Operation Liberate Men volume 1 & 2


By Mira Lee (NetComics/Ecomix)
ISBN: 978-1-60009-231-2 and 978-1-60009-232-9 (Tankōbon PB/Digital editions)

Authored by Mira Lee (Land of Silver Rain), Operation Liberate Men began in the late 1990s: a challenging comics concept released in a country where female roles in society were still painfully hidebound, and the concept of the “Ideal Woman” was a very real anchor to freedom of expression and lifestyle. The wild fantasy ran for 9 volumes before going on hiatus.

Now controlled by South Korean publisher Ecomix, episodes are available online with the promise of resumption and a conclusion after Lee concludes her current comics projects.

In volume 1, Sooha Jung is sixteen and an officially inadequate woman. For her whole life, she never fitted in, and has now failed the High School Admissions Exam. In achievement-oriented, socially-conservative, gender-orthodox South Korea, it’s damaging enough just to be a tomboy who prefers fighting to preening, primping or dating boys, but now she must add mediocre student to her list of failings.

Then, all of a sudden, the ethereally beautiful and androgynous Ganesha literally bumps into her…

Sooha is unsure if the lovely but weird foreigner is boy or girl, but quickly realises that it’s not as relevant as the fact that the stranger is completely crazy, claiming to come from another dimension – the Para Empire – where men are slaves and sex objects dominated by sadistic, domineering women. Disbelieving yet inspired by the thought of a world where women are in charge, she humours Ganesha, agreeing to travel to the Para Empire. Unfortunately, the story is completely accurate and she’s soon trapped on a very alien and dangerous world. Moreover, when they first met, Ganesha had assumed she was a ferocious male – the perfect man to lead the downtrodden males of Para to freedom!

Embroiled in a civil war in a fantastical primitive place, Sooha bolts, but soon realises the genuine need of the oppressed in the ruthless, savage society. She also discovers Ganesha has a secret. As the most beautiful man in the worlds, he’s not only a secret freedom-fighter but also the cherished, pampered plaything of the utterly diabolical Supreme Ruler: a woman called The Emperor…
Malevolent schemers, Court intrigues, broad humour and a remarkably progressive take on gender discrimination elevates this old, old plot, whilst healthy doses of supernatural conflict, countered by Sooha’s Bull-in-a-China-Shop temperament, make this tale an unexpected treat.
It’s nice to see a less-than-deferential, plain girl as lead character for once and the cliffhanger the first volume concludes on ensures readers will return to see what happens next. Give it a go and perhaps you’ll feel the same way too…

Operation Liberate Men volume 2 steams straight in with the next step in the campaign of sexual revolution, as Sooha Jung reviews her position. It was hard enough to get by as a mannish young girl, better at fighting than dating, and a poor student too, in modern society, but when you’re so ashamed that you make a foolish decision and end up trapped in a parallel dimension where sadistic, autocratic, bullying women have enslaved men, it’s almost too much to bear.

When you compound all that with the shameful fact that the oppressed men who expect you to deliver them from bondage are all completely oblivious of the fact that you are actually female, you can see why the teenager thinks she might have made a major mistake in travelling to this magical realm to liberate the men of the Para Empire.
Grudgingly accepting command of the Laharshita (“Male Liberation Army”) she now falls foul of the brutal women – also unaware of Sooha’s gender – leading to a savage battle in which rebel conspirator and undercover Boy-Toy Ganesha is near-fatally wounded.

Desperate and on the run, Sooha is soon captured and imprisoned and, as events in the rebel hierarchy proceed without her, suddenly realises that this is not her first contact with the male denizens of the Para Empire. There was an incident so long ago, back when she was just a little girl…

A touch of Aubrey Beardsley and the occasional flurry of Charles M Schulz in the dreamy artwork is so effective in elevating this compelling manhwa (Korean for manga or comics) fantasy. Ending on another cliffhanger, this war story will grip readers in fevered anticipation for that hopefully imminent conclusion…
© 1997, 2001 Mira Lee. All Rights Reserved. English text © 2007 NetComics.

Black Knight volume 1


By Kai Tsurugi (TokyoPop)
ISBN: 978-1-59816-522-7 (TPB)

So, it’s Pride Month and not all comics are about genocide or racial slaughter. Here’s a lost gem long overdue for another run in the sun – or at least a new English language revival on paper or in digital form…

Japan’s vast comics industry is formally sub-divided into discrete categories to avoid dithering and confusion. This is a fine historical example of a Yaoi story – a romanticised fantasy relationship drama starring beautiful young men in love. The genre was devised for female audiences: like Shounen-Ai (stories of two young men, but with more erotic content) although very mild – to the point of chaste gentility – by that standard.

As Kuro no Kishi, the serial first appeared from August 2003-October 2005 in Magazine Be x Boy, before filling 4 subsequent tankōbon tomes. These were translated via TokyoPop’s Blu Manga imprint and released between July 2006 and February 2009. There’s no English language digital editions that I know of, but the physical copies are still readily available.

This lyrical, sexually explicit fantasy opens by introducing wayward hero Zeke O’Brien: a trainee mercenary of lower class origins who rises to the rank of Black Knight by saving the life of a lovely young Prince targeted for assassination by the hidden enemies of the King of Aran.

When the royal neophyte is assigned to train as a Black Knight, Zeke thwarts every attempt to murder the elfin Prince Chris, but falls hopelessly in love with his charge. He is delighted to discover the feeling is mutual and furtively, frequently, passionately reciprocated. However, the King’s enemies are many and the trials for the young lovers are only just beginning in this splendidly Ruritanian Romance of intrigue and melodrama.

Lavish, ostentatious, beautifully illustrated and inoffensively charming, this initial volume carries an additional, modern tale of boy-on-boy romance that might upset some readers, but not for obvious reasons.

‘Deadly Sin’ tells of the intimate (and naturally, graphically explicit) affair between a young priest (a son of IRA terrorists who subsequently murdered the SAS killers of his parents) and an athlete/poet he meets on holiday. Despite being well written and drawn, this type of material is bound to offend devoutly Christian, sectarian and/or conservative sorts (note the small ‘c’) so if you are the type hanging around waiting to be outraged, please save us all some grief and don’t read it.
© 2003 Kai Tsurugi. English text © 2006 BLU Inc. All rights reserved.

