Akimine Kamijyo, Samurai Deeper Kyo, Vols. 1 & 2
Ra In-Soo and Jae-Hwan Kim, King of Hell, Vols. 1-3
Ayano Yamane, Crimson Spell Vols. 1 & 2
This is the second part of what turned out to be a long survey of manga – rather longer than I had planned, actually. For some general comments on the field, see my discussion of dark fantasy titles.
Comics, not so surprisingly, have a long history in historical and heroic fantasy, to which they lend themselves admirably, and manga is no exception. One reason I find this genre interesting, I think, is that the context, particularly those in the “historical/legendary” vein, is not particularly Western. The best example of this subgenre I’ve seen so far is Kazuya Minekura’s Saiyuki, which only supplants Futaro Yamada and Masaki Segawa’s Basilisk because of its irony and mordant humor.
Akimine Kamijyo’s Samurai Deeper Kyo was recommended to me as “similar” to Saiyuki and in a number of ways it is, involving a journey, a pair of mismatched companions, and some pretty hairy escapades. It is, however, much less substantial.
Mibo Kyoshiro is a peaceful medicine peddler, a sort of traveling apothecary, mild-mannered, inoffensive – not a heroic sort at all. The one anomaly is that Kyoshiro carries a sword five shaku long, which is a good match for the sword carried by the legendary samurai Demon Eyes Kyo, who killed 1,000 men in his time and disappeared after the battle of Sakigahara four years before. He also looks a lot like Kyo – enough that the bounty hunter Shiina Yaya decides that she has earned the one million ryo bounty on his head. (There’s also the matter of a 100 mon bounty on Kyoshiro’s head for not paying his bar tab.)
Needless to say, there comes a moment of extreme danger, after the two have reached a village that has been hounded by outlaws – who of course appear demanding money and threatening lives – when Kyoshiro becomes Demon Eyes Kyo. Kyoshiro and Kyo, it seems, share a body, and Kyo takes over when circumstances seem to demand it.
This is light fare, an adventure story played for laughs. In spite of the repeated Seven Samurai-style set-ups, there is little dramatic tension, at least in the first two volumes. It’s engaging enough, but has little in the way of depth. The graphics are interesting enough to carry at least part of the story, and Kamijyo has done some wonderful things with shading and tone, especially in the action scenes. Kyoshiro’s transitions, in particular, are kind of creepy and wonderful. I will say, however, that I think scale has worked against this one: Tokyopop publishes in a format slightly larger than a mass-market paperback, and some of the frames seem cramped and occasionally scaled down past intelligibility.
In spite of any reservations I may have, this has proven to be a very popular series, now running about 30 volumes in English. It’s hard to know whether it will acquire more substance, but at this point it’s one I might pursue, but it’s not high on my list.
A similar approach is evident in King of Hell by Ra-In Soo and Jae-Hwan Kim, although the humor is not so pervasive, nor so light. This is manhwa from Korea (which, among other things, necessitated re-adapting myself to read front to back and left to right), and has a slightly different and more Western feel than the manga I’ve been used to.
Majeh was a great swordsman who according to some left the path of virtue. In his own eyes, he merely saw the universe as it was, a place of varying grays. When he was killed, his body was preserved in an enchanted pool, while his soul was reincarnated as a boy serving the King of Hell as his envoy, charged with leading the souls of the dead to the next world. Somehow, a rift has opened between Hell and Earth, and evil spirits are invading the mortal realm. Majeh is given the task of hunting them down and destroying them before they make the rift permanent.
Majeh is something of a trickster in this story, and the first half of the three-volume omnibus is rather loose. Indeed, I almost gave up on it, but the story does come together and develops much more depth than I had expected from the first few chapters. One observation: King of Hell shares the tendency of most manga to insert small panels of comic relief. The figures are reduced “sketches” – chibi frames, I call them, a term that denotes something miniature and possibly deformed, which I think aptly describes the rudimentary character renderings so often found in them – that may contain dialogue or rely on sight gags as commentary and/or asides on the main action of the scene. In this case, they become a little obtrusive, particularly when the low humor starts invading the regular narrative line. That creates a not always easy tension between a fairly serious story and a sometimes frivolous commentary. The graphics are stylized without losing that essential flavor of realism that makes comics work, although in terms of detail and density they are, as I mentioned, more Western in feel than most Japanese examples I’ve run across. As I noted, I’m working from an omnibus edition of the first three volumes; the series runs to 12 volumes in English at this point, and now that there is a clear story line, it looks like it’s worth following up on.
