At the start of Sneeze, the latest collection of short stories by mangaka Naoki Urasawa, there is the definition of a sneeze, described as “a sudden expiration of breath” and “a short work as opposed to a long work”. That perfectly describes a short story, and considering that Urasawa is known for his long-running manga titles, these stories allow him to let loose and have fun.
And if you’re wondering: no, none of the stories are about sneezing. It’s just that Urasawa draws faces that look ugly when sneezing.
The recurring theme of multiple stories here is something extraordinary happening in our mundane lives. The first story, “DAMIYAN!”, centers on two young men trying to make some money by working for the Yakuza. The titular character, Damiyan, is also a telekinetic. Despite its odd premise, which leads to moments of black comedy, the story ends up being a Yakuza member trying to balance his life of crime and his role as a father, leading to one of the more uplifting conclusions in Urasawa’s arsenal.
“Throw Toward the Moon!”, in collaboration with Takashi Nagasaki, feels closest to Urasawa’s best known titles like 20th Century Boys and Monster. After receiving a prediction from a psychic at a young age, a journalist uncovers the truth of this supposed psychic years later, which leads to murder and corporate conspiracy. Urasawa has always been good at mystery, and with only thirty-two pages, he takes something initially silly and wraps everything up where the psychic’s prediction ended up being true.
Urasawa has always explored both the light and dark within humanity, and this idea is best personified later in this collection with “Kaiju Kingdom”. Set in a world where Tokyo has been attacked by numerous Kaiju since 1954, a French fanboy of these monsters visits the city, which has used its destruction as a tourist attraction. There is certainly satirical comedy going on throughout, not least how these tragedies have made a profit, there are still tragedies that people are still coping with, something that our French protagonist eventually realizes. Very much a tribute to the early Godzilla movies, Urasawa embraces the conventions of mixing the melodrama with Kaiju action, all of which is drawn to perfection, from his expressive character design to his well-detailed background art.
In what is the most out-of-left-field story, and also the most fun, is “Henry and Charles”, about two mice sneaking into the kitchen to get a strawberry cake while making sure they don’t wake up the cat. Originally created for a children’s illustrated magazine, Urasawa is doing his best Looney Tunes impression with a great emphasis on slapstick comedy, whilst the banter between the eponymous mice is hilarious.
Although Urasawa is known for his specific line-work that makes him one of the standout artists in the industry, there are some stories here where his art style is looser. They serve Urasawa’s love of music, such as his travelogue of the Los Angeles music scene. These particular tales are more self-indulgent, and feel like he is not putting in as much effort, but “It’s a Beautiful Day”, which tells the story of real-life musician Kenji Endo and his band visiting a strip club one night, serves as a touching tribute to the late musician.
As always with these collections, some stories are better than others, but Sneeze overall is a fun departure from Naoki Urasawa’s more dramatic works.
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