The tone and overall theme of Manga-jima: Island of Cartoons is established in the opening shot as a wooden sign stating ‘manga artists only allowed’ is hammered repeatedly into the ground. The premise is simple, a group of manga artists isolated themselves on a desert island as they each seek to create the perfect story. When the boat they traditionally signal when they wish to leave the island fails to emerge and once the ink, food and paper are used up, they quickly descend into bickering, attempted cannibalism, attempted murder and a few bouts of drawing. The film festival description states, “Lord of the Flies or Island of Lost Souls? An intense allegory of the creative process in this genre or a savage indictment of masculinity and fantasy?” With a description like this what could possibly go wrong? Well, from the point of view of this reviewer – everything. Rarely have I seen a film that manages to miss in nearly all of the aspects that make up either an innovative, or failing that, enjoyable cinematic experience.
In a film festival line up that has seen some controversy over the films selected, the decision to include Manga-jima: the island of cartoon seems an odd one. There are many much better films out there that would have been a better fit for HKIFF so why the programmers felt this was a good addition to the programme would be an interesting conversation to have. Director Fumio Moriya is most well known as an actor and writer. He penned and starred in The Woodsman and the Rain (2011) and wrote the surprisingly enjoyable The Strange Saga of Hiroshi: The Freeloading Sex Machine (2005). His scripts have generally been well received but he has stated the desire to finally make his own film directorial debut and, perhaps unfortunately, Manga-jima is it.
From the outset, the film seems to desire to be both quirky and thoughtful, anarchic and comedic; and in this respect it shares some aspects with The Woodsman and the Rain. That is where the similarities end since The Woodsman and the Rain director Shuichi Otika marked that film with a nuanced but effective directorial style – something Manga-jima seriously lacks. What we see with Manga-Jima is a lot of repetitive and not particularly innovate decisions to convey the rather obvious to the audience. For example, when the volcano rumbles the camera is roughly shaken up and down – a decision that some may applaud for its simplicity but just gave this reviewer a headache and added little to the film’s visual appeal. The sections devoted to when the main characters finally settle down to actually draw some manga were the best in the film as the music and the editing finally came together but these were few and far between.
Films about the creative process are not new and I can certainly see traces of films such as Fellini’s 8 1/2 (1963) and Fulton and Pepe’s Lost in La Mancha (2002) in Manga-Jima. However, this is unlikely to join the canon of great film about creativity, primarily since the film seems uncertain whether it actually admires the idea of the creator or just aiming to repudiate those who see themselves as part of the creative process? Are all those who aspire to create art nothing more than deluded idiots who will turn to cannibalism after only two days without food? Food plays a big role in various not-too subtle metaphors. Stealing another artist’s plot line quickly becomes literal cannibalism. When the writer’s agent eventually visits the island he brings with him a bag of McDonald’s burgers. These burgers are either destroyed in a fit of rage by a group of the artists who see them as a threat to their creative focus or are consumed with a desperate lasciviousness. McDonald’s, the publishing industry (remember, the burgers were bought by the literary agent in a not-too subtle link) and eating human flesh are therefore seen as synonymous. The publishing industry is shown as harsh, fickle and disorganised. One writer who finally makes it back to the mainland with a completed script in hand is told by an assistant that the publisher can’t even remember giving him the storyline so all his effort has been for nothing.
The image of the dirty, dishevelled, and ultimately selfish male manga creator has long been dominant trope – despite that fact women have always played a role in the industry. Manga-jima does not seek do anything radical to this vision of masculinity but the end shot of a young female manga artist sitting on the boat heading to the island clearly raises the question of gender. All the artists we have thus met were male so would an island of women manga writers behave differently? However, this ending does not really raise any interest since if this was a film that was seeking to debate Japanese masculinity (I would have to disagree with the HKIFF program on this one), we see just a one sided stereotype that never changes or evolves. To add insult to injury it is not even enjoyable to watch as the chemistry between the cast results in any attempts at humour falling flat.
Whilst I have spent the last paragraph criticising the film it must be pointed out that justifications can be made for all the decisions involved. The acting is certainly one-tone – the reason for this could be the desire to promote a vision of these men who are so obsessive about their manga they can think of nothing else. The plot may be only vaguely linear and for the most part nonsensical but that does not stop a film been enjoyable if handled correctly. At 107 minutes this was not a short film and several audience members left at various points, and indeed I was tempted. Moriya himself has acknowledged that the film has garnered very different opinions from reviewers and, if it circulates at all beyond a few festivals, Manga-jima will certainly divide critics and viewers alike. I assume there will be people out there that will absolutely love this film but no one I spoke to exiting the cinema after my viewing seemed to feel that way. Still, a film that divides and inspires strong emotion is always worth watching. It is rare that I leave a film feeling I have missed the whole point but Manga-jima left me with nothing other than a desire that it was a better film and a sense of disappointment for a great idea that was poorly executed. Manga-jima wants to be funny, anarchic and irrational – I am not sure it succeeded on any of those aims.
Manga-jima: Island of Cartoons was shown on April 12 and 14 at the Hong Kong International Film Festival.