Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Gojinby Jason Thompson, Nov 3rd 2011
Episode LXXIII: Gôjin
In the basement under my house, next to the corpses and the pit with the bucket of skin lotion where I keep manga artists who I have kidnapped from American conventions in order to make my "mangaka suit", is my collection of old manga in Western comics format. Flipped left-to-right, cut up into 32-page segments, sometimes with arbitrary chapter breaks and cutoff points in the middle of a story…that's how manga used to be published, on cheap, inky, fibrous paper that's useful for lining the floor to soak up blood. Most of the old Viz and Dark Horse titles were later rereleased as graphic novels, but titles from the smaller publishers (and a lot of unpopular Viz and DH titles as well) survive only in the form of 32-page booklets, crammed together in dusty cardboard longboxes shaped like children's coffins. I hope you're enjoying this serial killer metaphor as much as I am.
A lot of these old manga were from Antarctic Press. From its founding in 1984, the Texas-based company published a mashup of everything fanboys were into back then: manga, anime, giant robots, furries, superheroes, Star Trek and military alternate history stories. Starting out with manga-influenced comics by Western artists like Ben Dunn and Fred Perry, way back before even Viz had started publishing manga, they eventually started publishing comics by actual Japanese artists in the early '90s. Their move away from manga publishing is another story (actually, rumor has it that they canceled their manga lines because 1994's intended-as-a-parody Warrior Nun Areala got too popular and they went apesh*t for bad-girl superhero comics), but for a time, they were a big deal for manga fans. And to their credit, they published some very weird stuff, self-referential genre stuff from the Japanese borderland small-press scene. One of these series was Gojin an 8-issue limited series having fun with those most archetypal J-pop phenomena: giant robots and monsters.
Gôjin, by Kazuho Takizawa and Yutaka Kondo, is a tokusatsu giant monster comic crossed with steampunk Japanese history. The year is 1780, and Edo—the capital of Tokugawa-era Japan—was the biggest city in the world with one million people. As the biggest population center on the planet, it naturally becomes a target for alien invasions. ("What are the aliens? They are enemies from acros the galaxy and beyond the stars who will attempt to invade the earth! They bear us nothing but ill will!") Strange creatures start appearing in the capital, some of them disguised as humans, others clearly monstrous. Their evil schemes are multifold and malevolent: some raise corpses in graveyards, others skulk in the woods with Japan's mythological yokai, and others seek out ancient artifacts to fuse with to gain even greater power. The city is in a state of panic.
Who can save Japan? The Earth Defense Force, aka the Scientific Warriors, of course! A special team founded by Shogunate prime minister Okitsugu Tanuma, the Scientific Warriors consist of Papillon the Harpy (a tomboy in boys' clothes), Keiraku the Lurker (a crazy old man), Torebei Saikawa (the big guy), and Teru (the little kid/wanna-be). When aliens show up, these ninja-like heroes rush into battle, using high-tech weaponry and "Dutch sciences" (so-called since Tokugawa-era Japan only traded with the Dutch, and had the Dutch to thank for their limited knowledge of Western technology) such as helicopters, gatling guns and rocket-propelled grenades! Of course, their super-science is actually far beyond anything the Dutch were doing, because their leader, Gensai Oboro, is secretly Hiragai Gennai, a real-life Tokugawa-era mad scientist who killed his assistants and performed experiments with electricity. "I'll show him the power of SCIENCE!" one Scientific Warrior shouts as he unleashes some whup-ass on a bug-eyed, tentacled monster.
But unfortunately for the Scientific Warriors, the largest monsters are beyond even their power to combat. Their enemies have a habit of transforming into giant, 50+ foot tall monstrosities, and then their only chance is to hope for the appearance of their mysterious giant ally…GOJIN! Gojin is a gigantic masked humanoid who wields a tetsubo which he uses to smash the hell out of invading aliens. He also has three dragons fused to his armor, which he can bring to life to attack his foes. The common people are so in awe of Gojin, they've even formed a cult which worships him; some think he's the Buddhist deity Vaisravana, others think he's the incarnation of the deified Tokugaway Ieyasu. ("Gojin? A god? That's impossible! There are no gods in the modern age!") What even the Scientific Warriors don't know is that Gojin is secretly Steren Kyoshiro, an alien who lives in Japan disguised as a normal, albeit handsome, human being! Steren spends most of his human time as a sort of millionaire playboy, hanging out in the gardens drinking sake and flirting with women, until he needs to transform into Gojin to save Japan. Then he defeats the bad guys, turns back into a human, and nobody ever figures out what happened. But his alien-fighting exploits do make for awesome Ukiyo-e prints.
