Lafcadio Hearn’s The Faceless Ghost and Other Macabre Tales from Japan: A Graphic Novel


By Seán Michael Wilson & Michiru Morikawa (Shambhala Publications)
ISBN: 978-1-61180-197-2 (TPB)

If you read prose and love old stories you should really track down the works of Patrick Lafcadio Hearn, an Irish-Greek raconteur laterally renamed Koizumi Yakumo. They are wonderful and truly compelling. He was a pretty impressive character too, so you’d be best served to learn of his remarkable life too…

I’m not certain how the socially pioneering teacher, journalist, historian, translator and archivist would react to seeing some of his most engaging works translated into graphic narratives but as a renowned breaker of borders and flouter of taboos, I suspect he’d approve, even if this gleefully wry collation hadn’t been produced by such stellar luminaries as Scottish author Seán Michael Wilson (Breaking the Ten and Portraits of Violence – An Illustrated History of Radical Thinking) and his frequent collaborator Michiru Morikawa.

Wilson’s life has some parallels with Hearn’s. The Japan-based writer, educator and dedicated Humanist has written political and philosophical tracts such as Goodbye God – An Illustrated Examination of Science Vs. Religion in graphic form and has adapted Western and Eastern literary classics such as Wuthering Heights, A Christmas Carol, Sweeney Todd, and Chinese classics Tao Te Ching and The Garden, as well as original genre pieces such as urban interacial romance The Story of Lee.

Illustrator and manga artist Michiru Morikawa won the 2005 International Manga and Anime Award before going on to illustrate Wilson’s books Buskers, Yakuza Moon, The Demon’s Sermon on the Martial Arts and Musashi, amongst numerous comics series.

Hearn visited Japan as a correspondent in 1890, and fell in love with the land and the culture. He ended his days there in 1904, after marrying, becoming a Japanese citizen, teaching in numerous schools and universities and introducing the western world to the exotic enigmatic East through his writings and translations of its myths and legends.

Absurdly accessible, the tales here are gathered from the nation’s feudal period and open with a samurai yarn dubbed ‘Diplomacy’, wherein a highborn executioner performs his onerous task and plays a subtle and crafty trick upon the imminently departed to ensure that there will be no repercussions from beyond the grave…

That mordantly amusing distraction then gives way to a classic ghost story in ‘The Snow Woman’, wherein a young woodcutter survives an icy encounter with a mystical spirit at the cost of a simple promise. Tragically, in all such stories, a keeping one’s word is always impossible and leads to appalling inescapable circumstances…

Vanity and dissatisfaction fuel the saga ‘Of a Mirror and a Bell’, after the priests of Mugenyama ask the local women to donate their bronze mirrors so they can be cast into a great bell. After complying, one farmer’s wife began to bitterly regret her actions and so intense were her feelings that the mirror could not be melted down.

Wracked with guilt for her shameful intentions and the spoiling of the bell, she took her life, triggering a concatenation of unfortunate events…

After the history-making final clash between Heike (Taira) and Genji (Minamoto) clans, the rulership of Japan was decided for centuries to come. However, the sea battle created thousands of ghosts and ‘Hoichi the Earless’ relates how a blind musician and bard was tricked and beguiled by these restless spirits until a Buddhist priest intervened.

The end result was not an unqualified success…

Straight, inescapable horror drives the brief yet potent tale of a luckless merchant who encounters ‘The Faceless Ghost’, whilst love and friendship inspire the story of a young man in need of bride who prospers after he graciously saves a shark spirit and is uniquely rewarded by ‘The Gratitude of the Samebito’

As recounted in the ‘Author’s Note’ – detailing the origins and source material of the adaptions – the stories are mostly taken from Hearn’s books Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (1903) and Shadowings (1900), and come packed with sleek, informative and delightfully rambling diversions which add fabulously engaging context to the stories.

Eerie, exotic and wonderfully compelling, these “yokai” stories are gems of unease, disquiet and wonder that no lover of the strange can fail to adore.
© 2015 by Sean Michael Wilson. Illustrations © 2015 by Michiru Morikawa. All rights reserved.

Bakemonogatari volume 1


By OH!GREAT & NISIOISIN, translated by Ko Ransom (Vertical Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-947194-97-7 (PB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Fabulously Fresh Fear-Fest… 8/10

Here’s a rare treat with a lot of timely punch and just a touch of wild exoticism to boost its appeal…

Based on his own immensely popular “Light Novel” series Monogatari – 25 volumes since November 2006 with at least three more imminently pending – the incredibly prolific NISIOISIN (sometimes called Nisio Isin and creator of Katanagatari, Kubikiri Cycle and prose adaptations of Tsugumi Ohba & Takeshi Obata’s Death Note) here oversees the transformation of his biggest hit serial into manga form by artist OH! Great (AKA Ogure Ito: best known for Air Gear, Tenjo Tenge, Biorg Trinity, Soul Calibur IV and assorted outbreaks of Tekken)…

Phenomenally successful, the Monogatari series began their transformation into manga in Kodansha’s Weekly Shonen Magazine in 2017 with this retelling of the first adventure. In fact it’s the first of two books and ends on a cliffhanger, but English-language publisher Vertical have slated the concluding book for early January release, so you won’t be on tenterhooks for too long…

Third-year high school student Koyomi Araragi is not normal. That’s mostly to do with having been targeted by a vampire and almost joining the ranks of the undead. Thankfully, he was saved by weird hobo priest Meme Oshino, who has made his life quite interesting ever since…h

The story begins with ‘Hitagi Crab’ as hopeful amorously overachieving Araragi meets a cute but violently defensive (perhaps “murderously psychotic” is more accurate after she almost kills him with the lethal stationery and pencil case tools in her bag!) girl and discovers she weighs practically nothing. Hitagi Senjōgahara‘s density and earthly grounding have been taken by a giant invisible crab monster…

