Review: Harvey & Etsuko’s Manga Guide to Japan

Harvey & Etsuko’s Manga Guide to JapanHarvey & Etsuko’s Manga Guide to Japan
Story and art by Charles Danziger
Manga art by Mimei Sakamoto
MG Press, $9.99

Harvey & Etsuko’s Manga Guide to Japan is a strange hybrid of comic and guidebook, manga and western comic. Harvey, a mouse, is drawn by American artist Charles Danziger in a loose, flat style; Etsuko, a shiny, buxom, big-eyed manga agent, is the creation of Japanese artist Mimei Sakamoto. The plot is fairly contrived: Harvey goes to Japan to rescue a mysterious cartoonist who may have been kidnapped; he meets Estuko, who promises to set him up with Mimei, a famous manga artist. But before Mimei will see him, Harvey has to pass a test. A test about Japan. This, of course, is just an excuse to drop Harvey into as many characteristically Japanese situations as possible.

Does it sound awful? It’s not. What saves it is its sly, Rocky-and-Bullwinkle type humor. They pretty much had me on the introductions page, on which we get a paragraph each about Harvey, Etsuko, and the parasites. The parasites not only thank the reader for providing food and shelter, they actually serve a useful purpose in this book: Whenever Harvey encounters something he doesn’t understand (about once a page), they point the reader to a section at the end that explains it in detail.

Herein lies another of the book’s strengths: The depth of information provided. The last 57 pages of the book are strictly text and consist of explanations keyed to the events in the comic: J-pop, fugu, Kabuki, even cultural values such as the importance of perseverance and cloaking bad news in polite terms. This part is rich in detail and manages to avoid stereotyping the Japanese, instead providing cues that the reader should look out for. Some of the information is practical, such as the section on business cards, but most is simply interesting.

Although individual places get a mention, this is strictly a guidebook to culture, not a travel book. As such, I think it would be particularly helpful to manga readers and others who are developing an interest in Japanese culture.

The art is a bit tricky, though. Danziger’s style is deceptively simple—yes, Harvey is a blob, but when Danziger gets an entire page to himself you can see that he really does get comics. His style is very flat, with no shading or suggestion of roundness, and he makes good use of flat patterns to break up the page. It has a retro feel, like something from the 70s.

Sakamoto is completely different: Her figures are well rounded (very well rounded!), so well toned and highlighted that they look like they are stuffed vinyl or maybe polished steel. They also bring in an element of cheesecake. This is a strictly all-ages book—no nipples or panty shots here—but Sakamoto’s women display bountiful cleavage, and the book includes sessions at a hot springs and a strip club.

Integrating these two wildly different styles is difficult. Usually one artist or the other dominates a page and does a good job of it. The combination looks most incongruous when both characters share a scene, partly because of the contrast between Harvey’s flatness and Etsuko’s rounded contours. It works better on pages where the two are separated spatially, as when Harvey is inside his own panel talking to a figure on the outside.

So: The plot is contrived and the art is a mishmash, but Harvey and Etsuko is still a useful book that provides a few good laughs while shedding light on some of the less understood areas of Japanese culture. Its juvenile qualities will probably scare teenagers away, but I actually think older readers will get more out of it anyway. At $9.99, it’s not a bad gamble.

(This review is based on a digital copy provided by the publisher.)

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