Lone Wolf & Cub volume 4: The Bell Warden


By Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima, translated by Dana Lewis (Dark Horse Manga) 

ISBN: 978-1-56971-505-5 (TPB/digital edition) 

Best known in the West as Lone Wolf and Cub, the epic Samurai saga created by Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima is without doubt a global classic of comics literature. An example of the popular “Chanbara” or “sword-fighting” genre of print and screen, Kozure Okami was serialised in Weekly Manga Action from September 1970 until April 1976. It was an immense and overwhelming “Seinen” (“Men’s manga”) hit… 

The tales prompted thematic companion series Kubikiri Asa (Samurai Executioner) which ran from 1972-1976, but the major draw – at home and, increasingly, abroad – was always the nomadic wanderings of doomed noble ÅŒgami Ittō and his solemn, silent child. 

Revered and influential, Kozure Okami was followed after years of supplication by fans and editors by sequel Shin Lone Wolf & Cub (illustrated by Hideki Mori) and even spawned – through Koike’s indirect participation – science fiction homage Lone Wolf 2100 by Mike Kennedy & Francisco Ruiz Velasco. 

The original saga has been successfully adapted to most other media, spawning movies, plays, TV series (plural), games and merchandise. The property is infamously still in Hollywood pre-production. 

The several thousand pages of enthralling, exotic, intoxicating narrative art produced by these legendary creators eventually filled 28 collected volumes, beguiling generations of readers in Japan and, inevitably, the world. More importantly, their philosophically nihilistic odyssey – with its timeless themes and iconic visuals – has influenced hordes of other creators. The many manga, comics and movies these stories have inspired around the globe are impossible to count. Frank Miller, who illustrated the cover of this edition, referenced the series in Daredevil, his dystopian opus Ronin, The Dark Knight Returns and Sin City. Max Allan Collin’s Road to Perdition is a proudly unashamed tribute to the masterpiece of vengeance-fiction. Stan Sakai has superbly spoofed, pastiched and celebrated the wanderer’s path in his own epic Usagi Yojimbo, and even children’s cartoon shows such as Samurai Jack are direct descendants of this astounding achievement of graphic narrative. The material has become part of a shared world culture. 

In the West, we first saw the translated tales in 1987, as 45 Prestige Format editions from First Comics. That innovative trailblazer foundered before getting even a third of the way through the vast canon, after which Dark Horse Comics assumed the rights, systematically reprinting and translating the entire epic into 28 tankōbon-style editions of about 300 pages each, between September 2000-December 2002. Once the entire epic was translated, it was all placed online through the Dark Horse Digital project. 

Following a cautionary ‘Note to Readers’ – on stylistic interpretation – this moodily morbid monochrome collection truly gets underway, keeping many terms and concepts western readers may find unfamiliar. Therefore this edition offers at the close a Glossary providing detailed context on the term used in the stories, plus profiles of author Koike Kazuo & illustrator Kojima Goseki and another instalment of ‘The Ronin Report’ by Tim Ervin-Gore. The occasional series of articles here offers a rundown on exotic weaponry of the era in Weapons Glossary: Part one…  

Set in the era of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the saga concerns a foredoomed wandering killer who was once the Shogun’s official executioner: capable of cleaving a man in half with one stroke. An eminent individual of esteemed imperial standing, elevated social position and impeccable honour, Ōgami Ittō lost it all and now roams feudal Japan as a doomed soul hellbent for the dire, demon-haunted underworld of Meifumado. 

When the noble’s wife was murdered and his clan dishonoured due to the machinations of the treacherous, politically ambitious Yagyu Clan, the Emperor ordered Ōgami to commit suicide. Instead, he rebelled, choosing to be a despised Ronin (masterless samurai) assassin, pledged to revenge himself until all his betrayers were dead …or Hell claimed him. His son, toddler Daigoro, also chose the path of destruction and together they roam grimly evocative landscapes of feudal Japan, one step ahead of doom, with death behind and before them. 

Unflinching formula informs early episodes: the acceptance of a commission to kill an impossible target necessitates forging a cunning plan where relentless determination leads to inevitable success. Throughout each episode plot is underscored with bleak philosophical musings alternately informed by Buddhist teachings in conjunction with or in opposition to the unflinching personal honour code of Bushido… 

That tactic is eschewed for a simple commission in opening tale ‘Tsuji Genshichi the Bell Warden’ with the assassin hired by a prestigious and honourable official. Greater Edo runs to the timetable of nine great bells, dictating the flow of civilised time and acting as emergency alarm system in times of crisis. All that power and responsibility is controlled by one man: The Bell Warden. 

As with most hereditary official posts, great glory and vast wealth inevitably accrues to the position, but now the aging incumbent is preparing his successor. He has three candidates and grave misgivings about the worth and dedication of each. His solution: hire the most infamous outlaw in Japan to chop off the right (bell-ringing) arm. If they can’t survive and overcome they are none of them the man for the job… 

Drowning in his own ocean of duty, Ōgami accepts the commission and isn’t surprised to discover there is a hidden agenda in play… 

As the nation modernised – or lost its ethical core – noble samurai economised by firing their retainers and hiring domestic mercenaries. As this new class – “Chugen-Gashira” – grew in power, they feathered their own nests; increasingly turning to villainy and chicanery, further debasing Japan’s moral core. They were shielded by their own base-born origins, since upholders of the old ways could not “punch down” to retaliate.  

In ‘Unfaithful Retainers’, when two noble children seek redress for their father’s assault, the Lone Wolf also falls foul of his own entrenched self-image, and must concoct a byzantine scheme to reach the guilty party and deliver honourable justice…  

Daigoro takes centre stage in ‘Parting Frost’ as his father goes missing during a mission. As his supplies run out and winter snows start to melt , the boy is compelled to strike out in search of his father, only to encounter a Samurai who discerns exactly who and what he is. Testing the child to destruction with fire and steel, obsessive Iki Jizamon is only foiled by the abrupt return of the cub’s far from happy sire… 

Set in a brutal uncompromising world of privilege and misogyny, these episodes are unflinching and explicit in their treatment of violence – especially sexual violence. In detailing another historical aspect of the culture, ‘Performer’ focusses on a particular underclass: Gōmune. The term grouped together all street folk who busked for money: female minstrels, dancers, sleight-of-hand conjurers, weapons-demonstrators, kabuki actors, drummers, travelling players puppeteers, preachers, contortionists, storytellers acrobat and countless others all entertaining for coins. Naturally, they had no protection under law and when a swordswoman martial artist was brutalised by woman-hating warrior using treachery and hypnotism, she was unavenged… 

In her shame and fury, O-Yuki had her body further desecrated by horrific, attention-diverting tattoos, giving her a momentary advantage as she butchered a succession of Samurai on her way to finding one in particular… 

Accepting a commission from a lord rapidly being depleted of soldier-servants, Ōgami plays detective but finds himself deeply conflicted when he finally corners his prey. However, his given word is inviolate, his philosophy is unflinching and a job must be done… 

These stories are deeply metaphorical and work on many levels most of us westerners just won’t grasp on first reading – even with contextual aid provided by the bonus features. That only makes them more exotic and fascinating. Also a little unsettling is the even-handed treatment of women in the tales. Within the confines of the notoriously stratified culture being depicted, females – from servants to courtesans, prostitutes to highborn ladies – are all fully rounded characters, with their own motivations and drives. The wolf’s female allies are valiant and dependable, and his foes, whether targets or mere enemy combatants in his path, are treated with professional respect. He kills them just as if they were men… 

Whichever English transliteration you prefer – Wolf and Baby Carriage is what I was first introduced to – Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima’s grandiose, thought-provoking, hell-bent Samurai tragedy is one of those too-rare breakthrough classics of global comics literature. A breathtaking tour de force, these are comics you must not miss. 

