Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Hoshin Engi

by Jason Thompson, Jul 26th 2012

Episode CXIV: Hoshin Engi

Sometimes I forget how long manga can be compared to American comics. (Graphic novels with continuing storylines, I mean; Spider-Man has been running since 1962, but nobody ever sits down and reads it from beginning to end.) The other day I was at a comic store buying the English edition of Hirohiko Araki's Rohan at the Louvre, and the store owner commented that he'd heard of Araki before, but it was one of those super epic manga that he was scared of starting to read because it was so long. "Oh yeah!" I answered cheerfully. "JoJo's Bizarre Adventure! It's 106 volumes in Japan, but you should check out the English edition, it's only 16 volumes!" He looked at me as if I had just told him I had eaten a bathtub full of bugs.

But I won't be ashamed of it; I love long story manga. Sometimes the storylines aren't that well plotted out, but when it works, this is what manga is meant to be. Of course, it also can get expensive, buying those really long series at $10 or more a volume, but hey; that's why there's libraries. If you're too poor to support your favorite mangaka by buying their graphic novel or tankobons, there's nothing better than a library with a good manga section. Even if, theoretically, there were some shameless and illegal way of reading free manga without going to a library, the nice thing about libraries is that you don't have to drag your computer through a lot of slimy malware and sleazy talking banner ads for dating services and freemium MMOs. I'm proud to say that over the years, I've supported our public libraries with hundreds and hundreds of dollars of late fees.

The other day in the Seattle Public Library, I saw all 23 volumes of Hoshin Engi. Drawn by Ryu Fujisaki, roughly based on the legendary Chinese novel Fengshen Yanyi (or rather on Tsutomu Ano's Japanese translation of that novel), it was one of the hit Shonen Jump manga of the 1990s. People always talked about it like a semi-classic, and seeing those books all lined up on the shelf, I decided to read it again. I hadn't read it since 2006, when the Viz edition had just started; would I like it as much now that I could read the entire Viz edition and didn't have to rely partially on tankobon and guesswork?

Also, I decided I'd read all of Hoshin Engi in one day. It takes me between 20 and 30 minutes to read an average graphic novel (we're talking Shonen Jump here, not A Drifting Life), so I estimated it should take between 8 and 12 hours to finish Hoshin Engi. Also, if anyone out there was afraid of the time investment of long manga, I'd prove to them that it wasn't too hard to read manga quickly and absorb four of five years of a mangaka's backbreaking labor in a single day. The only time I'd ever broken myself trying to read comics quickly was when I had just one day to read all of Grant Morrison's The Invisibles at my friend's house, taking advantage of a day trip to read his comics instead of hanging out with him -_-;;; …and surely, Hoshin Engi wouldn't be as dense as The Invisibles, right? And so, I borrowed all the books and began…A DAY OF HOSHIN ENGI! What folllows is a diary of my thoughts as I read the manga from 11 am to midnight, with breaks.

11:00
I've got my coffee, I've got 23 volumes of Hoshin Engi, I've got my laptop to type in, I'm good to go. An adaptation of the legendary novel of mythical ancient China…normally I'm not too big on adaptations, but it seems like a pretty loose adaptation. And adapting a preexisting work can be good practice mangaka, particularly if you're a mangaka who's better at drawing than coming up with stories.

11:02
Hmm…I see online that Ryu Fujisaki's second most popular manga, Shiki, is also an adaptation of someone else's story. Maybe that's his specialty. Nothing wrong with that.

11:10
Dammit! Must stop googling stuff! Back to reading Hoshin Engi.

11:12
Fujisaki sure is good at drawing weird-looking monsters. Some of them are positively abstract. His creatures look like the offspring of rogue Pokémon who had sex with Marchel Duchamp paintings.

11:14
According to the wise old master's phrenology chart, sennin (the superpowered martial arts geniuses of Hoshin Engi) are required to have super long peanut-shaped skulls! Does that mean our hero, too, is going to grow a long, Alien-style skull when he becomes powerful? Maybe he'll cover it up with his hair, like Rikuo Nura. 

11:15
The hero, Taikobo, must defeat 365 doshi (superpowered beings/monsters/enlightened spirits/etc.) to save the Yin dynasty and defeat the evil Dakki. That's at least 365 chapters at one demon a chapter!! Way to be ambitious! I also like the idea, found in this manga, that by studying martial arts you can literally train yourself beyond humanity. Even objects and animals can develop sentient spirits and become sennin after "bathing in moonlight for 1000 years." The main character of this series is a former human, but he could just as easily have been a former umbrella or a flowerpot.
 
