Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Sprigganby Jason Thompson, Sep 22nd 2011
Episode LXVIII: Spriggan
"In the ultra-ancient area, it's said there were several wars – somewhere around today's India. That history has been passed on as ancient epic poems like Mahabharata and Ramayana. In these poems, there are many weapons with battles that sound a lot like today's tools of war. Even nuclear bombs are described in those ultra-ancient texts!"
—Striker: The Forest of No Return
O-Parts: it's not just the name of a manga. Out-of-place artifacts, archaeological finds which show technology beyond what people thought possible for their time period, are a real field of study, and many researchers have puzzled over things like the "Baghdad batteries", which may have been used as electrical batteries more than 2000 years ago, and the Antikythera Mechanism, a gear-powered computing device discovered from an Ancient Greek shipwreck dating back to 100 BC. Of course, in science fiction, the idea of O-Parts has been exaggerated to crazy levels, but no one has yet proven that any ancient Earthly civilization ever produced giant robots and other cool stuff only to be buried by the sands of time. (It makes me think of that History channel series Life after People which talked about how long it takes things to decay. Wouldn't the ancient civilization at least have left us some giant landfills and toxic waste dumps for presents?) But it sure makes for good manga.
Spriggan (aka Striker), written by Hiroshi Takashige and drawn by Ryoji Minagawa, is all about the O-Parts. Originally published in Weekly Shonen Sunday and Shonen Sunday Super in the early '90s, and later translated by Viz, it's an action-adventure manga about black ops and military forces fighting over long-lost ancient technology. Deep under the ocean, archaeologists have found indestructible tablets inscribed with ancient Hebrew, left as a warning to future civilizations not to tamper in god's domain. Heedless of the warning, the U.S., the Soviet Union, Great Britain and countless paramilitary organizations scour the globe for O-Parts, all looking for an advantage in the struggle for world power. Standing in their way is the Arcam Foundation, a mysterious organization whose mission is to find the O-Parts and guard them until humanity is peaceful enough to use their power wisely.
The Arcam Foundation's agents are named "Spriggans," after a type of British fairies said to guard buried treasure. The most famous Spriggan is Yu Ominae. By day, Yu lives the life of a normal (well, semi-normal) Japanese high school student, trying to pass his finals, sleeping through class, and teasing girls. But by night, or whenever his bosses need him, he gets serious and transforms into a paramilitary super-agent. Thanks to his strange upbringing, he's already stronger than any normal teen, and his powers are amplified by his "armored muscle" suit, an Orichalcum bodysuit developed by Arcam, which acts as armor and gives him 30 times normal human strength. Yu's a match for heavily-armed thugs twice his size. The armored muscle suit also lets him concentrate his chi into his palm for a "psychic blow," but his favorite weapon is his "soul blade," which looks like a standard-issue military knife but can cut through any substance.
The other Spriggans are even more badass. Jean-Jacquemonde, a French agent, is a ruthless, shotgun-wielding werewolf who's dangerous to be around even before he transforms. Oboro, aka Mirage, is a Chinese chi master who can move faster than the eye can see; his awareness of chi is so great that an advancing bullet pushes him gently out of the way as if it was a light breeze. Tea Flatte is a witch who specializes in summoning monsters. They rarely all show up at the same time, but when they work together on a mission, they're unstoppable. And when I say "mission," I mean "mission"; Spriggan is unusually realistic and extremely violent in its portrayal of special ops. Ryoji Minagawa is great at drawing action and blood-splatter, although he sure does draw some lopsided faces sometimes; maybe he should look at his work in a mirror before he inks it, or maybe Yu's cheekbones have been knocked out of joint by his repeated injuries. Anyway, in Spriggan, there's lots of surveillance and stealth and assassination. The bad guys are ruthless killers. Yu is a good guy, but when the mission calls for it, he'll use a sniper rifle, shank a security guard in the back, and even put down a dying comrade with a single merciful gunshot. As for Jean-Jacquemonde, if you're a military-contractor assassin lying helpless before him after killing a bunch of Jean's coworkers, don't bother begging for mercy, he'll just SHOOT YOU IN THE FACE. The heroes are sometimes amoral, but honestly, I like Spriggan better than so many shonen manga where the heroes—or really the author—goes out of their way to convince us that in all this violence no one is actually getting hurt. To think that Spriggan ran in a shonen magazine is to read the "guns are bad!" speeches in Death Note and laugh.
