

The “manga style’s” rise to the top of the komiks hierarchy happened with stunning speed. At the first Russian comics festival, KomMissia 2002, the komiksist Andrei Snegirov noticed some scattered examples of manga in the exhibit. But he was taken aback just two years later at how completely the manga style had now pervaded Russian comics culture. By KomMissia 2005, the style easily dominated the festival, to the extent that the organizers—Pavel Khikhus and Natal'ia Monastyreva—combined “doujinshi” (amateur comics) with “fanzine” to produce “fanzinshi,” the event’s theme (they meant to highlight and encourage the concept of self-publishing for its resonance with the Russian idea of samizdat). The Japanese manga-ka (manga artist) Hayami Rasenjin attended the festival and gave a lecture for the second year in a row. Ekaterina Balashova (a.k.a. Berenica), who received the festival’s Grand Prix for The Other Side of the Rain, also earned the prize for “Best Manga” from the Japanese embassy in Moscow.

Known for a free-spirited eclecticism that readily draws influences from all over the world, Russian manga finds particularly strong expression in the work of such important “Second Wave” artists as Kostantin Komardin (Site-o-polis), Alex Hatchett (Mercs), Tatka (who in collaboration with other artists produced a beautiful graphic novella in 2005, A Fairy Tale?…, published by St. Petersburg’s SPb. Nouvelles Graphiques), and Konstantin Dubkov. The highly-esteemed artist Bogdan published Nika, the first Russian manga to see print, in the journal Klassnii Zhurnal in 1998. Egmont Press publishes the Russian-language version of the Italian manga journal W.I.T.C.H. with art by, among others, Giada Perissinotto, while the Moscow-based Advance Press has produced a home-grown manga journal for young girls, Iula, since 2004.

       

Aside from innumerable websites, this sweeping interest in manga and anime takes non-virtual form in clubs throughout the country, where (as in other parts of the world) young people congregate to discuss Japanese culture, show off their latest work, study the Japanese language, watch films, and even practice martial arts. The first such group, R.An.Ma, formed in 1996. Dubkov, a manga-ka from Ekaterinburg, helped organize one of two such clubs there, with up to 150 members. The premiere festival of Russian anime has taken place annually since 2000 in Voronezh, while in 1999 Boris Ivanov published Introduction to Japanese Animation, which has become a prized object for many Russian animators (the Japanese scholar Motoi Kawao has called Ivanov the leading Russian expert on anime). All this comes in addition to innumerable “scanlations” (illegal translations) of classic Japanese manga long available online. Based on my perusal of their copious websites and conversations with these groups, I would say Russian manga/anime fans know the material as well as or better than other such clubs of young people throughout the world. This is evinced in discussions at the KomMissia festival over the exact definition of “the manga style”; it still lies very much in the preternaturally-large eye of the beholder. As Ivan Mitrevski, an editor of the Slovene comics journal Stripburger, noted, “Manga is like Chinese food. It’s never the same in any country, but everywhere they still call it manga.”

 

The Film

Merely to call a film “manga” does not mean the director has translated the form’s sensibility; rather, such a move may merely betray a skin-deep grasp of the term. In a movie all about surfaces, this is perhaps apt, though Manga is certainly not the first cinematic work to adapt (even loosely, narrowly, promiscuously) a comics “style” that in the end misrepresents its inspiration. I make no pleas here for “fidelity” of adaptation; I only point out that by naming his film after its ostensible “source” and then reductively reimagining that source to a mere stylistic cant, Khazizov may do a disservice both to “real” manga and to his audience’s expectations (however meager). This would not just be “Chinese food”; it is French/German fast food eaten with chop sticks.

Early on the film—Pulp Fiction-style (dir. Quentin Tarantino, 1994)—defines its title: “man — anyhow, ga — drawing.” It then proceeds to tell the fractured tale of Kiwi (Iaroslav Zhalnin), a teen thief with a penchant for driving his motorcycle into traffic,[4] playing video games and turning invisible; Alisa (Vasilisa Petina), a young model whose face is splashed all over city billboards and ads, with whom Kiwi grows fixated; and Alik (Khazizov), a metrosexual writer who roller-skates in his cavernous hard-wood-floored apartment and plucks a drunken Alisa from Tverskaia after her fateful encounter with Kiwi. Alik, responding to Alisa’s pleas, eventually confronts the pestering Kiwi; a misunderstanding (did he rape her? did he not?) erupts into violence.

