Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Two-for-one Special: The Tankoubon Hunter

by Jason Thompson, May 9th 2013

Episode CXLVII: Two-for-One Special: The Tankobon Hunter

Seattle, where I live, is basically a rain forest. This Oatmeal comic pretty much has it right; it's rainy and wet except for a brief period in summer, when suddenly there's grass shooting up through the pavement, lush green vegetation, weeds growing from cracks in the walls, and blazing, sunburn-me-in-minutes sunshine.

It is on such a day that I find myself sitting indoors reading manga about nature: specifically, manga about hunting. That's the central paradox of hunters: they're out there killing animals, which some people frown upon as un-P.C., but (unless they're bad hunters) they're also intimately familiar with their environment, with the habits of the animals, with all the little aspects of the wilderness that city people don't know. I'm not talking about some Big Buck Hunter type sport hunters driving around the wilderness in their SUVs; I'm talking about traditional Japanese hunters, who hunt for food and, in these two manga, don't even use guns. (OTOH, in Jiro Taniguchi's The Ice Wanderer there's some serious gun hunting.) Given the choice between the 1,000,000th manga about rich Tokyo Kids, prep schools and maid uniforms, and a manga about people tramping through the wilderness hunting animals, which one would you expect me to read? It's a world of oldschool, blue-collar manga, that's almost as remote, and as endangered, as the forests the heroes live in.

If this sounds interesting, thank Shaenon Garrity; she's the one who introduced me to Flap Your Wings, Taroumaru!, drawn by Takao Yaguchi, a mangaka famous in Japan for his manga about nature and fishing. (His best-known fishing series, Tsurikichi Sampei, ran in Shonen Sunday from 1973 to 1983.) He's also written educational manga about the environment, and his comics combine super-detailed, realistic drawings of plants and animals with an earnest, hard-working shonen manga spirit.

Flap Your Wings, Taroumaru! is a manga about falconry, the art of training hawks & falcons to hunt with you. Amazingly, it's not the only translated manga about this subject: it's got a lot in common with Gold Ring, the excellent manga about Arabian falconry created by the Japanese-Emirati team of Akira Himekawa and Qais Sedki. (That's right: there are almost as many translated falconry manga as there are translated baseball manga.) Both manga are about boys who study falconry, and who go through the arduous process of training wild birds to be their hunting partners and BFFs. ("To tame a hawk means…to have it work together with human intelligence without causing it to lose its natural instinct to fight…in other words…to put it simply, it's about affection!") Since you can literally carry a falcon around on your arm and send it out to kill things for you, it's probably the closest thing in real life to a Pokémon-like situation. And certainly, hawks are made to be shonen manga characters: their head plumage fluffs up when they get excited when they spot their prey.

Our hero, Gentarou, lives with his grandfather in the mountains of northern Japan, near Mt. Choukai. His grandfather, Genzou, comes from a long line of falconers, and he wants to train Gentarou to carry on the line. ("I don't want to see the wonderful techniques of falconry that my ancestors came up with disappear from this world.") Luckily, Gentarou's into it too. Genzou tells him a story of a really incredible hawk he encountered once—specifically a Hodgson's Hawk-Eagle—and together they plan to capture and train the descendant of that incredible hawk. ("Gentarou! I guarantee you that hawk will belong to the best falconer in Japan just from the blood it received from its amazing mother!") They rig up a trap and manage to capture the bird, but that's a piece of cake compared to the training. For weeks, Gentarou tries to get the captured bird to eat from his hand, but the ferocious bird would rather starve to death than befriend a human. It's a battle of pride as Gentarou tries to make the bird his own, and to give it part of his own name—the Tarou, hence he names it "Taroumaru."

