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Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Immortal Rain

by Jason Thompson,

Episode XVII: Immortal Rain

"People who've read my previous work may be shocked that this series has a shonen manga feel to it. Yeah, be shocked! To tell you the truth, even when I was young, I only read manga for boys."
- Kaoru Ozaki

Do most manga readers have a strong preference between shojo and shonen? Or are these categories irrelevant to Western readers, who just think of manga as manga, regardless of whether it was marketed in Japan towards "boys" or "girls"? Of course, these old definitions are blurring in Japan as well. More and more manga magazines try to aim at a general readership (example: is moe for the guys or the ladies?), and female readers now drive the sales of traditionally male magazines like Shonen Jump.It might have something to do with a change in Japanese culture, or it might bethat women in Japan, like America, simply read more than men do, and thus are driving the trends in comics. (Check out this poll on the 100 Best Young Adult Novels- in which 80% of the respondents, and most of the authors, are women.)

One generalization I will make is that mainstream shonen magazines tend to have more variety in art styles, while mainstream shojo magazines tend to have more variety in stories.When I think of the bestselling shonen magazines, I think of artists with very personal styles - the Jump magazines alone have Eiichiro Oda, Hiroyuki Takei, Hiroyuki Asada and Usamaru Furuya - but generally predictable plots (tournament battles, etc.). But when I think of the bestselling shojo magazines, which are the ones for tweens like Nakayoshi, Ribon and Ciao!, they all have a very recognizable house style. There are hundreds of artists out there trying to draw like Arina Tanemura, and I wonder to what extent this is the result of (1) editorial pressure, (2) artists who actually want to draw like this, or (3) artists pre-modifying their style to suit expected editorial pressure, because that's what shojo manga is "expected" to look like, with the flowers and the sparkly lights and the big eyes. (Of course, there are hundreds of shonen manga artists influenced by Takeshi Obata and Akira Toriyama, but somehow, Shonen Jump has more visual variety, at least on the surface.)

On the other hand, there are some shojo magazines have a less confining definition of what shojo manga should look like... and act like.Two older shojomanga magazines which I've always liked for mixing it up gender-wise are Asuka(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monthly_Asuka) and Wings. CLAMP, possibly the most famous manga artists to switch back and forth between shojo and shonen, published early work in both of them before moving on to higher-circulation mags. Both magazines are heavy on fantasy and science fiction, as opposed to the high school stuff that dominates mainstream shojo magazines. The manga in Asuka tend to go for an anime style, with lots of flashy artwork, action and anime and light novel tie-ins. The manga in Wings tend to have simpler art styles - the minimalistic works of Fumi Yoshinaga, Judal and Mizuki Hakase, for example - but stronger stories, the kind of stories that seem natural and flowing, like novels (at least young adult novels), rather than cranked out as a tie-in to some anime series. Although Wings and its sister magazine Dear+ also publish a fair amount of pretty-boy bishonen manga (so much that DMP's "DokiDoki" manga imprint, a brand cofounded with the publishers of Wings, calls itself "The gateway from shojo to yaoi"), when I think of the magazine, I think of really good fantasy manga where the story is more important than the art.

But occasionally you'll find a manga which has both awesome art and a good story with real characters - sort of like the best traits of shonen and shojo. One of these manga is Kaoru Ozaki's Immortal Rain. (That's the title of Tokyopop's English edition; the original Japanese title was "Meteor Methuselah," a title which unfortunately sounds like it's about an old hillbilly who travels to outer space.) It is the story of Methuselah, aka Rain Jewlitt, a legendary immortal who has lived for over 600 years. Wearing a high-collared priest's uniform, his handsome face usually invisible under his John Lennon glasses and long, bishonen hair,Rain travels across a world which is mostly dust and desert,"a world that's dry like a cracked oil painting." People being people, everyone wants to find the secret of immortality, and when people recognize this mysterious drifter for the one and only Methuselah, bounty hunters swarm upon him trying to capture him and take him apart. But as for the innocuous Rain, he just wants to be left alone and go where his fancy takes him. He's like Vash the Stampede in Trigun (down to the longcoat and the pseudo-Wild-West setting), always attracting trouble, but instead of a gun to defend himself, all he has is his old, beaten-up guitar.

