Sneeze is a collection of Noaki Urusawa's recent short stories. They're ditties, trifles, little bites of whimsy, and oddness that reveal his preoccupations and obsessions. As the title suggests, they're sneezes of his personality. And minor Urusawa is still fun.
Urusawa is a sort of Alan Moore-esque manga creator best known for long-running series like Pineapple Army, Yawara!, and the latter deconstructionist epics Pluto, which reimagined an old Astro Boy story into a Science Fiction saga about war crimes and atonement, Monster, a cross-continent hunt for a serial killer that raises questions the moral and ethical responsibility and complicity, 20th Century Boys, a near-future examination of how disposable pop culture can become an apocalyptic cult that overtakes the world, and most recently Billy Bat, an extension of that theme that portrays how the creation of a popular cartoon character that becomes the root of an apocalyptic conspiracy that spans the 20th and 21st Centuries. It's interesting to see how he tackles short stories.
A Wistful Tour Through a Creator's Mind
Sneeze is ten stories that include Roald Dahl-espe entertainments with twists in the tail and some autobiographical stories about Urusawa's nerdy musical tour of Los Angeles and America, steeped in Boomer nostalgia. In the latter, he geeks out about meeting Paul McCartney and Neil Young. He's reverent about meeting Jack Oliver, the former head of Apple Records, to hear stories about the old Apple days. There are also semiautobiographical stories about a fictional rock bands that play to nostalgic older fans, another band that expresses their admiration and respect for a stripper at a club on a drunken night out, both of which express Urusawa's sentimental heart over rock music and the passing of time. There's even a meditation on guitar players and their different play styles.
It's the genre shorts in Sneeze that really show Urusawa's range. A sack sad Yakuza is charged with assassinating his boss and hires a weird nerd who can kill people with his mind. A Tom and Jerry-esque cartoon homage about two comedy mice trying to steal a piece of cake to give to a female mouse as a romantic gift. An American small-town reporter discovers his fate has been tied to a psychic's predictions about the course of his life that he thought were fake, only to find them coming true when he investigates a local crime. There's a short story that's a spoof of Ultraman that was created for a French magazine. That serves as a twin commentary on Japanese pop culture with the story about a French kaiju nerd (who looks like Comic Book Store Guy from The Simpsons) visiting a Japan ravaged by kaiju and depends on kaiju tourism. The latter is an allegory for Western geeks who love Japanese pop culture and the price they don't know Japan pays for their enjoyment.
If there's a common theme that runs through all the stories in the collection, it's a sense of wistfulness – Urusawa creates stories that look back with fondness at his loves: music, gangster stories, goofy capers, funny animal cartoons, monster movies, Science Fiction. Urusawa is of the generation of manga creators who looked outward to the West and created stories designed to appeal to everyone instead of an insular Japanese audience. His art and storytelling style show a lot of European influences that make his work unique and instantly recognizable. Sneeze is not necessarily a good introduction to his work – that would be his longer series – but even his most whimsical ditties are rich in style and substance. They allow him to show his goofy and funny side as his heart tumbles out along his sleeve.