© 1995, 2000 Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima. All other material © 2000 Dark Horse Comics, Inc. Cover art © 2000 Frank Miller. All rights reserved. 

Usagi Yojimbo Origins volume 1: Samurai


By Stan Sakai, with colours by Ronda Pattison (IDW)
ISBN: 978-1-68405-740-5 eISBN: 978-1-68406-955-2

One of the very best and most adaptable survivors of the 1980s black-&-white comics explosion/implosion is a truly bizarre and wonderful synthesis of historical Japanese samurai fiction and anthropomorphic animal adventure: a perfect example of the versatility and strengths of a creator-owned character.

Usagi Yojimbo (which translates as “rabbit bodyguard”) first appeared as a background character in multi-talented creator Stan Sakai’s peripatetic comedy feature The Adventures of Nilson Groundthumper and Hermy, which launched in furry ‘n’ fuzzy folk anthology Albedo Anthropomorphics #1 (1984). He subsequently appeared there on his own terms as well as in Critters Amazing Heroes, Furrlough and a Munden’s Bar back-up in Grimjack.

Sakai was born in 1953 in Kyoto, Japan before the family emigrated to Hawaii in 1955. He attended the University of Hawaii, graduating with a BA in Fine Arts, and pursued further studies at Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design after moving to California.

His first comics work was as a letterer, most famously for the Groo the Wanderer, before his nimble pens and brushes, coupled with a love of Japanese history, legend and the films of Akira Kurosawa and his peers, combined to turn a proposed story about a historical human hero into one of the most enticing and impressive – and astonishingly authentic – fantasy sagas of all time.

The deliciously rambling and expansive period fantasy series is nominally set in a world of sentient animals (with a few unobtrusive human characters scattered about) and specifically references the Edo Period of Feudal Japan around the beginning of the 17th century. It simultaneously samples contemporary cultural icons from sources as varied as Lone Wolf and Cub, Zatoichi and even Godzilla. The saga details the life of Miyamoto Usagi, a ronin or masterless samurai, making an honourable living as a Yojimbo or bodyguard for hire. As such, his fate is to be drawn constantly into a plethora of incredible situations.

And yes, he’s a rabbit; a brave, sentimental, gentle, artistic, long-suffering, conscientious and heroic bunny who just can’t turn down any request for help or ignore the slightest evidence of injustice…

The Lepine Legend later appeared in Albedo #2-4, The Doomsday Squad #3 and seven issues of Critters (1, 3, 6-7, 10-11 & 14) before leaping into his own long-running series. It was the first of many, relating his adventures and mirrored Sakai’s real-world peregrinations from publisher to publisher.

The Sublime Swordsbun has shifted homes frequently, but has been in continuous publication since 1987 – with more than 40 graphic novel collections and books to date. He’s also guest-starred in numerous other series, such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (and its TV incarnation) and even almost made it into his own small-screen show but there’s still time yet and fashions can revive as quickly as they die out…

There are high-end collectibles, art prints, computer games and RPGs, a spin-off sci-fi comics serial and lots of toys.

Sakai and his creation have won numerous awards both within the Comics community and amongst the greater reading public, and now, as a venerable mainstay of the American comics landscape, the monochrome wanderer’s early exploits got a modern makeover in 2020. Not strictly chronologically ordered, Usagi Yojimbo Color Classics #1-7 are gathered here to hopefully bring him to a new generation…

Following a brief ‘Introduction’ recapping major characters and scenario, ‘Samurai!’ sees the rabbit ronin again meet money-mad bounty-hunter Gennosuké after a deadly duel of honour leaves a warrior named Gunichi a bloody corpse at the Yojimbo’s feet. Pressed by the newly-arrived and curious Rhino, the moodily moved and uncharacteristically loquacious rabbit shares some of the events of his boyhood…

Once, Miyamoto Usagi was simply the son of a small-town magistrate, dispatched with his friend Kenichi to train at the prestigious Dogora Fencing School in Sendai. As the boys make their journey they encounter a lone, aged warrior beset by a pack of bullies from that self-same school, determined to prove their institution’s martial superiority.

Despite all efforts to placate the hotheads, old Katsuichi is – most reluctantly – compelled to slay the toughs. The stunned witnesses start bickering and – whilst Kenichi wants to follow orders and go on to the (clearly honourless) Dogora School, little Usagi seeks out the old man to be his Sensei…

The elder was finished with teaching but eventually sees something in the defiant, determined little rabbit and grudgingly accepts his exceptional young charge…

Usagi spends years learning the Way of Bushido from his stern, leonine master: not just superior technique and tactics, but also a philosophy of justice and restraint to serve him all his days…

The revelations of Usagi’s boyhood training continue in short, revelatory vignettes – nine in all – as the elder Yojimbo and his surly companion continue towards shelter, highlighting the peculiar relationship of Sensei and Student. At the disciple’s first tournament, the scurrilous, vengeful Dogora adherents scheme to “accidentally” cripple the boy and thus humiliate his teacher, but don’t anticipate his innate ability.

After besting the entire Fencing School contingent in duels with Bokken (wooden swords) the boy at last faces his old friend Kenichi and triumphs. His prize is a Wakizashi “Young Willow” and Katana “Willow Branch”. The short and long swords are the soul of a samurai, marking his graduation to martial maturity, but Usagi is blithely unaware of what his victory has cost his childhood companion…

Mere months later, the graduate warrior is challenged by a masterful, mysterious swordsman who was bodyguard to the Great Lord Mifunė. Their duel is interrupted when a band of Dogora assassins attack, determined to avenge their school’s humiliation by a single stick-wielding student. The cowards are no match for the steel of Usagi and the mighty Gunichi, and the victors part as friends, with the bodyguard promising to recommend the rabbit for future service to his Lord.