Eager to help – she’s damaged and dangerous, but also incredibly vulnerable and beautiful – Araragi arranges a meeting with Meme, but the outsider priest knows there’s more going on than is being admitted. His harsh response in ‘Bakemono Gatari’ reveals not only the workings and motives of the gods and monsters which still infest the physical modern world, but also the concomitant burden of human sin and misery which attracts them. When cured and liberated Senjōgahara finally admits the long-buried secrets which have twisted and changed her, she makes a seemingly impossible request of her saviours…

To Be Concluded…

Aiding comprehension, the book graciously provides a comprehensive timeline feature with ‘Bakemonogatari in Detail’ offering comparison points between prose and manga iterations, plus lists of other media versions to track for total immersion and enjoyment.
© 2018 – NISIOISIN/Oh!great. All rights reserved.
Available in in both paperback and digital formats, this book is printed in ‘read-from-back-to-front’ manga format.

The Golden Sheep Book 1


By Kaori Ozaki (Vertical Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-947194-80-9 (PB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Moving and Evergreen Family Drama… 9/10

Manga maestro Kaori Ozaki (An Angel Above the Piano, Immortal Rain, The Gods Lie) started her professional comics making at in 1993, aged 15. Since then has she become a byword for smart, compelling, sensitive storytelling, whether in the realms of high-flying fantasy or in more grounded, rationalistic human scaled stories.

Originally published in Japan as Kin no Hitsuji in Kodansha’s Afternoon magazine, The Golden Sheep falls into the latter category: examining bonds of friendship, burdens of family, dreams of success and the eternal youthful drive to escape and get away from the past. The serial began in September 2017 and ran until April 2019.

Childhood friendships are pure and earnest and wholehearted, but as Tsugu Miikura discovers, not always clearheaded or totally open. Growing up in a rural mountain community, she and classmates Sora, Yuushin and Asari swore lifelong fidelity – even burying a time-capsule of their secret wishes for the future in their favourite spot – but when the Miikuras moved to Osaka things changed. Now, six years later, with her dad gone, the large brood have been forced to move back and live with an aunt.

Although on the surface the high school pals are just bigger, there are deeply hidden and constantly growing divisions. Big city girl Tsugu now talks funny and has become a world-class rock guitarist, but doesn’t believe her soul is any different. Nevertheless, she can’t understand what has happened to her besties.

Studious Asari is superficially the same, but shows signs of becoming a really mean and backbiting sneak, whilst manga-obsessed, anime-loving Sora is now sullen, perpetually skips school and has frequent accidents that leave him battered and bruised. The biggest change is valiant Yuushin. Once a noble, honest, champion of the underdog, he’s become a cool, aloof bad boy leading a pack of young thugs and possibly even involved in criminal acts…

As Tsugu attempts to resume her place in the group, the changes they’ve all experienced push her further away from them and even her own family.

When she thwarts a suicide attempt by one of her beloved companions – at huge personal cost – she decides to run away to Tokyo with the despondent survivor. Penniless and without shelter, they skirt the fringes of a sordid world, only to stumble into another shocking surprise to her already-reeling sense of self and worth…

Alternating winning jolly charm with moving glimpses of the crisis besetting Japan’s directionless youth, The Golden Sheep promises to become a classic modern romance and survival testament for Young Adults: a book with lots to say and in a most captivating manner.
© 2018 Kaori Ozaki. All rights reserved.

Magus of the Library volume 1


By Mitsu Izumi, translated by Stephen Kohler (Kodansha Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-63236-823-2 (TPB)

Everyone knows reading is a magical experience and many fanciful tales have delightfully taken that premise at its most literal. This particular offering comes from modern manga maestro Izumi Mitsu who’s a bit of a mystery herself: preferring to let a canon of short stories and such serialised gems as 7th Garden and Ano Hi Mita Hana no Namae o Boku-tachi wa Mada Shiranai act as her credentials.

Magus of the Library was first seen in good! Afternoon as Toshokan no Daimajutsushi and has thus far filled two volumes. It’s also made the translation jump and is waiting on English-language shelves for your rapt consideration…

In a wondrous Eastern kingdom, literature is worshipped and books are venerated. Reading them is a social privilege shared with all and fostered through a string of public libraries. Sadly, the tomes themselves have become objects of great value. That means some people keep private collections and others think they have the right to dictate who reads what…

In the rural village of Amun, a strange half-breed boy named Theo Fumis is utterly addicted to reading – especially pirate adventures. A poor slum-kid disgraced by blonde hair and pointed ears, he is the subject of much abuse, particularly from merchant-turned-librarian Ossei Menes who claims the urchin is unworthy to even touch books, let alone borrow them…

Luckily, he has a few friends, a devoted – albeit broken – family, a rich imagination and unflagging optimism to reinforce his hunger to read and learn. Moreover, one day he will definitely make the pilgrimage to the incredible, fabled Aftzaak: City of Books, where prejudice and injustice don’t exist. He just knows he will…

That dream comes one step closer when a quartet of riders enter Amun. They are Kafna: legendary warrior-librarians dedicated to preserving books and the status quo allowing all to partake of knowledge. After their leader Sedona befriends little Theo, he begins to get an inkling of their true power and purpose. The enigmatic riders are in search of a wild grimoire, teeming with magic it can no longer safely contain, but soon suspect they have stumbled onto a long-prophesied chosen one who will reshape and reconnect the world…

They better hope so, for as well as rampant escaped magic dark and ingrained bigotry, peril comes constantly courtesy of dangerous forces from beyond slowly gathering and focussing their attention on the land of literature…

Packed with wide-eyed wonder and traditional adventure set pieces, Magus of the Library traces the first steps on Theo’s path of destiny with winning exuberance and plenty of action: a delightful trip every kid and all their imaginative elders will be happy to share.
© 2018 Mitsu Izumi. English translation © 2019 Mitsu Izumi. All rights reserved.

