House of 1000 Manga Zatch Bell
by Jason Thompson, Aug 14th 2014
Want to read about a Pokémon rip-off? First published in Shonen Sunday magazine in 2001, Zatch Bell was one of hundreds of manga competing to be Number Two in the newly established genre of "heroes who fight using cute-but-violent monster/animal/pet companions." But Zatch is an extreme case because it's SO cute and SO violent, both at the same time, mixing squash-and-stretch body distortions, heta-uma ugliness, smiling faces, gushing blood. Zatch Bell is like if the 2011 Muppets movie was about Jason Segel as a mixed martial arts coach training his buddy Walter the Muppet for underground Muppet fighting. Honestly, it isn't very good, but I edited the Viz edition for a year or so, so I have a soft spot for it. Exactly the sort of soft spot that a Zatch Bell character would target with a 200-ton razor blade drill weapon.
On his 14th birthday, Kiyomaro Takamine gets a strange birthday gift from his absent father. The "gift" is a blonde-haired, golden-eyed boy who looks about six years old, who drops into his window riding an eagle, bearing a "Happy Birthday" message from his dad. Kiyo, a standoffish teenager who likes his private space, is understandably freaked out to have a hyperactive kid drop into his room. The boy, named "Zatch Bell," is also butt-naked (like Goku in early Dragon Ball), except in the English edition where his tiny penis is covered with boxer shorts, the second of countless incidents of censorship. (The first incident was Zatch's name and the title of the manga itself, Konjiki no Gash ("Golden-eyed Zatch") in Japanese, which had to be changed due to all kinds of undesirable associations.)
Kiyo's mom accepts Zatch's appearance as an ordinary everyday event and immediately welcomes him into the household. Kiyo is more skeptical. Zatch doesn't remember anything about his past other than being sick in a forest in England, and being nursed back to health by Kiyo's dad. Dear old dad told Zatch to find Kiyo and befriend him, knowing that his son was too smart for his own good and had become alienated from his peers and needed a buddy to boost his E.Q. (Kiyo's sort of an arrogant jerk, although looking back on Zatch in 2014 after 10 years of ever more spoiled, jerkassy male leads, he seems like a saint.) The only other evidence of Zatch's origin is the strange book he is carrying, filled with runes in an unknown language. Kiyo is able to translate only one phrase in the book, and when he accidentally says the word aloud, a bolt of lightning shoots out of Zatch's mouth!
Yes—Zatch isn't human, he's more like a walking weapon!! As the story goes on, he and Kiyo quickly discover that he is one of 99 magical beings, mamodo, who have been sent to the human world. Every few hundred years, the mamodotravel from their alien dimension to fight an epic battle, and the last one standing is crowned king of the mamodo. But to fight, they must find human partners, who control the mamodo using their "spellbooks" which unlock new and bizarre mamodo magic. Mere lightning bolts power up to earth-shaking attacks, giant energy dragons, enormous metal fists flying through the air, etc. At first unwilling to get involved, Kiyo soon decides to become Zatch's partner, and like brains & brawn, they team up for epic slugfests against other mamodo and their human companions. Some mamodo are bad guys, others fight reluctantly, but like Highlanders, "there can be only one!"
This is all much quicker to describe than to read. It stretches on for 33 volumes, 7 years of manga at one chapter a week, with a slow slow build as new mamodo-master pairs keep showing up and challenging our two heroes. The deeper plots don't start building up until nearly 10 volumes in, making the beginning of the series an initially boring exercise for older readers reading it all at one sit-down, but then, with its poop jokes and duck-faced monsters in jammies running around, Zatch Bell is obviously aimed at the 14-and-younger set. In typical shonen fashion, the themes are always repeated (usually shouted) so much you can't miss them. The first core theme is self-esteem, the theme that mamodo are powered by "strength from within." The second theme is friendship, and the idea that although mamodo (like Pokémon) are basically slaves of their humans, it's important to be a super-nice master and be good to your partner. (As Kiyo tells a typical bad guy: "You guys aren't real partners, and that's what caused your downfall!") But what are the Mamodo to their humans: are they like brothers and sisters, children, pets? The answer is, it's different to each pair, from the romantic relationship between humanoid mamodo Wonrei and Li-En, to the big-brotherly relationship between Kiyo and Zatch, to the generally dysfunctional relationships between the evil guys. What's important, unlike in "lone wolf" style superhero tales and like Fate/Stay Night and other manga of this type (although less sexily, unless there is some terrifying dojinshi I don't know about), is that there is a relationship. (Off topic: hasn't anyone ever done a master-servant Presidents-Vice Presidents manga? But who'd be the servant and who'd be the master?)