11:30
I love manga that are set in ancient times but the main characters' costumes are just, like, whatever. Skintight spandex leotards, men wearing high heels, enormous Mickey Mouse gloves, crazy clown suits for everyone! If someone's actually wearing period-appropriate clothing, you know they're not important. I mean, I know you don't want to draw a manga like one of those period samurai manga where every male character looks bald because they have their hair pulled back into a topknot, but seriously.

11:32
Now things begin to get weird. The pacing and storytelling of Hoshin Engi is very odd, with lots of whimsical little asides, and continual jumping around from place to place. I think it's because the manga is based on an ancient novel, and all these odd little incidents from the novel are floating around in the story, mixed with the usual shonen manga energy blasts and fight scenes. Unfortunately, one of the flaws of this manga is the high number of captions explaining exactly where we are now and what's happening. Generally, captions in manga are weak sauce. Comics are supposed to be visual storytelling, after all. Imagine if instead of drawing seven volumes of Dragon Ball Z, Akira Toriyama had just written "Eventually, Goku defeats Freeza. Later, back on Earth…" (Well, maybe some people would prefer it…)

11:40
All this gradated screentone is so '90s. 

11:45
The hero of the manga, Taikobo, is a trickster and a kind-hearted goof-off. He spends a lot of time hanging out by the river, telling people's fortunes, and dreaming about eating peaches and bean buns (another unusual thing: he's vegetarian!!) He doesn't actually seem to be that strong, but he has lots of strange magical powers: in one scene, he changes a river to sake. His sidekick, Supushan, is a big floating hippo-like creature who he rides on, which means that Fujisaki doesn't have to draw as many backgrounds since they're always up in the clouds somewhere.

11:48
The main bad guy of this manga (or so it seems) is Dakki, the demoness/fox-spirit concubine of King Chu, who controls King Chu with her mind powers and is driving the Yin dynasty to ruin with her decadence and conspicuous consumption. This is very unusual: a female Big Boss in a shonen manga. Since she operates by guile and magic instead of brute force, the hero can't blast his pecs until he's strong enough and then go beat her. Of course, one could also accuse the manga of being full of wacky sexism, since Dakki's modus operandi is to pretend to be cute and helpless and cry out "Help! Taikobo's picking on me! King Chu, help meeee!!!" (Also, if Dakki's evil plan is just to have a good time and bankrupt the country with her expensive lavish parties, won't everyone just rebel or stop paying their taxes and leave? Then again, I guess it's nice to have a villain who doesn't want to just destroy the world for once.)

11:51
Between the giant clown shoes everyone wears and the clouds of dust and vapor always obscuring the ground, I'm starting to suspect that Fujisaki can't draw feet.

12:02
The hero goes right up to the palace and confronts Dakki immediately, and she invites him inside. Nice twist. Taikobo tries to ingratiate himself with the emperor, but Dakki convinces the emperor Taikobo is a bad guy, captures him, steals Supushan, and sentences Taikobo to be executed by being thrown into a pit full of venomous snakes and crocodiles. This scene would be awesome, except that the hero is rescued by a NPC—I mean a side character—instead of figuring out a way to escape by himself. Or better yet, he should have gotten tossed in the snake pit and then figured out a way to survive being attacked by thousands of snakes. It's like Chekov's gun: don't show a snake pit in your manga unless you're prepared to have the hero get thrown in it and survive!!

12:06
The hero decides that to defeat Dakki, he needs friends. Shonen Manga-ness +1.

12:10
Pin-up quality shot of Dakki in her leotard eating a human intestine. Weirdness +1.

12:12
Taikobo's first major ally is Nataku, an artificial human made from paope, magic items. He's the 'emotionless robot hero' archetype, Hôshin Engi-style. Nataku's mother was pregnant for three years and six months, and when she finally bore him, he was born wearing all his clothes and gear. That's totally a classic literature kind of detail, not a shonen manga detail.

12:20
Hmm, now Dakki's wearing a plug suit.

12:30
Dakki orders a grand feast where the royalty float on a boat on a lake of sake, while on an island in the lake, condemned men are torn to pieces by tigers. There's some real Roman Empire-style decadent cruelty going on here. I didn't realize Chinese mythology had so many legendary horrible deeds which you can base manga on. Time to read up on my Chinese history! 

