Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga Masahiko Nakahira
by Jason Thompson, Apr 19th 2012
Episode CIII: Masahiko Nakahira
Like many people, I got into manga through video games. Japanese video games got me into the industry; my first job at Viz was as editor of a game magazine. Game On! USA was mercifully short-lived, suffering as it did from several disadvantages: (1) it was a magazine about Japanese games, but it had "USA" in the title; (2) the Japanese sister magazine we were supposed to get top-secret Japanese game info from, Game On! (hence the title), never gave us anything; (3) it had bad distribution and (4) it came out in 1996, when the Sega Saturn and PlayStation had just launched and the market was glutted with new video game magazines which all quickly died a flaming death. But at least it introduced the English-speaking world to one of the best gaming manga artists ever, Masahiko Nakahira.
Game On! USA was introduced by Viz to turn video game fans into manga fans, which wasn't such a bad idea. In the early 1990s, Japanese fighting games were one of the gateway drugs into manga and anime; Street Fighter was incredibly popular, and SNK's Neo•Geo had a strong following (American fans liked the exotic Japanese setting of Samurai Shodown, whereas Japanese fans preferred the exotic American setting of Fatal Fury). Of course, CAPCOM America did their best to conceal the Japaneseness of the games, but if you weren't a total dumbass who preferred Western-style motion-captured fighting games like Shaq-Fu and Catfight, you'd soon realize that the sweet sprite animation, character designs and almost everything else that was good in Street Fighter was so, so Japanese. And while Japanese video games had always been popular in America, fighting games had a focus on character, as well as better (and thus more obviously manga-like) graphics than, say, Space Invaders. Like RPGs, fighting games created an outburst of gaming anime, (shudder) live action and comics.
There's a problem, though: most gaming comics suck. I'm not saying game comics can't be done well, but like adaptations of anything, it suffers from the 'originals are better than spin-offs' factor. Secondly, most gaming manga is not lengthy story manga: it's usually one-offs in gaming anthologies, little different than dojinshi, stories that just exist to show one or two characters looking cool for 8-to-16 pages. And even artists who really love a character and can produce beautiful illustrations of them can't necessarily write dialogue or tell a story.
Masahiko Nakahira, like Hitoshi Ariga, is one of the few artists who can do both. His Street Fighter manga are so good that CAPCOM actually used characters from his manga in their games. His first fighting game manga was Street Fighter II: Cammy Gaiden, published in Bessatsu Shonen Sunday, and later in Viz's Game On! USA. His talents at gaming manga were so great, he quickly got hired by a publisher who ONLY did game stuff: Shinseisha, the publisher of Gamest, the legendary Japanese arcade game magazine. Week after week, from 1986 until its untimely death in 1999, Gamest printed game previews, tips, move lists, and enough CAPCOM and SNK character art to sexually satisfy the entire staff of Udon Entertainment. They also published a lot of game anthologies, and a monthly manga magazine, Comic Gamest. But only the very very best video game manga were allowed to run in Gamest itself, and among these were Nakahira's.
Perhaps there are two or three people reading this who don't know the story of Street Fighter. Basically: it's about some people fighting. Like most fighting games, Street Fighterdoesn't have much of a plot, but it's about some incredibly great martial artists who are travel around the world and compete against each other. Since it's a fighting game, technically any playable character could be the hero, but for a manga you gotta narrow down those infinite possibilities, so Nakahira's comics mostly focus on Ryu, the noble Japanese martial artist who wears a white gi and wanders the world in search of stronger opponents. If you're not a dumb Hollywood movie producer who thinks Guile is the hero, Ryu is obviously the main character of Street Fighter. His signature moves are the shoryuken rising dragon punch, the hadôken energy fireball, and the tatsumi senpû kyaku hurricane kick. Like most fighting game series, the Street Fighter franchise has some continuity problems, but Nakahira ironed them out in his Street Fighter manga. Like the best comics based on other works, he makes it his own.
