A friend of mine once joked that popular music critics use the word "important" as a code language for "someone you never heard of". I laughed, and he did have a point, but so do the critics. Many of the most important influences to creators are unknowns to the rest of us, and we're all the poorer for it. Manga-ka (and painter, and tattoo artist, and musician, and traveler in yakuza circles, and several other things on top of that) Bonten Taro has until now never had any of his work published in English, but with a résumé like his, he's clearly underexplored territory for Western audiences. This collection is essentially a taster — the best-known work in it, Sex And Fury, is excerpted here in miniature — but a single taste is better than nothing.
According to the English-translated biography included in Badass Babe!, Bonten Taro's manga career started in much the same way as many in the post-WWII generation of manga creators, like Yoshihiro Tatsumi and Shigeru Mizuki, by way of the kashihon or book rental market. Rental shops loaned out books in much the same way later outfits like Blockbuster rented out DVDs. And like their video-rental counterparts, the kashihon market had a good deal of material commissioned specifically for it to fill out the shelves. Taro gravitated from that to shōjō manga, but then spent a long period away from manga generally, during which he cultivated multiple careers as a tattoo artist, enka singer, and fellow traveler in yakuza circles.
Taro came back to manga in 1966, and his stories from that point on were a mix of pulp violence, Gothic horror, and transgressive subjects of various kinds. The stories in Badass Babe! touch on all of these things in turn, sometimes cramming multiple such flavors into a single story. Sex & Fury, a/k/a Ochō Inoshika, is probably his best-known work even for those who aren't manga readers, as it was the inspiration for the live-action films of the same name. Its type of story has already found its way Westward in many other incarnations: a woman (typically a gambler) who moves through a largely male underworld of crime and iniquity, takes what she wants, dishes out as good as she gets or better, and isn't afraid to use violence, sexuality, or some combination of both to protect herself, her friends, and the innocent.
Ochō, heroine of the series, ticks all of these boxes. When a scar-faced thug riding the subway refuses to ditch his cigarette, she points a gun at him and gets him to back down ... although it's only a squirtgun she borrowed from the grateful kid and mother at the other end of the car. Ochō is not above brandishing the real thing, though; when she shelters a drug mule on the lam and has her girlfriend murdered in retaliation, she goes after the rest of the gang with both barrels blazing. She also takes the time to perpetrate random acts of heroism, as when she swipes money from the mob and uses it to give the dead drug mule's long-suffering wife a new lease on life.
The plot's perfunctory stuff; the real attraction is the heroine's attitude — both in her hard-nosing of the scum and villainy she runs up against, and in things like the hanafuda cards tattooed on her arm that let us know at first sight she's a gambler, in multiple senses of the word.
From the gutter to the grave and beyond
The book only contains a small slice of Sex & Fury, which ran for many volumes (apparently available in its entirety in French). The rest are standalones that range widely, although not always successfully. Most on-target are the works where Taro mines his background and his fascinations: the criminal underworld, the world of tattooing (animal lovers will be distraught by the story where a female apprentice to the art tattoos her dog), and straight-up horror. The least successful story in the book is, ironically, the one with the most potential for outsider insight, a "true stories retold" take on Yukio Mishima's notorious suicide. But Taro does little with the idea except present the act itself; his suggestion that Japan's criticisms of Mishima are thin is only mentioned and not actually developed into a subject.
The horror stories are the other truly successful part of the anthology, as they mesh with Taro's instincts for loathsome and degenerate things. "Maggots!" plays like an EC Comics sickie: a professor, his lovely wife, and a handsome student of his (who also happens to be the wife's back-door man) get trapped in a cave-in when prospecting for uranium. Wife and lover survive by cannibalizing the old man, but their spiritual rot manifests as the real thing after they're rescued. "The Corpse's Voice," the longest story in the volume, is even more gruesome. A mad professor whips and beats his maid for the only kicks he can feel anymore, and when one day she decides to make a run for it, she leaves behind her mentally disabled son. When she tries to return to see him one last time before dying, everyone spirals down into an orgy of violence, sadomasochism, and supernatural retribution. Again, the plot is not really the point; it's the atmosphere and the mood, and the sheer cynicism and transgressive quality of the material.
I think now of someone else whose work has also been described with the label "transgressive". Not long ago I picked up an anthology of the short films of Richard Kern, an indie filmmaker who later gravitated to photography and other art forms. He shot a number of music videos, including the inutterably hilarious "Detachable Penis" for King Missile. The material in the anthology was all produced on near-zero budgets in 1980s, with found locations and lots of downtown New York punk/no-wave talent in front of the camera — Lydia Lunch, J.G. Thirlwell, Norman Westberg, Henry Rollins, etc. Many of the films are not very good, but a few are gems, and most importantly all of them are a reflection of the creation happening in a particular time and place, and around a specific personality who acted as a center of gravity for others. This anthology had the same flavor: even when I wasn't enamored of the material itself, I savored the peek it provided into the career of a personality with almost no exposure outside of his home country. Such things are their own rewards.