Book Off Manga

Japan, Part IV

On my first trip to Japan twenty years ago, the family travelled to an island in the Inland Sea that a Japanese friend of Dad’s had recommended. It was a memorable day, partly because we nearly missed the last boat off the island at the end of it. We would have had to spend the night outdoors, because there wasn’t much on the island except a museum.

It was a great museum, though. It was full of samurai armour—suits and suits of it, all segmented and lacquered like polished carapaces. And they sold a beautiful book of the collection, full of full-page photographs. Which is the other reason I remember the place: because I didn’t buy that book, even though I wanted it. It was twenty bucks, which was like spending about seventy or a hundred today. I just couldn’t justify it—not at the beginning of a long trip where I might want to buy other things with my modest savings.

That beautiful book came to haunt me. I kicked myself for ages over not buying it. The message I took away was that if you really, really want something, buy it then and there. Not the best lesson, in hindsight, because it encouraged my tendency to accumulate stuff, which I’ve spent ten years unlearning with varying degrees of success. But at least I’ve got better at knowing when to seize the moment while travelling—and at shrugging it off when it doesn’t quite happen. (I was just exaggerating in that last entry about feeling bad over missing the Nikko procession. It didn’t really bother me.)

When I saw the Book Off store in Harajuku, I knew that this was a moment that had to be seized. Luckily, Jane was just about to head to a work event for the evening. I was going to stay in Harajuku and further explore, which we both knew was shorthand for “further explore the miles of shelving in this giant bookstore”.

It had proper books upstairs, but I was there to buy manga—on my last visit to Japan, I hadn’t bought a single one. And this time, price was no barrier. Although Book Off carries plenty of new titles at marginal discounts, it has aisles and aisles of older titles—sometimes only a couple of years old—selling at 105 yen each. That’s 50p, or about a dollar US or Australian, give or take. At that price I could fill a suitcase for the cost of a new hardback. The only constraint was space, weight, and knowing what the hell to buy.

I’m not a big manga follower, see, or any kind of manga follower. I like comics now and then, mostly graphic novels these days, but dropped the obsessive buying habit when I was a teenager. Nowadays I tend to buy stuff only when it appears on the wider cultural radar. But I’ve enjoyed picking up bandes dessinée in recent years, and had been looking forward to finding some good manga.

So where do you start when faced with thousands of choices? Fortunately the spines of manga have small illustrations that give some idea of their stories, so I just started plucking them off the shelves at random, seeing what appealed to me and what didn’t, and accumulating an ever-growing pile as I moved around the store. After a while some of them went back as better choices presented themselves. A funny title wasn’t enough, because I wanted something I enjoyed looking at—it’s not like I could read the words. (Bastard!! didn’t make the cut for that reason: too overdrawn, too swords-and-sorcery-y.)

After two hours of browsing I ended up with an arm-stretching addition to my luggage for only ten quid. But that was only the beginning: back at home, I tried to figure out what I’d actually bought with the help of our old friend Googlebot. It turns out that many are by some of the most respected mangaka (manga artists), while others are by the hippest of the new wave. I managed to avoid the turkeys, and there were plenty of those—in Japan it’s such a huge industry that there’s room for bad artists as well as good, and ordinary art is all the more disappointing when you can’t even read the words.

I thought I’d post the covers here and write a bit about what’s inside them, partly for fun, and partly for anyone else who’s come home with a Book Off haul and wants to find out what they’ve bought. So widen those eyes as wide as you can, and step into...

Book Off Manga

12 July 2006 · Travel

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