Keep on Vibrating, If You Must

I knew I was in for some shit even just by reading the genre tags for this one, which included a nice mix of things like “anal,” “bestiality,” and “dystopia.” And Keep on Vibrating certainly didn’t disappoint there – the seven stories here offer a pretty consistent mix of prostitution, violence against women, and occasional scatterings of war and cultural decay. Keep on Vibrating doesn’t quite match the overtly misanthropic tenor of Denpa Teki na Kanojo, but its author sure has a lot of violence in his head. And that’s about all there is to it.

(incidentally, there’s definitely going to be some NSFW image links in this one, so watch out!)

Keep on Vibrating

The first story sets the tone, in more ways than one. The acts of violence here might well be considered motifs, considering how often they reappear across the collection – a desperate woman being sexually abused for money, another women being murdered in a sexual context, and a generally oblivious male proxy just sort of wandering through it all. It’s all so even in its miserable tone that it becomes kind of numbing – it’s like Jhonen Vasquez work, a Hot Topic monster that’s grown into an adult man with nothing of interest to say.

But beyond the violent and sexually charged narrative touchstones, this first story also seems to reveal a thing or two about author Jiro Matsumoto’s views on art. The premise here is that a naked man known just as “sensei” is renowned as a calligraphy artist, but has no new ideas. And so he wanders the neighborhood for inspiration, and eventually receives it from two women. The young prostitute Kame writes “CUNT” on a piece of paper, and the doomed woman Mrs. A requests his phone number, splattered on a sheet of paper that he eventually hands to his agent.

Keep on Vibrating

The agent responds fairly predictably to these simplistically outrageous acts – he marvels at them as genius, and states that “your collection will shock the world of calligraphy!” It’s a narrative beloved by people who have little trust or even resentment for the conventional art world – striking back through their own stories, they frame “high art” as a deluded temple that only makes up its own significance. “Look how silly these art collectors are, marveling at this thing that was barely even intentional!” When you’re uncertain of your own artistic place in the world, it can be comforting to think all successful people are actually just lucky jackasses.

The stories largely proceed at about that level of insight and narrative invention. Sex is omnipresent, but rarely given much significance – the stories often read like the author has just recently discovered sex, comics, or both. At one point, a news anchor talks about what humanity has done to the environment while in the foreground, a woman is beaten to death with a bat. As that story continues, the murderer dumps his wife’s body, returns home, and finds her alive – so he kills her again, dumping her new body on top of the old one. At the end of the story, the wife discovers this pile of bodies and kills her husband, only to dump him on top of a pile that has now changed to be composed of his bodies.

Keep on Vibrating

Is there any significance to this? Am I supposed to draw some parallel between the woman who was repeatedly murdered and the man who murdered her? Or is this image supposed to somehow better convey his monstrous nature, considering the fact that the woman shouts “who’s the monster? You’re the monster” as she dumps him. I frankly don’t think the author thought the story through enough to consider such questions. The point here is violence – repeated violence, violence that justifies itself because violence is apparently inherently interesting.

The collection’s second half introduces a pair of kids, Sanpol and Krezol. These kids wear gas masks and cavort around their author’s dystopia, occasionally beating cats half to death or talking to women who are being forced to have sex with pigs. Their stories aren’t interesting (one ends with the punchline being the “fireworks” they enjoyed were actually bombs being dropped, because war is a meaningful twist in and of itself apparently), but their presence actually feels like a better author surrogate than the naked calligrapher. Smug children, certain of their nihilistic understanding of the world while in truth drawing no meaningful conclusions from anything. That’s about the level we’re at here.

Keep on Vibrating

The art does have its moments, at least. There are some occasional evocative profiles, and though Jiro Matsumoto’s character drawings rarely rise above the level of raw doodles, the use of blacks can occasionally seem somewhat inspired. But moments like that are few and far between – I generally got the feeling Matsumoto’s teachers were a combination of newspaper comics and porno tracings.

And of course, the manga’s treatment of women is… something. For all the manga’s stories of revenge against evil men and despising men who “treat women like toys,” Matsumoto sure is happy to use violence against women as a cheap punchline again and again and again. Earnest emotions are laughed at by the creepy children, and the characters that get happy endings are rarely the female devices, but the callow men pontificating over their bodies. None of this is necessary to reflect any underlying darkness in the world – it’s always possible to create a grim story that still treats its characters with dignity. But Matsumoto does not have the talent or inclination for such a task, and his work reflects the most casually sexist of worldviews.

Keep on Vibrating

There is a silver lining, though. After six stories of sexual violence and tedious unmessages, Keep on Vibrating actually arrives at a weirdly poignant little conclusion. The final story is about a sniper so dedicated to his job that he never leaves his post – ultimately spending so much time waiting for his target that he accidentally raises a family with the woman whose apartment he’s sharing. That still isn’t groundbreaking storytelling or anything, but there’s at least a bit of tenderness there. Sometimes you have to take what you can get.

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3 thoughts on “Keep on Vibrating, If You Must

  1. Never read this manga myself, and based on the overall description of the content, it sounds pretty revolting.

    That said, even by your own descriptions, taking the manga’s type of criticism of the things that can sometimes get lauded as great art, and dismissively portraying it as mere jealously against “successful people” doesn’t make much sense to me.