Manga has a “cool,” non-committal approach to capturing its youthful milieu that eschews sentiment in favor of a detached, almost cinema-verité style that somehow blends beautifully with the director’s bold formal experiments with screen space, the steadicam, and the soundtrack. These in no way distract from the “realism” of the film (a testament, perhaps, to how comfortable contemporary audiences have grown with movies that foreground the apparatus’ showy capacities—at least up to a point). In fact, Aleksei German, Jr., gushes, “[Manga is] about our generation … it’s a rare picture in its truthfulness. I believe it, because I myself have met such girls and boys, such people…” (Kozel). Fine. But for Khazizov to present this as “manga” still confuses a (inter)national mode of expression with a narrow type of subject matter. In contrast, Tarantino in the epigraph to his film says he will give us pulpy trash and then delivers just that. Promoting the idea that manga is “like this” or “about this” is a little like advancing the stereotype that all comics are about superheroes—a notion easily dispelled by the most casual (global) investigation of manga itself.

There is no “manga genre.” Modern manga developed after World War II, when the father of the form, Osamu Tezuka, married Disney-esque figures with ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock) iconography to produce narratives of unprecedented dynamism and subtlety in such classic works as New Treasure Island, Jungle Emperor Leo, and Astro Boy. But besides the “manga style” (for example, big eyes—a common though not universal device), perhaps the form’s biggest divergence from Euro-American comics is its astonishing heterogeneity: stories can deal with sci-fi, romance, teen adventure, fishing, baseball, economics, politics, cooking, sex (gay/straight/pedophiliac, etc.), childbirth, horror and on and on. There is manga for teenage girls (shoujou), porn manga for men (hentai), romantic lesbian comics in graphic (shoujo-ai) or non-graphic (yuri) varieties, romantic comics for women that feature effeminate male lovers (shounen-ai) and so on. In addition, legions of amateur manga-ka are constantly producing innumerable volumes of doujinshi for public consumption. All told, Japan’s comics industry dwarfs that of the US or any European country, both in terms of size and cultural influence; this has led to a truly astonishing generic variety unknown anywhere else. Berenica’s award-winning Russian manga story, The Other Side of the Rain, is a sort of surreal fairy tale for adults. It has nothing to do with the urban violence and disaffection displayed so prominently in Khazizov’s film. So in what sense, really, is Manga manga?

In interviews Khazizov compares manga (which he defines as “random pictures”) to “nashe kino,” but such an utterance seems so vague as to mean nothing, and it certainly does not apply to his own at times annoyingly self-conscious film, which has very little “random” about it. [5] As elaborated below, the film captures the “feel” of modern, urban, youth-oriented manga through, among other things, the use of broad types and videogame imagery. But tellingly, in this regard Khazizov’s work is at its most reaching—transparently trying too hard to be “Japanese”—when, for instance, Alik complains about having to clean up after the drunken Alisa: “Just what I needed — a fucking tomaguchi!” (a Japanese virtual pet made popular in the 1990s that had to “fed” and "cared for” or the little icon would “die”).

