Review: Velveteen and Mandala by Jiro Matsumoto

cover of the manga Velveteen & MandalaVelveteen & Mandala by Jiro Matsumoto
Vertical (August 2011)
344 pages; $16.99 paperback; $13.99 digital e-book
Reviewed by Danica Davidson

Velveteen & Mandala opens with a young woman named Velveteen waking up in the crowded tank where she lives. With her is another young woman named Mandala. They live in a dystopian Japan, where fighter planes fly overhead and zombies (called corpses or deadizens) roam. It’s never fully explained how the world came to be this way, though there are some references to how humans have messed up the environment. At any rate, these two young women have a job to do: kill the zombies.

Time jumps around, and eventually we see that Velveteen and Mandala met when Velveteen intervened as Mandala was being physically abused by bullies in high school. But very little is all that clear in this manga. Its sketchy artwork matches with its strange, surreal story. There are times to wonder, “Is this short, thrown-out line indicative of something deeper in the story?” This is a manga where you just sit back and go on a ride, and you might not exactly know where that ride took you, but the visuals are bound to be stuck in your head.

That’s because Velveteen & Mandala is more graphic than manga tend to be. While some things are hinted at, other things are very explicitly shown, including a zombie rape scene, Velveteen going to the bathroom, and casual nudity. Manga creator Jiro Matsumoto even breaks the fourth wall of manga in this, to have characters give comments about how their manga creator has “no class.”

By this very nature Velveteen & Mandala has made itself something of a controversial cult classic. It’s definitely not for everyone, and some people will be repulsed by reading it. Others will find it daring and innovative for going places most manga wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole. There are some bloody, violent scenes in it, but somehow those aren’t more explicit than other scenes where people remain alive. At the same time, it’s not like all these graphic scenes are in there because the creator is trying to make a deep point, or that these scenes are necessary for a tight plot. It basically feels as if they’re in there because they can be, because the creator wants to see what sort of a reaction he can get from readers.

But while parts of this manga really stick out, there are other themes in it that fit well within more usual manga boundaries. Pretty young women fighting brutally is not unheard of, and this includes manga that have pretty girls with guns. Nor are dystopian worlds with planes overhead and vague references to war and destruction at all rare in manga. Much of this taps into Japan’s collective memory of World War II and bombings that citizens experienced.

The relationship between Velveteen and Mandala is interesting, partly because neither woman seems fully there, and partly because they go back and forth between being annoyed at each other and than still having some sort of friendship.

At the end of the day, Velveteen & Mandala is unashamedly and boisterously what it is, going full throttle after its interests.

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