Still assessing his options, the young Samurai encounters Kenichi once more. The disgraced youth has left the Dogora School and is trying to drink himself to death, but when he and Usagi hear their home village is threatened by bandits, the former friends reconcile to save their loved ones…

By holding Usagi’s childhood love Mariko hostage, the brigands successfully neutralise his magistrate father and are stripping the hamlet of its provisions and meagre treasures when Usagi and Kenichi challenge them. None of the villains survive the vengeance of the outraged villagers…

In the aftermath, although Mariko clearly wants Usagi to stay, she says nothing and the Samurai leaves to join Lord Mifunė’s service. Kenichi stays…

The young warrior advances quickly as Mifunė’s vassal and is soon a trusted bodyguard, serving beside indomitable Gunichi. It is a time of great unrest and war is brewing, and in Usagi’s third year of service, the Lord’s castle is attacked by Neko Ninja assassins. Although the doughty warriors save their master, his wife Kazumi and heir Tsuruichi are murdered. Realising ambitious rival Lord Hikiji is responsible, Mifunė declares war…

The struggle ends on the great Adachigahara plain when Mifunė’s general Toda switches sides. The Great Lord falls and at the crucial moment Gunichi also breaks, fleeing to save his own skin and leaving outnumbered Usagi to preserve the fallen Lord’s head – and Honour – from shameful desecration…

The story comes full circle now, when after two years as a purposeless, masterless Ronin, the wandering Yojimbo meets Gunichi again…

After the epic origin, short, pithy vignettes cleanse the dramatic palate, beginning with a delicious traditional horror story. In ‘Kappa’ the wanderer encounters a deadly marsh troll at dusk and barely escapes with his life by offering the foul beast some wild cucumbers he has picked. Exhausted, the Ronin finds shelter with an old woman for the night, but when she hears of his adventure she becomes hysterical.

The cucumbers were planted so that her own son – returning that night – would have something to buy off the voracious Kappa. Horrified by his inadvertent error, Usagi dashes back to the marsh to save the son, but after overcoming the monster, shockingly experiences one final sting in the tale…

Moments of peace and contemplation are few in the Yojimbo’s life but, even when a drunken horde interrupt ‘A Quiet Meal’, the rabbit’s patience takes plenty of rousing. Some rude fellows, however, really don’t know when to stop boozing and leave well enough alone…

‘Blind Swords-Pig’ is a sublime comedic parody that sets up future conflicts as the landless lepus meets a formidable companion on the road; one whose incredible olfactory sense more than compensates for his useless eyes. How tragic then that the affable Ino is also a ruthless, blood-spilling outlaw who won’t let comradeship affect his hunger for freedom or carnage…

Closing this collection, ‘Lone Rabbit and Child!’ also sets up major plot threads as the Ronin is hired by beautiful swordswoman Tomoe Ame to protect her Lord Noriyuki. The callow royal child has been travelling to the capital to ratify his role as leader of the prestigious Geishu Clan following the death of his father, but the party has been repeatedly attacked by ninjas working for infamous Hikiji – now risen high in the Emperor’s hierarchy.

The insidious schemer is determined to foil the investiture and appropriate Geishu properties for himself, but has not reckoned on fate and the prowess of the lethally adept Usagi…

Burnished with cover gallery, character sketches and a biography of Stan Sakai, this is a fast-paced yet lyrical compilation; funny, thrilling and simply bursting with veracity and verve. Usagi Yojimbo’s life story is a magical saga of irresistible appeal to delight devotees and make converts of the most hardened hater of “funny animal” stories. If that’s you, why not try some sheer comicbook poetry by a True Master?
Usagi Yojimbo™ © 2020 Stan Sakai. All rights reserved.

Lone Wolf and Cub volume 1: The Assassins Road


By Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima, translated by Dana Lewis (Dark Horse Manga)
ISBN: 978-1-56971-502-4 (TPB)

Best known in the West as Lone Wolf and Cub, the epic Samurai saga created by Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima is without doubt a global classic of comics literature. An example of the popular “Chanbara” or “sword-fighting” genre of print and screen, Kozure Okami was serialised in Weekly Manga Action from September 1970 until April 1976. It was an immense and overwhelming “Seinen” (“Men’s manga”) hit…

Those tales quickly prompted thematic companion series Kubikiri Asa (Samurai Executioner) which ran from 1972-1976, but the major draw – at home and, increasingly, abroad – was always the nomadic wanderings of doomed noble ÅŒgami Ittō and his solemn silent child.

Revered and influential, Kozure Okami was followed after years of supplication by fans and editors by sequel Shin Lone Wolf & Cub (illustrated by Hideki Mori) and even spawned – through Koike’s indirect participation – science fiction homage Lone Wolf 2100 by Mike Kennedy & Francisco Ruiz Velasco.

The original saga has been successfully adapted to most other media, spawning movies, plays, TV series (plural), games and merchandise. The property is notoriously still in pre-production in Hollywood.

The several thousand pages of enthralling, exotic, intoxicating narrative art produced by these legendary creators eventually filled 28 collected volumes, beguiling generations of readers in Japan and, inevitably, the world. More importantly, their philosophically nihilistic odyssey – with its timeless themes and iconic visuals – has influenced hordes of other creators.

The many manga, comics and movies these stories have inspired around the globe are impossible to count. Frank Miller, who illustrated the cover of this edition, referenced the series in Daredevil, his dystopian opus Ronin, The Dark Knight Returns and Sin City. Max Allan Collin’s Road to Perdition is a proudly unashamed tribute to the masterpiece of vengeance-fiction. Stan Sakai has superbly spoofed, pastiched and celebrated the wanderer’s path in his own epic Usagi Yojimbo, and even children’s cartoon shows such as Samurai Jack are direct descendants of this astounding achievement of graphic narrative. The material has become part of a shared world culture.

In the West, we first saw the translated tales in 1987, as 45 Prestige Format editions from First Comics. That innovative trailblazer foundered before getting even a third of the way through the vast canon, after which Dark Horse Comics assumed the rights, systematically reprinting and translating the entire epic into 28 tankōbon-style editions (petite 153 x 109 mm monochrome trade paperbacks, of about 300 pages each) between September 2000-December 2002. Once the entire translated epic had run its course, it was all placed online through the Dark Horse Digital project.

Following a cautionary ‘Note to Readers’ – on stylistic interpretation – this moodily magnificent monochrome collection truly gets underway, keeping many terms and concepts western readers may find unfamiliar. Therefore this initial lean, mean, martial edition offers at the close a Glossary providing detailed context on the term used in the stories, plus profiles of author Koike Kazuo & illustrator Kojima Goseki and the first instalment of ‘The Ronin Report’: an occasional series of articles offering potted history essays on the period of the Tokugawa Shogunate, with Tim Ervin starting the ball rolling here.

