Sunday, 26 April 2015

Review: Gunsmith Cats: Revised Edition Omnibus 1, by Kenichi Sonoda

Irene ‘Rally’ Vincent sells guns. Minnie May loves explosions. They fight crime. In Chicago. With lots of guns and explosions.

The reverence Sonoda shows towards firearms seems native to a country with strict gun laws1. He loves guns like a steam engine enthusiast loves trains. A hobbyist’s fascination drives him to understand these exotic objects. While American gun nuts possess as much knowledge, the Western worship of guns depends on its violent ends. They care how a gun works only so far as it tells them how big a load it could blow through someone’s head. And while Sonoda does blow a few holes through heads, he also treats guns as artisan objects, refreshing one wearied by the Freudian, frat boy gun love of Western popular culture.

But he’s not a pacifist. Tarantino sprays more blood, but Sonoda’ll blast off a mook’s arm with even more flippancy. Every shot and sequence impacts the reader through the tautness of his layouts. Pages never degenerate to a pandemonium of overlapping panels and unnecessary speed-lines2. He has a skill for moment-to-moment panel transitions, including only the moments needed to convey information and pacing, capturing the flow of a moving image. 

Individual panels receive the same attention. He doesn’t overuse white backgrounds, preferring detailed environments. Characters, too, stay on model, with the pleasing style of the nineties’ moe-like mould. In his illustrations of women we’ve evidence the writer is male. He mines Rally and May, our Girls-with-Guns/Grenade, for their fetishistic potential. Knives miraculously miss flesh, yet still slice shirts and skirts. Compared to other fan-service artists, Sonoda’s art leers less. Ranging from cute to sexy.

Sonoda refrains from sleaze, except where sleaze is inherent. Minnie May is, in depiction and in story, underage, appealing to a loli-con (read: paedofillic) audience. Given its prominence, the reader cannot brush over this fetishisation of a child3. An apologist may rebut that May’s backstory justifies her sexualisation, that her past as a child prostitute forced her to adopt a sexual approach to life. But from the poses and angles Sonoda illustrates her from, it’s clear the images intend to titillate the reader. Her sexualisation, even if the product of in story injustice, is exploited by Sonoda.  

In a lesser work this problematic aspect would signal time to put the book down. But lesser works, in general, would let the tits and arses substitute character. Sonoda, while no keen portraitist of the human condition, is not a manufacturer of sex dolls, varying only in height and shape. Rally and May’s personalities may not run deep, but they’ve believability. Their actions come from a consistent inner-life and history. This applies to the villains as much to the heroes. The world doesn’t hit the reset switch at the end of each chapter. Episode to episode, the characters have memory of what’s come before. Villains return, not because a stock plot requires them, but because they’ve something to revenge from last time.

The plotting feels like a TV show’s more than a manga’s. In serial manga no chapter is complete in-and-of-itself, it picked up from last week and will continue next week. TV, of the 1990s at least, let single episodes exist on their own, regardless of their place in the larger whole. Where manga runs forward and back like a never-ending tapestry, TV consists of a series of panoramas, one connecting to another via thread. Even as Sonoda builds a story arc he ensures each chapter, or group of a few chapters, has a three-act structure.

Sonoda showcases his skill at creating the machinery of a thriller, and at wrapping it up in pleasing package. He knows how to pace a scene and map a plot, while lending the action and adventure the context needed for impact. The aesthetic adornments, though sometimes skeevy, achieve his intentions, creating something sexy, but not lustful. Gunsmith Cats may not enrich your life, but at being the action romp it intends to be, it more than succeeds.               

 1 That Sonoda sets the story in Chicago, rather than a Japanese city, seems mainly an explanation of Rally’s profession, and the abundance of heavy artillery.

2 He uses speed-lines, but only to enhance the dynamism of the image, not as a shoddy substitute for it.

3 But, for better or worse, I suspect those versed in mainstream anime/manga have long since been desensitised to such problematic depictions.  

[All images taken, for review purposes, from Dark Horse's 2015 digital release of the 2007 volume. Translation therein by Dana Lewis and Toren Smith.]


  1. It is always shocking that when strong and independent women finally began to take the centre stage of the show, they are sexualised ruthlessly. All the action performed by the female character can be achieved (generally, all those violent acts), by males (one could even argue all those sexual acts can be achieved by males, but that would change the audience quite a bit).
    It is perhaps fit perfectly for the taste of ‘straight’ male… that they could get the excitement and thrill from the action sequence, and get fan-service from sexualised female bodies… There is a coted depiction as always in such good vs. bad stories. I am a little puzzled by the racial depiction of this comic series. Rally Vincent has a darker skin but definitely not African American, Minnie May is blood, so… Actually, all good female characters are drawn in a Barbie doll manner, with relatively larger head, and with cute large eyes, a style which one could all take them for Japanese. Then the female villains are definitely foreigners, with slender tall body, smaller head, long and thin eyes. I have skipped through four volumes, and there were at least two female villains, and they are generally psychopath, especially the one who uses drugs to brainwash female to serve her sexually as toys (her collection…), and it is quite disturbing regardless of gender. Furthermore, lesbianism in such comic, rather than being progressive, it is for fan-service generally (because the male equivalence doesn’t exist in the comics).
    The problem about racial depiction exists with male characters as well. Minnie May, a sexualised hybrid between child and woman, falls in love with a Japanese character (Ken Takizawa). Indeed, positive male characters, heroic ones are generally portrayed as Japanese (or at least with Oriental features or background). Chicago is just an excuse for the writer to explore as many possibilities as possible without the direct comments upon the Japanese Society (think about Romeo and Juliet, all the negativity can be concluded as Italian problem, and all the violence, villains, sexualisation… are western problems).
    All in all, it is in a sense, a fantasy from such writer (as we all must imagine things to some degree for our own favour) for certain type of audience, but even its non-implied reader can find some excitement from its action (despite the fact that all is about cars, guns, bombs, and all the good people will definitely survive with their complete body, so…).

    1. I don't think he set in Chicago to avoid 'direct comments made on Japanese society'. It's hardly a searing commentary; besides there's nowadays there's little stigma, or risk, to questioning your own society - even in fiction (somewhat related is this article

      You say the main females read as Japanese, or rather close enough; and the villains as foreigners (probably European). I disagree. Anime characters - or any simplified rendering of anatomy - is an incomplete picture of a person. The viewer supplies the rest. Take, for instance, a stick-figure. I, for one, see a stick-figure as a white, male, youngish person. There is nothing in that hodge-podge of lines and circles to confirm that; I have projected, I have filled in the absences.

      I read an article, I cannot remember which, that made similar points about anime. Westerners look at anime and think, 'They all look so Caucasian.' But to a Japanese audience, the characters look Japanese. It is projection. For lack of explicit racial characteristics, you project onto them the one that makes most sense to you given your own, and the work's, context.

      You, Benjamin, reading a manga, brought a Japanese context to these racially ambiguous characters, and so projected that onto Minni and Rally. The 'foreigness' or Europeanness of the villainess I take to be accidental, if at all extant. Narrow eyes and slimness, these are short-hand for evil. The visual short-hand is not Japanese=hero, foreign=villian; it is cute=hero, sinister sensuality=villain. Now this division may itself be problematic, but at least it does not divide by racial lines.