Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - 3x3 Eyesby Jason Thompson, Dec 1st 2011
Episode LXXXI: 3x3 Eyes
Yakumo is a self-sufficient 17-year-old who goes to school and works at a drag bar at night to pay rent. His mother is gone, and his father is an archaeologist who has been missing for years since he went on an expedition into Tibet in search of a lost civilization. One day, Yakumo runs into a cute Chinese girl in shabby clothes, who looks like she's been living on the street. The girl glomps Yakumo on sight, and while sobbing with joy, says that she's been looking for him ever since she met his father in Tibet. As for Yakumo's dad, unfortunately, he died in Tibet, but at least Pai considerately brought his skull back with her to give to his son.
Unfortunately, before she can explain too much to Yakumo, Pai is mugged on the streets of Tokyo, and the mugger steals a strangely carved staff she was carrying. Before Yakumo can track down the thief, the mugger fiddles with the staff and accidentally unleashes a gigantic monster, a bird-like creature with a single claw and a human face, which flies forth and causes mayhem. Shocked reporters describe the monster's path of carnage on the nightly news, but Pai is unafraid. She runs towards the monster, and as Yakumo tries to protect her, the creature snatches him up in its claw and rips him apart in showers of blood. As Pai watches him die, a third eye opens in her forehead. “NO! YOU MUST NOT DIE!” she shouts in a mighty voice, and a ball of light slips out of Yakumo's body and enters her. By the time the police arrive, the monster has turned back into a staff, and Yakumo is seemingly uninjured, lying in Pai's arms, with a strange hanji character imprinted on his head.
When Yakumo awakens, some explanation is obviously in order. Pai is a Sanjiyan, one of the last survivors of a race of three-eyed beings with incredible mystical powers, who used to dwell somewhere in Tibet. The third eye has always been associated with gods and enlightened beings in Asian mythology (in contrast, incidentally, with merely one-eyed creatures who are usually just weird barbarians like the Arimaspians from Greek mythology and the one-eyed folk from the Shan Hai Jing), and Pai, like the main character of Osamu Tezuka's Mitsume ga Tôru, has magic powers which are unlocked only when her third eye awakes. (Indeed, after reading about all the powers of the third eye in Asian myth, I have to say, Tenshinhan in Dragon Ball got ripped off.) Also like Sharaku in Mitsume ga Tôru, Pai has a split personality, and when her third eye opens, she changes from a ditzy China-girl character who talks in broken Japanese into a ruthless 300-year-old wizard who bosses Yakumo around. The bird-creature, Takuhi, is just one of her monster servants, who got confused when it suddenly found itself in Tokyo. Last but not least, one of the powers of the Sanjiyan is to absorb the soul of a mortal and turn them into a Wu, an immortal zombie-esque servant. Now that he is her one and only Wu, Yakumo regenerates and cannot die, although he still feels the pain when he is torn apart, hit by trucks, thrown off of buildings, stabbed, shot, and generally dismembered. "Heh…I wonder what my friends will think when they find out I became superzombie!” Yakumo wonders. But Evil Pai knows that Yakumo can't go back to being a normal human. “Your old life is over,” she tells him.
It's over because Pai, as one of the last Sanjiyan, is a target for other supernatural creatures who want to steal the power of immortality which he race possesses. Horrible monsters are continually pursuing her: a grotesque giant puppet which turns humans into dolls; a fish-eyed creature which absorbs the flesh of humans and gets bigger; a demon with a long, snaky body and a prehensile tongue; a seven-foot-tall demoness who keeps her extra arms very poorly concealed under a cloak; a secret race of shapeshifting humans who can melt into the flesh of other life forms and sprout tentacles, bat-wings, spider-mouthes, and fire-breathing dragons’ heads out of their bodies; and that's just in the first couple of volumes. Even Pai's allies, like Takuhi and the giant flying tadpole-whale Fei-Oh, are monsters; and whenever a new character shows up in the series, it's a 50-50 chance whether they look weird because the artist just drew them that way, or because they're a member of some forgotten elder race disguised in human clothes so they can secretly perform their evil cult rituals. (In case you're wondering, Yakumo is—or was—human, even though Takada draws him with his eyes perpetually closed.) But among all this slime and tentacles, Pai has a simple goal: to become human by finding the fabled ningen-zô, the “statue of humanity,” a magical artifact that can turn a Sanjiyan into a human. Why would she want to become human and lose her immortality and her awesome powers? “I been wanting it for 300 years, but I forgotten why,” Human Pai says.