Of course, the true meat is the captivating, grimly compelling combination of revenge fable and action-adventure which opens here with intriguing episodes of stripped-down mystery, gripping intensity and galvanic bloodletting as the first tale introduces a scruffy indigent pushing a homemade bamboo pram with a 3-year-old boy in it.

A banner on the contraption proclaims ‘Son for Hire, Sword for Hire’ and as the man stoically ignores mockery and derision from louts on the road, his promotional ploy attracts the attention of four deadly men who have been warned of an assassin carrying his baby boy with him…

A basic formula informs early episodes: the acceptance of a commission to kill an impossible target necessitates the forging of a cunning plan and relentless determination leads to inevitable success: all underscored with bleak philosophical musings alternately informed by Buddhist teachings in conjunction with or in opposition to the unflinching personal honour code of Bushido…

You won’t learn it until the end of this tome, but the fore-doomed killer-wanderer was once the Shogun’s official executioner: capable of cleaving a man in half with one stroke. An eminent individual of esteemed imperial standing, elevated social position and impeccable honour, Ōgami Ittō lost it all and now roams feudal Japan as a doomed soul hellbent for the dire, demon-haunted underworld of Meifumado.

When the noble’s wife was murdered and his clan dishonoured due to the machinations of the treacherous and politically ambitious Yagyu Clan, the Emperor ordered Ōgami to commit suicide. Instead, he rebelled, choosing to become a despised Ronin (masterless samurai) and assassin, pledging to revenge himself on the traitors until they were all dead or Hell claimed him. His son, toddler Daigoro, also chose the way of the sword and together they roam the grim and evocative landscapes of feudal Japan, one step ahead of doom and with death behind and before them.

Frequently, the infallible assassin’s best ploy is to allow himself to be captured, endure unimaginable torture and then fight his way out having slaughtered his target…

The tactic is again employed in ‘A Father Knows His Child’s Heart, As Only a Child Can Know His Father’s’ with the wolf despatching willing Daigoro to penetrate the unyielding defences of Takai Han so Papa can kill a dishonourable usurper…

Another aspect of Ōgami’s methodology emerges in ‘From North to South, From West to East’. The assassin always insists on a personal interview with every client and demands not only who is to die, but why. Perhaps the cautious killer only wants to know the extent of what he’s getting into, but we know he’s judging: seeing whether the target deserves death… or if the client does…

The legend of the Lone Wolf and Cub quickly spreads, and when faithful guards briefly hire Daigoro to help their beloved mistress, it is with full knowledge of what the boy’s father is. In ‘Baby Cart on the River Styx’ that knowledge is crucial to Ōgami’s plan for quashing a gang turf-war before it begins, even whilst bringing down a corrupt yet untouchable lord…

Shocking for us may be the accepted conceit that father is fully prepared to sacrifice son to achieve the mission and fulfil his promises. ‘Suio School Zanbato’ sees Daigoro willingly become a hostage to fortune so that his dad can lure a swords-master – and all his honourless students – into an officially sanctioned duel, killing all with no legal ramifications or repercussions…

Lyrically twisting the theme of star-crossed lovers, ‘Waiting for the Rains’ sees the lad befriend a dying woman even as his father stoically anticipates completing his next commission – expunging the man she so patiently awaits…

These stories are deeply metaphorical and work on many levels most of us westerners just won’t grasp on first reading – even with contextual aid provided by the bonus features. That only makes them more exotic and fascinating. Also a little unsettling is the even-handed treatment of women in the tales. Within the confines of the notoriously stratified culture being depicted, females – from servants to courtesans, prostitutes to highborn ladies – are all fully rounded characters, with their own motivations and drives. The wolf’s female allies are valiant and dependable, and his foes, whether targets or mere enemy combatants in his path, are treated with professional respect by ÅŒgami. He kills them just as if they were men…

In ‘Eight Gates of Deceit’ the indomitable killer is ambushed by an octet of female assassins hired by his latest client who foolishly chooses to discount the professional honour of his hireling in favour of clearing up loose ends. It’s his last mistake…

‘Wings to the Birds, Fangs to the Beast’ finds the tireless wanderer stumbling into a hot-spa village recently taken over by bandits. To their eternal cost, and despite the newcomer’s every forbearing effort, the human animals refuse to believe the man with the baby-carriage wants no trouble…

This stunning opening collection ends with a few of the answers readers want as the scene shifts to the recent past at the Shogun’s palace in Edo for an origin. There, thanks to political manoeuvrings of ambitious Lord Yagyu, Shogun’s Executioner ÅŒgami Ittō has been ousted and his clan disgraced. With his wife Asami dead, the austere warrior outwits his opponent – who thought honourable suicide the only option he’d left his enemy – by opting to travel ‘The Assassin’s Road’with his baby son momentously choosing to follow him to Meifumado or victory…

Whichever English transliteration you prefer – Wolf and Baby Carriage is what I was first introduced to – the grandiose, thought-provoking hell-bent Samurai tragedy created by Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima is without doubt one of those all too rare breakthrough global classics of comics literature. A breathtaking tour de force, these are comics you must not miss.
© 1995, 2000 Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima. All other material © 2000 Dark Horse Comics, Inc. Cover art © 2000 Frank Miller. All rights reserved.

Death: At Death’s Door


By Jill Thompson (DC/Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-56389-938-6 (PB)

In 2003, multi-talented Jill Thompson crafted a canny alternative look to the overwhelmingly successful (and imminently televisual) Sandman as reimagined by Neil Gaiman, giving the esoteric eidolon a radical manga treatment for an intriguing reinterpretation of pivotal events from the landmark fantasy series.

During Sandman: Season of Mists Dream Lord Morpheus sought to liberate an old lover from Hell, whence he banished her ten thousand years previously. His confrontation with Lucifer took an unexpected turn when the Lord of the Damned promptly abdicated. Shutting Hell down, he liberated all the demons and souls in punishing bondage, gifting the infernal realm place and the responsibility of it all to the Sandman.

Repercussions of those events resounded for years through the Vertigo corners of the DC Universe – and ultimately onto our TV screens – and here Thompson’s sharp, light tale details background events that might have happened “off-camera” during those tumultuous times.

As Morpheus entertains embassies from gods and devils all eager to obtain the supernatural lebensraum of the Underworld, his sister Death has a couple of problems of her own.

