Sunday, April 10, 2011

Seinen manga title commentary: Combat

One of the current categories for manga is "seinen", which translates to "young man". It's generally considered to be the successor to "gekiga", the "realistic drawings" genre trumpeted by Garo and Ax magazines. Lately, I've been reading various stories identified as seinen which all share one primary feature - they're combat related in one form or another. I'll take this opportunity to put down some brief thoughts on each of them.

Vinland Saga, by Makoto Yukimura

Vinland Saga is set in the Viking era, primarily in Dane-controlled England. It follows Thorfinn, a young berserker who later develops a sense of conscience. The scenery is great, the characters are well-drawn and have their own personalities, and the combat sequences are very believable. The problem is that few of the characters are very likable and the story takes too long to unfold.
Grade: B+

Blame!, by Tsutomu Nihei

The wiki entry describes Blame! as cyberpunk, but I consider this a misnomer. Yes, we have all the trappings of a post-apocalyptic futuristic SF world with electronically-enhanced characters running around, but the story really has nothing to do with computers, a primary element of the "cyber" part. Killy is a loner that races through a massive tower with the goal of finding "net terminal genes". The art is dark and muddy, often devoid of any real detail. The story is obtuse and takes a backseat to the fighting, which primarily consists of Killy getting bashed up before wiping everything out with a pistol capable of writing on the moon. Blame! ran 10 volumes and was followed by Biomega, a similar title that shares all of the flaws of Blame! I've never been a fan of Nihei's works, and I probably never will be.
Grade: C

Red Eyes, by Jun Shindo
(No photo with the wiki page.)
This is a recent addition to Spectrum Nexus, and is one of the inspirations for this blog article. Red Eyes is a true war action story, describing the conflict between two imaginary countries that are amalgams of aspects of Russia, Japan, the U.S., England, France and Germany, plus others It has a kind of "Inglourious Basterds" feel, following the quest for revenge by Grahad Mills, leader of the Jackals, a supreme group of battlesuit-equipped front line fighters. Mills gets betrayed by his unit, escapes prison where he's facing a death sentence, and starts tracking down his former comrades. In the first 5-6 volumes the character art is very realistic and engaging. Everyone has their own personality and the fight sequences are incredibly dynamic and exciting. But after about volume 6, the facial features turn more cartoon-like and silly. The posturing goes over the top and the combat becomes Hollywood parody. This is a very gory series which had promise but squanders it after a while.
Grade: B-

Jormungand, by Keitaro Takahashi
(No photo with the wiki page.)
Jonah is a child soldier whose parents had been killed during a battle in his country, and he seeks revenge against those arms dealers that supply similar conflicts. Eventually he falls in with the dealer Koko Hekmatyar and her band of mercenary bodyguards. Koko is a brilliant strategist and saleswoman, and is also the daughter of a global shipping magnate. The story follows Koko and her various henchmen as much as it does Jonah's journey of trying to fit in with others after years of fighting alone from the shadows. The character designs are cartoony, but in a good way. The combat sequences are mostly believable, if you imagine everyone at the Navy SEAL level. The plots are simplistic (Koko tries to make a sale and someone tries to thwart or kill her) but the mindgames tend to be fairly entertaining. This would be a good series if the characters were a little more realistic-looking.
Grade: B

Black Lagoon, by Rei Hiroe

This is probably the most well-known of the list. A Japanese salaryman nicknamed "Rock" gets dumped by his company into the hands of the Lagoon Company smugglers group. The story then follows their exploits with various transporting jobs and assassins that pop up and often just disappear eventually. The character designs are typical manga cartoon stereotypes and taken to the extreme. The combat sequences are very good, but not overly believable. I expect that the main appeal to fans is the kick-ass female killer, Revy, and that everything else is just kind of frosting. To me, Revy detracts from the plotline too much, and holds back the character development of the rest of the cast.
Grade: B

