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Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Ginga Legend Weed

by Jason Thompson,

Episode XXXI: Ginga Legend Weed

"Everyone has fear! There are things that you fight for even if it means risking your life!"
—a dog, Ginga Legend Weed

Today we enter the underground world of dog fighting manga. I mean, dog battle manga, or maybe dog adventure manga would be more accurate. Yoshihiro Takahashi's Ginga Legend Weed is an adventure with a nonhuman cast, the kind of four-legged story that's more common in Western animation than in manga, although it's got more violence than any Western dog animation would dare have, with the possible exception of the movie version of Richard Adams' The Plague Dogs, which still freaks me out. It's 10,000+ pages of intergenerational dog epic, like The Dog of Flanders crossed with The Incredible Journey crossed with a rival-gangs martial arts story. If you like dogs, and you like shonen manga, Ginga Legend Weed is for you. At least it's better than Inubaka.

The place: the north Japanese Alps. Just outside the borders of human civilization, in the great green forest, bands of wild dogs roam the woods. One of these dogs is G.B., a scruffy English Setter forced to live as a gofer for the evil Nero, who makes his pack hunt and steal for him. G.B. is a cowardly dog just trying to stay alive, but one day, while hunting a bird, he meets a little nameless stray who impresses him with his courage. The nameless dog with two distinctive white dots on his forehead (a crossbreed mix of Akita Inu and Kishu) is hunting for meat to feed his dying mother.

The dog's mother soon leaves her faithful son in G.B.'s care, asking him to help the innocent boy. But that's not all. The plucky little dog has a secret…he's none other than the son of the legendary Gin! Gin was a dog among dogs, said to have led his pack in killing a mighty bear and establishing a "dog utopia" in the distant mountains of Ohu. (Also known as the Ou mountains, according to Wikipedia.) The cowardly G.B. looks within himself to find the strength to shoulder the responsibility, but finally he mans up and agrees to take the little dog in search of his father. He even gives the pup a name, "Weed." "In the country where I was born, 'weed' means wild plants. Look around your feet, it's all weeds! Now you're never alone, and never far from friends!" (I assume the name is intended to show how our hero is a tough mutt with humble roots, but back at PULP magazine we all used to call the manga Ganja Legend Weed.)

And so begins a canine adventure as the mismatched pair travel across Japan in search of the legendary utopia in the mountains of the far north. On their journey, our heroes encounter dogs of all sorts. Hook, a scarred dog, was put in a box and thrown in the river by cruel humans when he and his siblings were puppies. Lenny, a golden retriever, is a content house dog, but she wants to leave her kennel just once to make sure that her son (whom she last saw as a puppy) is okay in his new home. Sasuke ran away from his owner on a camping trip, but now regrets it. Mel is a good-natured dog who's fallen in with a bad crowd, running with a gang of punks. Humans are sometimes friendly, but sometimes hostile; our stray heroes try to stay out of town to avoid being caught by the dogcatcher, and so most of the story takes place in nameless woods in the middle of nowhere, kind of like how all the fights in Dragon Ball take place in empty fields. And man, how those dogs can fight! Gin is little and kind, but he's tough, capable of tossing around dogs ten times his size. "He's a stray dog down to the bone!" thinks G.B. But against bears and hunters with shotguns, can any dog match up? Perhaps the son of Gin can, since even Gin's old friends, like the 15-year-old crippled dog Smith (that's like 105 years old in human years), are THE BADDEST CANINES ON EARTH.

