by Rebecca Silverman,

Master Keaton

GN 1

Master Keaton GN 1
Half-British, half-Japanese, Taichi Keaton is a brilliant archaeologist who divides his time between teaching at a Japanese university and working for a London insurance agency as an investigator. He uses his knowledge of antiquity and his training in the British Special Forces to solve the toughest cases, creating a legend wherever he goes, despite family troubles at home.

Master mangaka Naoki Urasawa said in a 2012 interview that he had always liked Master Keaton as a character but that contractual obligations kept him from telling the story as he would have liked. Now with the first-ever English language release of the 1989-1994 series, I wonder if he was referring to the episodic nature of the manga, because while the premise of the book is fascinating and the stories are well-told, the way most of the chapters are essentially stand-alone stories does take away from the overall strength of the volume. Granted, this is only the first of eighteen original books, but it is what largely drags down an otherwise very good read.

The story follows Taichi Hiraga Keaton, the son of a British noblewoman and a Japanese scientist. Divorced from his Japanese mathematician wife, Keaton appears to live a somewhat aimless existence, splitting his time between his job as a lecturer in archeology at a Japanese university (a position that appears similar to today's adjuncts) and his work as an insurance investigator for Lloyd's of London. He's a generally low-key person, easy on his students and struggling in his relationship with his teenage daughter due to what she perceives as a lack of motivation. All of this belies the fact that he is a former Special Forces soldier of incredible skill and that he possesses a brilliant mind stuffed with historical facts, the combination of which he uses to not only investigate fraud and strange situations, but also to survive in unbelievably harsh situations. He's a bit like a dorkier Indiana Jones, hiding his badassery under a bad haircut and wrinkled suit. Over the course of this volume he proves both his skill and his compassion, doing everything from saving a woman from a life of prostitution to guiding a group of foolish academics across a desert.

Contemporary readers will notice that the story takes place in a time before modern technology, such as fast computers and cellphones, but in many ways that simply makes the story more interesting. When Keaton is in a difficult situation, he can't just ask Siri to Google something for him – he must rely on his own skills and knowledge. While modern technology would be unlikely to help him in the desert, in other situations it would have made his job much easier, and seeing him work without it is a reminder of how life has changed since 1989. In other ways, the time period does not effect the story at all. Keaton isn't going after lost civilizations or untouched worlds; he's doing a much more mundane job in places that really exist. The real-world grounding of the story makes it more relateable than if it were a more adventure-oriented story, and that works well with Keaton's own low-key personality.

The strongest story in the book is final one, which pits Keaton against an acquaintance from his SAS days. The story involves drug dealing and prostitution, both of which are still familiar fixtures in our world today. The theme of hunting, and whether it is more compassionate to kill a wounded animal or to let it live, is well used in the three chapters that comprise the arc, with the idea that sometimes you must hurt someone you care about in order to save them being subtly expressed. This is where Keaton's personality really shines through in a way that his desert adventure or his turn as Hercule Poirot with an old woman on a train don't allow. The theme of sacrifice, which has been subtly present in the rest of the volume as well, is used to its full potential in this story, ending the volume on a strong note that should make readers ready to read more.

The book, however, will not appeal to all readers, as it lacks exciting fight scenes and overt action. While there is some action, it is understated, with the story focusing more on the small details of how Keaton resolves a situation rather than flashy fights. The motivations of the characters is just as, if not more, important to the plot as the actual events themselves, and even though Urasawa's art is clear and clean, this is not a book you read quickly. Viz's translation relies on the reader knowing something of the way the world was in 1989 and does not offer contextual notes (just sfx translations), and that will also alienate some readers. The book appears to have been released for a specific audience, mature readers not in the sense that there's sex and violence in the book, but rather meaning that they have an understanding not just of the world today, but as it has been.

Regardless, Master Keaton is a book worth reading, especially if you are in the mood for something more serious. It has a Slow Start, but once it gets off the ground, there is much more to be found within its pages than the simple story of a guy who kicks ass and takes names. Master Keaton is a thoughtful book, and as you read it, you come to understand why readers have told Urasawa that Keaton himself is a character who touched their lives.

Overall : B+
Story : B+
Art : A-

+ Thoughtful and interesting, Keaton himself helps to make the story worth reading. Last arc is especially strong.
Slow start may deter some readers, knowledge of how the world was in the 1980s not strictly required, but definitely helpful, as no notes are provided.

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Production Info:
Story: Hokusei Katushika
Art: Naoki Urasawa

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