Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga Kazan
by Jason Thompson, Aug 12th 2010
Episode XIV: Kazan
Gaku Miyao is probably best known as the creator of the Devil Hunter Yohko 1990s anime series, which was one of the first anime I saw. My friend who rented it was convinced that it was an 'adult' anime, because it had a sexy girl who fights devils and takes her clothes off, but really it wasn't that adult; it was much more about the cuteness. If there's one thing you can say for Miyao, he draws 'em cute, from the little-kid heroes of the children's anime Hikarian ("Great Railroad Protector," about trains that transform into robots) to the heroes of his latest manga Namikibashidoori Aoba Jitenshaten ("Aoba Cycle Shop"), about girls who work at a bikeshop. But he also knows how to tell a good story, and so it's lucky that ComicsOne translated his fantasy manga Kazan.
In both Western and Japanese fantasy, there are two general types of settings: the setting of forests and mountains and farmlands, the homey "pastoral" land, the "traditional" fantasy, and the setting of jungles and deserts and wild spaces, the "hostile" land, the "exotic" fantasy. In reality, deserts and jungles are home too for the people who live there, there's hardly anywhere so hostile that people can't live there and make farms or at least raise sheep and gather plants and stuff, but the idea persists, and there's something very cool about desert wastelands—the vastness, the dry heat of the land. Kazan is set in one of those fantasy deserts, a world of rock pillars and dry, lifeless trees. Little villages with no apparent means of support do the emptiness, and the land is full of dangers, from brigands to giant ant lions.
In such a world, water is the sole source of life…but also a source of danger. Kazan ("volcano" in Japanese), our hero, was the son of the chieftain of the Red Sand, a group of nomads who lived off hunting and raiding. As a child, he hated fighting, and when his father announced his desire to turn their people from nomads to farmers, Kazan was one of the few to support him. Innocent and big-eyed, 8-year-old Kazan spent his days playing with his childhood friend Elsie while his father (who, like all of Miyao's adults, has a really huge nose) went out into the wilderness in search of a strain of wheat hardy enough to grow in the desert.
But while Kazan's father was away, tragedy struck. Out of the desert came a mysterious figure with the power to summon water—not just as life-giving streams and rainfall, but as massive waterballs with incredible destructive power! Before the helpless Kazan's eyes, the invader kidnapped Elsie and destroyed the village, leaving Kazan the last surviving member of his tribe. Clutching his father's precious dagger, Kazan vowed to find Elsie and get revenge on the "water demon" who stole her…
Fast forward 10 years, and Kazan is a bandit living alone in the desert. On the surface, he hasn't aged a year since that fateful day, but inwardly, he has the strength and personality, of a grown man—from a meta perspective, a pretty cool way to appeal to both young and adult readers and give him just that extra bit of awesomeness. (Too bad the protagonist of Günter Grass's novel The Tin Drum (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Tin_Drum) didn't get super-strength too.) Despite his childlike appearance, he's a cold-hearted knife-fighter who stares down guys twice his size and willingly shanks dudes when the occasion calls for it. Together with Kamushin, a pet white eagle, Kazan roams the wasteland with no idea of where to find his long-lost friend…until one day he rescues Fawna, a young girl, from slave traders. Fawna is searching for the faraway country of Goldene, a nearly mythical paradise of endless water. To Kazan's surprise, Fawna, too, has the power to summon water, just like the evil invader from his childhood! Could both Fawna and the "water demon" be the legendary "water women" of Goldene, and could Goldene be the key to finding Elsie? After a tense moment in which they do battle, the two of them learn to trust one another and join up on their quest for a girl and a land lost long ago.
The girl and the boy of indeterminate age travel through mysteries and perils. There are the standard "wanderer arrives in a small town and fights the bad dudes" stories, of course, but there's also much more. They soon add other members to their party: Arbey, a cackling old thief who specializes in making fireworks and explosives, and Limoto, a young swindler with freckles and a crush on Fawna. As they proceed on their quest for the hidden kingdom of Goldene, they find themselves targeted by enemies: the Messengers, a mysterious group of black-masked assassins. The fight scenes are dynamic, with Kazan jumping around using his throwing dagger and rope, and often being pulled aloft by his eagle companion. It's not too much of a spoiler to say that eventually, the heroes reach Goldene and discover the secret of Fawna's powers and why Elsie was kidnapped. But as they come closer to the answer, Kazan's "power" of not having aged in 10 years, at first so amazing, becomes increasingly sad. ("Elsie is already 17 years old if she's really alive somewhere…but just take a look at yourself, Kazan…you still look like a child!")