Primarily, deprived of an abode, the damned dead souls from Hell are all turning up on her doorstep, but almost as troubling is the fact that her untrustworthy sisters Desire and Delirium have decided to turn the whole mess into an excuse for the wildest party in the Universe…

Cutesy comedy hi-jinks coupled with chilling suspense and fantasy make for an uncomfortable mix but Thompson makes it work, although the end result might not be to every modern fan’s taste.

Available in monochrome paperback and digital formats, later editions also offer a text afterword/Introduction ‘Death’, samples from Thompson’s sketchbook and a folksy recommended reading list of other books starring Dream, Death and the other Endless.
© 2003 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Osamu Tezuka’s Original Astro Boy volume 6 & 7



By Osamu Tezuka, translated by Frederik L. Schodt (Dark Horse Manga)
ISBN: 978-1-56971-681-6 (TPB 6) 978-1-56971-790-5 (TPB 7)

There’s nothing like the real thing. After a range of robotic rapscallions and kid-friendly constructions, here’s a double dose of the original and genuine mechanical marvel of any age…

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…

“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 a uniquely Japanese graphic narrative style which became a fixture of global culture.

These monochrome digest volumes (173 x 113 mm in the physical world and any size you like if you get the eBook edition) continue 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, both in comics but in also in other media such as the newspaper strips reprinted and repackaged here. Over that period, Astro Boy spawned the aforementioned global TV cartoon boom, starred in comic book 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 of collections seem 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 groundbreaking 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.

The author was also keen on combining all aspects of his creation into one overarching continuity. This volume opens with ‘“Once Upon a Time” Astro Boy Tales Part 1’ January 24th – December 23rd 1967: reprinting modified strips from the serial that ran in the Sankei newspaper. In his cartoon persona, the God of Comics explains how the cliffhanger ending of the TV series (falling into the sun on a malfunctioning nuclear fusion blocker) never sat well with him.

Filling in gaps, Tezuka here reveals how the depowered robot boy was originally rescued and repaired by insectoid aliens and restored to Earth, but also how he has since rejected that plot twist and replaced it with a new one in ‘Beginning of the Contradiction’…

Now, while enjoying an evening flight over his beloved city, Astro is caught in the explosion of a crashing spaceship. He also saves a locust woman passenger who has taken more-or-less human form. After sharing her tale convoluted tale of romantic woe – involving two males determined to fight to the death for her – Scara Ohara realizes she is marooned on Earth, but that’s not the biggest problem she and her robot rescuer face. When Astro goes for help, he discovers the detonation has cracked the time barrier, plunging them back 50 years to March 1969…

While scouting ancient (by his lights) Tokyo and reeling in shock, Astro meets and befriends a little boy. He soon learns that there are no other true robots in existence and that little Shin-Chan is the world’s greatest beggar.

The diligent mendicant offers the stranded strangers accommodation in his plush house and is astounded when Astro reveals his artificial nature and great dilemma. The mechanoid needs constant atomic fuel top-ups or he will cease to function, but now – decades away from sustenance – is living on borrowed time…

‘Living on Earth 101’ finds Shin-Chan urgently schooling the strangers on the primitive, intolerant world they now live in: building a home, getting jobs as Astro deduces that – if he’s careful – he can live three more years. There are numerous embarrassing and simply dangerous moments where their secret is almost exposed, such as the time he digs up rare gems from inside a volcano but cannot explain how he got them to extremely curious diamond sellers…

Scara cannot understand the concept of work, but easily adapts to the joys of shopping, and lure of “fun” with a succession of attentive men, piling pressure on the sensible robot and triggering an encounter with ruthless thieves and the first of Astro’s contacts with people he will know half a century from “now”.

It’s the birth of the age of automation and Astro regularly meets prototype constructs that painfully remind him of home, where robots are sentient and have equal rights. Here, his kind are considered, silly fantasy, toys and potential job-stealers. Pioneering scientists often work in secret, such as the masked dabbler building his metal men in a secret underground lair.

‘The Birth of Neva #2’ sees a painfully young Ochanomizu take on the human-seeming weird kid Astro as an assistant… with startling repercussions.

As Scara continues to flounder in a strange world, ‘Baro, the Robot’ finds her at odds with her rescuer after she reveals that on her world, all mechanoids are slaves. Incensed, Astro rockets away, wasting precious energy to ostensibly investigate the rogue nation of Peakok, which has shocked the world with twin announcements: it is now a nuclear power, and its H-bombs are deployed by a robot delivery system…

As Astro enters the sinister police state, President Bundell is already taking charge of scientist Carpon’s beloved brainchild Baro. The dictator has no idea that the sentient machine has the mind and personality of a human toddler, whilst the nuclear weapon really hates the idea of killing or dying: opinions fortified after meeting and debating with Astro. That all tragically changes when the President murders rebellious Carpon and Baro seeks revenge…

Squandering power, Astro only has six months energy remaining when the next crisis occurs. ‘Scara Disappears’, reveals how the emotionally dislocated alien – growing evermore discontented – flees to the mountains to escape humanity. When the boy bot returns, guilt drives him to investigate Mount Tanigawa, eventually finding Scara has changed shape and joined the bugs living there. With time running out, he and Shin-Chan make contingency plans: a scheme to store Astro’s power-depleted form for the decades necessary to catch up with the technology needed to sustain him, when the moment of total depletion finally comes…

In the meantime, Astro works with young Ochanomizu on developing robots. Faced with constant failure and the fact that society hates and does not want truly autonomous mechanoids, the boffin is despondent and Astro considers sharing his astonishing secret. Suddenly disaster strikes when a building collapses, and the heroic droid sacrifices most of his dwindling reserves to save people trapped in the wreckage. To keep his secret, Astro wears an old robot shell, but the act provokes a crisis as the authorities want the saviour machine that Ochanomizu knows could not have even moved, let alone independently rescued the victims. Revealing his true nature to the Professor, Astro accidentally sparks a national manhunt before falling into the hands of spies with only three days power remaining.

These monstrous thugs have their eyes on another nation’s top-secret technology.

