Dean Talks Anime:
Lost Manga Artists: Johji Manabe
An Opinion by Christopher Kinsey
There is so much manga produced at any given time no one person will ever have a chance to “Catch Up”. There are plenty of folks in the states that can steadfastly follow the big two of Marvel and DC then consider themselves up to date on the comic scene. And for the most part that’s true; you do yourself a disservice to neglect the indies but for the most part you will know what is needed to know about your tights and fights on a monthly basis. In Japan you tend to have one or two anthology magazines you can keep up on but to keep up to date on everything is a kind of madness. You would go broke, twice, to gather everything released in a common month and probably succumb to blood clots of the legs before you finished reading your stash.
So over the years the comic scene churns in Japan. Some can surf the wave for a very long time, your Toriyamas and your Takahashis. But others have been buried long ago. I’ve decided to start dredging up the best that have been forgotten, in my experience. Perhaps shining the spotlight on these old guard artists can net a new series of fans and interest.
Johji Manabe is better known now of days as a pornographer, churning out sought after hentai doujins year after year. There was a time this wasn’t the case, but he’s never been one to play it safe when it comes to sex and violence. It was a selling point of his works when Dark Horse comics translated several of them. “Sex and violence served up hot!” It was the 90s and they were certainly doing everything they could to tap into the reservoir of adult style comics. Well Japan had huge reservoirs untapped by the folks at Heavy Metal magazine. Johji Manabe was a master of that kind of story. Usually it’s a regular man coping with the weird and the violent and the sexy.
His style is an interesting mix of the standard character design from the late 80s/early 90s, but the detail for the fantastic landscapes are a kind of grunge take on the super detailed backgrounds of Miyazaki and Tetsuo Hara (Fist of the North Star). The scale is always huge and daunting, be it wide open spaces or the cramped hallways of a floating battleship. There are some asides and gag “Creatures” around to provide some levity to the constant stream of battles of good vs evil. But even the gag critters can have stories to shine with enough to make you care even for them.
In the states his first translated work was Outlanders and I suspect it’s the one most people will remember him for, mostly because it got a really subpar OVA release which is honored for being quite terrible. It was so bad Tatsunoko (Yes, the anime publisher you might remember from the time they versed Capcom) has mandated it never be associated with the product and has never placed it on their official paperwork or website under “Titles Produced”. The problem stems from the fact they condense about ¾ of the manga into a single 45 minute OVA, which is a rough ride no matter the medium. Regardless, the manga itself is simple and cool. A newspaper photographer named Wakatsuki Tetsuya gets captured during an alien attack on Tokyo. The princess of this alien empire, Kahm, takes a shine to him and together they expose the real plight of Earth and expose a catalyst for a galactic civil war. The series had a satisfying arc that led to a definitive conclusion, a rarity in stories at the time because you never knew when you might have the readers demand more.
Caravan Kidd is more among the lines of a far flung future filled with interesting aliens and technology of thousands of worlds. Among such treasures is the female android Mian Toris. She finds two skeevy black market merchants and immediately drafts them as lackeys and minions on a personal quest against the empress of the Haglebard Empire. It’s a lot like Outlanders in tone, but it’s completely enclosed in its own universe without needing a backdrop of an invasion of our mundane Earth. It’s a lot more episodic in nature, an example being a need for some traveling money turning into a female wrestling tournament. That was a great improvement over the former series since Outlanders was incredibly focused on the singular journey to save the earth and stop the galactic war. There was little time to relax and take in the setting or have moments of levity that weren’t sucked away by the overarching quest.
My personal favorite is Drakuun. It is another mash of science fiction and fantasy where super strong and feisty female protagonist (Karula Olzen) is a princess of a kingdom about to be taken over by an empire, outcast after she fails at an assassination attempt she wonders trying to build a rebellion to stop the empire for good. Along the way she falls in love and befriends interesting and fun allies. Now each of these works seems eerily similar, and I think that’s just fine. Each story was an improvement on the last. The themes were the same, but ultimately for all the similarities you could easily spot where the plot improved in each series culminating into a final satisfying tale with an epic feel. Sadly unlike the other titles mentioned, Drakuun never got the fifth volume of the story translated and the fourth volume never got collected in graphic novel format. The current generation of scanners and translators won’t finish it off. Too old I guess, but I would hope there was someone besides myself who wouldn’t mind some closure.
It’s at that point he kind of fell off the map here in the states. Around the same time the Outlanders OVA poisoned his chances of getting really popular in Japan. He sold some collected short works in bundles, but ultimately had to dip into exclusively doing hentai and doujins to make a living. Not that he was embarrassed by the prospect, just a reality of the field. Every once in a while he made a new series which border on the insane running parallel with the trends of today. Boukun Tyrano-san came out in 2005 and features a tyrannosaurus rex who is killed off by the meteor impact only to send his consciousness into a sixteen year old honors student in Japan. I believe he works with another artist because the backgrounds have his kinds of details but the characters are your standard waif-like moe folks that really clashes with the style. He has done scores of seinen series which are just about your average schmuck having as much sex as humanly possible without having to have actual relationships or what have you. These days he has a series called Joukikou Otome Mame Dakedo aka Heavy Armored maiden which is a fictionalized story where the Ottoman Empire invades Italy. Honestly it looks pretty good, but again it’s in that pit of no interest.
Manabe has been the kind of artist in Japan that’s been slogging it out for a while, I think he deserves a shot at getting something new and interesting published in its entirety. It’s like seeing an actor you’ve forgotten about turn up in a prominent role. Besides, I don’t want an old friend going back to the doujin slums, would you?
Dean The Adequate has a weakness for any story that parallels the “John Carter of Mars” series by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Which would be fine and dandy if the internet wasn’t so pre-judgmental about a product without even seeing it. If one ever read the books, they would have seen that the movie was actually a pretty good retelling of “A Princess of Mars”. Now I’m that old guy with no taste. And it’ll happen to you. Sleep tight uber nerds!