12:40
Taikobo meets Raishinshi, a fiery-spirited demon-ish guy who will become one of his allies. They fight high above the clouds in one of the arenas from Battle Arena Toshinden. They even have a little life meter above them. This manga is soooooo '90s!!!

12:42
A small criticism: Taikobo has the weakest looking weapon ever. I don't want Fujisaki to get into the Inuyasha "must draw the biggest and most phallic sword imaginable" thing, but it looks like Taikobo is fighting everyone with a retractable radio antenna. 

12:44
I don't like the character Shinkohyo, who keeps hanging out commenting on the action. For one thing, he's dressed like a clown. For another thing, he's one of those annoying characters who is super powerful and might be an enemy or an ally but just sort of whimsically hangs out at the edge of the action, observing things and not putting his weight behind either side. Frankly, I think Fujisaki just included him because he likes clowns so much.

1:00
Suddenly, there's another scene which must be taken directly from Fengshen Yanyi: Dakki kills the firstborn son of feudal lord Kishou, then grinds him into hamburger and feeds him to the unknowing Kishou. The amazing thing about this sequence is that it's all done 'subtly', without ever quite explaining what's happening: we see Dakki approaching Kishou's son with a knife, then it changes to a two-page "how to cook hamburger" sequence done all cute-style, and then…presto! Kishou is in his prison cell and the guard brings him a meal of hamburger! It's really weird and sort of impressive, but I wonder, was it done this way because showing cannibalism directly would be too offensive for the Shonen Jump audience? (Although it's OK showing Dakki munching intestines, so who knows.)

1:14
By the time of the "Buseio's Rebellion" storyline, things are getting fairly complicated. Dakki's corruption has finally caused part of the empire to revolt, and the kings of Zhou are in open rebellion against Yin, with sennin fighting on both sides. I don't understand why Bunchu, one of the supernatural characters, is fighting on the side of Dakki when actually he hates Dakki so you think he'd be on Taikobo's side. I'm having trouble keeping track of all the motivations and characters and plot elements…but maybe it's just the fact that the coffee is wearing off and I'm starting to feel tired and lightheaded.

1:20
Fujisaki clearly loves fighting games, but he's not very good at drawing human anatomy. Instead, he obviously loves drawing clouds and rocks and explosions and flames. Every fight involves explosions and energy beams, and every scene takes place in some desolate rocky wasteland, "somewhere in China," without any of those annoying hard-to-draw villages or trees or anything. I want this manga to be like Bastard!!, but it's a little more like Kia Asamiya's Dark Angel.

1:22
On the other hand, there are some nice touches. Goshujin's drunken master kung fu, combined with his booze magic, is one of the better things about his character (and the series). He wins a fight by turning an entire sea into sake.

1:30
Some interesting backstory explanation. The Hoshin field that the manga is named after is a sort of soul prison where the souls of really powerful people and creatures are stored after they die (including all the main characters of the series). Whenever an important character dies, their soul shoots up into the sky like a comet and flies into the Hoshin. I love fantasy manga where the afterlife is part of the story (Dragon Ball Z, Fushigi Yûgi, etc.).

1:35
Finally, the villain Bunchu fights the main characters! I hope that as he dies, he delivers a speech that explains his otherwise inexplicable actions.

1:50
He does. Excellent.

2:30
Finally the armies of human soldiers get into the battle. I'm learning a lot about classical troop formations now. Some real phalanx action. Niiiiice. I like the scene where the ordinary foot soldiers see the sennin fighting and they just give up and walk off the battlefield. ("We humans can't fight like that. They can defeat Yin without us ordinary humans fighting.") But then, of course, one of the badass guys explains that while the sennin fight the enemy sennin with their energy blasts which can destroy mountains, they, the human soldiers, must fight the enemy human soldiers. That…almost makes sense.

2:40
The more of this manga I read, the more I realize that I'm not the true audience for it. The true reader of this manga is supposed to be familiar with Chinese history, so that all these characters and names make sense. Then again, even in the Japanese Shonen Jump edition, there's scads of character charts and things, so I guess I'm not the only one who was confused.

