This is the fourth part of a series of entries discussing various books that deeply influenced my writing and outlook on stories. You can read the Introduction here, Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and Part 3 here. Please note that discussion of these books may contain spoilers.
The next round of influential books didn’t come until I entered college. Granted, I found lots of books that I loved between the age of 12 and 18, but truly influential books are much rarer. In my freshman year, I discovered anime and manga. Last Exile was the first anime I ever watched (I’m not counting random Pokemon episodes I saw when I was little), and reading manga soon followed. A six-year obsession with all things Japanese had begun. During that time, I read and watched so much anime that I needed a list to keep track of them all. Three series stick out in my mind from that time that remain favorites and powerful influences.
The first of these was Pet Shop of Horrors by Matsuri Akino. This 10-volume series is a horror manga, not my usual genre of choice. It’s both beautiful and eerie, revolving around a pet shop in Chinatown run by the enigmatic, androgynous, and amoral proprietor known only as “Count D.” Each volume contains about four stories of various people who come into the pet shop and leave with a pet…under certain conditions. Like in Gremlins, disobeying D’s instructions as to the care and feeding of their pets often results in calamity. Sometimes the pets are helpful to their new owners, but most of the time it ends in tragedy. Weaving through these tales alongside D is Leon Orcot, a detective who is sure that D has something to do with the various mysterious deaths throughout the city, but is unable to come up with any proof.
The real beauty of Pet Shop of Horrors comes from the animals. They are presented as animals…and yet in certain circumstances, they become (or are) people. There is a deep level of uncertainty as to their true nature: are they animals? Are they people? Are they something in between, or is everything an illusion? When I read Pet Shop of Horrors, I was faced with the senseless cruelty and neglect that humanity visits upon its animal neighbors. I’ve always loved animals, but seeing them depicted as people, giving them voices and graphically seeing their confusion, pain, and suffering (as well as their capacity for vengeance) gave me a new level of empathy and concern for their well-being. It also reminded me that creatures who aren’t human can still evoke human sympathy and emotion if presented properly. They might not be human, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have feelings.
The second series is also a little off the beaten path: MARS by Fuyumi Soryo. You know how most manga have advertisements for other, similar manga in the back? Well, that’s how I found MARS. I was reading Marmalade Boy, saw the ad, and thought, “Hmmm…that looks interesting.” Not long after that, I found the entire 15-volume series on Ebay for under $50 and snapped it up.
I read the entire series in one night. Literally. I couldn’t put it down. MARS is a shojo manga, but not a fantasy. There’s no magic or whirlwind romance. It has drama, but at a much more realistic level. The story focuses on Kira, a shy artistic girl who was sexually abused by her father and Rei, a hot-shot playboy motorcyclist with plenty of issues of his own. Watching these two dysfunctional people come together and have their developing relationship help them to change, and grow was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. I’ve never been abused, but Kira’s fear of men and sexual intimacy rang a sympathetic chord with me. The drawing style is very different from a lot of other manga I’ve read, very light and thin, almost ethereal, which is an interesting contrast to the subject matter. MARS really does show a wonderful story of maturation and the growth of trust, highlighting the potential for transformative beauty in relationships. To this day, whenever I see a motorcycle, I smile and wonder how Rei and Kira are doing, just as if they were real friends of mine. I strive for such impact and realism when presenting character relationships in my own work.
The last really influential manga during my college years was, of all things, Yu-Gi-Oh! by Kazuki Takahashi. Is that an odd choice, especially when compared to the depth of Pet Shop of Horrors and MARS? Perhaps, but Yu-Gi-Oh! helped me keep my sanity during my last semester of college. Every night, after spending all day at school and all evening at work, I would come home and watch several episodes to help remind me that there is still fun in the world. Later, I bought the entire series (yes, all 38 volumes) off Ebay for under $200. I was a total wreck by the end of college, consumed by depression, stressed by the college workload, and desperate for escape. Yu-Gi-Oh! provided that escape, a safety valve that probably kept me alive. It also provided me with a topic for my senior dissertation (an exercise in creative B.S. if ever there was one.)
Yu-Gi-Oh! was never designed to be deep. It was designed to be a fun adventure and it succeeds pretty well. Like most shonen manga, it involves constant leveling up to face bigger and scarier enemies. The entire idea of a children’s card game deciding the fate of the world is pretty silly when you look at it objectively. The characters do a lot of silly things, there’s a lot of dramatic posing, and plenty of hysterical dialogue. But the beauty of Yu-Gi-Oh! is that the characters do take it seriously and, in their world, the outcome of a card game can mean the difference between life and death. Their loyalty to one another and their sheer, stubborn desire to move forward, to survive, to overcome all obstacles on the way to victory is a powerful message, one that I sorely needed. Yu-Gi-Oh! may not be serious. It may be fluff. But by God, it’s a rollicking good time and I enjoyed every moment of it. And really, all writers need to occasionally be reminded that the ultimate purpose of our work is to entertain. To give our readers pleasure. To have fun. There’s enough doom and gloom in the world, and I see no reason to add to it.