Naoki Urasawa (20th Century Boys, Monster) shares 8 original stories / illustrated memories in Sneeze: Naoki Urasawa Story Collection, culled from previously released works in Japanese publications. A delightful departure from his usual fare, they represent an amalgamation of some of the most impactful and memorable influences that would help shape his life – and career – from the 1960s and 1970s. And those influences are many.
The titular “sneeze”, referenced only in the prologue, is described by Urasawa as a “sudden expiration of breath”, shorter works able to make even the most beautiful person look ugly. Metaphor noted. It’s always nice to see manga masters operating outside the typical grueling assembly line productions of established series and expectations. I wish we had more of them, honestly.
Is there any other manga artist who can so perfectly depict awkward faces the way Urasawa can? In “Damiyan” (modeled after the 1976’s The Omen namesake), the bug-eyed title teenager who possesses telekinetic powers looks like something cartoonist Berkeley Breathed might have doodled in his 1980s Bloom County heyday. The stylistic contrast between Damiyan (the character) and Urasawa’s more traditional artwork is so striking it nearly overwhelms the actual story of wish fulfillment, parents, yakuza and unintended consequences.
“Throw Toward the Moon” (co-written with Takashi Nagasaki) is another highlight, playing with concepts of time and destiny within an unsolved mystery and unresolved fate. A young boy who learns he’s fated to win a Pulitzer Prize from a old psychic vagabond becomes, once grown and toiling away as an obituary writer at a tabloid newspaper, determined to untangle the mysteries behind the old man’s obituary – which was written before his own death. While this is one of the collection’s more traditional stories, it’s a lovely piece of nostalgic magical realism that leaves a similarly magical impression.
Several musical-themed tales speak not only to a certain demographic of aging rock fans, but to Urasawa’s own impressionable years as a budding talent when everything felt possible and songs were the gateway to the world. Urasawa’s love for these musicians and their impact on his generation is so genuine and natural that you’ll want to hunt down their tracks to listen along as he segues from fan to journalist then back again.
“The Old Guys” looks at the aging, greying fandom of classic rock, those balding fans who live vicariously through their musical doppelgangers as they look to their likewise aging heroes on the stage for confirmation of lives well live, because for them Paul McCartney was always there, playing melodies that helped make their very existence bearable.
Urasawa’s rendering of both these fans and their musical gods can be jarring, especially seeing Bob Dylan’s crew members (“substantial American old dudes”), but never to the point of insult. Because Bob Dylan can do no wrong, of course.
“It’s A Beautiful Day” illustrates a story told to Urasawa by his late friend and musician Kenji Endo (aka Endo), who passed away from stomach cancer in 2017. On the cusp of stardom, a group of musicians head to a second-rate strip club to catch a show, only to find themselves more interested in the music than the bewitching flesh jiggling right in front of them. It features the collection’s only – and very brief – appearance of nudity, which despite being set inside a strip club is handled exquisitely tastefully.
“Musica Nostra” recounts Urasawa’s trip to LA to attend a star-studded musical festival in the desert, inversing the perspective of “The Old Guys” where it’s him the star-struck fan among a sea of equally bedazzled greying worshippers. Watching Paul and Neil Young perform together is almost too much for him “If this is a dream I don’t want to ever wake up!” With a lineup that included The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Neil Young and The Who…could you blame him?
For many, the centerpiece will be “Henry and Charles”, Urasawa’s beautifully illustrated love letter to the classic Warner Bros. Looney Tunes shorts he feels most proud of (“Could this be the finest of all my works?”). Two cartoon mice desperately want the last slice of delicious cake, yet an entire kitchen – and napping cat – stand in their way. One’s a fabulist, the other a little dim in the head; what could possibly go wrong? Originally published in 1995, it’s also the collection’s oldest entry, suggesting Urasawa may feel he peaked early.
For me, however, this collection’s masterpiece is “Kaiju Kingdom”, which feels like Urasawa operating at full capacity, culling his love for science fiction, giant monsters, nostalgia and wild caricatures – some less than flattering (but still hilarious). Imagines a world where giant kaiju monsters (i.e. Godzilla) aren’t just real and stomping Tokyo on the regular, but they’ve become profitable tourist attractions and easy targets for people like Pierre, an obese, greasy ponytailed otaku from France who dreams only of seeing giant kaiju with his own bespectacled eyes. So much so that “not even women and love could distract him from his obsession.” Yeah, that’s the reason.
Fans of Urasawa’s other works, particularly 20th Century Boys and the Tezuka-inspired Pluto, know of the artist’s love for the genre and this story doesn’t disappoint. Apart from its sharp commentary on the plasticity of fandom, it also serves as both A.) a recognition that, yes, kaiju monster mashes were inherently cheap and cheesy and yet B.) were still somehow the most magical thing playing on TV at a certain hour.
“Tanshin Funin/Solo Mission” feels like an artist working on commission, which is exactly what it is. Created to help celebrate the 40th anniversary of French comics anthology magazine Métal Hurlant (Heavy Metal), Urasawa comments that he was given a set of topics for the comic, but completely ignored them and did what he wanted instead. That rascal. It’s an extremely brief drop of speculative sci-fi that’s over just as it begins, one that would’ve fit right in with classic EC comics like Weird Science. Not the collection’s best, but the ending is fun.
A departure from what longtime fans might be expecting from the manga master known mostly for his meticulous science-fiction and giant monster mashing, Sneeze: Sneeze: Naoki Urasawa Story Collection is an irresistible break from the norm, a delightfully playful, yet yearning look inside the influences that help shape who we become. Sometimes that’s a Beatles song, other times it’s a giant rubber monster. OK, so it’s not a huge departure, but Urasawa demonstrates considerable skill as a short-storyteller, one that feels in short supply these days.