House of 1000 Manga One Pound Gospel
by Shaenon K. Garrity, Sep 4th 2014
The new Viz edition of Rumiko Takahashi's classic kung-fu comedy Ranma ½ is the first English edition printed in the “unflopped” right-to-left format, even though the manga has been out in English since the 1990s. Viz originally licensed Ranma back in the ancient days when flopping was standard for American manga publishers, and it's taken all these years to finish the entire series in the old format, let it go out of print, and license it again in the new format. When my compatriot Jason Thompson wrote his “House of 1,000 Manga” column on Ranma in 2012, it was still only available in the old flopped version, hence the left-to-right scans illustrating the column. Manga publishing can be a slow, slow process, at least if you're waiting for officially licensed books (and the schedule for scanlations, of course, depends entirely on how excited hardcore fans are about a given series).
But you can't blame Viz for taking 20 years to publish the four volumes of Takahashi's One-Pound Gospel, because that's how long it took her to draw them. Takahashi started the series in 1987, got three-quarters of the way through, then put it on hiatus, probably to focus on the more popular Ranma ½ and, later, Inuyasha. After the turn of the millennium she picked it up again, finally completing it in 2007. But for fans of Takahashi's trademark brand of sitcom slapstick, and particularly those of us who prefer wacky old-school Takahashi to the more drama-oriented Takahashi of the Inuyasha era, One-Pound Gospel was worth the wait.
Kosaku Hatanaka is a young featherweight boxer barely clinging to his pro status. He's plenty talented and has a mean right hook, but he constantly succumbs to sins of the flesh—specifically his boundless appetite for food, a fatal weakness in a sport where gaining five pounds can ruin your eligibility for a match. Kosaku has already beefed up several weight classes, and his beleaguered manager is determined to keep him lean, but temptations abound: burger bars, takoyaki stands, noodle joints, and sweet-potato carts lurk around every corner as Kosaku jogs around Tokyo like Rocky Balboa circling the streets of Philly.
Salvation beckons in the form of Sister Angela, a novice nun who cheers Kosaku on and tries to keep him from eating his way out of the ring. Kosaku has an obvious crush on the nun, but Sister Angela has dedicated herself to God and only cares for Kosaku's soul…or does she? If you've read any Rumiko Takahashi manga, you won't be surprised to learn that Sister Angela is the most tsundere nun in the history of Catholicism, always angrily insisting she doesn't like Kosaku that way but then admitting over evening prayers that her feelings for the dumb lug might just be interfering with her responsibilities as a bride of Christ. And as long as she has yet to take her final vows, Kosaku has hope…
Boxing and Catholicism seem like a weird combination, especially for a situation comedy, but in the right hands these two great tastes go great together. Maybe Takahashi got the idea from all those American boxing movies featuring Italian or Irish Catholic boxers. (Late in the series, there's a “surprise challenge from the champ” plotline lifted from Rocky.) Takahashi's grasp of Christianity is a little shaky—Sister Angela's duties as a nun seem to consist entirely of praying to a crucifix in a chapel and doing something unspecified with small children—but as window dressing for the romantic comedy it works fine. And Takahashi does draw ridiculously adorable children.
As for the boxing, it's pretty damn good. The action scenes are tense and exciting, with Takahashi's solid figure-drawing skills, essential to the goofy martial arts action in Ranma and the fantasy battles in Inuyasha, working just as effectively in realistic fight scenes. At times One-Pound Gospel feels like Takahashi paying tribute to her fellow Shonen Sunday stalwart, Cross Game creator Mitsuru Adachi, or maybe throwing down the gauntlet to prove she can do sports comedy just as well as the champ. The training, techniques, and terminology are all nicely researched, even if the matches themselves frequently climax in sentimental melodrama, slapstick comedy, or both.
Most of the time, though, the series is pure Takahashi. As in Ranma ½, once the premise is established, the central couple runs a gauntlet of rivals both romantic and pugilistic. Kosaku is forever going up against boxers with quirky backstories or situations that present improbable challenges: a rich kid willing to buy his victory with food, a restaurateur looking for revenge against the flyweight who knocked out his teeth, or a Mexican boxer whom Kosaku can't sock in the gut because he has a tattoo of the Virgin Mary on his abs—and what would the nuns think if they saw him punching the BVM in the face? Even storylines that take a serious turn, like Kosaku's relationship with a binge-eating woman and her apparently abusive boyfriend, ultimately turn out to be harmless fun.
Meanwhile, Sister Angela navigates around the stern Mother Superior, who doesn't approve of the way Kosaku looks at her novice, and later deals with a meddling aunt who wants her niece to leave the convent and marry a rich guy. Kosaku and Sister Angela themselves are sweet kids, maybe the nicest couple in the Takahashi oeuvre. If Kosaku isn't the sharpest crayon in the box (to draw another comparison to Ranma ½, he often recalls Ranma's big-hearted but scatterbrained chief rival Ryoga), and Sister Angela is a dangerously naïve to the ways of the secular world, at least together they can keep each other from getting into too much trouble.
Even though the final volume was drawn long after the first three, Takahashi is good enough at aping her own early style to keep it looking organic. The main indication of the passage of time is in the inclusion of a few modern cultural touches, like Sister Angela's incongruous visit to a host club. But the characters still scarf food from old-fashioned snack stands, watch boxing on non-flatscreen TVs, and ride bikes with baskets around Takahashi's quaint, leafy back-neighborhoods version of Tokyo. And the bickering, the blushing, the fussing and the fighting and the flirting—all the things that count are timeless.
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