2:50
These fights are getting bigger. Evil sennin attack the land of Yuan with giant floating whale paope, and Ryushinshi, Nataku, Taikobo, and some other characters whose names I don't remember fight to defend the rebels. Perhaps I was wrong before: Hoshin Engi doesn't feel like a fighting game, it feels like a shooter. When the heroes fight, it's just a fusillade of energy beams and glowing objects flying all over. Everybody flies around, with little floating weapon devices following after them like options in Gradius, and the weapons do all the fighting for them. It's hard to tell what's going to happen or what are the limits of the characters' powers, since it has no obvious relation to their bodies. AGGGGGHHH.

3:20
A bunch of new characters have shown up, as the good and evil sennin start to take sides. On the evil side, the most memorable one is Chokomei, a sparkly evil wine-sipping bishonen with a rose in his teeth, who threatens the heroes "I'll arrange your deaths in rococo fashion!" On the good side, there's Dokoson, an ugly mole-like guy with burrowing powers. Somewhere in between, there's Toh Sengyoku, a hyperactive enemy spy girl, who falls in love with Dokoson on first sight and defect over to the good guys' side. I've switched from coffee to coke, and taken a late lunch break. I think I can finish this…

3:30
Now this is starting to get interesting again. There's so many different types of superpowered people on both sides that you get superpowers chess, like in Hunter X Hunter, with different people fighting each other in different ways. Although, I vastly prefer Hunter X Hunter. One of the bad guys is a raving mad scientist who's a "virus user"! Hell yeah! Take that, Kazushi Hagiwara with your mere "worm users"!

3:40
This manga is a perfect example of "the plot description doesn't actually tell you anything about the story." If you read a description of it saying "A fantasy adaptation of a classic Chinese historical drama about heroes trying to save the Yin dynasty from a corrupt queen," you won't expect "a bunch of superpowered guys with clown shoes flying around in the air fighting each other and doing wacky stuff." And yet, even among the increasing shonen-manga-ness of it all, there's some interesting and touching scenes, like when one of King Chu's sons decides to fight on the side of the rebels and the other one decides to fight on the side of Dakki. And then immediately afterwards, something totally silly and ridiculous will happen.

4:00
Chokomei forces the heroes to enter a dungeon, where they must fight from the bottom to the top, defeating one enemy after another. Now this really is a shonen manga!

4:20
Ooooh. Nataku rips the flesh off his chest to show an opponent his paope 'core' peeking through his ribcage. Badass.

5:00
After a three-volume sequence of fights with mini-bosses, Taikobo and Chokomei finally do battle. During Taikobo's big battle with Chokomei, Taikobo appears to be dead. Chokomei not only spells out his victory cheer in the stars, but the credits start rolling because the manga is over. Then, the next chapter begins with the first few pages of Chokomei's "replacement" manga. Ryu Fujisaki, you maniac!!!

5:15
WTF?! Supushan has transformed into a newer, awesomer, less comedic Supushan! And now it's time for Supushan's backstory, in which it's revealed that: SUPUSHAN IS MOOMIN!  Then, New Chokomei flies into orbit!

5:30
Who's this super-Goth guy who's also on the cover of volume 13? The guy with elf ears with a zillion earrings and dark sunken eyes who has long painted nails, although apparently he's also always chewing on them? That's Otenkun, one of the bad guys.

5:45
In the "Sennin World War" storyline, the good and evil sennin have fully militarized, and it's time for big battles. The floating island of the evil sennin, Kingo Island, attacks Kongrong, the floating mountain of the good sennin. The two floating mountains crash into each other in the sky and the heroes jump off Kongrong and jump aboard Kingo, going from room to room aboard Kingo, fighting bad guys.

6:00
The heroes are trapped in a room playing puzzles with a giant capybara, and if they solve a puzzle incorrectly, they're turned into dolls. It's just like that video-game-playing doll guy in JoJo's Bizarre Adventure. Or does this just mean I've read too much manga, and everything reminds me of something else?

6:30
I always hate it when characters in some fantasy setting start talking about modern science to explain some cool move they just did. "It's not difficult to change ice into steam. At sea level, water is solid below zero degrees celsius and is vapor at 100 degrees. My paope broke down the water molecules that were in solid form!" "I used my paope to electrolyze your ice into hydrogen and oxygen. It's disappeared into thin air!" What is this, a shonen fantasy manga or a chemistry class taught by a manga artist who read the encyclopedia for five minutes? This is set in a prehistoric world with magic and interdimensional travel. What's next, having the characters explain that their super strength is because of steroids and start explaining the formation of cycloalkane rings?

