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].
Shigeru Mizuki [水木しげる ] (1922 – 2015)
Shigeru Mizuki [水木しげる ] (1922 – 2015), the creator of the Gegege Kitaro
manga series, was a lifelong student of the otherworld.
Although he is best known for his fictional works inspired by Japan’s lores of supernatural beings (called youkai), I have always thought that his magnum opus were his autobiographical accounts in manga format, namely:
- Nononba [のんのんばあとオレ] (1977)
- Showa: A History of Japan [コミック昭和史] (1998-1989)
- Boku no Isshou wa Gegege no Rakuen da [ボクの一生はゲゲゲの楽園だ] (2001)
These are memoirs of his life – drawn from memories happy and tragic from a childhood during the Great Depression surrounded by the mysteries of the Tottori countryside, early adulthood as a lowly foot soldier in a brutal war which left him with several near-death experiences and an amputated arm, his subsequent years as a struggling manga artist, and finally his prosperous and mature years in which he was free to explore the supernatural side of the world which had always fascinated him. With nostalgia and poignancy, he depicted his lively, lovable and oddball family and friends. Without illusions, he also painted the terrible events in history that claimed the best of his youthful years. Interestingly, he also spoke with frankness about his encounters with inexplicable mysteries.
‘Arakawa Under the Bridge’ [荒川アンダー ザ ブリッジ] Vol 1 – 14 by Hikaru Nakamura was serialized on Young Gangan between 2004 and 2015. It was partly adapted into anime by Akiyuki Shinbo in 2010.
Synopsis: Kou Ichinomiya is born the scion of a powerful commercial empire in Japan and is himself a high-achieving university student who is already running his own business enterprises. One day, he falls over a bridge and falls into a river, and is rescued by a young woman named Nino, who claims to be an alien from Venus. Kou asks her for a way for him to repay her, and Nino tells him to make her fall in love with him, thus beginning Kou’s life of living under the bridge with her. Kou gradually learns that under the bridge is the home of a group of eclectic, borderline insane individuals with hints of mysterious pasts involved in espionage, warfare, ESP experiments, the mafia, high politics, stardom and space travel…
Continuing from the first part of this series, perhaps fifty years from now Usamaru Furuya will be remembered as the David Bowie of the manga industry. David Bowie had experimented with many artistic personas (Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke etc), and likewise Usamaru Furuya – having devoted his early works to mystical visions, alchemical Great Work and soul searching – made a 180 degree turn with the launch of Teiichi no Kuni [帝一の國] (2010-2016), a political thriller set in a high school that is metaphorically a microcosm of power struggles in Japan’s arena of realpolitik.
The Third Phase of Usamaru Furuya and Teiichi no Kuni
Whenever I think of Usamaru Furuya [古屋兎丸] (1968 – present), I cannot help but also think of Yoshihiro Togashi [冨樫義博] (1966 – present) as though they were two peas on the same pod. When I look at their photos, I even seem to spot a certain quality of kindred spirits between the two of them. Although they are different in artistic styles and work in different genres, they both share a deeply cynical, homophobic view of human nature and they are both, in my mind, what the Japanese call kisai [鬼才], or demonic genius.
The two men were born only two years apart, but they have followed very different trajectories as manga artists. Fame came to Yoshihiro Togashi early at the age of 24 with the launch of Yu Yu Hakusho [幽☆遊☆白書] (1990); he produced his best work Level E [レベルE] (1995) between the age of 29 and 31, before slipping into mediocrity in Hunter X Hunter (1998 -) and finally to artistic inactivity since 2012.
‘Ratai no Kigen’ [裸体の起源] from ‘Garden’ (2000) – a fantasy story inspired by Hieronymus Bosch; it depicts how in a garden where mankind are born naked and go about naked, a new human being is born wearing clothes.
In the manga industry, there are early-bloomers and then there are late-bloomers. Fuyumi Soryo [惣領冬実] was born in 1959, which makes her too young to have joined the company of the Year 24 Group, whose best works were published back in the 1970s and whose flow of creativity seems to have receded since. This year, she turns 57 and, along with her contemporaries Minako Narita [成田美名子] (born in 1960) and Reiko Shimizu [清水玲子] (born in 1963), are probably the oldest josei manga artists still active, and producing the best works of their lives at that.
The year 2015 saw this manga winning two prestigious awards – 1st place of Manga Taishou [マンガ大賞] and the grand prize in the manga division of Japan Media Arts Festival held by Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs [文化庁メディア芸術祭マンガ部門]. You have my word that these awards are well-deserved.
Kakukaku Shikajika [かくかくしかじか] by Akiko Higashimura [東村アキコ] is a retelling of the author’s own life story from undergoing Japan’s exam hell to be admitted into a good art college, then graduating at a time of recession with no job prospects and ending up with work at a call centre while working at night to produce manga, to finally getting a break as a manga artist. Against the background of all these life events, there is her art teacher Kenzou Higata, who is known for his severity, eccentricity as well as his boundless selflessness in respect of his students.
In 2008, the manga artist Setona Mizushiro [水城せとな] turned 37 and began serializing Shitsuren Chocolatier [失恋ショコラティエ] and Black Rose Alice [黒薔薇アリス]. Both of these titles mark a dramatic departure from her earlier works and style. In the distant past after her first debut, she had been known primarily for BL short stories; between 2004 and 2008 she began (in my opinion) a good but not great psycho-mythical drama After School Nightmare [放課後保健室]. With the launch of Shitsuren Chocolatier and Black Rose Alice in 2008 however, she suddenly burst forth as a mature creative force to be reckoned with. Incidentally both of these titles deal with the singular phenomenon of unrequited love dragging on for the best of an individual’s biologically limited procreative life – just when do you call it quits?
Historie Vol.9 by Hiroshi Iwaaki
The first thing I did after I finished the latest Vol. 9 of Historie [ヒストリエ] by Hitoshi Iwaaki [岩明均] was to look up Iwaaki-sensei’s year of birth, so that I can calculate how many earthly years may be left for him to finish this incomparable epic, of which Vol.9 is still setting the stage.
Historie is the story of Eumenes of Cardia from boyhood to manhood. The real Eumenes in history is remembered as the clever, talented, wily and resourceful royal secretary of Alexander the Great, who later discarded the pen and took up the sword as a military commander (and one of the commanders active in the dividing the spoils of Alexander’s empire after his sudden death at that). If the chips had fallen the right way, it would not be inconceivable for us today to learn of the Eumenes as the successor to Alexander. However, Eumenes had two things working against him. First, he was a foreigner – a Greek in the court of Macedonia, which meant he was an outsider and out of the game of forging useful alliances through marriage like his Macedonian peers. Secondly, he began his career as a secretary, which in the macho culture of Macedonia was seen as a negative. In addition, the major irony is that although Eumenes was the most ardent loyalist to the royal house of Macedonia from start to finish, he was declared an outlaw in the bizarre Game-of-Thrones environment after Alexander’s death. As the historian James Romm summarized in Ghost on the Throne: The Death of Alexander the Great and the Bloody Fight for His Empire:
“Such was the strange position Eumenes found himself in amid the turmoil of the civil war. He alone of all the leaders in that war had gained a major battlefield victory. Yet he had ended up without a country, cause, or commander to fight for. His cavalry was good enough to win against any challenger – but just what he could win was beyond’s anyone’s surmise.”