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Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Hitoshi Ariga

by Jason Thompson,

Episode CIX: Hitoshi Ariga

Let's face it: original manga are generally better than adaptations. It's the same in any medium: no matter how much you liked the Harry Potter movies, you're missing something if you haven't read the books. And while it's possible to like Durararara!! or Nyarko-san: Another Crawling Chaos based on the anime and manga adaptations, I know I'm a poser compared to almost any Japanese fan because I haven't read the original light novels. But obviously not all adaptations are bad; I mean, heck, I've drawn adaptations of books myself. Occasionally an artist draws an adaptation so well, with such obvious passion, they make something so good it stands on its own without any knowledge of the original source material. One artist is Masahiko Nakahira. Another is Hitoshi Ariga, who draws the world's best Mega Man manga.

Interestingly, both of them do video game manga. Maybe it's actually easier to do interesting manga adaptations of video games than of novels, because when you're adapting a novel there's a strong pressure to follow the original structure and use the original words (like how most manga adaptations of light novels have way too much text), but when you adapt a video game, particularly a story-light video game, you're on your own. ONLY YOU can transform all that platform-jumping and monster-fighting and shooting into some sort of narrative story arc! But in order to replace the extra "YOU-are-playing-the-game" interactive excitement of video games (ahhh, Roger Ebert, you are so missing out), you have to make your manga EVEN AWESOMER than the original game was, insofar as games and other media can even be compared.

Hitoshi Ariga (born in 1972) started out in video games. When he was college-age, he worked in 16-bit video games, as a pixel artist and character designer, designing character sprites for games like ActRaiser 2 and some of the Ranma 1/2 fighting games. He was 23 when he drew his first full-length manga featuring the character that would define his career: Mega Man. (For the sake of simplicity, I'm going to use his American name in this article, instead of the Japanese "Rock Man.") Like everyone else of his generation, including me, he'd played the original 8-bit games, guiding the blue noseless robot dude (well, the Nintendo was low-res, and I imagined him noseless) on his mission to defeat the evil robots of Dr. Wily through beating them, collecting their weapons and fusing them into his own body to use to beat the other ones. In case anyone out there hasn't played the games, this text summary expresses their awesomeness about as much as a B&W drawing of a plate of spaghetti expresses the taste of meatballs and parmesan cheese.

I don't know how Ariga got his first Mega Man gig; maybe I missed it in an interview somewhere, but I don't know if he was on his knees at Capcom HQ begging "Please let me draw Mega Man" or whether someone just assigned him to draw it. Ariga's first Mega Man comics were some short soccer strips, but in 1996, he started drawing his first serious Mega Man comics in Comic Bombom, a now-defunct magazine aimed at elementary school boys. Like its rival Corocoro Comic, most of its manga had a particular look: lots of big eyes, big smiles, spiky hair, primary colors. Look at the Japanese cover of Megaman Remix and you get the idea: Mega Man charging towards the reader with a big smile, YEAH!!!

Most Bombom and Corocoro comics are pretty bad—extended toy advertisements with generic art—but Ariga excelled beyond the minimal standards of the magazine. Although he was assigned, like most tie-in artists, to draw a series based on the latest product on the market (the Carddas trading card series Rockman X Mega Mission) his deep knowledge of Mega Man shined through, and his art was surprisingly good. Ariga's action scenes have a real sense of excitement and risk that you don't normally see in manga for elementary school kids. But he fleshes out the story, too; Ariga's version of Mega Man is obviously inspired by Osamu Tezuka's Astro Boy, which was one of the influences on the video game, but Ariga goes a step further and gives Mega Man Astro Boy's noble, pacifistic spirit. One of his very first stories, "Destruction Order," starts with a moral issue that shows Mega Man's heroic character—the government wants to destroy the evil Robot Masters from the first Mega Man, now that they've been captured, but our hero rushes to stop the execution, because he believes that any robot can be redeemed. Former bad guys turning into good guys is a shonen manga trope, of course, and Ariga uses it to maximum effect as well. Since each Mega Man game usually features 8 or more bad guys, it's a miracle that Ariga is able to have them all show up and do their thing and act in-character, but somehow he does it. Of course, it seems rushed, but it's a good rushed. It's nonstop action, with just enough story to keep it together, but it's exciting and smart. Remix was enough of a hit that Ariga immediately started drawing another series, Mega Man Megamix. One of the first things he did was go back and draw an adaptation of the very first game, Mega Man, so that you can follow the whole history of Mega Man just by reading Ariga's comics.

But the problem with drawing tie-in comics is that they're not always under your own control. As Ariga said in an interview: "When I was working on the book there were times when production on the videogame would pause, and then it would start up again. For instance, there was a long period of time between Rockman 8 and Rockman 9. So the publisher said, 'because the game is not coming out, we don't really need to make a new manga.'" And so, in 1999, Ariga took a break from Mega Man comics, leaving Megamix incomplete.

After Megamix, Ariga went on to draw another robot manga, the adaptation of The Big O, the Batman-meets-mecha anime series set in a mysterious city 40 years after an apocalypse which erased everyone's memories. It was during this manga that Ariga's drawing skills leveled up. Presumably using the new manga as the opportunity for an artistic experiment, Ariga drew The Big O with heavy use of dark spaces, instead of the 'lines and screentone' style used by so many manga artists. The result is a kind of shadowy, moody Film Noir effect, perhaps inspired by American artists such as Bruce Timm (whose Batman: The Animated Series inspired The Big O anime) and Mike Mignola, perhaps even Frank Miller, because who else has that particular way of drawing dark skyscrapers in falling snow? Ariga's use of shadow was probably also influenced by his time working in games; if you're a pixel artist and you think in lines instead of blocks of light and dark color, well, you're not going to get very far. 