One bounty hunter who goes after Rain is Michika, a 14-year-old girl with an axe-scythe and mad acrobatic skills. The granddaughter of the legendary assassin Zol the Grim Reaper (that'd be shinigami if the rewrite was different), Michika has sworn to do what her grandfather couldn't and take Rain out. But when she gets face to face with her target, she discovers that Rain is really not a bad guy. In fact, he's practically an angel, and although he may look like Dark Schneider in Bastard!!, hispersonality couldn't be more different. Rain is a kind soul and even a hero when the situation calls for it, but he's weary from his 624 years of life, a man who doesn't get close to people because he's tired of watching them get old and die."Thousands of twilights…all humans must die…like a scar, leaving only a memory," Rain thinks. Instead of taking Rain's head, Michika ends up on the run with him, helping him fight off other assassins and finding out more about his past. It isn't long before the reader, if not Michika, realizes that Michika is in love with him. (610 years may be a new record for age differences in manga romances.)"Don't forget, at some point I'll have to kill you," she warns him, this man with hundreds of lifetimes' worth of experiences, this man who, she fears, thinks of her as just a child. But deep inside, she thinks "Let me carry half your burden. Someday, take me with you, to the other side of your distant gaze."

This is the beginning of Immortal Rain. The classic story of an immortal who wants to find peace, it's a manga about loneliness, a not uncommon theme in shojo manga (it's a major part of Fruits Basket), but rarely done as well as it is here.The writing is poetic, and the mood is just angsty enough, never collapsing into self-pity. There's humor, too - like the character notes in the form of JRPG character info screens, or the teenage "desert pirates" who act as comic relief (but can also turn cruel and cold enough to shoot a dude at point-blank range), or the 12-year-old bounty hunter girl who pilots a mecha (when we see inside the cockpit, it has the controls of an arcade fighting game - just a joystick and punch, kick and block buttons). Of course, there are some characters who are are familiar faces from manga, such as the pervy bisexual doctor, part mad scientist, part school doctor, 100% unprofessional with his patients. But there are other characters who stand out, such as the bittersweet old lady who, we quickly realize, first met Rain when she was the same age Michika is now.

But what's really most immediately impressive about Immortal Rain is the great art and the great action. Immortal Rain looks GREAT. The setting is not just a bunch of blank panels (I love you, Fumi Yoshinaga, but seriously) or photoshopped backgrounds, but a science fiction world with the depth of a Miyazaki movie. And the characters live in every inch of it. In one scene early on, Rain jumps off a precipice into a city thousands of feet below, and we see him falling past buildings hanging off the cliff walls, down into the darkness full of lights. (In addition to Miyazaki, Immortal Rain also reminds me vaguely of the Miyazaki-influenced Canadian artist Mark Oakley, author of Thieves & Kings).In another scene, the characters are on a hijacked train, and bad guys attack the railway bridge, causing the train to teeter at the edge of oblivion as Rain runs for his life (or "life") over the crumbling rails. "Immortal Rain anime" is one of the top Immortal Rain search terms, but there isn't any anime; however, Ozaki practically draws the manga as if it was one. Maybe there should be a video game instead, since there are tons of fight scenes. Michika is an expert in hand-to-hand combat, and frequently ends up in battle. Her opponents are often women like her; in her notes, Ozaki writes "I'm glad I can draw a lot of action poses using female bodies." Battle rages, and people die, but the manga is light on gore and bloodshed. As for Rain, he is more of a runner than a fighter. He takes a lot of damage, but it's quickly implied that he isn't totally immortal -he could be killed if someone rips out of his heart or cuts off his head.