The first Nakahira manga continuity-wise is Street Fighter Alpha (Street Fighter Zero in Japan; technically, it ought to be called Street Fighter 1.5, since it takes place between SF1 and SF2). The curtain rises on smuggling boat somewhere off the coast of Thailand, where Ryu, the wandering hero, is working as a mercenary guarding an opium shipment. (Do you think the American Street Fighter TV series would have allowed this?) Ryu has fallen into a deep depression, and he is working for criminals to punish himself. The guilt weighing on his mind is that, months ago, in his fight with the Muay Thai master Sagat (the boss of the original Street Fighter), he lost control and unleashed the beast within. (No relation to the '80s movie.) Faced with the threat of defeat and death, he unleashed the evil power that his master Gouken warned him about, the power that lies dormant within his martial art training—the "Dark Hadô", a nigh-unstoppable force of destruction. "At that very moment, I chose to live as a dark murderer, instead of dying as a warrior…!"
Afraid of turning into a vicious killer, Ryu is considering abandoning the path of the martial artist. But then, the smuggling boat is stopped by the police, leggy special agent Interpol Chun Li jumps out and tries to arrest everyone, and in the chaos, Ryu gets shot in the chest and flips out into his "Dark Hadô" split personality again. Mass chaos ensues, with Ryu snarling through canine teeth and firing hadôkens like machine guns. Eventually, with some help from Chun Li and Birdie (another strong dude; if the manga itself barely has enough time to explain his backstory, I sure don't) he is able to regain control of himself before killing anyone. Chun Li, who's never met such a powerful martial artist before, listens to Ryu's story and helps give him the courage to keep going. Besides, since he's so powerful, he might attract the attention of Shadaloo, the mysterious international criminal organization she's trying to track down. So Chun Li follows Ryu on his quest to master his own dark side, traveling to Florida, the Amazon jungle, and Japan, and fighting someone in every chapter.
Of course, he meets every character from the game. Even the lame ones like Sodom, the big samurai-masked dude with tonfas, show up. Characters from other Street Fighter iterations have cameos too; in the fighting compound in the jungle, owned by the sadistic Vega (a decadent evil bishonen), Chun Li rescues a brainwashed young Shadaloo warrior who fans will instantly recognize as a certain female MI2 commando from a future Street Fighter game. Finally, Ryu faces the dictatorial master of Shadaloo, M. Bison, who shows up above Tokyo in his flying airship and starts laying waste to Shinjuku with heavy artillery! Rather than being a sickly, dying Raul Julia, M. Bison turns out to be a blank-eyed, sneering, demonic villain who stands ten feet tall, floats in the air, and drop-kicks people with steel boots. In the final battle, Ryu goes out of his way to save a schoolgirl bystander from M. Bison's wrath, a moment which changes the girl's life forever. Everything comes down to an apocalyptic battle of people jumping 100 feet in the air, massive fireball explosions, and HUGE SOUND EFFECTS.
Basically, Nakahira turns Street Fighter into a really good shonen manga. The key: action. He's good at drawing characters in action poses, but it's the stuff around the characters that's just as important as the characters themselves. The speed lines. The impact lines. The explosions, the little bursts and blasts of pure action that's the manga equivalent of Kirby krackle. In a world where people shoot chi out of their hands ("Is that fire?!" a bewildered Interpol agent asks in Street Fighter Alpha), you gotta be able to draw good energy bolts and explosions. The Street Fighter characters can dodge bullets, get thrown through brick walls and live, walk around on the outsides of planes at 20,000 feet; they're superhuman. Mere military hardware is no match against them, at least not against the really tough ones. Street Fighter II was influenced by over-the-top battle manga like Dragon Ball and all the others, and Nakahira pays back the favor, plus interest. Before I could read any Japanese, I used to stare at the pages in awe, just because of Nakahira's artwork.
Nakahira's character designs are very on-model, very much like the original game art by those secretive CAPCOM character designers who CAPCOM keeps hidden away at the bottom of some bunker somewhere. His art is big-eyed and anime-ish, more like the later Street Fighter Alpha designs than the older, more Western Street Fighter II designs. Everything is exaggerated. The characters' hands are bigger than their heads. When Ryu meets Hugo, the circus giant from Street Fighter III, the dude is forty feet tall. Nakahira's natural character design instincts seem to be cartoony; in his manga the original Street Fighter characters like Ken and Ryu look the most realistic, but Nakahira's made-up characters look more stylized (especially in his non-CAPCOM manga, like his followup sci-fi battle manga Hakaima Sadamitsu). It's just realistic enough that you can take it seriously as a fighting manga, even if people's teeth grow back after they're knocked out and they never take permanent facial damage from all those beatings. And in addition to being deeply faithful to the character designs, Nakahira's comics are also faithful to the gameplay itself. When characters perform an attack, even against some random street thug, it's ALWAYS one of their actual attacks from the game animation. When Sagat and Ryu clash, Sagat's Tiger Knee breaks through Ryu's shoryuken—JUST LIKE IN THE GAME! When Zangief shows up, he talks about how he hates Ryu's hadôken—ALSO JUST LIKE IN THE GAME, because he's incredibly weak against that move! All the little touches add up to a comic that game purists can appreciate, much more than the Nth awful live-action adaptation.