A City with No Fingerprints

All of the above notwithstanding, Manga is a fascinating, immersive cinematic experience, at times rivaling Peter Greenaway for visual inventiveness, formal play, and surreality. This last characteristic owes much to the film’s “placelessness”: Manga joins such recent urban dramas and romantic comedies as Mikhail Brashinkii’s Black Ice (Gololed, 2003), Vera Storozheva’s Sky. Girl. Airplane (Nebo. Samolet. Devushka, 2002), Aleksei Uchitel'’s The Stroll (Progulka, 2003), Aleksandr Zel'dovich’s Moscow (Moskva, 1999), Il'ia Krzhanovskii’s 4 (2005), Oksana Bychkova’s Piter-FM (2006), and to some extent Timur Bekmambetov’s Night Watch (Nochnoi dozor, 2004) and Day Watch (Dnevnoi dozor, 2006) in utterly recasting the image of the post-Soviet Russian metropolis as an anonymous “could be anywhere” chronotope intended mainly to convey the mood of “now” in an affluent Western key. No identifying fingerprints fix Manga’s setting as Moscow: the dreamy lights of Tverskaia at night might just as well be the Champs Elysées, downtown Hong Kong, or Manhattan; action takes place in generic trendy bars and restaurants, or (need one say more?) McDonald’s; homes and private interiors look as sleek, spotless, middle-class, and unlived-in as IKEA showrooms; blurry images of skyscrapers floating past recall no Russian film, but rather the opening of Paul Brickman’s Risky Business (1983). Some critics have compared Manga to Tom Tykwer’s Run, Lola Run (Lola rennt, Germany, 1998); I would further lump it in with other youth-driven globalist fare like Alejandro González-Iñárritu’s Amores Perros (Mexico, 2000), which similarly takes place in a megalopolis that could essentially be any of 20 world capitals. In these films St. Petersburg and Moscow become just “the city”—a largely interchangeable clutter of pretty background props. Wandering through this topographically (and for that matter, racially) neutral zone, the travails of the young, attractive Alisa, Alik, and Kiwi take center stage.

Surface

In its own artifice-driven way, Manga tells the viewer as much about the imagined times and mores of contemporary Russian young people as Vasilii Pichul’s Little Vera (Malen’kaia Vera, 1988) or Iurii Mamin’s Sideburns (Bakenbardy, 1990)—or at any rate what they are wearing, what music they like, and how they relate to their cell phones. “Grown-ups” are mostly marginalized, either as voices behind closed doors (Kiwi’s parents, though these could be as chimerical as his other fantasies) or caricatures (Alisa’s youth-obsessed mother). Pastimes include loping through malls, drinking and lunching in cafes, going to 3-D cinemas, playing video games, surfing the internet, dancing to techno music in clubs.

All this, however, seems of a piece with the “genericizing” impulse of the city imagery: what we get are surface manifestations of these people’s lives, flat as the street billboards that flash Alisa’s portrait, not the “real thing.” Khazizov underscores this by conflating the flesh-and-blood action with a video game (showing Kiwi and his friend’s avatars competing in a Donkey Kong-like setting) and an anime-like TV show (a death’s head, modeled on Kiwi, guns down his quarry, a hairless version of Alisa—foreshadowing the rape). In a Baudrillardian turn, a one:one correspondence emerges between the live actors and their “derivative” simulacra, an effect enhanced through intercutting—of scenes, dialogue, the soundtrack, and digital effects. For example, the bouncing crowd in the techno club goes in and out of pixelated slow motion; a climactic point in Kiwi and Alik’s confrontation appears in the swishing “bullet time” popularized by the Matrix films (dir. Andy and Larry Wachowski, 1999-2003); the rape scene is timed to a driving dance beat and lit by ambient “television snow.” This is an image-saturated film for an image-drunk culture that sees nothing behind the effigy: those cars that swerve to avoid the oncoming Kiwi, of course, have no actual people inside them, no bones to break or blood to shed, nor do the geometric mounds of perfectly-wrapped fruit in Alik’s supermarket contain any nutritional value; they are all mere icons—as indeed are the characters themselves.

In this vein, Khazizov delights in distorting, upending, and foregrounding the flatness of the film screen, as through the use of an anamorphic lens and red filter to portray Alisa’s nude sleeping body (an effect similar to that achieved by Aleksandr Sokurov in the opening to his Father and Son [Otets i syn, 2003]). As Alik undresses her and puts her to bed, the screen fractures into three, like a triptych containing different parts of the same portrait (a parodic Pietà); where each “panel” meets there is a seam and the figure goes “out of alignment.” It is a startling effect, meant to advance the one-dimensionality and contingency of the moving picture. The director repeats this trick, through more low-tech means, at the end of the film, when Alik’s face appears in a cracked mirror.

Throughout this visual cornucopia, one can see Kiwi as the perfect voyeur among the most advantaged: he can literally turn invisible so as to see and not be seen. Ultimately, though, as witnessed by Kiwi’s fate, Manga is about falling victim to what Wim Wenders calls the “disease of images”: the voyeur, far from gaining mastery through the gaze (and there is so very much to gaze at!), becomes the thrall of what he consumes; he is emptied of identity, reduced to a gawk, and, critically, deprived of language.