6:45
I have mixed feelings about how this manga changes as it goes along. For one thing, it becomes a lot easier to follow, because—as it turns into more of a battle manga—the storytelling gets better and simpler and it doesn't have so many exposition panels and rambling side stories. But at the same time, I don't really care about any of the characters. For instance, here comes the standard scene where one of the ally characters thinks about how great Taikobo is and how Taikobo redeemed him ("He comes into your heart…he has something that makes everyone trust him…I wanted to open myself up for the first time.") Unfortunately, as usual, when the mangaka has to have side characters tell you why the hero is cool, it's because the mangaka didn't successfully show you why the hero is cool.

7:00
Dinner Break. Hoshin Engi is taking longer than I thought. Must keep going. Time to brew some tea.

8:30
Dakki says, "My supreme luxury is having a beauty treatment while the men are fighting."

9:00
Wow. The great battle between the Yin and Zhou dynasties ends, the great battle between the sennin ends, and finally a character dies that I actually care about. Dakki manages to get away and not get killed, leading into…

9:15
…the new story arc. Taikobo travels to a mysterious remote tableland utopia and meets Lao-Tzu, a bishonen who sleeps endlessly within his 'lazy suit' which blocks out the outside world. Lao-Tzu becomes Taikobo's trainer, and helps him power-up and gives him a new weapon. Then they go off to fight Dakki for the last time. It turns out that Dakki is only the underling of the real Final Boss, who is… (SPOILERS)

9:30
…an ALIEN?!?! Yes! Suddenly there's a whole big reveal about the origin of sennin powers and how space aliens (who look like the standard grays) were involved in the prehistory of the Earth. The high-tech sci-fi theme of the whole series actually starts to make a little sense in retrospect, and it's total aliens-vs.-martial-arts-gods craziness. I guess there was an explanation for the long Alien skulls.

9:45
We finally discover Taikobo's true motive: "He's fighting to create a human world without sennin and doshi." So it's a bit like the Clash of the Titans remake where the good god/monster/superhero is fighting against the bad gods/monsters/superheroes so that they'll leave humans alone and humans can stand on their own two feet. "The earth does not need sendo anymore. The era of gods and myths that existed at the beginning of history will end soon."

10:00
Otenkun, the creepy Goth sennin, says "Dealin' with Taikobo brings me a completely different kind of ecstasy than before…yeah…he's the one I been looking for…" Yeah, whatever, Fujisaki. You had to play the "homoerotic connection between the hero and the villain" card here in volume 21, two volumes before the end, but it totally comes out of thin air. It ain't earned. Considering that the main villain of the story is female, you could've even gotten interesting and had some kind of hetero love connection between Dakki and one of the leads, instead of having Dakki be totally unlikeable, but no…

11:00
End of Volume 21: Whoa. Okay, maybe the Otenkun x Taikobo thing makes sense after all.

Midnight
It is accomplished. I've finished Hoshin Engi. It definitely has some interesting scenes, and some funny, self-referential humor, and the ending is not bad, but this manga is just mayhem. None of the fights or powers bear any relation to physical reality or human anatomy. The Chinese mythological aspect is totally obtuse to most Western readers and, from what I can tell, is changed so much from the original it doesn't matter anyway. It never really establishes the historical setting, perhaps because the main sennin characters are always flying 2,000 feet above the ground and not interacting with any human characters. Almost all the actual emotional and memorable bits of the manga, the scenes that tug at your heart or make you actually care about what's happening, are when it does go down to the human characters on the ground, but then there's this whole other level of floating superhero sendo going on…and unfortunately, the two worlds never quite mix.

Maybe it's a question of personal taste. But also, regardless of the goofiness and the sci-fi/fantasy elements, both of which are fine if they're done right, Fujisaki's storytelling and art just isn't quite up too par: he tries to mix a standard shonen manga formula with a more complex, historo-mythological plot, and the result is that neither of them really works and it alternates between lots of exposition for one chapter and then lots of confusing fight scenes for the next chapter. (Even Fujisaki, in his author's notes in the final volumes, says he wishes he could have done it differently.) But it is what it is, all 23 volumes of it; and it's not even one of the really long, classic Shonen Jump manga. Next time I go to the comic store, I'm going to try scaring the comic store guy by telling him how many volumes I've read of One Piece or Naruto.


Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete GuideKing of RPGs and H.P. Lovecraft's Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. He also reviews manga for Otaku USA magazine.
Banner designed by Lanny Liu.

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