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Sunday, October 21, 2012

Aoi Tori no Shinwa - Blue Myth Overture: Kurumada Meets Baseball

When it comes to Masami Kurumada, I've covered his major works: Ring ni Kakero 1, Fuma no Kojirou, Saint Seiya (the movies, at least), & B't X. But that's just in anime, as Kurumada has made many manga outside of those titles. Unfortunately, outside of Ring ni Kakero 2, which ran from 2000-2008 & lasted 26 volumes, none of his other manga work lasted for any real stretch of time. His debut serialization, 1974-1975's Sukeban Arashi, only lasted 2 volumes, as did the infamous Silent Knight Sho from 1992. Then there is 1984's Otoko Zaka, which Kurumada apparently spent years preparing to write & was supposedly going to be his magnum opus... It was canceled after three volumes, with the final page saying "未完" (mikan/incomplete) rather than the usual "完" (kan/complete). After those canceled title there's his short works & one-shots, like 1979's Mabudachi Jingi, but I'm going to focus on an entry in what Kurumada now calls his "NEVER END HEROES": Short works that looked to be the beginnings of new series, but never lasted long enough to even get one full volume-worth of material. Though Otoko Zaka & Sho are also considered these, there are two actual books that were actually released under this name, and recently one of these entries was fan scanlated; the first non-Seiya English scanlation in fact!

1992's Aoi Tori no Shinwa/Myth of the Blue Bird - Blue Myth Overture, a baseball title, was seemingly an experiment by Kurumada in between his forced cancellation of Seiya & the debut of Sho. Since it lasted for two chapters I can't technically call it a "one-shot", but at the same time I'm not sure if this manga was actually canceled or if these two chapters were simply a test to see if any fans were going to be interested, hence the "Overture" part of the sub-title. Still, at 109 pages it's certainly no slouch of a story... And you also get some indications as to how much of an inspiration Team Astro was to Kurumada.

Aoi Tendo is a young boy whose pitches are so strong that after hitting the wall the baseballs stick into the ground. Aoi's present goal is to strike out Shingo Ouki, who set an all-time record at Koshien by hitting 24 consecutive home runs out of the park; Ouki's 24th home run was against Yu Tendo, Aoi's brother who died from cancer shortly after Koshien. Because of the cancer, though, Yu was only able to give his all on the first pitch, which Ouki was struck out on. Unfortunately, Aoi, much like his brother, throws pitches that are so strong that no catcher can properly handle them, which is the equivalent of Aoi being a bird with one wing (as Ouki puts it). Luckily for Aoi, though, a boy named Ai has requested to be Aoi's catcher. Ai has never had the chance to do any sort of harsh exercise in his life, though he has read many books about baseball, but Aoi's pitches reminds him of a story of a blue bird that brings happiness, and is willing to risk his life in order to truly live his life & catch Aoi's harsh pitches.

Aoi Tori no Shinwa's two chapters are both mostly self-contained: Chapter 1, Aoi & Ai, introduces the two main characters and deals with Aoi's goal of striking out Ouki. Chapter 2, Thunderball, is about Ai teaching Aoi how to throw a forkball (since all Aoi can do are fastballs) and their "battle" against Ryugo Ouki, Shingo's little brother whose specialty is the Sidewinder, a style of batting where the ball flies back at the pitcher's head & then continues on out of the field. Ryugo feels that he was treated unfairly by his brother in the past due to harsh baseball training that Shingo would force Ryugo to do, so Ryugo is trying to tarnish his prodigy brother's good name by being rough. Both chapters don't leave much story left behind, outside of Aoi & Ai's goal of winning at Koshien & the reveal that Ai's weak condition has left him with one year left to live (though Aoi doesn't know that). Chapter 1 ends with Shingo being drafted by the Yomiuri Giants & Chapter 2 ends with the indication that Ryugo will likely join the lead duo in their goal as a friend. Like the sub-title says, this is all a prologue to what would have been a larger story of the bond of friendship that links Aoi & Ai as well as the possibility of gaining new friends, with baseball being the way all of this plays out. What story is told here works, but since there's nothing else beyond these two chapters it truly is nothing more than a prologue to nothing. Admittedly, though, I would have liked to seen where Kurumada would have gone with this story, and that's partially because of the type of baseball the second chapter hints at.

