[Manga] Yoshikazu Yasuhiko’s Historical Drama (Part I): ‘Namuji’

Vol. 1 of 'Namuji' by Yoshikazu Yasuhiko

Vol. 1 of ‘Namuji’ by Yoshikazu Yasuhiko

Although Yoshikazu Yasuhiko [安彦良和] (1947 – present) is most widely known as one of the creators of the popular Gundam series, I have always thought that the height of his creative powers was during the 1990s, when he began to move away from the sci-fi genre and started to produce a dozen different manga stories that were based on various controversies in world history.

Namuji [ナムジ] (1989 – 1991), his first attempt in historical fiction when he was 42 years old, was (in my opinion) also his best work. It has won the Excellence Prize at the 19th Japanese Cartoonists’ Association Award in 1990, and is the first storyarc of the Kojiki [古事記] trilogy.

The entire Kojiki trilogy is an imaginative reinterpretation of myths related to Japan’s beginnings as a nation, and the story begins with one of the most well-known deities in Japanese mythology – namely Ōkuninushi [大国主].

Vol. 2 of 'Namuji'

Vol. 2 of ‘Namuji’

Who was Ōkuninushi? Also known by his other name Ōnamuji (“Ō” being an honorific to his name Namuji), legend has it that he was a descendant of the deity Susanoo and a god of nation-building, farming, business and medicine; he was also originally the ruler of the land of Izumo until he was replaced by Ninigi-no-Mikoto, a grandson of Amaterasu. In compensation, he was made ruler of the unseen world of spirits and magic.

In Yasuhiko-sensei’s story, however, the eponymous protagonist Namuji began life as an orphan who reached the shores of Japan on a boat. In spite of his unknown origins, he was branded wa-jin [倭人] (a person of the land of Wa, or Japan) by the governing tribe of Futsu which originally came from the continent. He worked among slave labourers in a mine until one day Suseri, princess and heir to the Futsu throne, came to the mine for a visit. Namuji impressed her with his physical prowess and became her personal servant.

Namuji was an ambitious young man – he was good-looking, quick of mind and physically strong. In spite of the prejudices he had to overcome as a wa-jin, eventually he took Suseri as his wife after impregnating her and came to be regarded as a joint ruler. From then on he set his mind on uniting all the warring factions in Japan and dreamed of eventually crossing the sea to Korea. In any case, up to this point the story follows the classical shounen formula of ‘work hard, succeed and get the girl’.

And then came the reversal of Namuji’s fortunes. He was captured by enemy forces in battle, and subsequently spent 10 years imprisoned in a dungeon. By the time he was released, he had became a shadow of his former glorious self… He took as his second wife Tagiri, a much younger girl who took pity on him during his years of captivity. Afterwards, he was made to join a military force to wage war against Suseri’s tribe.

Summarizing the story in this way does not really do justice to the complexities of Namuji. Against a complicated background of tribal politics, you also get a fair measure of man versus nature, man versus the otherworld, and man versus the whims of destiny. I also thought the story had a clever way of contrasting the protagonist during the peak of his powers and during his years of decline by putting his first wife, the proud and queenly Suseri, and his second wife, the gentle and pliant Tagiri, into one room during a scene towards the end. Suseri thinks she has ‘won’ – because Tagiri has never known (and will never know) the more magnificent, more virile and more attractive Namuji in the prime of his youth.

The next two storyarcs of the Kojiki trilogy are focused on the descendants of characters who appeared in the first part of trilogy. The second storyarc Jinmu [神武] (1992 – 1995) tells of the ascension of Emperor Jinmu, the first emperor of Japan. The third storyarc Nomi no Ou [蚤の王] (2001) is a fictional story about the founder of the sport sumo, Nomi no Sukune.

Having read thus far, you probably already have a feel of the taboo-defying attitude of Yasuhiko-sensei’s works (for one thing – by suggesting that some of Japan’s mythical deities were not just only human beings but also ‘foreigners’ who actually looked down on wa-jin). Naturally, if you had known nothing in advance about Japan’s mythology, you would probably not have been unsettled by the boldness of the story and simply enjoyed it as an adventure tale.

Next, Yasuhiko-sensei devoted his artistic creativity to another historical trilogy – a trilogy set in a time of turmoils – the first half of the 20th century in Asia.

[To be continued]

 

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