Cardcaptor Sakura Collector’s Edition volume 1


By Clamp, translated & adapted by Mika Onishi, Anita Sengupta & Karen McGillicuddy: lettered by Aaron Alexovich (Kodansha Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-63236-751-8 (HB)
After beginning as an 11-strong manga dojinshi (self-publishing or amateur) group in the late-1980s, Kuranpu – better known as CLAMP – eventually stabilised as primarily writer Ōkawa Nanase and artists Igarashi Satsuki, Nekoi Tsubaki & Mokona (Apapa). From 1989 their seamless collaborations on such series as RG Veda, Clamp Detective School, Magic Knight Rayearth, Legal Drug, xxxHolic, Chobits and so many more revolutionised Japanese comics throughout the 1990s and into the 21st century.

Beginning their profession endeavours in the shōjo (teen female) marketplace, the collective quickly began challenging established forms and eventually produced material for far more mature and demanding readerships. They even crafted a shared universe between their many divergent series, and sales in collected tankōbon volumes of their 28 different titles to date far exceeds 100 million copies.

This monolithic hardback celebration launches a line of stunning archival tomes re-presenting one of their most memorable mystic yarns: the series which made CLAMP a global creative force and created a multi-media and merchandising phenomenon which includes films, TV, music, games, apparel, themed cafes and anything else marketers could conceive of.

Kādokyaputā Sakura originally ran in Kodansha’s Nakayoshi (Good Friends Magazine) from May 1996 to July 2000, and was eventually compiled as 12 volumes of magical fantasy.

Cardcaptor Sakura features 10-year old Sakura Kinomoto, roaming the comfortably familiar environs of Tomoeda City while attempting to retrieve semi-sentient magical cards embodying different elemental, natural and physical forces before their unleashed power spells disaster for the world…

In her quest to restore these “Clow Cards” (created by sorcerer Clow Reed and imprisoned in a mighty book until their escape), dauntless Sakura is aided and advised by shapeshifting familiar Cerberus – whom she calls Kero-Chan. As “the Creature of the Seal” he was ensorcelled to keep the cards inside the titanic tome… before somebody’s inquisitiveness let all the totems out…

It helps that little Sakura has manifested natural, if untutored, mystic abilities since the escape, which the guardian beast is teaching her to properly utilise…

Significant others in her complex life include her single parent dad Professor Fujitaka Kinomoto, mean big brother Tōya and older boy-crush Yukito Tsukishiro and that all have secrets of their own that will be made known in the near future. Her greatest ally is friend and classmate (and quite possibly and potentially much more) Tomoya Daidouji: a super-wealthy confidante who diligently films all the recapture missions and provides Sakura with suitable costumes for each astounding adventure…

Elements of tragedy are fostered by the fact that Sakura’s mother is long dead, and that brief happy marriage latterly provoked an acrimonious division in the Kinomoto and Daidouji families that still triggers repercussions to this day…

The episodic escapades gathered here find the neophyte overcoming understandable doubts and fears while surviving on-the-job training by dominating and defeating the Windy, Fly, Watery and Flower cards after increasingly difficult efforts, but blithely unaware that a secret rival for control of the Clow Cards is surreptitiously stalking her…

To Be Continued…

In 2016 a sequel serial – Cardcaptor Sakura: Clear Card – dealing with Sakura’s junior high school years stared running in Nakayoshi. The saga continues…

Following earlier translated editions from Tokyopop, Madman Entertainment and Dark Horse Manga, Kodansha have established their own English-language imprint for this luxurious reissue (complete with free gift) which also offers comprehensive contextualising ‘Translation Notes’. The second volume in this series is set for a mid-September release and would combine with this book as an ideal Christmas present for the next generation of comics – or card – collectors…
© CLAMP® Shigatsu Tsuitachi Co., Ltd/Kodansha Ltd. English translation © CLAMP® Shigatsu Tsuitachi Co., Ltd/Kodansha Ltd. All rights reserved.
This book is printed in ‘read-from-back-to-front’ format. Cardcaptor Sakura Collector’s Edition volume 1 will be released on 27th June 2019 and is available for pre-order now.

Knights of Sidonia volume 1


By Tsutomo Nihei, translated by Kumar Sivasubramanian (Vertical)
ISBN: 978-1-935654-80-3

As I’ve often said, these days nobody does hard comics science fiction like the Japanese – although admittedly our own 2000AD, certain French comics artisans and the inimitable Warren Ellis are keeping the flag flying ahead of much of even manga’s greatest masters in their own mostly-unacknowledged way…

In the tech-obsessed East, the tough, no-nonsense, nuts-and-bolts mystery and refined imagination of star flight have long been blended with more fanciful and romantic futuristic themes to captivate at least five generations since Osamu Tezuka first started the ball rolling in the 1950s, making space commonplace and conceptually comfortable for the Japanese.

We in the Western world have been simultaneously enraptured and frantically trying to catch up, ever since some – too few, alas – of these manga tales first began to be translated into English at the end of the 1980s.

One of the most talented and respected proponents of the genre is Tsutomu Nihei whose triumphs have ranged from wholly self-created graphic epics such the stunning cyberpunk thriller Blame!, its prequel NOiSE, and Biomega to impressive stints on major commercial properties such as comics iterations of video game Halo and miniseries Wolverine: Snikt! for Marvel.

Born in 1971 and working in the field since 1998, the author prefers to let his works speak for him. Shidonia no Kishi began in 2009, debuting in Kodansha’s Seinen title Bessatsu Shonen Magazine and running to 13 volumes on its conclusion in September 2015.