‘The Energy Tube’ could preserve Astro’s existence so he reluctantly agrees to join them and is soon being smuggled out of Japan in a submarine…

This volume ends on a chilling cliffhanger as Astro’s conscience overrides his survival instincts. Refusing to be anybody’s secret weapon, he scuppers the sub and escapes, only to fly into a massacre: US jets bombing peasants. The war in Southeast Asia was in full swing when Osamu Tezuka crafted these stridently anti-war episodes which depicts the Mighty Atom routing American ground and air forces with his last vestiges of energy. When he collapses and is reverently interred, his “corpse” is disturbed and sinks into the Mekong river when the revenge-hungry Americans return to obliterate the village that even ‘The Angel of Viet Nam’ could not save…

To Be Continued…

Osamu Tezuka’s Original Astro Boy Volume 7 offers the same standard preliminaries and The Story Thus Far’ before resuming the Sankei newspaper adventure ‘“Once Upon a Time” with Astro Boy Tales Part 2’ (spanning December 24th1967 to September 27th 1968). Returning to prognostication, the master jumps to ‘The Summer of 1993’ and a world largely at peace and thriving on scientific progress. A dredger in the Mekong plucks a strange doll out of the mud, and – thanks to a handy note attached by Astro Boy – is returned to a certain person in Tokyo.

Little beggar Shin-Chan is now prestigious, powerful businessman Shingo Yamanaka, but he has never forgotten his childhood companion and despite his subordinates suspicious quibbling, spends a fortune on a new energy tube system to repower the inert doll. Marginally successful, the magnate introduces Astro to a world far closer to, but still not his own.

He and his flighty daughter Surume are the only ones who know his secret, and share his woe that although robots are now commonplace, they are still deliberately limited: a worker underclass who “know their place” and always end up on scrap heaps…

With only one day of full power, Astro knows this is not a situation he can fix. Dutiful and loyal, his first action is to check on Scara, who has been with the locusts on Mount Tanigawa for a quarter of a century now. Unsuccessful in this task, he allows Surume to show him the sights, especially the colossal Fun-Zone where humans go to release tensions, Dancing, playing or acting out their frustrated desires to kill in robot-staffed theme parks. Thy have to be careful though, unsupervised robots are illegal and subject to instant destruction if caught in human zones…

Professor Ochanomizu has not been idle. He still seeks to perfect sentient robot creation and his latest success is his pride and joy. However, its advanced nature makes the construct a perfect patsy when criminals frame it for a bold robbery. ‘Robot Chiruchiru in Danger’ finds the nobly stoic automaton on trial for its life. Surume and Astro strive mightily and heroically to save it, but tragedy strikes when the thieves outsmart the robot boy and justice takes a cruelly biased turn…

After turning the tables on the crooks ‘Astro’s Energy Runs Out’ and his day in the sun ends with him again shutting down, this time in the meadow where he had last seen Scara…

More time passes and the story almost comes full circle, as the origins of Astro Boy revisited in ‘Dr. Tenma’ with the tragedy of the deranged genius and his son Tobio expanded to reveal how parental neglect, overwork and compensating guilt all contributed to the construction of the dead boy’s synthetic substitute, and what the obsession to build him actually cost…

A further unknown complication is simultaneously beginning on Mount Tanigawa, where hibernating Scara awakes beside the eroded body of Astro Boy and realises a long-anticipated time-loop paradox is about to occur with two versions of the same person now occupying the same timeline. The solution is horrible, inevitable and ultimately miraculous…

‘The Tragedy of Bailey’ focuses on the robot boy’s painful failure to fit into the Tenma household: his mother’s anxiety and father’s spiralling into madness, and reappearance of aged Professor Ochanomizu, with constantly-baffled “Tobio” stumbling from crisis to crisis before being summarily handed over to a businessman whose behind the scenes dealings had enabled Tenma to complete his resurrection project…

This embroils him in a bizarre doomed plot to force America to recognize robot rights, but end horrifically for pioneering freedom fighter Bailey…

Returned to Japan, Tobio’s relationship with Tenma further deteriorates and ‘Astro Goes to the Circus’ sees time turn a full circle as the Science Minister wearies of the farce and sells his robot boy to inspirationally sadistic circus impresario Hamegg who renames his goldmine star attraction Astro Boy…

Subjected to an escalating round of gladiatorial combats and life-threatening stunts, Astro rebels and runs away, but even personal tragedy and the wiles of Ochanomizu are enough to keep the mighty mech out of Hamegg’s brutal clutches and despite showing his valiant mettle, this tome concludes on another cliffhanger with Astro Boy a battered slave of the worst that humanity can produce…

To Be Continued…

Breathtaking pace, outrageous invention, slapstick comedy, heart-wrenching sentiment and frenetic action are 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. The melange of marvels is further enhanced here by an older, more sophisticated tone and the introduction of political and social commentary, proving Astro Boy to be a genuine delight for all ages.
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.

Menkui! Volume 1


By Suzuki Tanaka (Blu/TokyoPop)
ISBN: 1-59816-358-2 (Tankōbon PB)

It’s Pride Month and not all comics are about earthdoom and racial slaughter. Here’s a lost diamond long overdue for another run in the sun – or at least a new English language revival on paper or in digital form…

Here’s a Yaoi story, (romanticised fantasy relationship tales of beautiful young men created for female audiences; like Shonen-Ai but with a more explicit erotic content) although very mild – to the point of chaste gentility – by that standard.

Kotori is a shyly demure young man living in the big shadow of his older brother Kujaku, who’s smarter, prettier and much more successful, however that’s measured in terms of school life. This gentle tale of first love recounts Kotori’s growing confidence and closeness with “Boy-Hottie” Akaiwa whose attentions, though heartfelt, are constantly questioned by the insecure second son.

Set in the crucible of a Japanese high school, populated with a lovely-looking, manipulative bunch of gossips and back-stabbers – Yaoi guys are apparently all the same sort of snotty mean-yet-popular princesses beloved by TV teen soap operas – the tentative pair meander down the path of true love, hampered by eternal obstacles of misapprehension, misunderstanding and the impossible dream of a little privacy.

Funny, unassuming, charmingly and painfully romantic, the main narrative tells a very familiar story but tells it exceedingly well, with minor characters adding to the mix in their own sub-adventures in separate chapters, rather than as scene-stealers in the major text. This can seem a little disconcerting to western sensibilities, but these drastic jumps soon resolve into the big picture, so bear with it.

I personally couldn’t grasp the oddly unwholesome concentration – an almost veiled sexual subtext – regarding the physical attraction between brothers, but I might be reading too much into the family relationships of another culture, so you should really decide for yourselves or trade siblings like I did…

Menkui translates as “shallow” or “superficial” and although this everyday saga of pretty-boy angst might seem to condemn itself with this title, these characters had the potential for a genuinely moving tale. Sadly, the series never got the chance. After running in from July 2000 to June 2003, the series closed abruptly. The tales were released in English as three volumes and are still available if you are a grown-up romantic and desire to continue…
© 2000 Suzuki Tanaka. All Rights Reserved. First published in Japan by BIBLOS Co., Ltd. English text ©2006.

