Reviewby John Jakala, Jul 16th 2003
Raijin Graphic Novels: Wave 1
City Hunter, The First President of Japan, Fist of the Blue Sky, Slam Dunk
After a bit of a delay, Gutsoon has finally released its first wave of Raijin Graphic Novels. Originally scheduled (and advertised) to come out on June 18, the first four Raijin just hit stores on July 9. Included in this first wave are: City Hunter, The First President of Japan, Fist of the Blue Sky, and Slam Dunk. Each book measures approximately 5" x 7.5", runs about 190 pages long, and costs $9.95.
It was interesting to go back and re-read these earlier stories. I had read each series in the weekly anthology Raijin Comics, so I already knew what to expect from each story. (My thoughts on the series when I first read them can be found via the following links: #1, #2, #3, #4.) Overall, my initial impressions of each series remains unchanged, although certain things do strike me differently now.
CITY HUNTER by Tsukasa Hojo: I recall that City Hunter was a series I didn't care for very much when I first started reading it - the mix of humor and drama didn't sit quite right with me. I'd been warming to the series more in the weekly anthology, so I thought that I might enjoy the earlier chapters more now that I'd grown to understand Hojo's style. Nope. For some reason, these segments still seem a bit schizophrenic to me. Perhaps it's because the cases in the earlier chapters were a little darker than those serialized recently. It's one thing to work in erection jokes when the story deals with a depressed, morose actress and quite another when the story revolves around serial-rapist murderers.
One thing that struck me that I don't remember noticing when I first read these stories was that all of Hojo's female characters seem to share the same face and figure. Flipping through the book, Megumi looks the same as Natsumi, who looks the same as the nameless dancers in the "Angel/Dust" chapters, and so on... Strangely enough, this interchangeability of female faces didn't hinder my comprehension of the stories, mainly because Hojo makes characters' identities clear through context (and when more than one central female appears in a story, Hojo can always distinguish the characters via different hairstyles, as he does with Kaori and her boyish pixie cut). Despite this quirk, Hojo's art is very appealing: He stages action sequences clearly and carefully, making it easy for readers to tell what's going on. Plus, Hojo has a gift for comic expressions and body language.
Recommended for fans of action comedies, especially if you can switch gears between hard-boiled gunplay and sophomoric sexual situations more quickly than I can.
Overall Grade: B
THE FIRST PRESIDENT OF JAPAN by Yoshiki Hidaka and Ryuji Tsugihara: I'm not sure I ever would have picked up this book if I had only heard the basic premise - a fictional exploration of how a presidential political system might work in Japan - but the series has grown on me over time. Part of the reason is that Hidaka isn't just writing about dry political systems in the abstract; he humanizes concepts by crafting various characters that we follow through the tumultuous events depicted in this book. The central character is of course the eponymous "First President Of Japan," Kenichiro Sakuragi, who is the first Prime Minister elected by popular vote in Japan. Other characters are also introduced in quick order, including various politicians from the United States, China, and Japan. Hidaka does a good job of juggling the cast, and Tsugihara helps distinguish characters by giving everyone distinctive looks.
The story in First President reads quickly, mainly because Hidaka keeps things moving at a brisk pace. First President is definitely a series that reads better in a collected format, rather than in weekly installments. At times, certain situations or lines seem a bit too melodramatic, but overall the series maintains an engaging tone. Of course certain topics are simplified and stylized for dramatic purposes, but in general the concepts appear to be handled in a plausible manner (such as in a short sequence where the public debates the merits of continuing to allow the U.S. to operate military bases in Japan).
One of the strongest things about this series is Sakuragi's character. He's a natural leader - cunning and confident, but not cocky or condescending. I especially appreciate that Hidaka hasn't gone too far in making Sakuragi unbelievably perfect. Unlike several American comic book characters that come to mind (Batman, Black Panther), Sakuragi isn't always twenty moves ahead of everyone else. There are times when Sakuragi isn't quite sure what's going on and (gasp!) must actually rely on others for advice. Still, once Sakuragi has the necessary information, he is depicted as being direct and decisive, inspiring others about him to put forth their best efforts. In addition, Tsugihara draws Sakuragi so that you can almost sense his charisma simply by looking at individual panels. Tsugihara's Sakuragi is handsome, suave, and poised. It's revealing to flip through the book and see how much Tsugihara communicates through body language and facial expressions. In one scene, I could almost feel the intensity of Sakuragi's gaze coming off the page.
Overall Grade: B+
FIST OF THE BLUE SKY by Tetsuo Hara: If there's one thing I've learned after re-reading this martial arts manga set in the 1930's, it's this: All honorable men weep openly upon hearing the word "brother" in the proper context (usually involving the revelation of some long-held secret). It doesn't matter how "tough" the character - the sentiment expressed by the appelation "brother" is enough to move even the deadliest of martial artists to tears.