The characters, not the plot, are what makes it fun. The mamodo battle takes our heroes around the world; in one subplot Zatch and Kiyo go to England, where they find the local police (apparently there is no higher authority in England) powerless against a monster mamodo in a castle who terrorizes the townsfolk. Manga where Japanese characters go around the world solving problems and bringing justice to haplessly victimized white people always strike me as the most serendipitious reversal of Western stories in the same vein. There are characters from China, Mongolia, India, America etc., although this being a manga, many of them are more or less stereotypical. By no means the most offensive is Parco Folgore, the lovably pervy Italian pop star with a huge chin, huge hair and huge eyelashes—the stereotypical "white guy in manga/anime"—whose signature pop hit in the Japanese edition is a song about groping women's breasts. This, of course, was censored in Viz's edition to a song called "Hey! Hey! Let's Dance All Day!"…but did Viz really have to change the reference in the name of Kafka Sunbeam, the dour but loving German engineer who becomes the pseudo-parental partner to the adorable little horse-mamodo, Ponygon? Since the Kafka Estate was unlikely to have sued over something so trivial, the only answer is that Viz preferred "Kafk" Sunbeam because a made-up term was more licensable. Elle Chivas, the ever-anxious prim-and-proper nun, makes a perfectly appropriate companion to Momon, the perverted, skirt-flipping monkey-like mamodo, who eventually gets blasted into smithereens by Tia, the cute-girl mamodo. To Makoto Raiku's credit, though, he balances his love of silliness with some decent cliffhangers and tension-building. Instead of the obvious tournament/sports-style competitions (aside from the overall frame narrative), the main battles are always very much good guy vs. bad guy, with heroic mamodo teaming up to take down the eviller ones, despite knowing they'll have to fight one another eventually. The mind-controlling mastermind Zofis…Zatch's evil twin brother Zeno who at one point threatens to destroy Tokyo…the omnicidal maniac Clear Note…they're all memorable villains, or at least memorable enough, and rotten enough that they make you root for our heroes.
Makoto Raiku is basically a gag manga artist, and the art in Zatch is exaggerated to the point of nonsensicality. When characters' eyes aren't sliding off their faces, they're popping out of their heads. Speed lines are everywhere, emphasizing even the most mundane moment. Everyone looks so angular and distorted it's impossible to tell who's a mamodo, and who just looks weird because that's the way Raiku draws humans. At first almost unbearably ugly, gradually Raiku's art refines and becomes more angular and tight (question: is this something that just naturally happens to many manga artists' style over time, or does it reflect the increased use of assistants?). As the power level goes up, the battles become so epic that scalebecomes important. Tiny heroic mamodo go to bat against 50+ foot tall enemies, such as Demolt, who with his bat wings, pointy tail and goat hooves, looks exactly like a traditional demon. Teeny-tiny characters unleash massive energy blasts. The second-to-last major storyline features Faudo, a giant mamodo over a mile high, whom the heroes can only stop by going inside his body and fighting his way through his blood vessels to his brain, Fantastic Voyage style.
Despite the lack of onscreen death and dismemberment, this is a brutal manga: a wet manga, in the way manga almost always is and American comics so rarely are. The mamodo don't technically "die," they just fade away and return to their own world when their magic spellbooks are burned at the end of the battle. (From a censorship perspective there is a weird subtext to a story where the fight scenes conclude with book-burnings, but Raiku predictably ignores this aspect.) But the fights are savage and angry; blood pours from characters' eyes and mouthes, clothes (and presumably flesh) are shredded, everyone is covered in bruises and bleeding wounds. Evenin Japan,this kind of violence is probably only permissible in a kid's comic because manga is drawn in black & white: if the blood were bright red instead of black and crosshatched, it'd probably be too gory. Whether all the bleeding and crying and screaming seems dramatic or just ridiculous is up to the individual reader's assessment—in the early chapters, it reeks of desperation born of trying to get the reader's attention in the first 50 pages so the manga doesn't get canceled—but maybe if you treat every event like it's the most important thing since the Dawn of Humanity, eventually you'll hit some emotional target. These genuinely dramatic moments come more frequently as the manga goes on. One almost wordless scene when Kiyo sacrifices himself to save Zatch, and has dying flashbacks to the opportunities he missed in life, is as powerful as anything in One Piece or Dragon Ball. It's almost hard to believe this is the same Makoto Raiku who, in the early chapters, keeps beating us over the head with the manga's message ("The strength is already inside of you! Don't underestimate yourself!").
I do wish it were more demonic. AlthoughMakoto Raiku and Shogakukan did their best to remove any obvious controversy,like the Stars of David on Japanese Yu-Gi-Oh! cards,the manga's premise is obviously inspired by European lore of magicians summoning demons with evil spellbooks: i.e., Zatch is a demon from Hell.(In fact, in an early chapter we even see that Zatch has little horns on his head, under his hair, but this character design element evidently wasn't popular, so we never see his horns again.)In the original Japanese, Zatch and his friends are called mamono, which could be translated as "demons" or "monsters." Although the character designs and overall mood of Zatch are as kid-friendly as you could imagine (apart from the occasional baby-penis, toilet humor or sexual harassment incident), Viz did their best to water this down even more. The obvious solution was to keep the word mamonountranslated in the English version—but an unaltered Japanese dictionary word can't be trademarked, so Viz changed it to "mamodo," a made-up and therefore copyrightable term. Presto! If this kind of thing appeals to you, consider a career in international licensing.
Zatch Bell is a kids' manga, with barely the slightest "older teenage/otaku" appeal except to total weirdos like me, and that being the case it's pretty pointless to decry the changes the English edition made to make it more palatable to Western parents. Unfortunately for Viz, it still wasn't appealing enough to compete with Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh!, and the manga was canceled at volume 25, leaving the ending untranslated. Readers who can make it through the slow beginning—the first 1500 pages or so—will find some impressive fight scenes and bloodsoaked rage moments among the goofy character designs and dumb humor. Readers who like Makoto Raiku's distinctively crazy art but don't want to spend quite that much time at the library for a series without an ending should check out Animal Land, available from Kodansha USA. The 14-volume story of an island inhabited by feuding races of animals and the Tarzan-like human boy who's the only person who can talk to them all, it's more original than Zatch and has a tighter plot. Plus, uncensored poop jokes! Though he knows how to write straight-faced, melodramatic shonen manga, I think Makoto Raiku would appreciate humor like "The poop is already inside of you! Don't underestimate yourself!! Rely on the poop within!!!"
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