Berserk, by Kentaro Miura

Berserk is by far the most violent, dark and graphic of everything in this list. Set in a fantasy world that is kind of a cross between D&D and Hellraiser, we get wide-ranging wars, battle tactics, new weapon development, evil gods, demons, heroes and betrayal. Guts is a battle-hardened warrior who is sacrificed to the demons when his commander, Griffith, decides to make the transition to black god. One of the others cast away is Casca, one of Griffith's followers and later Guts' lover. After being made victim of the horrors of the demons, Casca goes into shock and loses her mind. It's now up to Guts, and the band of followers that unintentionally springs up around him to try to help Casca recover, and to overthrow the gods. The artwork is very good, the action sequences are great, and the characters are all easy to tell apart and have their own personalities. This is very much an "adult" title and is not appropriate for minors or the squeamish. I do find some of the characters to be unnecessary, especially Puck and Isidro, and some of the violence does get excessive at times. Probably my biggest complaint is that the chapters haven't been coming out regularly lately.
Grade: B+

Gantz, by Hiroya Oku

Oku is the creator of "Hen", a high school comedy that revolved around a feminine-looking boy, the guys around him that seem to like falling for him, and the girls that love them. In Gantz, we have an unlikable group of the newly dead being used by a secret machine, called "Gantz", to create a fighting force for attacking aliens that are attempting to settle on Earth. Initially the setting is present-day Tokyo, but the SF element gradually looms and we move into a post-apocalyptic Earth and the war with the aliens that gets transferred to the invading ships. The character designs are fairly realistic, with manga/cartoon overtones. The backgrounds are highly detailed, and the story is mostly interesting. The combat sequences get very confusing and hard to follow after a while, and the characters get difficult to tell apart. There's not much of a story, and because the main character isn't all that pleasant it's hard to really care what happens to him. Quick assessment - mindless eye candy.
Grade: B-

Eden: It's an Endless World, by Hiroki Endo

I first encountered Eden in Afternoon magazine when it was still being serialized. Because I couldn't pick up each issue consistently, I could only get bits and pieces of the storyline. Being able to read all 18 volumes back to back certainly helped to clear up some of the confusion, but there's still gaps in the story that bug me. The first volume or 2 are rather religious in nature, with a dominant religion suppressing all dissenters world-wide, amid a post-apocalyptic setting where there are few survivors. There's a jump of 15 years or so, and lots of questioning of whether there is a god, and if so, is he insane. Later volumes, though, switch enemies and the religious element is toned down. There are a number of sex scenes, and lots of gory combat. The fighting, though, is generally one-against many, with a single super-fighter (there are several on the same side) successfully taking out whole squads of veteran warriors. The action is well-drawn, but the number of miracle shots (one sniper killing another with a bullet that goes through the scope first) gets tedious. The final ending lacks emotional impact, and the inconsistency in character designs from one page to the next becomes a lot more distracting over time. Overall, the artwork is good, the fighting scenes are well-drawn, but the story is just marginal.
Grade: B

Dorohedoro, by Q Hayashida

Dorohedoro is the true exception to the list. First, it's the only one drawn by a female artist. Second, the fighting comes second to the story, which is really complex and hard to follow. Third, the artwork is very "80's manga-style oldschool" (think old Gundam or Johji Outlanders). In Dorohedoro, the world of magic lies next door to the real world. Magic users occasionally visit the real world to experiment on the regular humans, and the regular humans retaliate by trying to execute the magicians. Nikaido is the female owner of a gyoza restaurant, and secretly a rare-magic type magician, able to control time, although there are severe limits on this power. She befriends a magician hunter named Caiman, and the two of them start out by fighting magicians that enter their town of Hole. Meanwhile, the friends of some of those killed by Caiman decide to get revenge, and Caiman's lost past catches up with him. This is a very wide-ranging, imaginative title that is my favorite of the group. It's not perfect, but it is fun. I just wish the character designs were a little bit better (they're just a bit too sketchy for me).
Grade: A-


Bunny said...

Black Lagoon and you didn't comment on Roberta the psycho-maid?


TSOTE said...

True. Any discussion of Black Lagoon does need to include the psycho-maid. There really should be more psycho-maids in manga anyway. And she does make up for the flaws of Revi. It's just that Roberta isn't a regular cast member.