The first four or so chapters, when Gentarou catches and trains Taroumaru, are the best part of this manga. In the process of telling a story of boy and bird, Yaguchi describes the native plants and animals of the mountains, includes a mini-history of Japanese falconry, and teaches us about the differences in hunting styles, such as "stooping" vs. "tail-chasing." He reminds us that falconry ain't easy; it's no joke climbing around the mountains all day with a 10-pound bird on your arm. After the initial training is over, Yaguchi seems to have a little trouble coming up with plotlines, although he does enjoy making fun of annoying city slickers who come into the mountains to bother our backwoods heroes. It isn't entirely realistic; the scene when Taroumaru nurses Gentarou beak-to-mouth when he's sick isn't even the most unlikely moment. But it's a fun series that seems to be just about the right length at two volumes, and if you want to read it, it's all online for free—legally—at mangareborn.jp, a "legal scanlations" site that has all kinds of strange stuff uploaded with the consent of the artists.

Today's second manga was also a gift from a friend, Ana Moreno, a US Marine Corps veteran stationed in Okinawa. It's The Habu Hunter: Legend of the Okinawan White Habu, the only translated (well, bilingual) manga by Kenshin Shinzato, a manga artist mostly known for his World War II-themed and Okinawa-themed works. It's the story of a man who's obsessed with hunting Habu, a type of deadly viper native to Okinawa. Sadly, to Americans Habu are probably best known for being preserved in liquor bottles and sold as Habushu, a kind of booze with an angry-looking dead snake in it. My ex-girlfriend's roommate used to keep some in San Francisco.

The Habu Hunter is steeped in Okinawa lore, and by exclusion, it's a reminder of how Tokyo-specific most manga are. It's full of great local color, from kankara sanshin musical instruments to detailed drawings of the Okinawan jungles. Isamu Oshiro, a reporter, is assigned by his boss to do a story on Habu snakes ("The unblinking eyes are cruelty personified! The powerful fangs never let go of their chosen prey!"). He goes to a remote village where he meets Niyou, a muscular old man who dwells in a rundown house and lives on canned mackerel and awamori. In another manga, Niyou would be a street-fighting martial artist, but here, he's a Habu hunter, who's spent decades killing the venomous snakes that are a plague to the Okinawan farmers.

Eventually, the gruff old jokester agrees to tell Oshiro his story. During World War II, he was stationed as a soldier protecting the islands, until the overwhelming American invasion forced him and his fellow soldier, Suzuki, to desert their posts and flee. While they were traveling through the jungle, Suzuki was bitten by a Habu and died (this scene is accompanied by graphic photos of snakebite-induced necrosis). After eventually returning to his home village, Suzuki found that his wife and child had also been killed by Habu while he was away. Furthermore, the local tradition says that those who've been killed by Habu cannot be buried in a regular tomb, but must be interred in a miserable pit away from the other corpses. ("The remains of those that were taken by the Habu cannot join the rest of us! Throw those bones away! Do you want to anger the Habu god?!") Crying tears of anger, Niyou vows to kill every Habu in existence.

Back in the present, Oshiro joins Niyou on his Habu-hunting excursions. We see a deathmatch between a snake and a boar, we learn how not to get bitten by a snake, and we see Niyou grab snakes by the back of the neck and snap every bone in their body. Eventually, Niyou tells Oshiro another local legend, about a giant white Habu that dwells deep in the woods and feeds on human sacrifices from the local villagers. Truly, this would be the ultimate boss enemy for a Habu hunter…but is Niyou's 30-year quest for vengeance truly the right path? Can humans and animals coexist? Can Habu hunters, and the people who draw manga about them, be environmentalists?

The "giant snake god" supernatural element takes the story on a left turn away from the natural realism it starts out in, but it's still an interesting little manga, with nice early-'80s seinen manga art in the style of Kamui Fujiwara. The Habu Hunter and Flap Your Wings, Taroumaru! are both solid old-school manga about old-school rural badass dudes, and worth reading, although the fact that you can read Taroumaru for free online is definitely a bonus. As for me, I'm going on a hike this weekend. I don't have any snake-catching equipment or hunting birds to bring along, but does a wire-haired dachshund count?


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