The premise is familiar yet evergreen. A millennium from now Earth is gone. In 3394 our solar system has been destroyed by unstoppable alien monsters and the survivors of humanity have scattered to the stars in vast self-contained generational vessels as much rock as rocket ship. The diaspora has sent colonies hurtling ever outward seeking escape and survival, whilst within them humans have slowly become something different…

The eponymous Knights of Sidonia are the young pilots gifted enough to pilot colossal humanoid fighter vessels that defend the survivors and scavenge interstellar resources for the ever-moving colony our story concerns…

The story begins with ‘Nagate Tanikaze’s Choice’ as an unexpected event occurs. Unknown to all the inhabitants of the hive-like colony ship, years ago, an old man took his infant grandson and vanished deep into the bowels of the vessel. Raised in utter isolation with only tapes, a flight simulator/VR trainer and stolen food, the boy grew into a tough, hardy and independent survivor.

When, after three years, Nagate Tanikaze finally accepts that the corpse in the chair is no longer his “gramps”, he regretfully heads up in search of food and is soon caught by the incredulous authorities. Starving and impossibly weak, he adamantly refuses to undergo the commonplace genetic procedure that will enable him to photosynthesise starlight. He might well be the only traditionally human being on Sidonia…

His captors-turned-benefactors accept his idiosyncrasies and welcome him into their austere, oddly passionless society, but some people seem to seethe with hostility at Tanikaze’s presence. He is assigned quarters at a dorm and welcomed by Ms. Hiyama, a motherly amalgam of human, bear and cyborg. Nagate spends his time acclimatising by aimlessly wandering the vast labyrinthine cocoon which has patterned itself on an idealised 20th century Japan, but trouble still finds him after he wanders into a female photosynthesis chamber and is beaten up by the outraged girls “feeding” inside…

In the higher echelons of the ship, passive panic is gripping the ship’s leaders. Long-range sensors have spotted a Gauna – one of the Brobdingnagian bio-horrors that invaded and destroyed Earth ten centuries past – and with grim fatality the Garde pilots are mobilised.

Tanikaze has been tested and found to be a superb pilot prospect. As the ship goes on alert, his actual training begins, converting his years on the simulator into hands-on experience…

‘Nagate Tanikaze’s Maiden Battle’ finds the trainee mecha-rider still experiencing some prejudice but making his first friend in pretty Izana Shinatose, a fellow Garde pilot who adopts the outsider, acting as his guide and social mentor. Izana is warm and welcoming so it’s not too long before Nagate accepts “her” odd situation as a third-gendered, asexual parthenogenetic hermaphrodite. “She” also seems to be mildly telepathic…

Testing on the newest simulator, the outcast astounds all his classmates by scoring far above the machine’s assessment parameters but the purely physical – and appallingly uncomfortable and embarrassing – aspects of wearing a working spacesuit and dealing with the psychological pressures of toiling in the limitless void still challenges Tanikaze’s resolve and mental resources.

And even training is deadly work. As two squads of Mecha extract ice from a passing asteroid the simple drill turns into a disaster when a Gauna ambushes the novices…

‘Eiko Yamano’s Starry Heavens’ recalls that cadet’s spurning of the students’ superstitious pre-flight ritual before returning to her present as the star-beast consumes her and adds her DNA to its metamorphic mass, simultaneously gravely damaging Tanikaze’s vessel. The telemetry from his ship indicates he’s near death…

Aboard Sidonia, their superiors can only write off the kids and begin readying their only effective weapon – a Heavy Mass Cannon that should push the nigh-unkillable free-floating carnivore far out of range…

The Sidonians are astonished when Nagate apparently regains consciousness and valiantly confronts the gigantic horror slowly assuming Yamano’s form. Incomprehensibly driving it back, he is dragged away by his comrades just as the huge projectile from the mass cannon devastatingly hits home…

‘Norio Kunato’s Fury’ finds the recovering Nagate plagued by ghastly dreams of Eiko’s death – and particularly her imagined transubstantiation into a Gauna. He should be dead but refuses even to give in to the pace of his own healing and soon drags himself on crutches back to lectures. When Izana sees him leaning on willowy Norio Kunato in moments of dizziness, the outraged asexual storms off in a huff…

Baffled Tanikaze only gets the chance to make amends at the Gravity Festival – an annual function that allows the barbarian boy opportunity to eat as much actual food as he can hold – but is distracted by the attentions of fellow pilot Hoshijiro Shizuka who has brought his wounded Mecha and battered body back to Sidonia after the Gauna ambush. However, when haughty Kunato insults and assaults Izana, Nagate goes crazy and jumps the elitist bigot. Their battle wrecks the fair, and the outcast learns that many of his fellow pilot candidates feel he is unworthy to ride the giant guardian mecha…

This first monochrome volume (also available in digital formats) concludes with ‘Mochikuni Akai’s Glory’ as the trainees continue their steep and brutal learning curve. The repelled Gauna is gradually, inexorably approaching Sidonia again. Moreover, it’s clear that not all the populace despise the new kid. As the first person to fight – let alone survive – a Gauna attack, Tanikaze is apparently held in high regard by the older Guardians.

When hot-shot pilot Akai invites Nagate and Izana to a private paradise of artificial seas and beaches, it is to reveal that he and his fellow officers have been tasked with deflecting the beast’s next attack. Although the party is enjoyable and the surroundings stunning, the cadets can’t help but feel they’re intruders at a Last Supper…

To Be Continued…

Like Robert Heinlein, Larry Niven and other masters of the art form, Tsutomu Nihei frequently works in a notional shared continuity (the monstrous Gauna first appeared in his earlier series Abara), but there’s no sense of having missed anything in this premier instalment of a wonderfully engrossing, gloriously engaging epic of Horatian heroism and Mankind’s Last Stand.

Compelling, subtle, spectacular and even funny, this is a yarn no adventure aficionados or sci-fi fanatics should miss.