If all of this sounds a little familiar, you're right; Gojin is basically a historical riff on giant monster shows and on Ultraman in particular. Steren/Gojin is Ultraman, the Scientific Warriors are the Science Patrol, and the bizarre aliens, who start out human-sized and then balloon up so Gojin can fight them, are like enemies in a tokusatsu show. If you don't get the joke, the manga might be a little hard to follow, as it rushes from one tokusatsu trope to the next barely giving the reader room to breathe. Although mooks and bystanders die, the mood is light and mostly comedic; when they're watching the city-destroying battles, the side characters kibitz and joke around ("Hmm. The two-legged one seems to be losing." "Aww, I like him! He looks like one of Buddha's guardians!"). The references to actual Japanese history are dense, and it's the kind of manga that makes me thankful for Wikipedia. Frankly, it compresses so much story into so few pages it's kind of a rough read—more like Western comics than manga—but I do like Yutaka Kondo's artwork a lot. His art looks more like illustration work than manga, and he draws in a stylized, very individualistic way; he also does great imitations of Tokugawa-era woodblock prints. His bold linework is very unusual for manga, and looks like it was drawn with a ballpoint pen.
One of the refreshing things about Antarctic Press's manga was that it was published not for "this will be a big hit and we have to publish it" licensing reasons, but because the company had a personal connection to the artists (and a small company like Antarctic Press probably couldn't afford the licensing fees for most big-name manga anyway). Yutaka Kondo, like most of the Antarctic artists, was a friend of Ippongi Bang, the charismatic mangaka who was Antarctic's most popular mangaka. For the diehard fans who could go to conventions like A-Kon which all the Antarctic artists attended en masse, this gave the mangaka a really accessible feeling, like they were all just fellow fans, very different from the inaccessible movie-star artists at major magazines like Shonen Jump. Elin Winkler, who today is one of the main people at Radio Comix, was the letterer on Gojin and remembered Yutaka Kondo fondly. "He was one of the nicest, most easy-going guys we ever dealt with. He always dressed kind of like an old guy-- geta, rolled up pants, a hanten or happi coat & headband. He was a character!"
Unfortunately, also according to Winkler, Gojin didn't sell big numbers, possibly because manga fans didn't like Kondo's indy-infused art style. That was the only Kondo comic Antarctic—or any manga publisher—ever published, and by 2007 when I wrote Manga: The Complete Guide, I couldn't find out anything about Kondo or Gojin. Had he retired from manga? Was his style just too unique?
Luckily, I was totally wrong; Kondo's been more active than ever. He posts a lot on twitter (including his art, and lots of photos of his cats), and he's an active mangaka and illustrator; he's perhaps most famous for his illustrations for the Kûsô Kagaku Dokuhon series of books, which analyze the real science in science fiction shows and manga such as Gundam, Godzilla, and even Doraemon. Being a total history buff, he's also worked as a consultant for Oh! Edo Rocket and the Ninja Scroll TV series, for which he did tons of reference art. He's a friend of Matt Alt, the founder of the translation service AltJapan, and when the quake hit Japan this March, he sent Matt a comic about his experiences during the quake. (His books all fell off the shelves, but luckily, he and his wife were fine and the house wasn't majorly damaged.) In fact, Kondo has recently released a whole book in English as recently as 2010: he's the illustrator of Matt Alt and Hiroko Yoda's Ninja Attack!: True Tales of Assassins, Samurai, and Outlaws! Kondo's angular style is as beautiful as always, and frankly, his work looks better as color illustrations than it did as B&W manga. The book is a perfect outlet for his talents, and his art looks better than ever.
I can't find out as much about the writer of Gojin, Kazuho Takizawa, but maybe some info will pop up in the future. Even if Takizawa was a major collaborator, obviously Gojin was totally Kondo's style. Like most costumed-hero franchises, Gojin doesn't really have much of an overall story arc, but it's a cool little story that grew on me as I was reading it. Kondo has carved out a great niche as an artist who loves science fiction, monsters and Tokugawa-era Japan. It was cool having Gojin buried in my basement, but it's a thousand times cooler having the real Yutaka Kondo out there doing new art.
Many thanks to Elin Winkler and Matt Alt!
Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide and King of RPGs, as well as manga editor for Otaku USA magazine.
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