Manga Friday: Boy oh Boy
Since last week was steeped in girlyness, I thought it was only right to go entirely the other way this week. So, in honor of the weekend American men spend eating and watching football on TV, here are three manga about racing cars, slaughter, mayhem, flying blood, secret fighting techniques, and other topics of interest primarily to the male gender.
Now, I’ve never seen The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, but if anyone who has seen that movie wants to claim that it’s nothing but a rip-off of Initial D, I’d be ready to believe it. It’s set in a small provincial town, where about the only exciting thing for teen boys to do is to race cars down the local mountain. And so they do – and, even more so, they talk about racing, and cars, and the mountain, and racing techniques, and whose car is faster than whose, in interminable detail. There definitely is an audience for this, but I’m not it.
Our hero is one Tak Fujiwara, the typical semi-oblivious protagonist of a million contemporary manga. He’s developed excellent driving techniques without even realizing it – hey, this story seem to say, shamelessly, to its readers, maybe you have also learned some really cool skill and you don’t even know it! (And all the readers over the age of sixteen harrumph.)
On top of that, I found the art unpleasant – the cars and backgrounds are lovingly detailed, as you would expect, but the people stand stiffly and are drawn clumsily. Their mouths in particular draw attention for all of the wrong reasons. If you are absolutely nuts about cars, you might well enjoy Initial D. For the rest of us, though, it’s a bit too much of a muchness.
Battle Royale is even better known, and more controversial. (Though I haven’t seen any American parent raising a stink about it yet – just give it time, though.) It was originally a novel by Koushun Takami and was adapted into first a manga series (of which I read the first volume) and a 2000 film. The plot set-up is quite simple: in a near-future (or alternate present) totalitarian Japan, one class of ninth graders is secretly chosen each year to take part in “The Program.” The kids are transported to an uninhabited island, each given a survival kit and a weapon, tagged with explosive radio-tracking collars, and told to kill each other until only one winner is left.
The first volume mostly follows Shuuya Nanahara, but, given the premise and the butcher’s bill in this book, I’d hesitate to assume that he’s the “hero” or that he’ll make it to the end. He’s an orphan, part of the unlucky class this year, along with his best friend Yoshitoki Kuninobu. (Am I giving anything away to say that the hero’s best friend does not fare well in a story about everyone but one person dying?)
Battle Royale sets up its world quickly and completely, introducing us to a bunch of the boys we expect will be most prominent in the story, and then dumps them all on the island and into the hands of the vile “teacher” Yonemi Kanon. It’s very bloody and shocking, as it’s meant to be. The art is cleaner, with more gradations of shading and texture, than I’m used to seeing in manga, and it’s very easy to follow. The character’s faces are very clearly distinguishable, which is very important in a series with as many important characters as this one does (even if most of them are going to be killed by the end).
Battle Royale obviously touched a nerve deep in Japan’s pop-culture- and test-obsessed society; it’s a frightening idea that seemed plausible to its audience. American kids don’t face exactly the same kind of winner-take-all exams that their Japanese counterparts do – though it’s becoming more so than it was in my day – but the image of high school as a hellish whirlpool of death and competition will only seem slightly exaggerated to those currently trapped in its embrace. (Ironically, because of the violence, Battle Royale has to be rated “M” and supposedly restricted to readers over 18 – when, of course, its natural audience is all younger than that.)
It’s a disturbing book, one I could respect but not really like. It did what it set out to do excellently, and I can’t fault its over-the-top metaphor. But I’m not sure I’ll be back for volume 2; my high school years were very long ago.
Last this week is another manga adapted from a novel, The Yagyu Ninja Scrolls: Revenge of the Hori Clan, taken from Futaro Yamada’s novel by Masaki Segawa. It’s a more traditional work of historical fiction, though in a very modern art style that to my eye shows influences from the Image school of artists, or possibly from Frank Miller’s middle period.
An evil lord has put down an insurrection brutally, and seven very nasty vassals have slaughtered a group of women related to the rebels on the grounds of a convent. A few of the women survived – only the young, attractive ones, as far as I can tell – due to the timely arrival of a nun connected by family to the ruling family. The surviving nuns of course swear vengeance, and a wily and quick-mouthed ninja with a mysterious past is of course recruited to teach them what they will need to know. This book is all set-up: the slaughter doesn’t happen until about half-way through, and the guy on the cover doesn’t show up until after that. So we’ll have to wait until at least volume 2 for some actual vengeance. This one is also rated “M,” but it’s easier to take, simply because it is a bit formulaic. We know the women will find their vengeance, though most of them will probably die along the way. If this is a particularly sentimental version of this story, one of the women will find love with the ninja teacher in the end; if not, he’ll probably die, too. But none of that will feel as nihilistic and devastating as Battle Royale; Yagyu Ninja, to this American, feels like a much simpler and more popularized version of Koike & Kojima’s Lone Wolf and Cub series. (So, if you liked that, but wished it had a little less Buddhist angst, you’ll be very happy with Yagyu Ninja Scrolls.)
Initial D, Vol. 1
Tokyopop, 2003, $9.99
Battle Royale, Vol. 1
Koushun Takami & Masayuki Taguchi; English adaptation by Keith Giffen
Tokyopop, 2004, $9.95
The Yagyu Ninja Scrolls: Revenge of the Hori Clan, Vol. 1
Original story by Futaro Yamada, manga by Masaki Segawa
Del Rey Manga, 2007, $13.95
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
Publishers who would like their books to be reviewed at ComicMix should contact ComicMix through the usual channels or email Andrew Wheeler directly at acwheele (at) optonline (dot) net.