This book is printed in the traditional Japanese right to left, back to front format.
© 2013 Tsutomu Nihei. All rights reserved.

Astro Boy volume 5

c
By Osamu Tezuka, translated by Frederik L. Schodt (Dark Horse Manga)
ISBN: 978-1-56971-680-9 (TPB)

From beginning his professional career in the late 1940s until his death in 1989, Osamu Tezuka generated an incomprehensible volume of quality work which transformed the world of manga and how it was perceived in his own country and, ultimately, across the globe. Devoted to Walt Disney’s creations, he performed similar sterling service with Japan’s fledgling animation industry.

The earliest stories were intended for children but right from the start Tezuka’s expansive fairy tale stylisations harboured more mature themes and held hidden pleasures for older readers and the legion of fans growing up with his manga masterpieces…

“The God of Comics” was born in Osaka Prefecture on November 3rd 1928, and as a child suffered from a severe illness. The doctor who cured him inspired the lad to study medicine, and although Osamu began drawing professionally whilst at university in 1946, he persevered with college and qualified as a medical practitioner too. Then, as he faced a career crossroads, his mother advised him to do the thing which made him happiest.

He never practiced as a healer but the world was gifted with such masterpieces as Kimba the White Lion, Buddha, Black Jack and so many other graphic narratives.

Working ceaselessly over decades, Tezuka and his creations inevitably matured, but he was always able to speak to the hearts and minds of young and old equally. His creations ranged from the childishly charming to the distinctly disturbing such as The Book of Human Insects.

Tezuka died on February 9th 1989, having produced more than 150,000 pages of timeless comics, created the Japanese anime industry and popularised uniquely Japanese graphic narrative which became a fixture of world culture.

This fifth monochrome digest volume (173 x 113 mm in the physical world and any size you like if you get the eBook edition) continues to present – in non-linear order – early exploits of his signature character, with the emphasis firmly on fantastic fun and family entertainment…

Tetsuwan Atomu (literally “Mighty Atom” but known universally as Astro Boy due to its dissemination around the world as an animated TV cartoon and one of post-war Japan’s better exports) is a spectacular, riotous, rollicking sci fi action-adventure starring a young boy who also happens to be one of the mightiest robots on Earth.

The series began in 1952 in Shōnen Kobunsha and ran until March 12th 1968 – although Tezuka often returned to add to the canon in later years. Over that period, Astro spawned the aforementioned global TV cartoon boom, starred in comicbook specials and featured in games, toys, collectibles, movies and the undying devotion of generations of ardent fans.

Tezuka frequently drew himself into his tales as a commentator, and in his later revisions and introductions often mentioned how he found the restrictions of Shōnen comics stifling; specifically, having to periodically pause a plot to placate the demands of his audience by providing a blockbusting fight every episode. That’s his prerogative: most of us avid aficionados have no complaints…

Tezuka and his production team were never as wedded to close continuity as fans are. They constantly revised both stories and artwork in later collections, so if you’re a purist you are just plain out of luck. Such tweaking and modifying is the reason this series seems to skip up and down the publishing chronology. The intent is to entertain at all times so stories aren’t treated as gospel and order is not immutable or inviolate.

It’s just comics, guys…

And in case you came in late, here’s a little background to set you up…

In a world where robots are ubiquitous and have won (limited) human rights, brilliant Dr. Tenma lost his son Tobio in a traffic accident. Grief-stricken, the tormented genius used his position as head of Japan’s Ministry of Science to build a replacement. The android his team created was one of the most ground-breaking constructs in history, and for a while Tenma was content.

However, as his mind re-stabilised, Tenma realised the unchanging humanoid was not Tobio and, with cruel clarity, summarily rejected the replacement. Ultimately, the savant removed the insult to his real boy by selling the robot to a shady dealer…

One day, independent researcher Professor Ochanomizu was in the audience at a robot circus and realised diminutive performer “Astro” was unlike the other acts – or indeed, any artificial being he had ever encountered. Convincing the circus owners to part with the little robot, the Prof closely studied the unique creation and realised just what a miracle had come into his hands…

Part of Ochanomizu’s socialization process for Astro included placing him in a family environment and having him attend school just like a real boy. As well as providing friends and admirers the familiar environment turned up another foil and occasional assistant in the bellicose form of Elementary School teacher Higeoyaji (AKA Mr. Mustachio)…

The wiry wonder’s astonishing exploits resume after the now traditional ‘A Note to Readers’ – explaining why one thing that hasn’t been altered is the depictions of various racial types in the stories.

‘Crucifix Island’ originally ran January through April, 1957 in Shōnen Magazine and begins with an explanation of why most robots are generally humanoid before concentrating on obsessive Doctor Tozawa who channelled his ancient ninja lineage to create an ultimate shape-changing mechanoid. He was interrupted and arrested before he could complete his masterpiece but that was then and this is now where our story properly begins…

Following a manic prison break, Tozawa and his new crooked cronies wash up on and take over a desolate island housing one hundred thousand robots operating the deepest and most sophisticated uranium mine on Earth. The merest by-product is a daily fortune in other precious ores and gems…

Meanwhile, at the Isle’s Robot School Astro is having problems with another young automaton. Pook is troubled because he’s incomplete: his “father” was arrested and imprisoned before he could make his boy perfect…

When Pook and Tozawa are reunited, the mad scientist ambushes Astro, harvesting his body for the parts needed to complete his dream robot. The troubled mechanoid finally gains the power to change shape…

Sadly, one thing that never changes is human greed and Tozawa’s fellow fugitives turn on him when he ignores their pleas to plunder the discarded mountain of gems. Inviting their army of criminal comrades to take over the island, they try to kill the now repentant technologist. With his breath fading, the Doctor repairs Astro to tackle the thieves, but nobody anticipated Pook’s reaction to gaining his full powers or how that would affect the multitude of lethal digging robots…

After a tremendous battle order is eventually restored but not everybody makes it out alive…

Running in Shōnen Magazine from February to April 1960, ‘Space Snow Leopard’ details how frosty precipitation across Earth steals energy from robots and machines. Seemingly unaffected, Astro is challenged by a space wizard and his six-legged killer feline Lupe, but barely escapes as they continue softening up the planet for an alien takeover.