An adventure with a cast of mostly children, a story with blood and death but not gratuitous gore, Kazan reminds me of the films of Hayao Miyazaki, particularly his early straightforward ones like The Castle in the Sky. In fact, there are several hints that Gaku Miyao (who worked as an animator) might be doing a straight-up homage to Miyazaki. The horse-birds that people ride look just like the ones in Miyazaki's Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Furthermore, Kazan's horsebird is named "Gibli," as in Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli (named after the Arabic word for a hot desert wind, remember!), and there's also this line from volume 1: "Kazan, can you navigate by the stars? The line extending from the fourth star of the constellation Ghibli points directly west." The art of Kazan has a very '80s-90s look, not unlike Kyoko Hikawa's From Far Away, with huge eyes and everyone looking kind of pleasantly chubby. But Gaku Miyao also delivers the action to complement the cuteness. It would have made a great little animated film, and it would have looked great in color, to show off those vast desert landscapes. But that's okay that it's a black and white comic; it is what it is, and that's a manga! It takes a certain suspension of disbelief to accept that people with water-creating powers in a desert would have nothing better to do than to smash their enemies with giant waterspouts, but Miyao pulls it off and everything comes together in the conclusion. It's a great all-ages fantasy manga, one of the best.
Kazan has long been out of print, and the company that released it is no more, but strangely, you can still buy it online as an ebook. Like most of ComicsOne's launch titles way back in 2000, it was released as an Adobe ebook before it became a print graphic novel (the less popular titles, like Bass Master Ranmaru, never made the jump to print). Print may fade and turn yellow, but ebooks, apparently, are eternal. Unfortunately, as you can see from some of the screengrabs here, the ebook is technically very out-of-date; the screen resolution is terrible, and you can't zoom in at all. The raw story is there, but you might want to try a sample volume before committing to all 7 volumes of blurry artwork and left-to-right printing. (The cynical part of me wonders whether the low image quality was a technical issue, or an intentional choice: in private, some manga publishers have said that they *prefer* low-resolution digital manga, so that people will still have motivation to buy the print versions.)
Despite the awful image quality, the Kazan ebook costs a mere $2.95 for 180+ pages, which is a price think any manga fan would agree is reasonable, although it didn't stop someone from uploading Kazan scans. ComicOne's ebooks weren't successful ten years ago, but I wonder if they'd be more successful if they tried releasing them today, with the same super-low pricing and better screen resolution. If ComicsOne was able to release ebooks with titles like Pachinko Player in 2000, surely some publisher would be reckless enough to do the same thing today? It's even more impressive when you consider that much of the resistance to digital manga formats has been from the manga publishers themselves. ComicsOne must have either had a really good relationship with their licensors (Kazan was published by Shonen Gahosha), or the licensors just weren't paying attention; for instance, ComicsOne mixed art from different manga together in their ads, which is a definite no-no with bigger, more corporate control-freak manga publishers like Shogakukan and Shueisha. (That's why you'll never see Luffy and Na>ruto, let alone Luffy and Conan, giving each other bro grabs and pimping each others' books.) But seriously, manga publishers – if some tiny publisher from ten years ago could release $3 ebooks, while paying extra money to letterers to redo the sound effects in English, what's keeping you from doing it with untranslated sound effects? What is up with those $10.00 manga graphic novels for Kindle?! I wouldn't buy music from the iTunes store either if it cost $10.00 a song. PRICE POINTS, PEOPLE!
But never mind technical concerns. What lingers about Kazan is the spirit of adventure and the sweetness of the story, the delicate balance of childhood hopes and adult resolutions. Like the best shonen manga, it is a story of growing up, of taking responsibility, and that most oldschool theme, of fathers and children. In the epilogue to the final volume, Miyao dedicates Kazan to his father, who supported Miyao's manga career and died just before he finished volume 4 of the series. "I really didn't want to have to say these words," writes Miyao, "but I told my father: 'Dad, hold on. You can't die until I've finished Kazan.'" When his father was buried, Miyao placed a copy of Kazan in the coffin. When I get tired of reading lame simulation-game tie-ins and cheesy rip-off manga, I think of stories like these. Kazan is a manga which was important to its creator, and you can tell, and that's the best compliment I can pay it
Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide and King of RPGs, as well as manga editor for Otaku USA magazine.
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