Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Emanon volume 3 is a partial conclusion (Manga Review)

A young woman, smoking, sits on rocks in a forest
Emanon vol. 3 - 8/10

A fourth volume of Emanon is (or has) been released in Japan, but the licensing contract for translation to English only covers three volumes. While it is unclear if we'll get the fourth volume in English, volume 3 "ends" with enough of a resolution as to be satisfying. This is sort of ironic given that the main character is a woman who has existed since before time and who carries her prior live's memories with her through each new birth and so therefore the story has no beginning or ending.

In Emanon volume 3 (Dark Horse), we start in 1973 with Emanon sick and collapsing in the rain in a forest only to be found by a young man who takes her to a hospital. When she awakens, she has none of her memories: not of her current life, and not of any of her previous lives. So instead, the two slowly get to know each other, and slowly fall in love. The story culminates in the birth of their child. For those who have read volumes 1 and 2, you may be able to guess the bittersweet changes that brings about. I won't spoil it here, it's well worth the read.

The volume concludes with a brief glimpse into 1980, with the Emanon of 1973 and her now 7 year old daughter. It is a scene that will be familiar to those who have read the prior volumes, but now we have some new context for it. Again, I won't spoil it here (because you really should read this series).

I have liked this series since the beginning and this is a very strong volume, so in many ways I don't have a lot to talk about with the story itself - it's exactly what you would want from the continuation of this series and adds a new way of exploring Emanaon and her path. So instead, I do want to focus on two points specifically in this review, one about the series as a whole and one small detail about this volume.

So for the series, something that has sort of bothered me throughout is just how much of the time Emanon is depicted naked. Sometimes it is in her dreams, sometimes it is in the real world (bathing in a river or something like that). As I read volume three, I really began to think about my own discomfort at her nakedness. I kept wanting to be angry at the series, written and drawn by men, for depicting a young, thin woman as being naked in what feels like every other panel.

But the more I thought about how they depicted her, how her nudity was used, and more importantly how it was not used, I became more and more comfortable with it. Although she is depicted as very tall, slender, and essentially perfectly beautiful, that is never actually commented on, not once in the entire three volumes by any character. Her looks actually seem completely inconsequential to the story (of course, that means they didn't need to depict her as so beautiful). At the very least, in no way does any other character ever objectify her.

So if the other characters and her place in the story are not centered on her looks (and thank goodness for that), then is the nudity just fan-service for horny sci-fi lovers (this is based on a series of sort-of sci-fi books)? I don't think so either. While certainly there may be a bunch of nasty horny man-boys who only read the series for the nudity, I don't think that is at all why the author and illustrator are doing it.

Instead, I really began to feel that they are presenting her nudity as the natural state of humanity. That there is nothing wrong with being naked. That only western mores have me prudishly thinking that her nudity in this series MUST be for objectification. But in fact, I think she is just "being" and that perfectly matches her infinitely long life.

There is no sexuality when she is depicted nude, there is nothing objectifying (other than that she is depicted as slim and beautiful - as opposed to any other body type they could have chosen - I suppose the creators can't completely escape their male-ness), and there is nothing about the way the characters interact that centers her looks, or even references them. The nudity feels more like a reference back to the hippies and the counter-culture of the time when the original stories were written mixed with the need to show her transcendence of typical humanity.

Where I started the series somewhat bothered by the nudity, worried that it was truly unnecessary, I have come to believe that it may actually add something to the story. I'm not quite sure how else they would differentiate between the Emanon who is present in the moment (clothed), in whatever situation she encounters, and the eternal Emanon without using her pure, unclothed body in its natural state. The mood of the whole series has a timelessness to it (both transcending time and refusing to acknowledge time the way mortals do) and the art really enhances this.

I hardly expected to be defending female nudity in a male created manga in this blog, but here I am. And so a final thought on the matter, why is female nudity something I feel should be hidden? Why is it something that I think is only used in media to turn men on? That is a sign of the biases and messages from a patriarchal and puritanical society that have seeped into my subconscious. We need to critically analyze female nudity in male created art, for sure, but we must also be open to the fact that female nudity is not in-and-of-itself anything other than a purely natural state. I am pleased to say that through three volumes, I've come around to the nudity in this series as being artistically and narratively sound. Who knew men could do that?

The second, and its slightly minor, thing I want to mention about volume 3, is that I felt like the art quality took a slight step back. It feels ever so slightly less refined, more hurried, and a bit unfinished compared to the prior volumes (but only slightly).

From what I've read about the illustrator, it sounds like he rarely does long works or finishes works at all so it's amazing that he's done three volumes. With that in mind, maybe pushing through this much, against his normal nature, is causing the art to lose just a little of its quality. That being said, it is still beautiful line work. There is no use of screentones, but there are such thorough use of hatch-marks and other line techniques that the art would only be ruined by screentone. It is a unique style for contemporary manga (at least those translated to English) and a welcome artistic change from other styles. It also has a distinctly 70s look to it that matches the era the story is set in.

So minor quibble about the art aside, this was a strong volume that comes to a satisfying "resolution" so that even if we don't get volume 4, we feel some sense of closure in the way volume 3 reflects on volume 1. The writing is strong, the story different than the first two volumes so it feels fresh still, like we still have so much to learn about her and her existence in the world. This is a strong volume in a strong series. I hope we get volume 4. Emanon volume 3 gets a solid 8/10.


Please legitimately purchase or borrow manga and anime. Never read scanlations or watch fansubs. Those rob the creators of the income they need to survive and reduce the chance of manga and anime being legitimately released in English.

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