On the run, Astro consults his school friends hoping organic humanity can prevail against the bizarre duo. Ultimately however it takes humans and robots working together and the invention of a giant amalgamated mecha comprised of many smaller automatons working in unison to save the world…

‘The Artificial Sun’ first ran between December 1959 and February 1960 and concludes this compilation in glorious style as a ship at sea reports a deadly floating fireball causing weather disruptions. Fearing the worst, the International Council of Police Organizations consult super-cop Sherlock Holmspun to tackle the crisis. His pride in in a swift breakthrough is soon scotched, however, when the council insist he take along some competent backup/additional firepower in the form of a robot codenamed Mighty Atom …

With the game afoot, the odd couple track down prime suspect Professor Hirata and his deadly monster, but will Holmspun’s prejudice jeopardise the mission… or will his dreadful secret shame leave them all unable to fight off the deadly fireball beast and the real culprit behind it?

Breathtaking pace, outrageous invention, slapstick comedy, heart-wrenching sentiment and frenetic action are the hallmarks of these captivating comics constructions: perfect examples of Tezuka’s uncanny storytelling gifts, which can still deliver a potent punch and instil wide-eyed wonder on a variety of intellectual levels.
Tetsuwan Atom by Osama Tezuka © 2002 by Tezuka Productions. All rights reserved. Astro Boy is a registered trademark of Tezuka Productions Co., Ltd., Tokyo Japan. Unedited translation © 2002 Frederik L. Schodt.

Blade of the Immortal volume 1: Blood of a Thousand


By Hiroaki Samura translated by Dana Lewis & Toren Smith (Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978-1-56971-239-9

Born in Chiba Prefecture in 1970, manga master Hiroaki Samura differs from many of his contemporary colleagues in that he actually pursued classical art training before abandoning oil paints and easels for the monochrome freedom and easy license of the “whimsical drawings” industry.

He was, however, plucked from college in the early 1990s before finishing his degree, to find huge success creating the astonishing fantasy saga Mugen no Jūnin (The Inhabitant of Infinity) for Seinen magazine Afternoon.

The series ran from June 25th 1993 to December 25th 2012, a total of 30 volumes which spectacularly blended ubiquitous Samurai comics themes and scenarios with vengeful supernatural plots, political intrigues, existential philosophy and punk-era nihilism. Its driven, murderously efficient antihero constantly deployed his outrageously eccentric arsenal of fanciful edged weapons, whilst pondering the merits of salvation and the meaning and point of living too long…

The series was picked by Dark Horse in 1996 and released as Blade of the Immortal, first as a monthly comicbook series (the first six issues of which comprise this monochrome masterpiece) and, from 2007 onwards, exclusively in collected graphic novel editions. These days you can take the creative anachronism one step beyond and enjoy the high-energy antics in digital fashion…

One note of caution for purists: the series’ dialogue is written in an updated, quirkily moderne literary style which strives for emotional veracity rather than (faux) period authenticity, so it might all be a little disconcerting at first…

Set in middle of the Tokugawa Shogunate (between 1600 and 1868 CE), this first sublimely engaging volume opens with ‘About the Translation’ – a prose section explaining the translation process and the symbology of the piece – before the graphic miracles begin with ‘Prologue: Criminal’; introducing debased and unsavoury ronin Manji: one-eyed outlaw and weary killer looking for peace and redemption in all the wrong places…

The “Slayer of 100 Good Men” – including his own peacekeeper brother-in-law – Manji is currently stalking Gyobutsu “Johnny”: a mass-murderer who kills his victims whilst disguised as a priest.

When a cunning trap goes wrong, the debased ronin manfully ignores a pistol shot through his brain to finish his sacrilegious quarry.

This ronin is no longer as other men. There are worms in his head, and as they knit his inexplicably non-fatal wound back together, Manji broods.

In his despicable past he was a cheap sell-sword who killed as he pleased. When his misdeeds brought him into conflict with his “cop” brother-in-law he simply butchered him. The shock drove his sister Machi mad.

She was the only thing Manji ever cared about…

Yaobikuni has no problem with living forever – she won’t die until she’s saved every soul in Japan – and when the unkillable reprobate again meets the 800-year old nun who inflicted on him the sacred Kessen-chu bloodworms which can heal any hurt, she draws him into the old pointless discussion about salvation.

Yaobikuni urges him to give up the sword, but all he wants to do is die….

Even if he could, it’s no longer an option now that he has to care for his grievously damaged sister Machi…

The problem is savagely solved when the vengeful brother and 20-strong gang of “Johnny” abduct her, determined to make her murderous brother pay emotionally and physically for the death of their leader.

Manji’s botched rescue attempt leaves him triumphant above a sea of corpses and utterly alone in the world…

Pushed too far, he finds Yaobikuni and offers her a deal: if he kills one thousand truly evil men, she must remove the Kessen-chu and let Manji rest at last.

Despite misgivings that he’s just found another way to keep on killing, the nun agrees…

‘Conquest’ debuts young Rin, whose father Asano was targeted for slaughter by a merciless gang of anarchist thugs calling themselves the Ittō-ryū.

Long ago, the grandfather of their leader Anotsu Kagehisa had been shamefully and unjustly expelled from Asano’s Mutenichi-ryū fencing dojo, and the grandson resolved to destroy all such schools and the socially stratified, arrogantly smug advocates of privilege who populate them.

