By Zoe Camp October 21, 2022
Lawrence English is a lifelong otaku, i.e. Westerner in love with Japanese culture, and he has the backlog to prove it. The bookcases in his office are filled with three decades of tankobons, many of which are first editions. He recently introduced his children to Robotech (1985), the robot space opera. And throughout an hour-long Skype conversation from his home in Brisbane, Australia, the composer, artist, curator and Room40 the founder makes a long list of his favorite anime and manga (Dr Stone, Serial Experiments Lain, Akira) before following it up with a list of email recommendations less than 12 hours later.
It’s no surprise, then, that as lockdowns hit and humanity seeks refuge in familiar modes of escape, Englishman finds solace in the manga that kickstarted his love affair with the medium: Yoshihisa Tagami’s 1988 sci-fi epic. GREY, which he discovered as a child while browsing comic book stores in the late 80s. One of the first serialized manga released outside of Japan, it follows the titular protagonist (an anti-hero looking soft-spoken and bullshit-free, so cool and effortless he would make Mad Max blush) in his quest to kill a berserk AI that wiped out humanity with nuclear weapons and enslaved the survivors before becoming the equivalent of God in the universe. (Spoiler alert: no one wins except in the incredibly underwhelming animated series, which has a slightly happier ending.) Rereading beloved comics is an inherently nostalgic experience, sure, but for Englishman – an artist long fascinated by time, memory, and “the politics of perception” –Grey provided a portal through which English could reconnect with his inner child and all the hopes and dreams attached to it.
“When I came back and re-read the manga, I obviously had this intense sense of memory, and I guess, reflection on that time,” he says. “And thankful, I guess, that the core elements of me that allowed them to exist were completely trapped in that very young, awkward teenage body.” Inspired and recharged by the reunion, he set to work creating a musical companion to the original manga, in chronological order, with one track for each of the 14 chapters. “It was one of the fastest records I’ve ever done, in a way,” he says. “I’m usually very, really, slow, but I was determined to test this idea of, like, 1.) Can I still do this? And 2.) Am I still interested in doing this?” He finished by asserting this hypothesis on both counts, in part because GREYThe pressing themes of protest and community fit so well with the creative and political philosophies of English, not to mention the current socio-political landscape.
“I think in a lot of Japanese manga, and in other traditions as well, there’s no denial because it’s part of the fabric of reality now, so we have to think of ways around that,” says Lawrence. “It opens up these possibilities of thinking about how things can feel the affective part of this experience, but it creates these opportunities for dialogue. It’s really important: it’s how we relate, how we open doors for each other, and it’s also how we, you know, allow each other to recognize things that are going on. around us that may not be directly in front of us….influence what we see, but may not necessarily define What we see.”
The end product, Approachuses Grey as the basis of an industrial ambient experience that English likens to listening to a factory from a distant hill. Fans of the manga will instantly recognize the similarities between the album’s dull, heavy atmosphere and the manga’s dark, dystopian settings, from the hissing steam billowing from a giant robot (“Nagoshi”) to the digitized drone echoing through the halls of the AI Antichrist. (“The city”). The story, on the other hand, is more ambiguously defined; the undulating drones and flowing textures of “Toy” and “Losing Red,” whose titles reference two of the manga’s key narrative moments, create a sense of movement without expending any kinetic energy, as if all battles are taking place outside screen. “The echoes of the machines inside, the kind of piercing white noise of the steam coming out of the machines or the cries of the suffering working class inside… it seems like there’s some distance there- low,” said English. “It’s a reference to this landscaping that Tagami uses – I really wanted to have this feeling of expanse, [like] you are inside that experience.
Even with these parallels, it’s not so much about a faithful adaptation of fictional events as a personal reflection on how the art we experience in our youth shapes our perceptions, our values and, indeed, our whole lives – often without us even realizing it. this.
“You recognize these very small interactions that you have with, whether it’s literature, film or music, they become part of your economy, your structural core,” says English. “And they also become a shield because, you know, you don’t have to participate in this other thing that you’re not interested in; there are choices and ways of being that are not necessarily what you see in front of you. I think every child who grew up somewhere, a little out of the way, and who hasn’t found their posture yet, has that moment.
Would English have followed the same path as a creator if he hadn’t set foot in this comic book store? Maybe. Maybe not. Anyway, he says, “I’m grateful that my moment was through things like [GREY] and that I was able to negotiate it in a way that made me double… Like, I want to do this thing. I want to continue making my fanzine; I wanna make my compilation tapes that my mom can drive me around town [to manufacture]. It’s really crazy when I think about it now, but I find it satisfying to have been able to somehow sustain those interests over time and not make them disappear. Because it’s too easy to make that happen.