House of 1000 Manga Karakuridôji Ultimo
by Jason Thompson,
"COMICS! They're so much more than illustrated stories. They're a key to understanding a nation's people and its culture. Slashing samurai, gorgeous geisha, nefarious ninja, rambunctious robots, and much more…Excelsior!"
—Stan Lee, back cover of Frederik Schodt's Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics (1983 edition)
Shigeru Mizuki is the coolest nonagenarian in the world, but the most popular is Stan Lee. Always "on," seemingly perky and active even at 92 years old, always willing to cheerfully shout "Excelsior!" to some kids at Comic-Con who spot him getting into his limo and wave at him, Lee has managed to do something amazing for a comics creator: he hasn't been totally forgotten. DC doesn't do tributes in their superhero movies to Joe Siegel and Jerry Schuster (creators of Superman) or Bob Kane and Bill Finger (Batman)—of course, unlike Lee, they're dead—but Marvel still gives Lee his cameos even though he hasn't worked for the company for decades. OTOH, Lee's claims to have created Marvel's famous superheroes are also only half-true, since he worked with a variety of artists/co-writers who are all now dead, like Jack Kirby (Fantastic Four), or weird and reclusive and unwilling to talk to the media, like Steve Ditko (Spider-Man). Like Walt Disney, much of Lee's fame is due to the great people he's hired and worked with. Since leaving Marvel, he's lent his name to such dubious ventures as Stripperella (about a superhero stripper), The Backstreet Project (about the superhero Backstreet Boys), and Ultimo.
It's not the first time Lee went to Japan; back in the 1970s Lee met with artists like Go Nagai and Osamu Tezuka on business trips for Marvel Comics, and in 2001 the Japanese mag Comic Gotta published a bizarre interview between Lee and Leiji Matsumoto in which Lee asked Matsumoto to work with him on a never-created project called "Starship." This time, Lee met Hiroyuki Takei. Takei's star had sunk a little since his hit series Shaman King (about religion, shamanism, and a tournament battle to determine who will get to meet God)which towards the end had been plagued by delays and sloppy artwork; the real ending of the series wasn't even published 'till the special bunkobon edition. His next series Jumbor (about construction equipment mecha and a kid with steam shovels for hands) was also a flop, so presumably, Takei was looking for work. The omiai must have gone well, because soon their collaboration was announced: Ultimo, in Lee's words, "a story about two robots, one ultimate good, the other ultimate evil."
There Lee's involvement more or less ends. The very first 32-page Ultimo one-shot, published years ago in the American Shonen Jump, was a true collaboration, with the condensed Western pacing and hysterical, wordy narrative voice of a real oldschool Stan Lee comic. It was awkward and read like a Marvel comic from the early '80s, not in a good way. Luckily, Shueisha obviously realized this wasn't working, so when Ultimo was chosen to become a continuing series in Jump Square, Stan Lee was cut out of the equation and became credited for "Original Concept," with Takei taking over full writing and art. And Stan Lee is totally happy with this (he still gets paid, after all); in interviews he admits he really isn't involved at all in Ultimo, everyone knows he isn't, but it's cool to see his catchphrase "Excelsior!!" on the tankobon endpapers, it's cool to see photos of him in his spider yukata. Stan Lee isn't the creator of Ultimo, he's more like the mascot of Ultimo. And he's more than that: far from some piddlin' cameo in a Sam Raimi movie, or even a guest role like Dr. Mashirito (aka head Jump editor Torishima) in Dr. Slump, Stan Lee is Ultimo's main villain. He's basically God.
Yamato Agari is a typical, tall, vaguely slacker-ish high school student. His best friend is Rune, a shy, sensitive guy with long hair and glasses who's the opposite of Yamato's masculinity. Yamato's still sort of a lovelorn dork, though, and his main ambition is to ask out Sayama, the most beautiful girl in his class. It's because he's looking for a gift for Sayama's birthday that he goes in an old antique shop, where a strange lifesize doll with giant claws for hands jumps out of a glass case and gives him a big hug.
As Yamato quickly figures out, Ultimo is a karakuridôji, a clockwork lifeform, capable of transforming into a variety of robotic shapes. He's an Astro Boy-esque robot buddy, he has a form that's identical to a human, and he has a "giant robot you jump inside and drive" colossal mecha mode. Since Ultimo is a good guy his power derives from love, specifically, his loving bond with Yamato, leading to a number of fujoshi-bait gay jokes (Takei loves 'em) and a whole gay/transgender subplot with another character that eventually gets so explicit that in volume 6 Viz changed the rating of the series from T to T+. (It would be my fondest wish to find out that Stan Lee had actually written Ultimo during the scene when Yamato gets stripped to his boxers and tied down to a bed by a boy who wants to have his way with him, but alas.) At first, Yamato is confused and doesn't want anything to do with Ultimo, despite Ulti's assurances that they knew one another in a past life. He runs off and leaves Ultimo behind…only to run into Ultimo's archrival Vice, also newly awakened, a robot who embodies Ultimate Evil.