Gathering an army of similarly aggrieved, like-minded rebels and outcasts, Anotsu murdered many Swords-masters: destroying their legacies and accumulating a powerful army before seeking his ultimate triumph over a despised ancestral enemy…

After ending Rin’s father, Anotsu gave her mother O-Toki to his men, but told them to leave the little girl alone.

Rin never saw her mother again and now, aged sixteen, the last sword of the Mutenichi- ryū School is in the metropolis of Edo looking for payback. What she finds is a jolly little nun who suggests she seek out a maimed-and-mangy, mean-looking ronin to act as her bodyguard…

They don’t hit it off. Manji is condescending and patronising and wants her to prove her contention that members of Ittō-ryū are genuinely evil before he subtracts them from his target tally of 1000 human monsters…

Reaching an agreement of sorts, the pair join forces, unaware that Rin has been followed by Anotsu’s macabre lieutenant Kuroi Sabato. The deranged psycho-poet has been sending taunting verses to the girl ever since that fateful night, whilst secretly treasuring his macabre keepsake of her mother O-Toki all these lonely years…

Now he’s ready for Rin to complete a ghastly set of horrific personalised trophies, but the satanic stalker has never met – or killed – anyone like Manji before…

The eerie epic closes here with ‘Genius’ wherein the decidedly odd couple seek aid and assistance from an old friend of Rin’s father. Retired samurai Sōri has dedicated his remaining years to becoming an artist, but still struggles to master the tricky discipline of “sword-painting”.

The uncouth Manji can barely contain his scornful taunts, especially as the artist seems unwilling to assist a lady in distress, apparently far more concerned with the trivial problem that he can never get the reds right in his compositions…

Of course, the revenant ronin has no idea that once Sōri was the Shogun’s Ninja …

More of Anotsu’s psycho-killer goons have followed Rin and Manji to the painter’s lodgings however, looking for the blade-wielding girl genius who killed the lethally adept Kuroi. When they attack the sleeping Rin, they soon discover to their everlasting regret the mettle of her new allies…

In the stillness after the slaughter, Rin and Manji move on to continue their vendetta against the Ittō-ryū, but Sōri regretfully remains behind to pursue his art. At least now he knows what pigments suit him best…

‘An Interview with Hiroaki Samura’ and a selection of cover illustrations from the comicbook iteration complete this viscerally brutal, staggeringly beguiling first volume of mythic martial mastery…

Although crafting other works such as the western Emerald, romantic comedies, erotic works and horror stories such as Night of the Succubus and Bradherley’s Coach, Blade of the Immortal is unquestionably Mr. Samura’s signature creation and a truly unparalleled delight for fans of not just manga but for all lovers of dark fantasy.
© 1996, 1997 Hiroaki Samura. All rights reserved. English translation rights arranged through Kodansha Ltd. New and adapted artwork & text © 1996, 1997 Studio Proteus and Dark Horse Comics Inc. All other material © 2000 Dark Horse Comics Inc. All rights reserved.

The Story of Lee volume 3


By Seán Michael Wilson & Piarelle (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-68112-195-6

Just in time to make my St. Valentines’ day perfect comes the concluding volume of an engaging romance that’s kept fans on charmed tenterhooks for almost a decade now.

After far too long, the final instalment of the endearing confection which began delighting readers in 2011 brings some painful tension to a bittersweet transatlantic/transpacific shojo manga, which like its subject matter and stars was the happy product of more than one country…

As written by Scottish author Seán Michael Wilson (Breaking the Ten, Sweeney Todd, Portraits of Violence – An Illustrated History of Radical Thinking), The Story of Lee details the growth and relationships of a restless Hong Kong girl who falls for a young Scots poet and teacher.

Lee endured frustrated dreams dutifully working in her father’s shop. The situation was uncomfortable: although he meant well, the traditionally-minded parent disapproved of almost everything Lee did and never stinted in telling her so. His disparagement and constant pushing for her to achieve something (becoming a dentist) whilst staying true to his old-fashioned ideas was tearing her apart, and Wang, the nice, proper Chinese boy he perpetually forced upon her, was a really creepy turn-off…

What they never realised was that Lee was a closet poet and pop music junkie besotted with western culture, particularly myth-laden London. In those unwelcome fascinations she was clandestinely supported by her frail, aging grandmother and unconventional Uncle Jun, a globe-trotting playboy who long ago abandoned convention and tradition to follow his own dreams to America…

At 24 Lee was being gradually eroded away until she met gorgeous teaching temp Matt MacDonald. Exotically Scottish, polite and charming, he was also a sensitive, talented poet…

Lee quietly defied her father and her relationship with Matt deepened, but when tragedy struck and grandmother was no longer a factor, further upheaval occurred after Matt announced that he was returning to his home thousands of miles away.

He dropped his bombshell and asked her to go with him…

Against all odds and family sentiment and via a memorable stopover in London, the lovers make it to Edinburgh – Matt’s home town – and Lee enrols in college on a one-year student visa. Matt too goes back into full-time study…

The city is a revelation: so many old and beautiful buildings, unlike HK where everything is always being torn down and rebuilt, and perhaps it’s just that dizzying cultural adjustment which makes her feel Matt is acting a little differently now that he’s in his on his own turf again…

Or maybe it’s the oddly intimate relationship he has with the old college chum they’re crashing with? Richard is warm, welcoming and coolly into all the right music, but she can’t shake the feeling that his relationship with her man might go beyond the normal bonds of friendship…

Over following days Lee’s apprehensions increase as Matt gleefully shows her around the nostalgic landmarks of his past and apparent proofs of Richard’s feelings begin to emerge. Moreover, her charming man seems to be changing too: his gentle patience evaporates; he’s snappish and even reacts jealously when other students – and even the local musicians she slavishly seeks out – pay attention to her. One thing she cannot adjust to is the undercurrent of hostility and casual aggression expressed by the young men in Scotland…

Lee has never felt more vulnerable. She is a world away from home and security and increasingly wonders if she’s made the biggest mistake of her life. As tensions rise and the nurturing warmth the lovers shared deteriorates further, unexpected aid appears in the form of Uncle Jun who pops up for a visit and offers some startling advice…

The tale resumes here as Lee thrives academically and makes friends among the students – particularly Chinese classmate Bo – but Matt is changing more rapidly as he falls further under the sway of Richard and begins neglecting his studies to hang with his band…

Meeting his parents is an uncomfortable moment for the sensitive Lee and the mounting tensions come to an ironic head when news comes from Hong Kong.