With its deep back story, it's no surprise to find that Ginga Legend Weed is actually the sequel to another, older manga. Yoshihiro Takahashi is actually a specialist in dog manga; in 1983, he created his first long-running dog manga, Ginga: Nagareboshi Gin ("Silver Fang: The Silver Meteor") for none less than Weekly Shonen Jump magazine. It ran for 18 volumes and spawned an anime series. After Ginga: Nagareboshi Gin, Takahashi worked on a batch of other dog-themed manga, including Shônen to Inu ("Boy and Dog"), a series of heartwarming stories; Byakuren no Fang ("Fang of the White Lotus"), about a fighting dog and his trainer; Fang, about a wolf/German Shepherd mix and his owner who fight crime; and even Lassie, a pseudo-tie-in to the famous American dog franchise, about a Rough Collie looking for his owner. It's safe to say that Takahashi likes dogs. I wonder if he ever got in fights with fellow Shônen Jump artist Hirohiko Araki, who drew so many scenes of dogs getting mutilated in Jojo's Bizarre Adventure that VIZ censored a bunch of them. (Then again, Takahashi could hardly complain, since he's drawn a hundred times more scenes of dog death, albeit mostly canine-on-canine. Maybe they're friends. The cats in Jojo's get it just as bad.)

Ginga Legend Weed, the sequel to Ginga: Nagareboshi Gin, started in 1999, more than a decade after the original manga ended. Published in Nihon Bungeisha's Weekly Manga Goraku, one of those low-circulation manga magazines aimed at middle-aged readers which has little fanbase in the West, it was clearly meant as a return to Takahashi's glory days, a nostalgia tale aimed at old readers as much as new ones. (Sort of like Tetsuo Hara's Fist of the Blue Sky and Tsukasa Hojo's Angel Heart, also pseudo-sequels to the authors' 1980s hits, which were published in the equally crusty magazine Weekly Comics Bunch until it went out of business in 2010. Much as I love them…) When reading this manga, it helps a lot to know that it's the sequel to a classic, because otherwise it's like jumping into the Star Wars trilogy in the middle.

As much as it is a dog manga, however, Weed is also 100% shonen. Takahashi created enough human-character shonen stories in the '70s and '80s to learn how it's done, and basically Weed just transplants those old-school shonen tropes onto dogs. (The absent father, the brave young hero, the old mentor, the hero's self-doubting but basically noble sidekick, etc.) And it's here that things start to get a little weird, and the flavor of Weed comes through. Physically, the dogs in Weed are very realistically drawn; they can't stand on their hind legs or use opposable thumbs or do any of that silly stuff that dogs often do for comic relief in Western animation and comics. But they are smart, and they do talk to one another. (Nor do they talk like in this Far Side cartoon) They talk and talk and talk. They talk about things that you might be surprised to find out that dogs know or care about, such as their own breeds ("What's your name, mister?" ""GB! GB the English Setter!") and the specifics of the Japanese economy ("My owner, an elite banker, was suspected of illegal investing…"). Most of all, though, they talk about being a dog, and in this manga, being a dog is a bit like being a gang member in a '70s manga, or like being a samurai vassal to a feudal lord. Dogs, as dog owners already know, have a sense of honor and loyalty. ("Follow me, you rookies! I'll show you how to be a real dog!") They also engage in lots of submission-dominance posturing, at least the bad guys do, and they care about things like honorifics. ("Show some respect when you answer me! You'd better apologize now, before your guts come out of your body!") The good dogs nobly help one another, assisting sick and elderly dogs, even jumping into the path of oncoming cars to save strangers. When the heroes need help against a gang of bad dogs, all the house dogs break free from their collars and fences and chains and team up to help them. They can sense auras, like ki, and a tough enough dog can send his opponents into flight just by being awesome. Dogs are like the noblest humans in the world, only on four legs, and the manga doesn't include anything that would make us lose our high opinion of them: for instance, there's virtually no defecating, butt-sniffing or puppy-eating. (On the other hand, occasionally Takahashi writes a scene of genuine dog-human differences. When Weed nearly dies, his first reaction upon waking up is to bite the person who wakes him. And when our heroes need to gather dogs to help them out, they consider telling a white lie: "If you tell them it's a fight, nobody will come. Recruit them by saying 'We have dogs in heat' or something.")

