Deb Aoki thinks RED SNOW is magical.

The Bottom Line - Manga    |    Deb Aoki    |    November 16, 2009

Lust-filled monks and farmers' wives rub shoulders with kappa, kitsune and forest gods in Red Snow, a collection of charming, yet dark fables for grown-ups.

Compared to the gritty, urban gekiga tales of Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Red Snow offers similar themes of sex, depravity, obsession and innocence lost but with rural, pre-industrialized Japan as its backdrop. Katsumata deftly mixes humor, fantasy and melodrama and wraps it all up in surreal, sensual and distinctively Japanese imagery. A gekiga gem that's magical, memorable and utterly unforgettable.


-Charming fables for grown-ups that mix myth, humor, romance, sex and melodrama
-Deftly mixes the hardships of rural life with whimsical flights of fantasy
-Simple yet delightful artwork that offers moments of wry comedy and poetic grace
-Katsumata is an equal opportunity storyteller who creates engaging male and female characters
-Gorgeous, gift-worthy hardcover edition gives Katsumata's art the first-class treatment it deserves


-While mostly stylized and suggestive, some sex scenes include descriptions of rape and violence
-Several not-so-common Japanese words and cultural references are left without annotation
-Includes strong language and mature situations, so it's not for younger teens

Guide Review - Red Snow

Before it known was the land of high-tech innovations, Japan was a land of forests, mountains, seashores and rice paddies. Sure, there were samurai and merchants, but there were also hardworking farmers, craftsmen and laborers who struggled to keep a roof over their heads, and food on their tables.

It's in this world that Susumu Katsumata set Red Snow, his collection of gekiga-style short stories. While the gekiga of Yoshihiro Tatsumi focuses on a relentlessly grim vision of urban Japan, Katsumata's Red Snow depicts sex, scandals and depravity in the Japanese countryside but also moments of nostalgia, magic and slice-of-life humor.

Many stories in Red Snow seem similar to fables -- but with an adult twist. Desire is a pervasive theme in these stories, expressed as young love, pre-pubescent flirting, sexual abuse and perversity. Young and old, men and women alike are depicted as unabashedly sexual beings, sometimes in surprising ways.

In Pulp Novel About a Sack, a traveling monk visits a village where the men have left to work as migrant laborers. While the monk attends to the townswomen's spiritual well-being, women want him to attend to their other needs, and it may be more than he can handle.

With its matter-of-fact approach to sex, Red Snow has an earthy, sensual quality to its storytelling. These stories were created when Katsumata was in his later years, so he doesn't shy away from depicting middle-aged men and women as unabashedly sexual beings who have desires just like young adults.

But that's not to say that Red Snow is pornographic -- sure, there's some strong language and mature themes that make it unsuitable for younger readers, but Katsumata depicts these scenes tastefully by using clever visual metaphors, like a bottle of sake yeast that pops open in the snow, or a woman's foot peeking out from under a flowing sheet to suggest intimacy.

The other theme that pervades Red Snow is wistful nostalgia for pre-industrialized Japan, when life was harder, but also simpler and a little more magical. In several stories, talking tanuki (raccoon dogs) and kappa (water spirits) interact with humans to bring a touch of fantasy, humor and uniquely Japanese charm to these otherwise dark fables of human desires.

Katsumata originally drew yon-koma (four panel comic strips), so his use of exaggerated facial expressions shows his 'gag comics' roots. But there are also numerous examples of Katsumata's artistry. The Dream Spirit displays Katsumata's mastery of page and panels, as he draws a monk transforming himself into a crow to seduce a woman. Robes fly and passions flare in a scene that is surreal, sensual and quite beautiful to behold.

Red Snow is not your typical manga collection, but for fans of gekiga, indie comics and folk tales, Katsumata offers an unforgettable glimpse into a Japan that is rarely seen and is rapidly disappearing. A gekiga gem for grown-ups that will surprise and delight fans of comics and Japanese culture.

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