Yuukoku no Rasputin, vol. 1, Dec. 2010. Grade: B+
Based on the novel by Masaru Satou. Art by Junji Itou. Script by Takashi Nagasaki. This manga is currently being serialized in Big Comic.
Masaru Satou was a foreign affairs Russia expert stationed in Moscow from 1998. In 2002 he was arrested on charges of leaking secrets to Russia. He was eventually tried and sentenced, serving 2 years in prison. After serving his time, he was released and started a new career as a novelist. "Yuukoku no Rasputin" is based on one of his novels, "Kokka no Wana", a fictionalization of his arrest and interactions with the prosecutor assigned to his case, which he argues was solely politically motivated. There's very little on Sato in English, although the Japanese wiki entry on him is fairly extensive. The artist is Junji Itou, the famed horror writer responsible for "Gyo", "Uzumaki" and "Slug Girl". Scriptwriter Takashi Nagasaki has co-credits on "Pluto" and "20th Century Boys". The artwork in this manga is very similar to Itou's other stuff, but nowhere near as dark and twisted.
The story starts out with non-career Foreign Affairs Ministry employee Mamoru Yuuki getting arrested on trumped up charges, processed and placed into the jail system. This is followed by a flashback where he was a university student trying to figure out how to travel overseas as part of his career plans; he sees an ad on the notice board and signs up for the ministry. While stationed in Moscow, he's at ground zero when the military attempted its coup against Mikhail Gorbachev. Through sheer luck and good planning Yuuki manages to determine that Gorbachev is still alive right after the coup, scooping the CIA and gaining the notice of one of his superiors. After this, he slowly received advice from various other ministry members on how to survive in this business. Largely the advice is to keep your head down, carefully watch everyone, determine who the spies are and keep your emotions off your face.
Eventually his superior in the ministry asks for Yuuki's help in gaining access to the Russian elite, luring him even deeper into the diplomatic undercurrents. His superior likes giving people nicknames, and Yuuki's is "Rasputin", in part because of his mental skills and partly because they kind of scowl alike. This is where events in the present day surface - Yuuki has been framed and the prosecutor interrogating him, Takamura, is trying to determine where large sums of money that Yuuki had handled, had gotten funneled to. From here, it's a cat-and-mouse game of wits between the two along the lines of Kira and L in "Deathnote", as the prosecutor tries to get Yuuki to incriminate himself regarding several "everyday" transactions that his superior had approved (such as trips to Israel and the installation of a power generator on one of the disputed islands north of Hokkaido). Then the story continuously flips between "Rasputin's" rise in the Foreign Ministry and Yuuki's activities in prison. One lawyer warns him about Takamura's cold, efficient logic, and suggests that he think of himself as a vending machine; every time Takamura puts in change, he's going to get some information out. At one point, the analogy is so spot-on that Yuuki visualizes dozens of cans with his face on them spilling out of the machine when Takamura trips him up (the page is recreated on the back cover of the book, above).
Summary: "Yuukoku no Rasputin" is an interesting variation on the Cold War thriller, with the protagonist being a non-career employee in the Japanese Foreign Affairs Ministry stationed in the U.S.S.R. prior to its collapse, who gets a hands-on education in being street-wise. The art style doesn't really appeal to me, but the story and pacing are good, and the character designs are characteristic of Itou's other stuff, but nowhere near as dark and twisted. Recommended, especially if you want a realistic look into the Japanese correctional system.