If the manga has a problem in the story department, it is that all this noble melodrama sometimes gets to be a little much. Takahashi loves writing flowery exposition. ("Nobody knew what was ahead. Nonetheless, for good or ill, these three dogs sped determinedly toward the future." "Again, Weed and GB started for Ohu. The dazzling Milky Way in the sky runs toward the north, to the direction of Weed's father. No matter how far away they are from each other, the bonds between father and son are tightened each night by the Milky Way…") Like many manga creators, he also succumbs to the cop-out of having the side characters continually talk about how awesome the hero and his friends are so the reader can't possibly miss it. ("Weed is so noble! What a big heart he has! He sure is the son of the Boss of Ohu!")

The art also has flaws. By populating his entire manga with nothing but dogs (and a few random humans, such as Daisuke, Gin's former owner who in Ginga Legend Weed has grown from a little boy to a young man), Takahashi gives himself a challenge which I don't think he's up to. Most manga artists can't even make their main characters look recognizable if their clothes and hair are covered (all aspiring mangaka should try this); it's even harder draw a cast of hundreds of realistic dogs and make them all look different from one another. Yuji Iwahara managed to draw a dozen unique-looking cats in Cat Paradise, but Weed has so many dogs, pretty soon they all start to blur together, except for Weed himself. Dogs have limited body language to express themselves, so there are lots of talking-head shots. It's also hard to make the fight scenes interesting. Most artists are trained to draw the human body, and it's simply not easy to put yourself in the mindset of a dog and draw dogs from all the poses that they have to be drawn (or rather, ought to be drawn) in Ginga Legend Weed. Lacking prehensile arms, dogs can't fight in as many ways as humans; the constant battles pretty much always involve lots of ear-biting and neck-biting and pinning and tossing. Another artist might get around this by using the settings in clever ways (breakable terrain, etc.), but Takahashi is not particularly good at drawing backgrounds either, as much as he obviously likes drawing mountainous landscapes. The dogs' bodies all look pretty similar, too, being mostly lean muscular feral types. Visually, it just isn't that exciting.

But never mind; the story is the point. If dogs are like humans, they're humans who are treated like slaves, separated from their kin, and forced to fight and hunt to survive. And that makes for some good drama. As Weed and his friends pursue their dream, they discover disturbing hints that the "dog utopia" might have turned into a dystopia in the 10 years since the end of Ginga: Nagareboshi Gin. The dogs once justly and nobly ruled by Weed's dad have turned against one another. Worse still, they have come into conflict with human miners attracted by the gold in the mountains. ("They gladly gave the area of Futago Pass to the dogs. But now, they've taken the land away just because of the gold…how pitiful! Is human nature that savage?!") Worse still, a dark force lurks in the mountains… A GIANT MAN-EATING BIO-ENGINEERED DOG, the result of cruel animal experiments! (I guess Takahashi needed something scarier than a bear.) As helicopters and hunters with shotguns are dispatched to ethnically cleanse the untamable dogs, Weed and his pals must fight dog, human and monster dog alike! Blood splatters, dogs and humans die, and dogs fall off of cliffs into raging rivers!

And this is all just in the first three volumes! That's all that ComicsOne translated ten years ago, in both a print edition (now very very rare) and a low-resolution, cheap Adobe Digital Editions ebook, still available for just a few bucks (under simply the name "WEED") from some online ebook stores. Even if ComicsOne had kept going with the series, it's unlikely they would have finished it, since Ginga Legend Weed spans a massive 60 VOLUMES, and ran from 1999 to 2009. Nor has Takahashi exhausted his trove of dog stories; he recently started Ginga Legend Weed Orion, about Weed's four children, carrying the epic on to the next generation.

There's no one else making manga quite like this. It's pleasant to report that other people think so too: there is a 2005 Ginga Legend Weed TV anime, and Yoshihiro Takahashi's English-language fans have not only made a fandub of the anime but a Wiki site and a roleplay board, where you can play a dog in the woods. (Although I respect all forms of roleplaying, this makes me think of the deer-roleplaying MMO The Endless Forest.) Yoshihiro Takahashi isn't a really great manga artist, but he found something he likes to do and he stuck with it for 80+ volumes. That in itself is a major achievement. He has told almost every kind of tale you can tell about dogs, or humans, and he has drawn more scenes of dogs running around in the woods than probably any other human on Earth.

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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