The story of Street Fighter Alpha continues, not in Street Fighter II, but in Street Fighter III: Ryu Final. Based on Street Fighter III, it basically follows the story of that game, while continuing the Street Fighter Alpha plot of Ryu's battle against the "Dark Hadô". The enemy this time is Akuma, the bloodthirsty warrior who was consumed by the Dark Hadô and killed Gouken, Ryu and Ken's master. Ryu, now approximately in his thirties, travels around the world again and finally meets Akuma in the ultimate battle. The whole saving-the-world-from-the-Big-Bad element is gone (M. Bison didn't exactly have the world's deepest motivations anyway), and it's just grudge vs. grudge, martial artist vs. martial artist, mano a mano. In this manga, Nakahira unleashes his most violent battle scenes, his most stunning compositions. If it's a little too serious, too straight-faced, too simple…well, hey. This is a manga for people who take Street Fighter very seriously. If you want a comedy, play Puzzle Fighter. Together, Alpha and Ryu Final are possibly the best video game comics ever made.
Nakahira did two other Street Fighter comics. Street Fighter II: Cammy is, of course, the story of Cammy, the British military girl in the leotard from Super Street Fighter II. It's earlier work than Alpha, and doesn't look quite as good, but you get to see lots of leotard action and gunplay. Nakahira also drew Sakura Ganbaru!, based on Sakura, the girl (from Street Fighter Alpha 2) who Ryu saved from M. Bison. Having encountered Ryu's awesomeness, she wants to be just like him, so she decides to train hard and become a martial artist, becoming the short-skirted schoolgirl embodiment of all the oldschool yujo-doryoku-shori values found in Shonen Jump and fighting games. Sakura Ganbaru! ran in Comic Gamest, Gamest's side magazine, and Nakahira was working on it at the same time that Ryu Final ran in Gamest, and sometimes you can tell he didn't put as much work into it. But it's still fun, and shows Nakahira's more lighthearted side in contrast to the hardcoreness of Ryu Final, with enemies like Karin Kanzuki, Sakura's schoolmate/rival who's the stereotypical snooty rich girl who laughs "oho ho ho ho ho" and has zillions of dollars.
Nakahira made the Street Fighter universe his own. In return, CAPCOM paid Masahiko Nakahira the ultimate compliment: they used Karin Kanzuki as an actual character in Street Fighter Alpha 3. Evil Ryu from Street Fighter Alpha also became an actual in-game character, initially just as a color swap, and later as a more seriously different character. Nakahira had achieved every fanboy's dream: he made a Street Fighter fan-comic so awesome it became reality.
Since Gamest magazine ended not long after Ryu Final ended, and the whole arcade market died around the same time, I frankly think of Nakahira's Street Fighter comics as the culmination of the entire 2D fighting game genre. If you like Street Fighter at all,check them out. If you don't like it, well, don't expect William-Shakespeare-esque dialogue, but you can expect some great action scenes. (Viz's Street Fighter II: Cammy is still available used, and Udon Entertainment, being awesome, published all of Nakahira's other Street Fighter manga in excellent editions.) If there is any problem with Nakahira's Street Fighter manga, it's simply that there's only one of them, and not a different manga for every single character. That's the usual problem with fighting games: the appeal is that you can beat the game with any character, even the dumbest ones, but in all the big-budget spin-offs the most obvious, popular characters (Ryu, Guile, Ken, Chun Li) have all the good parts. When are we going to get an entire manga from the perspective of Dan Hibiki, the truly awesomest Street Fighter character? When are all the loser characters going to get their turn in the sun? What can I say: I always liked Kuririn the best in Dragon Ball too.
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