Much more in the standard heroic fantasy mode is Ayano Yamane’s Crimson Spell, another yaoi manga. Prince Vald, when his city is attacked by demons, takes up his family’s bespelled sword to fight them off. The curse of the sword, however, means that Vald himself turns into a demon under stress or when unconscious. He leaves the city in search of the wizard Halvir, who is known for being able to break spells. The prince and the wizard strike a deal: Havi, as Vald calls him, will break the spell on Vald if Vald will help him capture a magical familiar left by a dead wizard at a famous shrine. Havi discovers that he can bleed the magic off of Vald – and replenish his own power – by the simple expedient of having sex with him while Vald is in demon form. In his own form, Vald has no memory of anything that happened while he was a demon, so Havi isn’t in any danger of blowing his cover. (I might add that Vald is not only very pretty, but makes an exceptionally sexy demon.) However, Havi realizes that he will not be able to nullify the spell without help, and so they must journey to the wizards’ city of Celeasdeile, from which Havi was expelled ten years before.
Events in Celeasdeile turn out much as Havi had feared: Vald is imprisoned and Havi is put on trial. He manages to undo the disaster he created ten years before, in the process freeing his master Halceles, who, it happens, killed Vald’s ancestor when he became ensnared by the sword’s curse, and who immediately tries to kill Vald, who has escaped his confinement. They get that all sorted out, but Havi, fearing treachery, steals away with Vald in the dark of night. After rescuing a village from demon attack, however, Havi is captured by the evil wizard Gileh, who uses him as bait for Vald.
I had looked forward to this title a great deal, based on Yamane’s superb A Foreign Love Affair, a modern-day romance with a strong, tight story line and consistent narrative. (Even the side story in that one is excellent.) I have to confess to being somewhat disappointed so far. The story line is somewhat contrived, but it does become more coherent in the second volume. Regrettably, the diction in the second volume takes a nosedive in a rather shizophrenic attempt to join a “high fantasy” mode with popular slang. And in my opinion, Yamane is one who should never, ever use chibi frames. In this case, they really detract from the effect. This is in large part because her graphic work is gorgeous – her drawing is, in fact, among the most beautiful I’ve seen, marked by a clean, strong line and extraordinarily apt use of shading. She does retain a great deal of clarity, although there are action sequences that are sometimes too visually chaotic to follow. The narrative flow is excellent, however. She seems to work from two main character types – in fact, I can’t even call them “types” so much as templates: Vald and Havi are dead ringers for Ranmaru and Al, respectively, from A Foreign Love Affair: Vald is the small, volatile, very pretty (and seemingly not very bright) uke (“catcher”), while Havi is the tall, glacially beautiful and somewhat manipulative seme (“pitcher”). (Regrettably, the use of these standard character renderings is a marked tendency among mangaka doing yaoi, although by no means universal.) Nevertheless, there’s enough going on here that it’s easy to maintain interest. (And I should point out, for those heedful of such things, that Yamane’s sex scenes are quite explicit, making the “18 and older” rating a necessity.) Crimson Spell is going to run at least one more volume, and it’s going to be interesting to see if Yamane can pull it together.
There are, of course, other titles and series in the heroic fantasy vein – I just haven’t gotten my hands on them yet. For comments on science-fiction oriented titles, see the next installment of this series.
(Tokyopop, 2003-2004 [orig. Kodansha (Japan), 1999-2000])
(Tokyopop, 2008 [orig. Daiwon C.I. (Korea), 2002])
(Kitty Media, 2004 [orig. Tokuma Shoten Publishing Co. (Tokyo), 2004])
Akimine Kamijyo doesn’t seem to have a Web page, but there is a LiveJournal community devoted to his work.
Ra In-Soo and Jae-Hwan Kim seem to be equally reticent on the Web, but a search under their names will turn up a number of results, mostly linked to King of Hell references.