Okay, so—robots, good vs. evil, fighting in the streets, buildings getting torn in half, cars getting flung around—total superhero material. (The nice thing about stories set in the real world is, like in Marvel Comics of Ultimo, is you can always make jokes about all the property damage.) Ultimo is damaged protecting Yamato from Vice's rampage, and to heal him, a regretful Yamato agrees to make 'the bond' with the porcelain-skinned, trembling-lipped ephebe robot (in a scene involving more boxer shorts, more near-nudity, more fake-homosexuality awkwardness). Soon Yamato's memories come flooding back: memories of 12th century Japan, when he was the leader of an army of bandits fighting against the corrupt feudal aristocracy. It was then that he first encountered Ultimo and Vice, the twin good & evil robots, which were both gifts from the mysterious Dunstan, a strange old white-haired white guy. Stan Lee—I mean Dunstan—is a time-traveling mad scientist from the year 2989, who has traveled across time and space seeding the world with robots to test his theory: "The sole reason I made them was to know which is stronger, good or evil!" Appearing and disappearing where and when he chooses, Dunstan watches over everything omnisciently like the Beyonder in Secret Wars, knowing that his robots will one day clash in the Hundred Machine Funeral, a great battle across all time and space which could destroy the world!
Presumably it's called the Hundred Machine Funeral because there are 100 robots involved, but so far we've been introduced to about 16. Just as there are many flavors of good and evil, there are many robots on each side, each tied to a human master, each with different powers and appearance (although the good mecha tend to have similar faces and the bad ones tend to look all spindly and insectile). My first impression of Ultimo was that straightforward Good vs. Evil sounds so Western, so un-manga-like; in manga, sure, the bad guy is the one Luffy beats up, but generally the line between 'good' and 'evil' is not permanent and not so clearly drawn. I asked Takei about this in an interview in 2009 and he immediately started talking about Buddhism. The villainous robots who serve under Vice are based on Christianity's Seven Deadly Sins. The good robots, however, are based on Buddhism's Six Perfections. Clearly all the research into Buddhism that Takei did for his first manga, the Buddhist-themed Butsu Zone, didn't go to waste.
Each karakuri dôji has a human master who's somehow appropriate for its sin or virtue: the good guys tend to be working-class types, like sushi chef Ekoda Shin ("Discipline") and yakuza tough Hiroshi Kumegawa ("Contemplation"), while the bad guys are mostly rich or from upper-class backgrounds, like a music producer, a politician, a sports star, a wealthy industrialist. As the series progresses, Yamato meets and fights most of the other karakuri dôji, learns their life stories, and gets in lots of conversations about good and evil. Takei's Buddhism—and his shonen manga-ness—comes out in the idea that there might be a proper balance between good and evil, that forgiveness and mercy might be the answer rather than completely eliminating the bad guys. At one point, a hero has the opportunity to finish a downed villain, but she cannot, because if she emits the malicious intent necessary to kill her opponent, the evil robot will feed off that malice and come back to life. Her friend gives her this advice which encapsulates everything I've learned in 15 years of reading Shonen Jump: "In a proper fight, you don't just beat on your opponents for your own sake…you raise your fist against them for their sake, too!"
If in Shaman King the characters basically represented different religious and forms of spirituality, in Ultimo they represent different aspects of morality/immorality. Of course, philosophy doesn't really matter that much in a 2-page spread of a mecha with knives shooting out of every part of its body. Takei's art, as always, is heavily stylized and full of sharp lines and exaggerated shapes (he once said in an interview that the most important thing is to create characters who are recognizable simply from their silhouette). With characters freely using superpowers such as Emotion Manipulation, Fate Manipulation and Reincarnation Manipulation, things start out super-exaggerated and just get crazier. (Interestingly, Vice's superpower is one of the least impressive-sounding: it's Incompetence, which sounds weak but, of course, turns out to be the ultimate black hole of negation which can destroy and undo anything.) Ultimo is not a series which cares much about logic, proportionally scaled mecha, or the limits of the human body; it's one of those fighting manga where everything is so far from reality that it's impossible to tell what's going to happen and you just turn the pages to see what insane power-up or Super Saiyan Level 10 Transformation Takei is going to pull out next.
This is both Takei's strength and his weakness. In Shaman King it took 'till the double-digit volumes for things to get totally over-the-top, but even in volume 3 of Ultimo things seem like they're just getting too ridiculous, like the power level is just too high and things are accelerating too fast. And then Takei does something amazing…he restarts the series. Literally: Ultimo uses his power of Space-Time Manipulation to travel back in time, reliving the series from the beginning, to try to get a better outcome. It's a cool Groundhog's Day twist, one of the better time travel plots I've seen in manga, and it gives Ultimo a new shot of life.
Once the hero has literally reversed time, all Superman 1978 style, it's hard to imagine how anyone could really be a match for him; but Ultimo is so bizarre you just go along for the ride. You go along with it for the weird imagery, and the characters, and things like the sushi chef's lecture that morality is like a piece of fatty tuna nigiri ("It's so full of fat that if you grilled it, it would burn away. Because of that, some people like it, others don't. Which is also true for good and evil. You don't know what its really like until you eat it.") You read it for the in-jokes to oldschool pop culture, such as all the Stan Lee/Dunstan stuff; Stan Lee is a living piece of pop culture, and for pop-savvy Takei, making him a character is probably as entertaining as Quentin Tarantino making in-jokes to Sonny Chiba and Lady Snowblood. There's one other plot thread, unresolved so far, which could be even more self-referential: one character is perpetually reading ancient issues of Shonen Jump, at one point we find out that sushi chef Eco (who was a Buddhist monk in his past life) owns a complete collection of Shonen Jump dating back to 1968, and then he tells us that Jump magazine is the "modern-day scriptures" which contains the secret to everything. Could Takei be flirting with some kind of Billy Bat self-referentialism, where comic books are the key to the universe?
It's a little messy, but somehow it works. For better or worse, and notwithstanding that he probably didn't really do any work on it, Ultimo is the best thing Stan Lee has put his name on for the last 20 years. Battles with God, transforming robots, ironic manga in-jokes—leave it to Takei to take what could have been a mere work-for-hire job and turn it into what he wanted to write anyway.
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