Language

As in a Peter Greenaway film, words pop up as graphic elements, most critically in the rape scene. As Kiwi approaches the terrified Alisa (he has climbed into her apartment through a balcony window), we see his helmeted head against bright fluttering curtains decorated with the ironic words “Amour” and “Power.” He has his back to them, but Alisa takes in his figure along with the text—the film’s most explicit comics-like pairing of word and image. Other such examples include the shot in which Alisa and Alik chat at the entrance to Book Kafe (on Tsvetnoi Bul'var, a recognizable Moscow location), which is covered in text (similar to the curtains), and a scene early in the film when Kiwi and his friend are trying to spell the English graffito “FUCK,” but produce “FAKC” (which, tellingly, looks more like “FAKE”).

But Manga problematizes language in ways more fundamental to its theme: words stand revealed as the antithesis to image—as being “meaningful.” But they too have traps. Unlike the visual’s ostensible clarity, words are ambiguous: when Alisa tries to tell her mother (Elena Medvedeva) what happened to her, the latter replies, “Are you joking? Did you really get raped, or is that a metaphor?” Words provide a false sense of grounding and security: Alisa maintaining, “I was raped,” sets in motion the film’s climactic violence, but when pressed on this point (what do you mean you were threatened? did it really happen this way? was it rape or wasn’t it?), her story starts to break down, along with her identity as victim. She berates Kiwi, “You’re a freak… You don’t understand human language!” (“Ty urod — chelovecheskogo iazyka ne ponimaesh'!”), but forgets her own problems with words. Rashomon-like (dir. Akira Kurosawa, Japan, 1950), the interpretation of the rape (?) scene—which we see quite clearly—and its description becomes crucial to a reading of this spectacle-sodden film. Which are more treacherous: words or images?

Khazizov answers this through the two males in this demented love triangle. Kiwi, so beholden to the spectacle, is vanquished by language: he cannot consummate a tryst with a prostitute/madam because she “reminds him of his literature teacher”; the ghostly voice of his father says he can’t read; even his name is a sort of nonsense word, doubtless a nickname he picked up. Crucially, the words “GAME OVER”—the video game addict’s icon for Death—flash red on screen just as Kiwi comes to his own demise. The insufficiency of words, even the most eloquent, to cover the gap between individuals is made still worse for one who is illiterate and inarticulate, while Kiwi’s reduction to a mere staring eye by the overpowering image leads to a critical lack of his own image (“they saw me but didn’t notice me”); this, in the spectacle-driven world of Manga, dooms him to having no reality and, thus, to death.

The words Alik pens—“Animals are guided by instinct. Animals don’t know about the past or the future. They don’t experience reflections, nostalgia, frustration, guilt complexes, idiotic associations…”—are in effect a description of the hapless, clueless Kiwi,[6] but they also demonstrate their author’s recourse to language to counter the power of the image. After all, Alik writes this in order to sublimate his desire for the naked Alisa, lying unconscious and helpless in his apartment. Alik, a writer, does not share Kiwi’s neurosis with words; this proves decisive in their encounter. At a critical moment, he reads the label—also flashed red on screen—on a can of dog repellent, and uses this to end the fight.

The two men’s tug-of-war over Alisa renders her, in a familiar move, into little more than an object. In terms of the visual, she is mere consumerist eye candy— she dresses as a bottle of liquor for a modeling gig and, later, Alik snuffs out a cigarette on an ashtray adorned with the red silhouette of a woman, identical to Alisa’s unconscious pose in his bathroom. Meanwhile, in the realm of language, she is rendered “mysterious,” protean, not trustworthy: Alisa’s literature teacher reads aloud Aleksandr Blok’s paranoid 1901 poem “Predchuvstvuiu tebia,” as the camera fixates on the girl’s lovely, sphinx-like visage.

At such moments, which spring from some adolescent male imaginary, Khazizov’s film does approximate the mood of a certain brand of female-fetishizing, awkwardly romantic manga for young men and boys. I am thinking in particular about the work of veteran manga-ka Yoshihiro Tatsumi, whose stories of male angst and supreme (unrequited) devotion to the feminine often end in disaster or gloom: in “To Meet Again,” a socially inept young man contrives to have himself buried along with his lost love’s corpse.