I mention this because it helps illustrate two elements of this series that may put off readers: Repetitiveness and melodrama. After awhile, the beats of each chapter begin to feel very familiar: Kenshiro meets up with an old friend (or foe), flashbacks ensue, and tears (or blood) flow. I didn't really notice this when I was reading the weekly installments, but it does become more noticeable when you read the story in one sitting. Still, despite the paucity of characterization and plot, the book is still an enjoyable read. This is largely due to the striking art by Tetsuo Hara: It's big, bold, and black. Re-reading the series, I was struck once again by how dark Hara's artwork is. He is definitely more confident about using heavy black lines than most other artists.
If you're in the mood for a simplistic, straightforward martial arts story, Fist of the Blue Sky will likely satisfy. It's got really bad bad guys, and really good good guys. (Even though the good guys seem to have their hand in criminal activities, they're very noble about it.) Hara helpfully guides the reader in picking out the villains by reflecting their vileness in their physical appearance. Every boss seems to have his own unique deformity (apparently inflicted by Yan Wang). Even more sympathetic characters seem grotesque at times, due to exaggerated anatomy and perspective. And the fight scenes often veer into ludicrously violent territory. Still, Hara's slick style makes everything appealing overall.
Overall Grade: C+
SLAM DUNK by Takehiko Inoue: And lastly, we come to my favorite series out of all the serials in Raijin Comics. Slam Dunk is categorized as "Sports/Action" on the back cover, but that's selling this wonderful series far short. Those ingredients are certainly present in the work, but there are also equal elements of comedy and romance. Troubled freshman Hanamichi Sakuragi has just suffered his fiftieth straight rejection when he runs into Haruko Akagi. Instantly smitten with her, Hanamichi answers Haruko's question "Do you like basketball?" in the affirmative. Determined to impress her, Hanamichi soon tries out for the basketball team. But there are a few problems. One, Hanamichi doesn't know the first thing about basketball. Two, Hanamichi expects that everyone will automatically defer to him as a "natural." Three, Haruko's brother Takenori is the captain of the team, and Hanamichi doesn't exactly get off on the best foot with him. Four, Hanamichi faces some stiff competition in Kaede Rukawa, both on and off the court.
One thing that stood out in re-reading the stories in this volume was that the dialogue has been rewritten fairly extensively from when it was first published. Most of the changes are small, stylistic modifications that don't really stand out. There are several changes, however, that are noticeable. For example, there is a sequence (in both the original and the collected versions) where one of Haruko's friends is attempting to warn Haruko about Hanamichi and the gang he hangs out with. She is able to name one of Hanamichi's pals but the rest she just lumps together as "etc." (a categorization the three "characters" object to, even though they're not actually present for the conversation between Haruko and her friend). A few panels later, these three friends worry that Hanamichi is excluding them from events. In the original, the friends confront Hanamichi by accusing him of "treating us as 'etc.' lately." In the reworked version, the line now simply reads "You think we don't know what's up?" and the joke is lost.
Although I was disappointed to see some of my favorite throwaway jokes and quirky lines removed in the revision, many changes do actually help the story. For example, the clunky sounding "Haruko will understand that it's all a misunderstanding" is streamlined to the much better sounding "Haruko-chan'll figure out that this's all a misunderstanding." And one element that bothered me in the original version is improved through a simple rewording: When Rukawa brushes off Haruko's concern after his fight with Hanamichi on the roof, he originally came off as a jerk, telling her to "Shut up!" In this version, Rukawa still ignores Haruko, but he's not so rude about it (see table below), so Haruko's continued infatuation with Rukawa isn't so problematic.
Another aspect that caught my eye in the collected edition was the art. Inoue's art appealed to me from the first panel I saw in Raijin Comics, with its character, charm, and comedic nature. But the art looks even better in the graphic novel: The lines seem crisper and cleaner somehow. I'm guessing a better paper stock is responsible, but whatever the reason, the result is appreciated. Inoue's art seems even more fluid and powerful than I remember it.
Overall Grade: A
Overall, Raijin's first wave of trade paperbacks are an impressive package. The size, price, and production values are all attractive: Ten bucks for around 200 pages of "authentic" (i.e., unflipped) manga in a portable format seems to hit the value sweet-spot. According to their website, Raijin plans an aggressive release schedule for future volumes of these and other manga series. New readers who were put off by the anthology format or price should check out the collections to see if any of the stories look appealing. And fans who have already read the stories in Raijin Comics may still want to pick up these tankobon, either to have their favorite series in one convenient package or to see what changes were made for the new editions. I didn't check the other graphic novels to see how much they'd been rewritten, but I'm guessing they've also been touched up for the collections. It might be interesting to see the degree to which different series were altered, and to see if the changes were improvements or not. In any event, Raijin's first round of graphic novels is definitely worth manga fans' attention.
Overall : B