Various artists’ Manga Survey, Part 3

Kentaro Yabuki’s Black Cat, Vols. 1-6
BONES, Keiko Nobumoto, and Toshitsugu Iida’s Wolf’s Rain
Makoto Tatenos Steal Moon, Vol. 1

cover art for Black CatScience fiction is another area in which Western comics and manga have made a strong presence for themselves. Aside from such legendary series as Hiroki Endo’s Eden, there are numerous titles that display a broad range of approaches, ranging from action thrillers with ray guns to solidly conceived dystopian futures. I’d like to discuss three that I’ve enjoyed here that I think make a representative sample. (For some general comments on manga as speculative fiction, see the first installment of this series.)

Kentaro Yabuki’s Black Cat is very much a shounen action-adventure series, taking place in an alternate future universe in which a shadowy organization known as “Chronos” controls one-third of the world’s economy. Train Heartnett, known as “The Black Cat,” was once a highly skilled assassin for Chronos. He now freelances as a “sweeper,” a bounty hunter, along with his partner, Sven Vollfied. Train still carries his specially made pistol, engraved with the number XIII: Train and the pistol together meant bad luck for those who crossed his path. However, Train hasn’t managed to leave his past behind him: Chronos has a price on his head, and a number of eager young assassins anxious to make names for themselves. And one of Train’s former colleagues, Creed, has formed his own organization to take over the world, by fair means if necessary, but by foul if possible. He attempts to enlist Train as part of his organization; when Train refuses, he is marked by Creed for elimination.

This is another fast-pasted action adventure series (running 20 volumes, and Yabuki has left open the possibility of a continuation) Yabuki has managed to fit any number of subsidiary adventures into the larger story line of Train versus Creed, which keeps each volume moving. Graphics are clear, and characterizations are particularly good in this one. Yabuki’s imagination seems to know no limits. The science-fiction setting may seem like a mere afterthought, except for one crucial character: the young girl Eve, who winds up as part of the Train/Sven team, happens to be a state-of-the-art weapon, able, through the nanotechnology incorporated into her body, to transform herself into all sorts of nasty things.

cover art for wolf's rainWolf’s Rain is the manga adaptation of an anime series created and written by Keiko Nobumoto and illustrated by Toshitsgu Iida; the anime was produces by Studio BONES, the creators of the near-legendary Cowboy Bebop and Fullmetal Alchemist. It’s an odd one, set in a future world that has somehow survived the apocalypse. We aren’t told much about the disaster, but can surmise that it was environmental: among other things, wolves are believed to be extinct, and the landscapes are studies in the effects of erosion. It seems, however, that the first of these indicators is not entirely accurate: the story is about four wolves who follow the scent of the Lunar Flower, trying to find Paradise. They have learned to mask their wolf forms and appear as human. Their companion, and the impetus for their journey, is a creature known as Cheza, who may be a Lunar Flower herself. She becomes their guide to Paradise. Needless to say, just about everyone is chasing them: an aristocrat who has his own plans for Paradise; the scientists who were studying Cheza; and a half-crazed hunter who lost his family to wolves and has vowed to kill every one remaining.

Wolf’s Rain is a strange, poetic tale, equal parts action and mysticism. I have to admit that I found the story in the second volume somewhat chaotic – perhaps the result of a 30-episode anime being reduced to two volumes of manga – but it was engaging enough that I wasn’t tempted to put it down. The graphics are sometimes almost crystalline in their clarity, even when portraying events that don’t make any rational sense, and the juxtaposition of this sharpness with sometimes impressionistic images lends a special character to the work as a whole. The narrative flow is clear, although the page layouts regularly depart from what we might consider “normal” order – in that regard, the visual style is closer to shoujo than shounen manga. I think it would be interesting to see the anime series – some of these images are starkly beautiful in black and white. With color and motion, they must be stunning.

cover art for Steal MoonMakoto Tateno has become one of my favorite creators of yaoi, with a consistent ability to create strong story lines peopled by engaging characters. She seems to emphasize action adventure stories, with protagonists who are beyond schoolboy age – generally in their early twenties, but in at least one instance she has followed them into their forties. Steal Moon is the beginning of a new series with a science-fiction slant. Nozomi Amada is a young man who picks up extra cash by street fighting. He is undefeated until one day, after making a rash promise that he will happily become the servant of the man who can beat him, he is challenged by a stranger, who of course defeats him easily, although Nozomi continues to resist until he is knocked unconscious. He awakens naked, in bed, in a strange room, and soon discovers that he has been sold by Coyote, his conqueror, to an Internet peep site run by a man called “Hermes”: Nozomi will be watched 24/7 by online peeping toms until he can pay off his purchase price of 500 million yen – at 100 yen for each peep. It soon turns out, however, that he is being recruited for a secret mission, also headed by Hermes: the earth is under surveillance by unknown forces on the moon, and Nozomi is one of three people who can access the moon’s master computer’s terminals on earth to shut down the surveillance.

It goes without saying, since this is among other things a romantic story, that Nozomi and Coyote fall in love. It also might be assumed that someone is not on the up-and-up, although the final betrayal is suitably surprising and provides an excellent cliff-hanging end to this volume. Tateno’s graphic style is what I’ve come to think of as fairly standard in manga, and particularly in yaoi: space is open, and visual flow, while in this case tending more toward straightforward shounen conventions, does display some liberties with page layouts. Her characters tend to follow the willowy, androgynous model, with elfin features and emphasis on the eyes. She is another who relies on templates for her characters: Coyote is her standard dark-haired, tall, narrow-eyed seme, while Nozomi is the smaller, fair-haired, wide-eyed uke.

While the story is not quite as strong as I’ve seen from her in other series – the love confessions between Nozomi and Coyote come very quickly and with little preparation, for example, and there are some contrived episodes – it’s shaping up to be a series worth following. Oh, about the sex scenes: Tatento tends to be fairly restrained with the sex scenes, and more is understood by inference than is actually shown. Tateno notes that Steal Moon is actually a spin-off of sorts from another series, Blue Sheep Reverie, which features two characters who appear as secondary characters here, and which is due out soon in English.

(Viz Media, 2006-2007 [orig. Shueisha (Tokyo), 2000])
(Viz Media, 2004-2005 [orig. Kodansha Ltd. (Tokyo), 2003-2004])
(Juné, 2008 [orig. Nihonbungeisha (Japan), 2006])

Kentaro Nabuki doesn’t seem to have a Web site of his own, although there are several sites that provide brief biographies. BONES is a studio, with a corporate Web Site (in Japanese) here.

Neither Keiko Nobumoto, Toshitsugu Iida, nor Makoto Tateno seem to have Web sites, although a search will turn up a number of references.

Viz Media is a major distributor of manga in the U.S. and can be found online here.

Juné is an imprint of Digital Manga Publishing.

Robert M. Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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