Yu's missions take him around the world; if you're tired of him fighting cultists in Mexico, don't worry, in another 60 pages he'll be fighting CIA agents in Turkey. In the first story, "The Temple of Fire," Yu goes head to head with a KGB psychic over an ancient orb which has the power to control volcanoes. Powerful though it is, the orb sucks compared to the title artifact in "Noah's Ark," which has the power to HACK AND REWRITE EARTH'S ENTIRE ECOSYSTEM!! When the ark is discovered on Mt. Ararat, the U.S. military sends a team of military cyborgs and psychics to capture it, and Yu and Jean-Jacquemonde must fight them off. In "The Forest of No Return" Yu ventures into a haunted jungle somewhere in India, where he faces killer plants, cannibal zombies and a giant blob of tentacles and leering faces. His companion in that adventure is Yoshino Somei, a cool Tomb Raider-ish treasure-hunter girl who's handy with a gun and can speak to the dead. (All of Yu's missions involve some kind of pretty face, but there's really not any romance or fanservice, and sadly, except for Somei, the female characters don't often return for a second adventure.) In "Secret of the Berserker" he must stop a deadly biomechanical war machine and get back to Tokyo in time to run in the school relay race. Other adventures, which Viz never translated, involve evil A.I.s, possessed Mayan masks, the Colossus of Rhodes, the Megiddo Flame of the historical Battle of Armageddon, and other, more personal challenges, as Yu comes to grips with his superhuman powers and his own secret origin…
The most obvious inspiration for Spriggan is the Indiana Jones movies, with the whole idea of heroic gun-toting archaeologists racing around the globe to keep precious artifacts out of evil hands. As Jones fought Nazis, there's even a Spriggan storyline about Neo-Nazis seeking the Crystal Skull, written more than a decade before Steven Spielberg released Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. (But Steven Spielberg probably wouldn't have had a character like the "honorable Neo-Nazi" Bo Brantz, or the idea that Hitler had a split personality and one side was good and the other side was…anyway. It's probably one of the dumbest storylines.) Another possible influence on Spriggan is H.P. Lovecraft, whose horror stories often involved buried secrets of lost civilizations. The Arcam Foundation was supposed to be "Arkham," after H.P. Lovecraft's city of the same name, but Viz either didn't get the reference or intentionally misspelled it for copyright reasons. Ryoji Minagawa and Kyoichi Nanatsuki's Project ARMS, which Minagawa drew after Spriggan, also has lots of Lovecraftian in-jokes, including characters named after mad scientist Crawford Tillinghast from Lovecraft's From Beyond, degenerate hillbilly Lavinia Whateley from The Dunwich Horror…and of course, lots of good ol' Lovecraftian apocalyptic giant-monster horror.
Viz released part of Spriggan in English in the '90s, when an eleven-volume series was considered incredibly long and risky to publish. Instead of translating all the stories in order, they picked and chose storylines (including, it's rumored, not publishing the "Legend of the Mask" storyline because the villain Iron Arm looked too much like Arnold Schwarznegger). The cutting-and-pasting actually didn't hurt the manga so much because the stories were so episodic anyway, but they also changed the name to "Striker" for no more reason than that the translators thought "Spriggan" didn't sound cool.
After putting the series on hiatus for a few years, Viz decided to bring it back in the anthology Manga Vizion under the name "Spriggan" to rebrand it. Then, in 1998, a few years after the manga ended, Studio 4C announced that they were going to make a Spriggan anime produced by Katsuhiro Otomo! But, surprise—a couple copies of the Viz "Striker" had made their way back to Japan, and Studio 4C told Viz that they liked Viz's name "Striker" so much they were going to use "Striker" as the title for the international release of the anime. Viz hastily went back and relettered the wholes series as "Striker," only to discover when the anime came out that Studio 4C had changed their minds again without telling them and used "Spriggan," leaving Viz stuck with three volumes of manga named Striker when the anime had a different title. If that explanation makes no sense, it's because what actually happened makes no sense.
The Spriggan movie was the high-water mark for Spriggan's popularity, and since then, it's gradually sunk into obscurity. In some ways, it's a typical '80s-90s action manga, a relic of the macho sci-fi age when YA manga was full of guns and gore and crazed psychics. (The Noah's Ark storyline which was used in the movie is so Akira-like I bet it was super awkward in the meeting where the Shogakukan executives asked Katsuhiro Otomo to produce it.) The best thing about Spriggan is that there are so many new adventures involving new bits of ancient history. The worst thing is that the actual plots of most of the adventures are basically the same—Yu goes to some exotic place, fights some mooks, gets beaten up by some Dolph Lundgren lookalike, spits up blood, makes witty comebacks, and then musters up his strength and saves the world. Repeat for 11 volumes. But Minagawa is a good action artist, and compared to his more well-known Project ARMS, I like Spriggan better because it's faster-paced and more realistic and there's more variety of places and enemies. It's formulaic, but it's imaginative, and I'm disappointed that more of it wasn't published in English. Someday I'll go on an archaeological expedition and find those precious missing eight volumes buried away in a used manga store. Be warned: I may have to shank some clerks.
Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide and King of RPGs, as well as manga editor for Otaku USA magazine.
Banner designed by Lanny Liu.
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