Velveteen & Mandala

Jiro Matsumoto’s Velveteen & Mandala, a phantasmagoria of zombie-slaying, nudity, and poop, seems calibrated to shock readers into nervous laughter, though it’s never entirely clear if Matsumoto has a greater point to make. Like many of the shorts in the AX anthology, Velveteen & Mandala lacks any overarching sense of narrative direction or social commentary. The volume consists of fourteen loosely connected vignettes starring Velveteen, a ditzy blonde, and Mandala, her frenemy. Both are living on the outskirts of Tokyo, though the time is left to the reader’s imagination; all we know is that a war has ravaged the city, reducing it to a weedy sprawl of corpses, tanks, and abandoned buildings. In some of the stories, the two wield pistols and patrol their territory, shooting anything in sight; in others, they forage for food; and in others, their girlish horseplay shades in sadism or sexual violence.

The first three chapters are relatively innocuous, documenting the minutiae of the girls’ day-to-day existence. Velveteen lives in an amnesiac fog, snapping to consciousness only when she devises a new technique for torturing Mandala. Mandala, too, delights in annoying her friend, adopting verbal mannerisms that drive Velveteen to violent distraction. Neither seems particularly bright; their dialogue and destructive behavior make them seem like a pair of mean-spirited ko-gals.

The series takes a turn for the ugly in “The Super,” a brief story introducing a nameless, pantsless man to whom Velveteen administers a sharp crack on the head. (She wants to keys to his secret stash of weapons. And taxidermy animals. Yes, we’re in Underground Comix territory, folks.) From there on, Matsumoto begins playing up the scatological angle; we’re treated to numerous scenes of Velveteen defecating and vomiting, as well as images of her exposing herself.

The nadir is a gang rape scene in which Velveteen narrowly escapes her captors thanks to an explosive bout of indigestion. I’m guessing — perhaps wrongly — that Matsumoto intended this episode as a particularly nasty joke, designed to an elicit an appreciative “Dude! That’s so gross!” from readers. But as a feminist, it’s impossible not to find this passage yet another tiresome example of a male artist using sexual violence to titillate and shock the reader. (The loving way in which he draws a semi-naked Velveteen only confirms the pornographic impression.) Making things worse is that Matsumoto doesn’t just suggest that Velveteen is dirty, he literally covers her and her would-be assailants in her own filth. Nothing about the character or the story suggests that Matsumoto is trying to make a greater point about sexual violence, or level the playing between victim and attacker, or make the reader uncomfortably aware of his arousal at the scene; if anything, the cruelly unflattering way in which Matsumoto portrays Velveteen suggests a deep contempt for teenage girls.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Velveteen & Mandala is that Matsumoto is a genuinely good artist. His linework is superb, reminiscent of Taiyo Matsumoto and Daisuke Igurashi; it’s scratchy and energetic, well-suited to depicting the urban wasteland in which the story unfolds. His characters’ faces are superbly animated, too; few artists can draw malicious glee or surprise with such precision, even if that skill is put in service of drawing a thoroughly repellent cast.

Yet for all the obvious artistry behind Velveteen & Mandala, it’s a stretch to call this book a Hobbesian meditation on survival. Matsumoto’s dialogue is too stylized to register as genuine communication, while his fixation on the most bodily aspects of existence comes off as coprophilia, not meaningful commentary on the human condition. A more thoughtful artist might have found a way to put an intelligent or funny spin on the schoolgirls-slay-zombies premise, but in Matsumoto’s hands, the underlying message seems to be that teenage girls are just as nasty and despicable as the rest of us, as evidenced by the fact that they poop and puke, too.

Review copy provided by Vertical, Inc. Velveteen & Mandala will be released on August 30, 2011.


14 thoughts on “Velveteen & Mandala”

  1. Justin says:

    Ouch. Not exactly what I was expecting—but then again, this was published in Manga Erotics F, in the same magazine as Lychee Light Club and Ristorante Paradiso—and generally a magazine that skews on stuff way out there. Who knows what type of theme Matsumoto played with? It will be interesting to hear other people’s take on this…controversial manga?

  2. Akaihane says:

    Mmmm. I was interested in this manga after first seeing the adverts for it, simply as it had an interesting name, the art looked good and as it sounded unusual, but scatological humour is usually a sticking point. And if it contains that much of it … yeah, don’t think it’s for me. Thanks for the review! Know now to spend the cash on something else 😀

  3. CJ says:

    Maan, this does not sound like the manga I’d want on my shelf. I quite frankly love violence and whatnot in my manga, but this sounds like a pointless use of it. I felt like with Lychee Light Club it was similar to a Lord of the Flies type of thing show that kids can evil and effed up too but with horrify gorn consequences. Oh and y’know, Lychee had an overall story going on. I feel it’s harder to justify with episodic vignettes, it sure didn’t work for the AX chapters that you mentioned (or hinted at, I think/assume I know which ones you’re talking about, one of which would be called “Arizona Sizzler”).
    Then again, all of Yoshinaga’s Truly Kindly (Yoshinaga week reference!) tended to have sex scenes and it was all short chapters, maybe she somehow made it more sincere or something though, or is Yoshinaga and can literally make a story about anything work. Guess the point is that sex and whatnot can work in short story world.

  4. Rij says:

    Thanks for the review!

    I was interested in this based on the name and the art. Was. Unless another review manages to make it sound totally different I’m so not going to spend my money on this.