The first few volumes of The Big O aren't the best; the art is rough and the human characters are a little funky-looking, maybe because Ariga had been drawing nothing but robots before that. Roger Smith, the suave hero who pilots the mecha and who was cool in a suit long before Phoenix Wright, looks less like a Don Draper/Bruce Wayne "cool oyaji" and more like some kid dressed up to go to prom. But by volumes 3 or 4, Ariga has found his artistic groove. The characters look good and the background drawings are great; Paradigm City has the look of being constantly under construction (scaffolding, etc.), which makes sense since it's destroyed by robots in every chapter. I doubt Ariga or the creators of The Big O were thinking of this, but the constantly-rebuilt city reminds me of the recent discovery that human memories are always in flux, because recalling memories is actually rewriting them; every time you think "Remember that time when…" you're actually subtly changing things, mixing the original memory with the new context of how you recalled them. The Big O also shows an advancement in Ariga's storytelling. At first, most of the stories are more or less based on the anime, but as it goes on, Ariga starts creating his own stories…which, remarkably, are more character-focused than robot-focused. (!!!) The final volume is a little unsatisfying—basically, it ends inconclusively, just like the anime—but volume 5 has the best tales, such as the one in which archvillain Beck becomes insanely wealthy and, now that he has everything he wants, descends into madness. Or the story about the little girl who can see people's forgotten memories. An unscrupulous entrepreneur uses the girl to make a fortune, until the girl stops telling people what they want to hear and starts telling them the truth. ("Mister…that man is not your father. He was a robber. He killed your real father. Then the world changed…and everyone forgot. By chance, you were standing together…that's the one tie that binds you.")

Viz published the six volumes of The Big O manga, which was my first introduction to Ariga. (There was also a two-volume filler sequel, The Big O: Lost Memory, which still hasn't been translated.) Meanwhile, in Japan, Ariga worked on a variety of short works, such as the manga adaptation of Teppan Girl Akane!. But Mega Man fandom doesn't forget, and the demand for more Ariga Mega Man comics grew and grew. Soon, Ariga returned to the character he loved…first finishing the long-awaited Megamix (including redrawn versions of some of the old Remix stories), and then starting a new series, Mega Man Gigamix.

When character designers and professional illustrators do manga, they often do an amazing job (example: Yoshiyuki Sadamoto's Evangelion manga), but they rarely stick to it for very long because most manga pays a lot less than character designing. The fact that Ariga has continued to do Mega Man comics for more than 15 years means that he isn't doing it for the money: he really really loves Mega Man and loves what he's doing. In Megamix and Gigamix his art is better than ever, mixing the strong shadows and high contrast of The Big O with a new level of detail and screentone. His humans and robots both look great and have the same liveliness. Beyond the nonstop action, he makes the science fiction world of Mega Man seem real. Like Paradigm City in The Big O, it seems like a real place, full of real machinery and landscapes and details. And the epic threats of Dr. Wily and his robots seem actually threatening, because the characters are likeable, so you really want the good guys to win. (Unlike when I read a bad or just boring comic, in which I usually want the bad guys to blow up everything because it would be more entertaining and I don't like the characters anyway.) Megamix and Gigamix were released in English by the awesome peole at Udon Entertainment, the #1 publishers of video game manga and artbooks, and they're definitely worth getting. They're some of the best all-ages shonen manga out there, period.

When I worked at Viz and we were publishing Big O, we didn't get many Big O letters, but we got tons of letters asking about Ariga's Mega Man comics. Ariga owes his popularity to the fans, and I think he realizes this; few manga artists are so good to their fans and keep so connected to them. In the backgrounds of his comics, he sometimes draws robots submitted by fans on his website, totally in keeping with the Mega Man spirit (since Capcom has frequently solicited character designs from fans for the games). Ariga has a webpage and a twitter account, of course (only 5,000 followers?!?!), but what's really amazing is that he has an English-language deviantart account, the only significant mangaka I can think of to do so. And he's visited the Toronto Comics Art Festival in Canada. I guess he was always interested in the American audience; he named his series Megamix based on the American title Mega Man, rather than the Japanese Rock Man, after all.

Ariga has even self-published some of his own work for American fans, releasing Mimimi: The Tale of a Cat and a Robot, originally a one-shot he drew for Magazine Z, in English on Kindle for two bucks. (It's a short but sweet story about Mimimi, a cat journalist, who lives in a postapocalyptic world where catpeople and robots survive after humans are gone.) Hopefully Mimimi won't be his last self-published project. Frankly, I wish more creators were as involved with their overseas market, and had as much of an online presence, as Ariga does. It's got to be a good thing when manga fans think of mangaka as people who they can actually communicate with, rather than the usual fandom image of mangaka as mysterious, distant figures trapped by their evil publishers like prisoners in a tower, practically begging you to scanlate their stuff so you can free them from The Man. (Note: this is sarcasm.) Go do him a favor and buy some of his stuff, so he can create more stories about robots and cats and action, not to mention a new Mega Man project he hinted at in his last deviantart post. That's why fans like Ariga's work: they can tell he likes Mega Man as much as they do. And thanks to him, I like Mega Man more too.

Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete GuideKing of RPGs and H.P. Lovecraft's Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. He also reviews manga for Otaku USA magazine.
Banner designed by Lanny Liu.

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