Japanese pop culture is daunting. There is something weirdly insular about even their most mainstream entertainments that can make foreigners feel they are missing something. What, then, are we to make of underground work that deliberately goes against that mainstream? That is the question that Ax Volume 1: A Collection of Alternative Manga provokes without providing much of an answer. (Other questions include: "What the fuck?" "Why the fuck?" and "Am I crazy?")
Released stateside by local comics house Top Shelf, Ax is a compendium of comics from the bimonthly Japanese publication of the same name, a magazine designed to shine light on manga artists too weird for a graphic culture already rife with genre-bending magical realism. Most of the stories contained in this collection follow an inscrutable dream-logic to begin with. Severed from their culture and filtered through a sometimes spotty translation, trying to parse these strips can make one feel like an Aborigine watching Mulholland Drive.
A brief introduction (that tells you not to worry if you are confused) and short artist profiles are the only guides Ax gives the reader to decode the stories within—like Osamu Kanno's "The Watcher" wherein a married couple secretly watches a sleeping man with a knife in his head getting peed on by a stray dog. The husband sets up a hidden microphone to amplify the man's snores, using them as a soundtrack for his wife to perform naked aerobics to. In the last frame he gives her performance a "10." What the fuck? Why the fuck? Am I crazy?
That Ax isn't a Rosetta Stone for indie manga does feel like a missed opportunity, but narrative coherence is only half of what you pay for here. The illustration styles vary wildly from maximalist overload to the deliberately crude heta-uma (bad/good) style, each stunning in its way. Kazuichi Hanawa's demented fable "Six Paths of Wealth" is a densely rendered nightmare, while Kotobuki Shiriagari and Katsuo Kawai's contributions have a brilliant economy of line. This stylistic diversity alone could make Ax worth its jacket price for many comic fans looking for something different; just don't expect an easy read.