Rabbit Game

Rabbit Game

Rabbit Game

Miyoshi, translated by Ryan Parker

Glacier Bay Books


80 pages

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Rabbit Game is a short graphic novel about budding erotic obsession and retro gaming, a phantom world of wish fulfillment and literal consumption linked to the placid malaise of reality by a used handheld console. The artist, Miyoshi, previously reached the attention of North American readers in the monograph Lightning Lepidopteran (TACO ché, 2020), an exercise in the familiar form of illustrations of bishōjo girls embedded in surreal landscapes, which stood out not only for the artist’s eye-popping color schemes but also for their ease in establishing dreamscapes that feel at once fresh and familiar. Miyoshi’s illustrations never quite turn to the overt ero guro of a Shintarō Kago or the dreamy photo finish moé of a Yoshitoshi ABe - there’s always something that seems to be dripping or melting out of the stable form of city pop, neon fauna merging with cluttered bedrooms amid holographic images of Lain and Neon Genesis Evangelion’s Yui Ikari. Miyoshi’s art seems to depict the singularity of pop culture, maniac fandom and hypernormal modernity that decorates the mental health of exhausted millennials and zoomers. Although illustrated in a more functional style, these themes are carried into Miyoshi’s graphic novel.

Like Miyoshi’s illustration work, Rabbit Game takes a fresh approach to not-exactly-uncharted terrain in comics influenced by anime subculture: at a quiet high school in a nondescript prefecture where days seem to stretch on endlessly, an awkward teenage boy is drawn to a mysterious teenage girl with an air of access to extra-dimensional realms, or perhaps simply an overactive imagination. The boy, Tooru, and the girl, Inaba, have known each other since childhood. Tooru is protective of Inaba, or at least he would be if he were not spending his days in a dissociative fog. Tooru quietly drifts through an aimless early summer, the awkward unfulfilling normal of postmodern youth, spending rainy days gaming indoors. Inaba stands apart from that life, making playfully cryptic statements -- “I really have eaten a dead rabbit before” -- as she skips along the road from school to convenience stores to second hand shops, declaring herself princess of the moon.[1] Tooru is not so much drawn to Inaba as he is isolated by his friendship with her, as fellow classmates gossip amd friends complain about Inaba's strange and immature habits. One day, Inaba offers Tooru an old handheld game console, a cute yet unwieldy battery-powered hunk of plastic which only plays one game “where the goal is to turn into a rabbit” - the titular “Rabbit Game”. She takes his hand and they appear, for a moment, to fly.

Tooru powers on the Rabbit Game and the comic Rabbit Game powers on with it, the naturalistic setting dripping away into a surrealistic feast of libidinal pop culture, abstract energy pulses and platters of peaches - anthropomorphic bunnies and bodies melting into oozing piles of jelly while matter disintegrates into jittery repetitive lines of static. Before Tooru begins his game he wonders to himself: “Do I like Inaba?” In the liminal space of the game, the psychological boundaries between himself, Inaba and his confused adolescent desires merge and disintegrate. What follows would be a waste to describe in detail as the work lends itself to subjective reading, but throughout the game Inaba’s assertion that she has eaten a dead rabbit is restated and warped obliquely with increasingly alarming implications which can only be resolved in an abstract auto-cannibalization, body and mind guided by the synapses sent through handheld wires, charged by battery power.

The psychedelia into which Rabbit Game descends is shaded in pop culture hues familiar to the loosely defined umbrella of otaku culture which the work comments on, but its surreal game space also bears an odd, clearly intentional resemblance to leftist avant-garde comics such as those found in the pages of Garo magazine by the likes of Tsuge, Hayashi et al., namely the high contrast referential pop compositions one might find made out of a recontextualized film still, or an oblique outline of a woman set against oppressively hatched abstractions. Such oddly foreboding minimalism suddenly, humorously bursts out in the middle of a comic that is otherwise recognizable as a tangential remix of denpa tropes, a loosely defined subgenre which itself burst out from otaku subculture’s transubstantiation of mass media into the new normal of pop culture exports. There’s something to this witty melding of disparate, particular aesthetics - Garo in the '60s and the anime studio GAINAX in the '90s could not be more disparate entities, but both were a home to works that spoke directly to the disenfranchisement and dissatisfaction of young people atomized by postwar capitalism and rapid industrialization. Bringing these aesthetics together also unmakes certain expectations: Rabbit Game doesn’t end with the trademark gekiga ironic pan away to scenery, but conventional narrative satisfaction similarly drifts off into a symbolic aether that confounds a fandom-inclined reader's attempts to 'solve' the narrative mechanics, to literalize the abstraction present in anime touchstones as roadmaps to decipher. There is also, perhaps, an ironic nod to the popular and increasingly dominant media mix of the isekai genre, whereby a nebbishy protagonist is sucked into the trendy fantasy world of an MMORPG.[2] In Rabbit Game, rather than stepping into the magical world of online gaming, a boy powers on an old battery powered portable game that absolutely no one would care about enough to remember, and enters a deeply personal dreamscape that at times resembles the aesthetics of avant-garde publications from a leftist comics magazine of the late '60s.

A mundane sequence may summarize Rabbit Game best. Tooru is lying in bed, fidgeting through his pockets for the batteries he needs to power his console while thumbing through texts on his phone, and thinks off-handedly about his crush on Inaba - feelings that he denies to himself with the familiar abjection of a deeply repressed adolescent. Briefly we see Tooru’s hazy, idealized image of Inaba: wobbling lines and hazy screentones finding their way into the shape of her cheerful figure. He bolts upright out of his reverie, powers on the game, and experiences a shift in consciousness. The psychedelic imagery that follows is much more exciting, but these two panels are narratively crucial because they lend themselves to being misread as a potentially familiar experience - that of furtively masturbating to an image of an anime girl on one’s smartphone while fatigued. This overwhelmingly normal tension of reality and fantasy, boredom and whimsy, identification and possession, 3D young adult and 2D bishōjo, pulses beneath the surface of Rabbit Game: an overwhelming fear of getting off that fractures stable identities - the personal apocalypse at the end of consumerism.

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[1] There are a number of references to the Kaguya-hime myth, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Kenji Miyazawa's children's fantasy novel Night on the Galactic Railroad, all frequent referential touchstones for Japanese visual novels and dating sims - make of that what you will.

[2] Like the superhero IP multiverses that have swallowed American comics whole and gobble up more and more pop culture as we speak, the contemporary isekai is a corporate concoction parasitic to subcultural fandom’s enthusiasm for drawing connections between series, characters, and concepts, pulling together a complex metafictional cosmology that just happens to be copyrighted: the theft of our dreams. After all, why is it that the games in isekai franchises always end up resembling $80.00 triple-A MMOs for next gen consoles, tabletop games owned by the same publisher as the light novel, or smartphone apps where you can only “win” by paying an arm and a leg for DLC?