Yeah, Aoi's (& Yu's) pitches are so strong that they can knock out catchers & send them flying into the walls behind them, and Ryugo's attempts at hitting Aoi's pitches results in a broken wooden bat & the skin getting ripped off of his hands; Ryugo's response, by the way, is to bandage his hands up and use a metal bat that won't break. Let's be honest, though, and admit that that kind of stuff is par the course for a Kurumada manga. What I'm talking about is Aoi's forkball, the Thunderball. This pitch is considered a "miracle ball", and actually breaks the rules of physics by changing direction twice, in a zig-zag pattern, much like how someone would draw a lightning bolt; Ryugo even comments on how the Thunderball can't possibly happen according to the rules of physics. Now I've read titles like Prince of Tennis, which has a tennis ball do all sorts of things that one would normally be unable to have it do in real life, but at least the ball still follows some sort of physics. The Thunderball, though, goes into Team Astro territory, where the baseball can do whatever the pitcher seemingly wants it to do, rules of physics be damned. Personally, I can accept that as I find that kind of stuff entertaining and unpredictable, but considering how the Thunderball's true form appears right at the end of Chapter 2 it comes off as kind of a shock. From what I could find, though, Masami Kurumada was in fact inspired by Team Astro during it's serialization in the 70s, commenting that he took influence from the manga's ability to "attract" the audience, so the Thunderball is simply Kurumada putting his Team Astro influence at the forefront.

Kurumada's artwork, as usual, has that old-school style to it with enough of a bishonen look to it to possibly attract females. I can understand how some people may not find Kurumada's look to be "manly" enough for them in some ways, but at the same time I feel that what Kurumada does with his characters more than "makes up" for that. Masami Kurumada decided to become a mangaka because of his love of the works of Hiroshi Motomiya, probably most well known here as the creator of Salaryman Kintaro. Motomiya's artwork is that a of gruffer, "manly" style, though not quite to the extent of the likes of a Tetsuo Hara. Kurumada was also inspired by Sanpei Shirato, the creator of The Legend of Kamui & commonly considered the creator of gekiga, the gritty style that people like Takao Saito & Ryuichi Ikegami have made their careers on, so there's no doubt that Kurumada is a mangaka that employs a "manly" style. The bishonen-esque artwork that can appeal to females might have been inspired from the likes of Riyoko Ikeda, the creator of The Rose of Versailles. Just take one look at Ring ni Kakero's Napoleon Baroa and tell me that his design was not inspired by Lady Oscar. If anything, Kurumada is a mangaka that requires one to dig deeper than the first look in order to hit the awesome & hot-blooded nougat center.

Aoi Tori no Shinwa - Blue Myth Overture is a manga short that looks to have had potential, but seemingly not enough people in Japan bit on the concept to allow it to flourish into a full series. While Kurumada is more known for his love of contact sports like boxing, wrestling, & MMA baseball is such a large part of Japanese culture that I'm sure he would have made this story an interesting one to read, and if the Thunderball is any indication the pitches that would have come from this title would have truly been entertaining & unpredictable. That said, this is truly only for fans of Masami Kurumada to check out. If you really want to own this short, though, there are two prints of it out there: The original 1998 release by Kadokawa Shoten & the 2001 re-release by Shueisha where it takes second-place to Raimei no Zaji in the book NEVER END HEROES 1. As a fan of Kurumada, though, it's great to see something of his that's not related to Saint Seiya get scanlated into English & I do know that the group who did this translation has plans to also do another short, so hopefully this will just be the start of something awesome.

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