Increased political unrest has led to an assault on her father. He cannot work and Lee feels compelled to cut her studies short and return to run the shop. No one has asked her to, but she understands duty and responsibilities even if Matt has seemingly forgotten them…

With excellent art from much-lauded London-based debutante Piarelle (AKA Pamela Lokhun) taking over from previous illustrators Chie Kutsuwada (volume 1) and Nami Tamura (volume 2), the age-old story unfolds with understated power as the lovers make decisions that will that will affect everybody and satisfy no one…

Supplemented by a copious Glossary and Notes section defining the specific vagaries of accent and slang whilst offering geographical and historical perspective on the many actual locations depicted, this is a deliciously compelling drama playing with well-established conventions and idioms of romantic fiction and teen soap opera.

With beguiling subtlety, The Story of Lee explores themes of cultural difference, mixed-race-relationships, family and friendship pressures and the often-insurmountable barrier of different childhood experiences and expectations to weave an enchanting tale of independence, interdependence and isolation.

Moving and memorable, this is a timeless tale for modern lovers that you really should enjoy. And now that’s it’s all over, surely a bumper compendium can’t be far away…
© 2019 Seán Michael Wilson & Piarelle.

Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms


By Fumiyo Kouno (jaPress/Last Gasp)
ISBN: 978-0-86719-721-1 (HB)

First published in 2003/2004 in Japan’s Weekly Manga Action Yūnagi no Machi, Sakura no Kuni (Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms) is an award-winning (2004 Grand Prize for manga, Japan Media Arts Festival and the 2005 Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize Creative Award) collection of interlinked, generational short stories. The compelling stories deal with the aftermath of the atom bombing of Hiroshima, and particularly the treatment of bomb-affected survivors (“hibakusha”) by a culture that has traditionally shunned imperfection and studiously ignored unpleasant truths.

The book was made into an award-winning feature film and radio serial in 2007.

The project was instigated by her editor rather than Fumiyo Kouno (or Kōno Fumiyo, if you’d like to acknowledge her actual name): a native of modern Hiroshima and manga maker (Kokko-san; In a Corner of This World), who apparently never considered herself as being affected by the ghastly events of August 6th 1945.

The first story – ‘Town of Evening Calm’ – is set in 1955 and follows teenager Minami Hirano as she goes about her daily life in the slowly-recovering city. She lives with her ailing mother and sister in a seedy shack and ruminates on those she’s lost: father and two sisters to the bomb and baby brother Asahi who was mercifully staying with rural relatives when the bomb hit.

She hasn’t seen him since that day. Her aunt thought it best to keep the healthy boy away, and subsequently adopted him. The surviving family bravely struggle as seamstresses and clerks, trying to save enough money to visit him. Minami has an admirer; a shy young man named Yutaka Uchikoshi, who tries bombarding the quietly independent girl with presents, but ten years after the bomb, the explosion is inexorably still claiming victims. As tragedy looms, Minami is unaware that her long-lost brother is coming to see her…

Follow-up ‘Country of Cherry Blossoms’ is divided into two separate tales. The first is set in Tokyo in 1987 with tomboy schoolgirl Nanami Ishikawa railing against her life. She is Asahi’s daughter – a second-generation victim – and has never met her hibakusha relatives, but when her brother Nagio is hospitalised she sneaks into his room with new friend Toko Tone and showers him with cherry blossom petals to show him the spring he’s missing, unaware that his asthmatic condition is considered by many to be the taint of the bomb…

Admonished by her grandmother, she goes on about her life but as the family moves nearer the hospital, she abruptly loses touch with Toko…

Part Two takes up the story in 2004. Asahi has recently retired and moved in with Nanami, when medical graduate Nagio mentions that he has seen Toko at the hospital where he works. Nanami has other things to worry about: Asahi is disappearing for days at a time and she thinks he might be senile…

One day she follows him, and – just as years before with Nagio – Toko, a virtual stranger, appears and shares her journey and revelations. The troubled old man is travelling to the rebuilt Hiroshima, driven by an irresistible impulse, and as they follow him Nanami discovers that real reason Toko stopped seeing her family…

Pensive, serene and deftly sensitive, almost elegiac, this book deals with uncomfortable issues by advocating tolerance, understanding and endurance rather than the bombastic unyielding defiance of Keiji Nakazawa’s landmark Barefoot Gen, and the message hits home all the harder for it.

Initially reluctant to produce a work about Hiroshima, Ms. Kōno discovered a strong voice within – and her own unrealised, unexpressed attitudes – when faced with the behaviour still directed toward hibakusha more than five decades later. As she states in the Afterword of this superb commemorative hardcover, it was “unnatural and irresponsible for me to consciously try to avoid the issue” and she decided that “drawing something is better than drawing nothing at all.”

As far as I can tell this moving portmanteau is still only available in paperback form but it’s well worth tracking down: a quietly magnificent tribute to the truism that “Life goes on” and the proposition that even polite and passive intolerance should always be resisted. This is a book every politician in the world should read. It also holds a harsh lesson every cosy, comfortable family in existence needs to absorb… and it needs to be back in print and available digitally, too.
© 2003, 2009 Fumiyo Kouno. All Rights Reserved.