No matter, the quest is on! Yakumo and Pai head out on a quest for the mystical statue, traveling through China, India and Tibet. They soon meet up with other investigators of the paranormal. Li Ling-Ling is a Chinese occultist and Ghostbusters-style monster hunter, who doesn't believe in the supernatural at first (“I may not believe in monsters, but I sure believe in money!”). Meixing Long is a martial artist, as well as yet another sexy Chinese girl; Yuzo Takada sure does love ‘em. JAKE McDonald is a scruffy, scarred-up Indiana Jones-type treasure hunter. Hazrat Haan is a Pakistani sorcerer/magical-artifacts-dealer with hair like Malik from Yu-Gi-Oh!, or vice versa, since Yu-Gi-Oh! came much later. There are some other characters who may be either allies or enemies, such as Huang Song Li, the wealthy Chinese heiress who has some shady connections. And behind the scenes, the servants of the Big Bad are gathering their forces, waiting for the return of the great evil one, Kaiyan Wang, the lord of the Sanjiyan. But even though Kaiyan Wang sleeps in darkness, his Wu, Benares, is still alive and plotting his master's resurrection…
3x3 Eyes is one of the manga that got me—and probably a lot of people in their late twenties and thirties—into anime and manga. The long-running seinen horror/adventure manga by Yuzo Takada began in 1987 and ran all the way until 2002. But its peak of popularity was in the early ‘90s, when it was made into two OAV anime series (one in 1991-1992 and one in 1995-1996), tons of drama CDs, and other merchandise. It's a mix of horror and science fiction, monsters and girls, in a realistic modern setting, with the kind of craziness that would cost zillions of dollars if it were adapted into a live-action series. It's got a love story (Pai x Yakumo of course), it's got violence and gore (lots of gore—it's fun having an unkillable main character), it's got epic fight scenes and interesting settings and dubious Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom style ‘80s exoticization of foreign cultures—what's not to like? This is definitely Yuzo Takada's main manga, although he was also pretty well known in the ‘90s for Cat Girl Nuku Nuku, whose manga is horrible, and not in the scary way. He's still doing manga, although none of his other series are even 1/4 as long as 3x3 Eyes, and his current work is Captain Alice, an airplane pilot manga that shows that maybe those realistic planes and helicopters in 3x3 Eyes weren't just drawn by his assistants.
Mostly, though, I like it for the monsters, and for the fact that the series takes itself fairly seriously, even in the comedy parts. (In one early scene, Li Ling-Ling, who doesn't believe in the supernatural yet, whips out some demon-repelling wards, and she doesn't understand why everyone in the room besides her starts acting really nervous and uncomfortable, including Pai and Yakumo.) The series has a nice balance between the youthful enthusiasm of a shonen manga and the storytelling and realism of a seinen manga; it never degenerates into a series of shonen fighting tournaments (wellllll…mostly never), and it never pulls a “I'm gonna get extra-dark and have something totally shocking and offensive happen to keep readers from getting bored” seinen manga (well, admittedly, it's already pretty dark, with half-naked girls getting tied up and sacrificed to demons, but still, I'd loan it to my sister). The plot has echoes of future stories like Shakugan no Shana (supernatural girl brings a dead boy back to life as her servant) and the many, many monster summoner anime and manga (since Yakumo and Pai later learn to summon “beast-magi” to fight their enemies), but what it really reminds me of is an H.P. Lovecraft story, or more precisely a Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game campaign, with heroes running around the world fighting cultists and monsters. (Although Takada never makes any overt Lovecraft references, I wouldn't be surprised if he had read Lovecraft, given the high tentacled monster content in his stories 3x3 Eyes and Blue Seed. Lovecraft never wrote the line “Waah! I hate you! Yakumo, you pervert!”, though.) As the series goes on, the scale goes up and up, and eventually it's revealed that Pai and Kaiyan Wang are in fact the gods Parvati and Shiva, or at least they probably are.
One of the other big appeals of the series, though, is the romance between Pai and Yakumo, even if Human Pai sometimes seems like she isn't smart enough to tie her shoes. It seems like they're going to get together fairly early in the series, in fact…but then tragedy strikes. Perhaps because the series switched magazines in Japan—from a Young Magazine Special Edition to the actual Young Magazine—the series relaunches a bit in volume 3, and Pai resurfaces as a seemingly normal high school girl, living with an adopted family in Japan with no memory of Yakumo or her supernatural powers. Their roles are reversed as Yakumo shows up to track her down, a creepy (but handsome) homeless-looking guy stalking her to tell her she's forgotten something important about herself. It's a cool way to restart the series, but I have to admit I prefer Pai's original dumb personality, since the difference between them is really a choice between two different types of dumbness (Old Pai: “Four years! I look four years since I leave Tibet! Oh Yakumo, Yakumo!" New Pai: “My goal this year is to get a super-awesome boyfriend!”) But at least Pai's brilliant, evil, 300-year-old self is still waiting in the depths of her subconscious. Yakumo also gets a big power-up, since he's spent the intervening years training and learning summoning magic. In fact, he gets so strong that the series succumbs a bit to power-escalation sickness, and I think the turning point for me is when Yakumo uses a healing spell to regrow a character's severed arm with a snap of his fingers. (Despite all the violence, there isn't much permanent death or injury in 3x3 Eyes, at least not among the good guys.) Eventually, it all builds up to an epic battle between good and evil on the level of Bastard!! or Dragon Ball…but along the way, there's 40 volumes, NEARLY 8,000 PAGES of monsters, monsters, monsters.
3x3 Eyes was picked for English translation and produced by Studio Proteus way back in 1991, but unfortunately, it was published by Innovation Comics, a short-lived company whose one stab at manga didn't even make it onto their Wikipedia page. In 1995, Studio Proteus convinced Dark Horse to give the series another shot, but sales weren't great, and they only published eight volumes of the series, along with a ninth volume published only in the Super Manga Blast! anthology and never collected. Frankly, though, it's unlikely that DH or any other print publisher would ever resurrect such a long manga, so unless Kodansha releases a digital edition, 3x3 Eyes fans will have to find this one for themselves. Although 3x3 Eyes isn't perfect and definitely drags on, I miss this kind of globetrotting action-adventure-horror manga, and I'd like to see more like it. Supernatural stuff is much cooler when it's mixed with real-world locations and mythology, and spy-style investigations into the unknown are much cooler than the hero just waiting around for the next opponent to come fight them. I hate remakes, but I can't help but be curious how 3x3 Eyes might be if it was redone by an artist with a more modern character design style. Just the line "works at a drag bar" suggests boundless possibilities.
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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