Manga is the kind of film where a tropical beach (complete with the sound of birds and splashing waves) is revealed as only a picture, but in its yearning for something “real”—be it friendship, love, Alisa’s soul—it joins the ranks of youthful male angst which some Japanese manga has indeed done its part to “universalize.”

Translations mine unless otherwise indicated.

José Alaniz
University of Washington, Seattle


Notes

1] The firm produced the special effects for such recent films as Vladimir Khotinenko’s 72 Meters (72 metra, 2004) and Dzhanik Faiziev’s The Turkish Gambit (Turetskii gambit, 2005). Manga was independently produced, without state or television funding. Its production company, Kaskad-Fil'm, is a Russian arm of Buena Vista International and Columbia Pictures.

2] The first non-pirated Japanese anime films on videocassette (The Legend of Prince Arislan, Akira, Ghost Ship) appeared in 1998, although Moscow’s television channel 2x2 had broadcast such fare as Sailor Moon and Transformers much earlier. In the late Soviet era, the state’s Channel One showed 1970s classics like Puss’n Boots and Grave of the Fireflies, creating a generation of fans in the former USSR. This interest in Japanese pop culture, simmering in Russia for decades, has now exploded.

3] A word on cultural conditions for komiks in Russia: the Communist Party banned comics in the 1930s due to their “bourgeois” Western origins. Despite occasional appearances in children’s magazines like Murzilka, the form remained “underground” until the perestroika era, when newly-formed collectives like the KOM studio took advantage of state-subsidized publishing opportunities to put out beautiful hard-cover albums in large print runs. All that came crashing down to Earth when the USSR collapsed and a brutal market economy sapped almost all opportunities for comics artists. The prejudice against comics has largely survived the downfall of communism. See Alaniz 2005 for a more complete account.

4] This visual setpiece, familiar from the Wachowski Brothers’ The Matrix: Reloaded (2003) uses a tracking shot and low camera angle which ultimately derive from a sequence in Katsuhiro Otomo’s 1982 manga work Akira (and its 1988 film version).

5] In fact, one of Manga’s most explicit connections to its Japanese namesake may be coincidental: around the time of the film’s release in early 2005, Sakura Press published the first volume of the first licensed Russian translation of a Japanese manga series, the classic 1980s/90s gender-bender Ranma ½ by Rumiko Takahashi. Each 200-page, small format issue comes complete with omake, a section explaining Japanese vocabulary, suffixes in names, and terms of address; the history of Japanese manga; biographical information on the author; and other useful cultural information—the opposite of Khazizov’s homogenizing, “globalist anonymity” approach.

6] And, in fact, there is more than a hint that the entire story may be a fictional work that Alik is writing, or a dream that Alisa is having while asleep in class. Manga is a Pelevinesque house of mirrors for those inclined to interpret it this way.


Works Cited and Consulted

Alaniz, José, ed. “Post-Soviet Russian Komiks: A Symposium,” International Journal of Comic Art 7.1 (2005): 5-125.
Dubinskii, Aleksei. “Pered prem'eroi: Fil'm Petra Khazizova Manga”.
Kozel, Irina. “Osobennosti natsional'nogo hentaia.” Kinokadr (26May 2005); .
Kudriashov, Andrei. “Eto sladkoe slovo ‘manga’.” Arteria.ru (16 May 2005); .
Parsegova, Galina. “Petr Khazizov: Sovy ne te, kem oni kazhutsia.” Ozon (October 2005).


Manga, Russia, 2005
Color, 70 minutes
Direction and screenplay: Petr Khazizov
Cinematography: Andrei Makarov
Art Directors: Sergei Tyrin, Mariia Atamenko
Supervising sound editor: Aleksandr Widmer
Original music by Dubchairman & Second Hand Band, Mo'Jah'Head, Moi rakety vverkh, Omeo
Visual Effects and Animation: Cinemateka
Cast: Iaroslav Zhalin, Vasilisa Petina, Petr Khazizov, Filipp Osadchuk, Elena Medvedeva, Tat'iana Stoliarova, Andrei Balashov
Producers: Petr Khazizov, Sabina Eremeeva, Andrei Makarov

Petr Khazizov: Manga (2005)

reviewed by José Alaniz© 2006

Updated: 04 Jul 06