  5. Angela says:

    Oh, good. I could not manage to like this, and I thought that maybe I just couldn’t “get it” or something. I have been having a HELL of a time getting a review written for this, right now it boils down to “It’s confusing and gross, I like the art.”

    1. Katherine Dacey says:

      If it’s any consolation, Angela, I also find this kind of manga very hard to review. I feel like I have an obligation to justify my negative reaction as clearly and lucidly as possible, lest someone tell me I didn’t “get it” or that I’m a prude. Even then, I know I’m opening myself up to attack from folks who really dig Matsumoto.

  6. Michelle Smith says:

    That “gang rape while suffering the ill effects of food poisoning” scene is one I never needed to see in all my days. I had thought I might talk about Velveteen & Mandala during this week’s Off the Shelf, but I find that, after setting the book aside after flipping through it when I first received it, I have lost the ability to pick it back up again. Why artists think including poop makes them edgy, I shall never know. It’s just poop, y’all.

    1. Katherine Dacey says:

      Why artists think including poop makes them edgy, I shall never know. It’s just poop, y’all.

      Amen, sister. My negative reaction isn’t because I’m squeamish; it’s because I’m tired of seeing women sexually humiliated for a laugh. There’s a big difference!

  7. Panino Manino says:

    I knew that scene would cause controversy. But it is just typical of the author, almost a self tribute to his own perversion. There was a truly disgusting scene, but it’s all so absurd that I can only laugh, even more so by the silly way as he strove to perfect the traits for that moment. “Oh … ok.”

    It’s just a moment. Nothing more.
    It may bother some, but seriously, the manga is much more than that scene. Do not reduce everything to just that.
    It may just be my particular thing, but I was more shocked and intrigued by several other scenes, especially with the turnaround story. It is not as simple as I thought. And as I said, at the end, the psychological violence (and other physical) impressed me more.
    Having read other stories of the author, it is clear that the visual rot it is only distraction. The psychological strain of his characters is the real highlight.
    Try reading Uncivilized Planet.

    Of course, I’m just giving my opinion, many people will not like or support this reading, is something clear.
    But would not want to see everything about the series be summed up to a sexist perversion and feminazis critics.

    1. Katherine Dacey says:

      I know that Matsumoto is a well-regarded artist in Japan; I only wish that that Vertical (or VIZ, or D&Q) had translated Freesia or something longer, as that would make it easier to look past a few outre scenes and judge the work in its entirety. But it’s harder to do that for something as short and episodic as Velveteen & Mandala, especially when there are scenes as vivid and ugly as the one I critique in my review.

      Also: please, don’t use the word “feminazi.” I like to promote dialogue, and words like that make people angry and defensive. If you feel like I’ve unfairly dismissed Matsumoto, give me concrete examples of his genius from the text. I’m open to hearing what you have to say, but only if you don’t tell me I’m too stupid or humorless to understand him. Fair enough?

      1. Panino Manino says:

        Sorry, I overreacted and I chose the wrong words. Like you said, I myself was on the defensive when I wrote the previous comment. I’ve had some painful encounters with feminazis in the past.

        Back to Matsumoto, I never read freesia, would be nice if it were published on this continent, but I still think his short works are most interesting, because they are intense and direct to the point in some way. And if you worried about the way women are treated here, imagine how you would react reading your other stories. A crisis of diarrhea is not far from the worst that can Matsumoto with their woman.
        Anyway, the men of his stories seem to be all, or gross, or stupid.

        In Velveteen & Mandala, for some reason that’s not clear to me, I’m thinking about having read some bizarre tale about friendship. Until now, I’m not sure which one was really mentally unbalanced, or if the two were crazy. And what would be the craziest of the two?

  8. Jade Harris says:

    Post-apocalypse fiction tends to come in two flavors. There’s survival fantasy wish-fulfilment where we’re allowed to live ‘the life we’re meant to live’ and basically, we can do whatever we want now and be able to sneer at wreckage of modern society’s rules and oppression that were holding us back. That tends to appeal to losers stuck in dead-end jobs Chuck Palinuck and militant religious fanatics. The villains want to bring us back into the oppressive culture that we just got out of, bring back the dead-end jobs, allow jewish people and homosexuals to live. Then there’s the human experiment where it’s more about taking a group of humans and stripping society away to see how much of their humanity remains intact, the shattered ruins of society are a reminder of what we’ve lost and act as either a guideline for civilization or a catalyst to rebel. There’s really no heroes or villains, just those who can take it and those who can’t.

    Anyhoo, from either of those perspectives, Velveteen & Mandala doesn’t seem to be suggesting that teenage girls poop and fart, just like the rest of us, it’s more like they only keep up a level of decency while under the yoke of society and having to keep up appearances and all that. Whether or not the author considers their devolution into skirt-wearing poop factories a good thing or not, I couldn’t say, but it seems pretty clear that he doesn’t consider schoolgirls to be naturally decent creatures. That schoolgirl that you keep lusting over there? Remove economy and plumbing and she’s nothing but a hideous poo-flinging beast. My big question is whether he was trying to prostheletize or observing a personal epiphany.

    What’s the opposite of epiphany? Naphany? There must be a word for coming to the stupidest conclusion possible. Stupiphany?

    1. Katherine Dacey says:

      “Stupiphany” is brilliant! I think you need to enter that in the Washington Post’s annual New Words Contest. It’s a keeper!

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