Beauty and the Feast volume 1


By Satomi U, translated by Sheldon Drzka (Square Enix)
ISNB: 978-1-64609-062-4 (Tankōbon PB)

Not all manga is gorily action-packed and overflowing with astoundingly robust wonder warriors or deeply introspective and socially redeeming: some Japanese comics just want you to have a good time and some gentle enjoyment.

Here’s one of those in the form of a jolly and uncomplicated semi rom-com, rich and redolent with cultural confusion and pretty illustration from enigmatic creator Satomi U.

It all begins with a revelation in ‘Yakumo-San Wants to Feed You!’ as pretty widow Shuko Yakumo invites a rather unprepossessing young man into her apartment. It’s not the first time Shohei Yamato has come around from his next door flat and, without preamble or converse, tucks into a vast display of succulent home-cooked food.

He’s a first year High School student at prestigious Tosei Academy, on the equivalent of a baseball scholarship, with strict orders to bulk up. Shohei sees nothing amiss in a stranger and single lady indulging him in a strictly-platonic relationship: feeding up the socially-awkward, tongue-tied baseball prodigy who is unable gain necessary poundage due to a lack of funds…

He doesn’t seem very bright – or even communicative – but sure can pack away the glorious meals she happily produces, apparently, just for the sheer joy of cooking again.

It’s not a normal relationship, but both seem to get what they need out of the ritual…

Determined to be the best she can, the delirious domestic goddess constantly considers new recipes and bigger portions before ‘Yakumo-San Buys a Rice Cooker’ sees a change in the status quo as the human locust gradually shares details of his past before we see what his life currently demands in ‘A Day in the Life of Shohei Yamato’.

‘A Day in the Life of Shuko Yakumo’ moves into new territory as school pressure makes the lad miss a few visits, prompting his culinary custodian to start following him with mobile morsels and picnic treats, culminating in an actual and mutual emotional connection on ‘A Night for Cherry Blossoms’…

An old complication resurfaces as ‘Enter Rui, the Reckless High School Girl’ sees an extremely raucous and proprietary former classmate of the sporting cadet reinsert herself in his life. Little Rui Nishihara believes she’s responsible for Shohei’s accomplishments and intends to be the wife of a major baseball superstar, and instantly recognizes a potential rival in the “old lady” with the big boobs and always-open kitchen…

Given to histrionics, Rui is determined to regain the boy’s attention, and refuses to listen to the advice of her super-sensible best pal Ritsuko Nagai, who calmly and constantly reminds her that she never had it in the first place…

Shuko is largely unaware of the impending storm, spending a day at her husband’s grave and catching up with old friend Yuri who reminds her that ‘Nothing Stays the Same’. It’s a fact hammered home that night when Shohei again decimates her larder, only this time something else – something new – happens…

Supplemented by Bonus Manga ‘A Day in the Life of Rui and Ritsuko’ offering insight into the little firecracker’s backstory; design and fact pages on Shuko, Shohei, Rui and Ritsuko via ‘The Inside Scoop’ before ending on a slapstick excerpt from Satomi U’s ‘Baseball Team Research Journal’, this is a bright, breezy and silly, salivatory saga that will satisfy any cravings for something more tastily intriguing than substantial and heavy.
Beauty and the Feast volume 1 © 2016 Satomi U/SQUARE ENIX CO., LTD. English translation © 2021 SQUARE ENIX CO., LTD. All rights reserved.

Haru’s Curse


By Asuka Konishi translated by Hannah Airriess (Vertical)
ISBN: 978-1949980264 (Tankōbon PB)

Manga has an unfair reputation for being lightweight and genre-centric in the west, but if that’s true in any way it’s more an artefact of what we’ve seen translated into English rather that an inherent aspect of the form. Here’s a deceptively dark and subtly off-kilter example of my point from Asuka Konishi, who’s most successful offering to date is gangster romance Raise wa Tanin ga li.

Like that remarkable thriller, Haru’s Curse (which first saw life as Haru no Noroi 1 and 2 in Gekkan Komikko Zero Samu from Ichijinsha, Inc.) also examines the Japanese tradition of arranged marriage, but this time in purely emotional terms as it outlines a potent romantic triangle fuelled by filial devotion and societal expectation.

And pressure. Lots and lots of self-imposed, guilt-tinged pressure…

A comedically mature romance with sharp edges and dangerous corners, the relationship blossoms in seasonally-themed chapters which begin with ‘Spring is gone’ as boisterous, overactive underachiever Natsumi Tachibana reels in grief following the death of her beloved younger sister Haru. The shattering sense of loss over her meek, mild eternal soulmate is peppered with anger and shame when she attends the funeral rites and meets again the stiff-necked, stand-offish rich boy her little Haru was forced to become engaged to, but whom she grew to adore…

Although now just an ordinary middleclass family – apart from having a status-diminishing stepmother thanks to father’s scandalous divorce – the Tachibana’s are of a proud and ancient lineage. So, when the matriarch of a spectacular rich banking family wanted a wife for her heir, she didn’t much care which daughter her son Togo Hiragi picked.

Natsumi was just happy it wasn’t her, and quite baffled at the genuine affection Haru felt. However, after Haru’s debilitating disease and tragic demise, the pressure was on again to honour the contract…

A distant and reserved discussion with the emotionless golden boy results in a bizarre devil’s bargain. Togo seems as reluctant to pursue matrimony as she is, but family duty compels them both, and Natsumi is consumed with curiosity as to what her sister ever saw in the big oaf. She accepts the situation on condition that he takes her to every place and re-enacts every date he had with Haru. At least this way, the sisters can be together again, after a fashion…

The campaign begins in ‘July’ and carries on into ‘August’ with all concerned going through the very painful motions, but gradually dislike and shame (Natsumi feels cursed and dreads public scorn for betraying her sister’s memory and “cheating” on her with her fiancé) turns to neutrality and grudging interest.

Events take a surprising twist in ‘September (Parts One and Two)’ after Natsumi finds Haru’s online diary and is forced to make radical changes to her own flighty lifestyle and assessment of her devoted departed…

Small, apparently incidental developments finally bring Togo out of his defensive shell, and by the time ‘November (Part One and Two)’ rolls round a major familial earthquake is set to upset everybody and redefine the future of all concerned in ‘and winter will come’…

The secrets of the changes of stance are explored at the end via a brace of sidebar vignettes. ‘Bonus comic 1 and 2’ reveal how small incidental moments can spark big responses…

At heart a very mature modern romance, Haru’s Curse is a splendid example of how very alike we all are, and how social mores aren’t worth a damn when we’re truly honest with ourselves…
© 2016, 2017 Asuka Nonishi. All rights reserved.