Still…angsty immortal and needy teenage girl…is Immortal Rain really that original?Just what is Rain's secret, anyway? And if he can kill himself by chopping off his head, why didn't he just do it long ago? What is he waiting for? Luckily, when the big reveal comes, it's all worth it.In volume 3, we discover why Rain must keep living, even though he wants to die. 600 years ago, Rain was a priest-in-training, living in an orphanage run by nuns in a time of war. Rain loved a girl at the orphanage, Freya, but Freya loved Yuca, a friend of Rain's who was also training for the priesthood. Then everything falls to pieces. Yuca betrays Rain to the military. In a secret military base, he transforms his friend into a bio-engineered immortal, as part of a secret military project to create weapons in human form.

Yes, Rain is an ancient bioweapon, one of those ancient relics of yore like the weapons in Nausicaä, or The Castle in the Sky, or O-Parts Hunter, orheck, even Bastard!!. But it's not Rain's secret which is so awesome; it'sYuca's. Yuca is also an immortal, but not in the same way as Rain. No mere creation of science, Yuca is a human blessed with the power of reincarnation…or perhaps, simply the power of remembering his countless different lives which other people mercifully forget. "I retain all the memories of my past lives as I am reborn for eternity," Yuca explains. But over the millennia of death and rebirth, Yuca has grown weary of eternal life, and there is only one way out: to kill everybody so that no more humans can ever be born."My wish is to die with this world. I am tired. I want to wake up from this dream. In order to do so…I have to end all life." And the only person Yuca trusts with this revelation is Rain, his best friend.Yuca carves a date on Rain's chest, a date 600 years in the future. It is the date of his own future rebirth. He tells Rain to live for 600 years, a fragment of the time that Yuca has lived, and wait for him. By that time, Rain will have grown as weary of life as Yuca is, and he will unlock his full powers and willingly join Yuca on his mission to kill all humanity."We should die together and take the world with us." And with those words, Yuca blows his own brains out in front of Rain's eyes.

BLAM. That's the first one-third of Immortal Rain. 600 years later, back in the present day, a strange baby is about to be born, and the Calvaria Corporation is unearthing buried ruins from the time before the war, ruins which contain hibernating bioweapons in human (and inhuman) form. Monsters are awakened, military equipment rumbles through the streets, and chaos is waiting in the wings. But even when things get craziest, Ozaki never forgets about the characters. Even the 'evil corporate guys' are not the boring ciphers they could be: Sharem, the president's wife and the true power behind Calvaria, is an almost sympathetic character whose goals are more personal and interesting than the usual conquering the world.

Apocalypse, love, strong female characters, attractive guys, one of the greatest villains ever, and a 600-year-old reincarnation simulation game named Wakuwaku Samsara ("Exciting Samsara") - this is what Immortal Rain is all about. Unfortunately, the English edition is currently stuck in licensing limbo.Tokyopop published the first 8 volumes, but the series has been on hiatus since 2007. In Japan, the series is up to 10 volumes (plus Meteor Methuselah: Tôhô Shinigami ("The Shinigami of the East"), a one-volume side story about Yuka's father). Interestingly, the recent chapters having been published on Wings' online site rather than in the print magazine, something which is increasingly common in manga as Japanese publishers, like American ones, try to compete with pirates and slumping magazine sales by providing their own online comics. For fans, it's all good; you can see the current Japanese chapters, up to chapter 63 as of November 2010, here :http://www.shinshokan.com/webwings/title11.html. Immortal Rain is currently racing to a conclusion, and I'm enjoying it. With so many familiar anime tropes, I wouldn't call it one of the absolute best manga ever, but it's got lots of original touches and bits of great poetry, and it's rare to see a manga for any kind of reader, a manga where everything - story and art and characters - is just so well done.

Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide and King of RPGs, as well as manga editor for Otaku USA magazine.
Banner designed by Lanny Liu.

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