    Because I do honestly think there’s an important place for that kind of parody, in principle. Humans ARE creatures whose brains are designed to find patterns, meanings… and it can sometimes run away from us. We see faces in clouds, we see religious figures in random stains, and yes, sometimes the art world CAN see “a competent execution of abstract expressionism which was first made famous by de Kooning and Jackson Pollock and others” in paintings that were, in actual fact, done by a couple 4-year olds.

    Look, I’m not even arguing that there’s nothing whatsoever in stuff like “abstract expressionism”, or that that kind of thing shouldn’t be considered art at all (even if it isn’t personally my cup of tea). But–at the very least–when we’ve made the artistic components of an art genre so “abstract” that the above kind of appraisals can (and do) happen, we can’t really complain when some people find that fact worth poking some fun at.

    What’s more, even if you DIDN’T consider that kind of “accidental-art” or “potentially-low-effort-art” worthy of parody, I would still contend that writing it off as uncertain artists comforting themselves by thinking “all successful people are actually just lucky jackasses” still seems quite snide and unfair.

    I don’t even see how it makes sense as a motive to ascribe. Only a specific slice of artistic sub-genres are even TARGETED by this kind of parody to begin with. So how exactly is it any kind of broad assurance of the artists’ egos against “all successful people”? Whatever you could say about the more “abstract” or “transgressive” styles of art, anyone sane would have a hard time mistaking the art of, say, the Dead Dead Demon manga for anything that was “barely even intentional”, nor would one often mistake the Mona Lisa for a pair of four-year-olds’ work.

    To me, it makes far more sense to consider it as an honest parody of something they see happening that they disagree with (whether I agree with said parody or not) rather than diminishing it by ascribing motives to them of why they’re “really” parodying it.

  2. Underground comics is a bit of a hard thing to criticize exactly because their aesthetic is deliberate and sarcastic. It ranges from the hallucinogenic madness and overt confessional comics of Robert Crumb, to the crazy but delightful fantasy worlds of Dorohedoro by Hayashida Q, to the erotically charged works of Naoki Yamamoto, or the gruesome but hilarious works of Shintaro Kago. Surrealism and Absurdism is widespread, and sometimes they indulge in it simply to have an excuse to draw.

    Yet I think that there’s a clear line between a work like Denpa Teki Na Kanojo, which came from a light novel series and takes itself too seriously, probably due to being an early work in the author’s oeuvre – with Jiro Matsumoto, who really does whatever he wants and doesn’t particularly care to go beyond his counterculture. They aren’t even in the same realm of intersection in terms of market. It’s like saying that South Park is equivalent to Watchmen because both are cynical.

    On the other hand, in terms of art, I have a feeling that you underestimate his stylistic abilities. A lot of people also attack Josei pioneer Kyoko Okazaki for having a ‘sketchy’ style even though her placement of the panels and their rhythm is superb. Matsumoto’s more sustained narratives such as Velveteen and Mandala, or Jigoku no Alice can be just relentless in their insanity or action translated onto panel, to create a kind of breathless sense. Then again, all this is an artist thing. I only developed the sensibility for it when I started to do art myself. I myself could never even reach Matsumoto unless I trained for probably 20 years or so. Jigoku no Alice is probably his most conventional narrative yet, being an awesome story about bandits and loads of combat in a desert-punk setting.

    Thankfully, there’s an artist called Sarah Horrocks that is willing to go into some of the aspects of Matsumoto’s art-style and framing, and explains what makes up his aesthetic over here:

    Incidentally, it’s not like there isn’t any lack of controversy or blatant patronage in the art world. I interned for a magazine company that covered those things, and so I had to write about quite a number of art pieces. There are a ton of issues involving the relation of the auction house to the museum, and loads of articles arguing for a need of separating museums from the ‘hype market’. In the end its still a business, and success is determined more by marketing than anything else. Collectors buy works deemed significant by curators in hopes that the price will ramp up so that they can sell them for a higher cost. The art market is also, of course, a very nice outlet for money laundering or other kinds of business exploitation given that the monetary value is a lot more subjective and ‘in the air’ than other assets.

    I think Matsumoto isn’t exactly ‘resentful’ personally, but the underground comics counter-cultural narrative has always been striking out against those kinds of things. Comics, after all, still have yet to break from a mainstream view that it only encompasses certain facets of entertainment or certain genres (e.g. superheroes). Furthermore, Japan has a long history of gritty cynical comics thanks to the early gekiga movement which was born from social protest. Underground comics have always been overtly reactionary.

    Can you still call that point of view immature, gratuitous, and adolescent? Possibly, but I still read Matsumoto simply for the style. If you want a less blatantly excessive work, you could try Velveteen and Mandala – which has some parts that are actually quite poignant and controlled. Jigoku no Alice is eternally awesome due to its teenage-boy-carries-out-sniper-battles-in-the-desert kind of style.

    On the other hand, maybe Dorohedoro is a better match for you because Hayashida Q uses a gritty art style but is ridiculously optimistic and inventive in her characters. She’s the ultimate representation of neverending optimism even in the most deliriously bleak of settings.

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