Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Mugen Shinshi Review

(All images used for review purposes only.)

There was this one manga cover that started catching my eye a few months ago. I saw an advertisement for it in one place, and the manga itself was set up prominently in with the older titles at Mandarake so I kept picking it up to see what it was whenever I dropped in. Finally, I decided that I'd get one volume just to find out what the story is and whether the main character is male or female. The fact that the book was only 300 yen ($3 USD) compared to the 600 and 1000 yen of the other titles kind of helped push me over the edge.

(From the inside cover flap:
Born 1956.
Debuted in 1977 in Manga Shonen, with "Researcher Ehonami's Diagnosis Room".
His many works include:
Fantasy: "Yousuke's Strange World" series
Splatter: "Crazy Pierrot"
Horror: "School Ghost Stories"
Above all, the "Gentleman Mugen" stories - "Adventure Picture Compilation", "Bizarre Collection", "Side Story", "Illusion Collection" and "Houma Collection" represent his life's work and has a wide fan base.)

Once I got home and could look up the kanji in the title, I could make a guess about my one question.

Mugen Shinshi (夢幻紳士, "Gentleman Mugen - Adventure Collection, vol. 1"), by Yousuke Takahashi (高橋葉介): Grade: A.
There's not a lot of information on Yousuke (1956-) in either the Japanese or English wikis. He is identified as a horror writer, but with "Mugen", anyway, he does a light-hearted monster/fantasy kind of story that is hard to be scared by. I like the thin, clean lines in his artwork, and his characters come off as being rather mischievous, which I also like. The book came out in 2006, from Tokyo Hayakawa Books, and is a reprint of stories that ran in 1983 and '83 from "Betty" and "Ryuu" magazines.

(The cast of characters. The descriptions are kind of demeaning, and for the three women in the lower left corner roughly translates to "helpless damsels that turn to Mugen for support. Supporting 'talent'". Chieko spits out "How rude!")

Mamiya Mugen is a private investigator that lives in a mansion alone with his manservant - Alucard. Yes, because "Alucard" is "Dracula" spelled backwards, his butler is a vampire. Probably. It's kind of a Bruce Wayne/Alfred arrangement, but with the lead character being more of a dashing young Sherlock Holmes type. In the first volume, Mugen often bumps into a friend of his, Detective Edogawa of the Tokyo police. Edogawa (probably named after mystery writer Edogama Rampo) is a bumbling, portly man that is always one step behind Mugen, and following up a different set of clues that always lead to Mugen's direction. The stories themselves seem to be set in a Victorian-England version of Japan some time between the 1930's and '40s.

A couple sample stories: In the first chapter, a woman approaches Mugen to ask him to find her missing husband. The husband is an old, brilliant scientist that likes cross-dressing. She just wants him back and she gives his diary to Mugen. The detective soon learns that the missing scientist had been approached by an old oriental man that offered the scientist immortality; or at least, the option to change his appearance permanently. Mugen follows the trail to a Chinese restaurant, so he disguises himself as a serving girl and infiltrates the building. In the lower basements he discovers that the oriental guy, Lau, is a mad genius that has perfected brain swaps. Members of the swap club can flip up their scalps and pop in new brains. Unfortunately, it's actually a scam - the club members bid on the brains of various high-profile people to collect them. The bodies are used to make the meals in the restaurant above and the remains are dumped into an underground river through a trapdoor. Mugen tries to arrest them but is out-manned (he tells Lau to drop his weapon, and the club members all pull out guns and say "which one?") Mugen is tied up and about to be dropped head first through the trap door when Edogawa crawls up from it. His men had discovered a corpse floating in the river and followed the path back upstream. Mugen thinks this was a much better plan than the one he used. There's a battle that turns into a basketball game with the brains from the glass jars (characters screening each other and Edogawa becoming the referee). Lau escapes in a hot air balloon with the chef, but Mugen climbs to the top of the building and shoots them down.

At the end, Mugen tells Edogawa that his client is happy with the way things turned out - she didn't want his body back, she just loved him for his mind (she's shown feeding the brain in a fish bowl, saying "dinner time, here fishy, fishy, fishy"). And the two villains are in jail. Lau complains that he still has some questions, such as how Mugen could rip the china girl dress off so easily to reveal his street clothes underneath the disguise; how he could get to the top of the building so fast; and... The chef tells him to shut up and help with the cutting through of the bars.

In the second chapter, Mugen is enlisted to stop some espionage. Turns out that a man that had been part of a father-daughter stage mentalist act is using his girl's "mental camera" ability to spy on Japan's naval secrets, selling the photos to enemies of the state. In the end he is foiled, the daughter, Chieko, returns to the stage as a solo mentalist, and the navy commander is fired because of his decision to build a submarine dock under Ueno Park in Tokyo without running a connecting tunnel out to Tokyo Bay, landlocking the submarines.

And, in the third chapter, an islander woman asks Mugen for help to save her daughter from her husband. The husband had been a top-flight insect researcher who had visited the island during the war on behalf of the Army to search for legendary super-massive butterflies (think "Mothra"). He fell in love with the woman who became his wife and they returned to Tokyo. However, he started getting insanely jealous and suspected anyone who came close to his wife of cheating with her. This caused him to breed giant, 12-foot-tall preying mantises as attack pets. He claims that their daughter is not his child and that the insects are his only real children. Just as he had fed everyone else to the mantises, he does the same to his wife. Mugen is now tasked with saving the daughter. There's a chase which ends with several giant butterflies arriving and killing the mantises and their master. Mugen loses sight of the daughter, but it appears that the butterflies took her back to the island to care for her.

Mugen's mother arrives at the house in one chapter after doing some world traveling, and she disappears for another country later . While Mugen's father makes an appearance on a remote island, his plan being to dominate the world with his next wife, a jungle girl about Mugen's age. And finally, Mugen makes friends with an exotic dancer that likes doing nude modeling on the side.

Summary: While the villains are ruthless and bloodthirsty, and people do die in the stories, this is not really a grim or horrifying series. There's a lot of slapstick humor, sly jokes, and self-reference as well. I especially like the sequence when Mugen rips off the china girl dress in front of Lau, revealing his regular street clothes, and Lau going "how did you do that? Do that again, do that again!" The artwork is clean and highly stylistic, the characters are easily recognizable and differentiated, and the stories are clever. This is the kind of series that really should be translated and brought to the U.S. commercially, although the occasional exposed breast would need to be edited out for children. Highly recommended if you can find it as an import.

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