August 27, 2008

Much of anime production goes on in the suburbs of Tokyo, in Mitaka-shi and the surrounding region. (Former visitors to the Ghibli Museum will remember this particular train station, but studios like Pierrot, 4C, and Production I.G. all have their offices in parts beyond. Most maps of Tokyo don’t include details on this region, perhaps because they assume that no one in their right mind would be interested.) Similarly, Comikket occurs at the Tokyo Big Sight – and like most convention centres, it’s at the edge of town. In both cases, finding in-the-flesh otaku culture can seem like it requires a bit of hiking.

Then you hit Mandarake.

Shibuya is likely the most-filmed location in Tokyo. When visitors say that Tokyo looks like Blade Runner, they’re likely referring to Shibuya. It’s a series of upscale shopping malls, karaoke towers, music shops, used clothing stores, and dessert stands all wedged together like crooked, glittering teeth. Tower Records shares its playlist with a whole city block. Stories-high monitors broadcast commercials for manga-to-film adaptations. Everything is disposable and transient. It’s all very William Gibson.

But it’s also the location of a COSPA store (where you can purchase, of all things, a pair of Evangelion-themed jeans) and the gem I stumbled upon: Mandarake.

We almost missed it. We were exhausted, our feet were sore, and it was beginning to rain – though the humidity made it seem as though the skyscrapers were simply condensing. I paused to take a picture of what appeared to be a manga-style mural advertising a club. But the grubby television screen above the door showed us closed-circuit surveillance footage of the interior: stacks of manga.

After a long, spooky climb down a mirrored staircase lit entirely by red stage lights and blinking strobes, I emerged into what is perhaps one of the finest comics shops in all Tokyo.

Every city has a good comics shop. (Toronto, where I live, has several, and residents feel about their favourite store the way the English do about their local pubs.) But few can boast a good shop for fans. It’s a subtle-but-important distinction: good comics shops will have plenty of merchandise, helpful and knowledgeable staff, and enough room to move around. However, they might be missing out-of-print or rare items. They might not have a good buy-back policy. And if you live outside Japan, it’s almost guaranteed that you can’t buy doujinshi there.

Mandarake is a comics shop. It’s also a doujinshi shop, video store, cosplay vendor, antiques dealer, and all-around hobby house. It’s the place to go if you want first-edition capsule toys, models (both official merchandise and fan-crafted sculptures), out-of-print comics, manga and doujinshi (both Japanese and otherwise), cosplay items, rare promotional materials like posters, t-shirts, and toys, soundtracks, drama CDs, DVDs, VHS tapes, cassettes…if it exists, it’s either at Mandarake or in someone else’s private collection.

“Ah,” you’re saying, “but with such a selection, and in such a tourist trap as Shibuya, it must be mainstream.”

Well, that depends – on what you call mainstream. The rumours about Japan are true, in some respects: your local kombini will have both pornography and hentai manga (and manga of every other variety) next to the newspaper and Japan’s seemingly-endless supply of craft magazines. And yes, some of those will be shounen-/shoujo-ai. All of this is great, of course – bookstores in Japan are epic enterprises (the one local to our hotel has 9 floors), and it’s nice to find so much reading material on the way to the train station.

So, is Mandarake mainstream? Yes – for Tokyo. Meaning that the kids we saw dragging their reluctant parents behind them were in fact leading them into a den not only of comics, but pornography, and not only pornography, but gay pornography.

I love this city.

This isn’t to say that Mandarake is strictly a porn vendor. There are plenty of “normal” funnybooks on offer – we picked up a hilarious Evangelion doujinshi omnibus apparently sanctioned by GAINAX, which features a skyscraper-tall Misato defeating an Angel that looks suspiciously like the Flying Spaghetti Monster – and many of them feature straight people in heterosexual relationships. It’s just that there’s a whole room for yaoi/yuri comics (the room is marked “comics for women”), and a whole hentai area, too, all of it surrounded by glass cases full of antique AstroBoy and Godzilla toys.

I cannot tell you where Mandarake is. Tokyo has the most bizarre and frustrating systems of address on the planet (echolocation would be more efficient), and many of the streets have no number or name. I can’t even show you photographs of the interior, because photography is forbidden. The store is like Avalon – wander long enough to get lost, and you’ll find it. Turn your head for two minutes and it’ll vanish behind a veil of soft rain and neon light. If you’re lucky enough to stumble across it, make sure you stay a while.

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Very, very cool.

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