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Friday, July 4, 2014

B't X (Manga): Infinitely Ignored, But Deserving of Much Better

At this point I've essentially wrung out everything I can possibly review from Ring ni Kakero, outside of Ring ni Kakero 2 (which I don't own all of), & Fuma no Kojirou, outside of the original manga (which I can review but would mostly be repeating stuff from the OVA reviews, so I'll wait on that). With two of Masami Kurumada's major works essentially covered in full on this blog I might as well do the same with a third, right? Luckily, there's only one more thing to cover for the tale of a boy & his robotic qilin (or kirin, if you perfer).

Masami Kurumada started his manga career with Sueisha's Weekly Shonen Jump magazine in 1974 and gave the publisher two highly-influential & successful series in Ring ni Kakero & Saint Seiya, as well as a minor hit with Fuma no Kojirou. At the same time, though, Kurumada knew how it felt to fail. The title he had planned for years as his magnum opus, Otoko Zaka, was forced into cancellation after only three volumes worth of content due to a lack of interest from readers; ironically, Kurumada made a manga that was everything that he helped shonen action move away from. And even though Saint Seiya was a hit, Kurumada was forced to end it early in late 1990 due to decreasing readership. Shueisha pushed for him to make a similar manga to Seiya, hoping it would be another giant hit, but the resulting manga, Silent Knight Sho, failed to attract readers & was cancelled after only two volumes. Kurumada's response was to emblazon the final image of Sho with a two-page splash that said "NEVER END" in front of the Earth, and in the second volume he thanked his readers & said "Good Bye", ending a 18-year run with Shonen Jump in 1992. Kurumada left Shueisha at that point, determined to work with a publisher that would allow him more free-reign; he did return shortly in 1995 for a one-volume story, Akane-Iro no Kaze, in Super Jump, though.

In 1994 Kadokawa Shoten wanted to launch a new shonen manga magazine and they wanted something big to help promote it. The end result was that Masami Kurumada would debut a brand-new manga, his first non-Shueisha work, in the very first issue of Kadokawa's Monthly Shonen Ace magazine. B't X (pronounced "Beat X"), which debuted alongside the likes of Mobile Suit Crossbone Gundam, Macross 7 Trash, & the shonen-styled Vision of Escaflowne manga, would become Kurumada's definitive manga series of the 90s, and though there are some similarities between it & his other work, B't X is still a title that needs to be more well known & definitely deserved more than what it got here in North America.

Why TokyoPop changed the logo is beyond me...

Teppei Takamiya & his big brother Kotaro come from Kamui, a small island off the coast of Hokkaido. Kotaro, in particular, is a science prodigy, specifically in robotics, & gets accepted to a prestigious college in Berlin as a child. Five years later Kotaro invites Teppei to Beijing for Mechatopia, where Kotaro will showcase his greatest achievement: AI that acts like "actual intelligence". After meeting for the first time in years, though, Kotaro is abducted by a giant robot that looks like a flying ant, an agent of the mysterious Machine Empire that has existed for centuries. Teppei is able to hitch a ride on the giant robot by way of the Messiah Fist, a special gauntlet that increases his hand strength & can shoot multi-use wire. After a while Teppei falls off & finds himself in "The Area", the home base of the Machine Empire that's located in the Gobi Desert. Teppei is determined to rescue Kotaro, and is more than ready for the task. Along with the Messiah Fist he has received combat training from Karen, a former "Spirit General" of the Empire who defected after realizing the danger of Raphaello, the Machine Emperor's strongest & greatest "B't", which are animal-themed biomechs that have sentience & run off of the blood of their individual "donors". In order to make his mission a success Teppei will have to rely on the help of X, Karen's B't who helped her defect & has since been left in The Area's junkyard as scrap.

On first glance B't X definitely feels very familiar to Saint Seiya due to one reason, story wise, and that is because the main goal of the entire manga is for Teppei to rescue Kotaro, very similar to how Seiya & his fellow Bronze Saints are always rescuing Athena from death-bound situations. Aesthetically the two manga also come off as similar, since each of the four Spirit Generals, & Teppei by connection, can don armor called "Battle Gear" that give off similarities to the Cloths from Saint Seiya, though the Battle Gear is much simpler in design &, quite honestly, more practical as battle armor than most Cloths. Finally, one can easily argue that the Messiah Fist was made to be nothing more than a toy for kids to buy & wear themselves, similar to how the Cloths tend to look perfect for figures to sell (to this very day), and it can give off that feeling at times. Overall, there are parts of B't X, conceptually, that definitely make it sound like a Seiya clone... Thankfully, these similarities are mostly skin deep, at most, and Kurumada made sure to break down the Seiya formula very nicely for this manga. In fact, sometimes it can even come off as a deconstruction of Kurumada's own style.

Probably the biggest difference between B't X & Seiya in its story structure is the fact that Kotaro is not simply a gender flipped Saori Kido/Athena. Where Athena was nothing more than a character for Seiya & company to rescue, one or two moments notwithstanding, Kotaro is in no way a simple "object" to retrieve. In fact, his kidnapping was done because the Machine Emperor felt that Kotaro was the only one who could help finish Raphaello's "growth". When Kotaro refuses to help & demands to see the Emperor he instead sees Misha & Nasha, twin children who have acted as representatives of the Emperor for centuries. Misha, in his rage over Kotaro's defiant attitude, has our deuteragonist tossed into UnderHell, a slave labor camp located beneath The Area, where he is left to die. Still, Kotaro doesn't give up & instead uses the underground environment to start formulating a way to destroy Raphaello. While Athena would simply rely on her Saints to save the day & make everything better as a passive character, Kotaro is an active character who faces every hint of despair as a challenge, turning the scenes with him into a second entire storyline that runs concurrent with Teppei's journey to the center of The Area to rescue his brother.

Then there's Teppei, who debuts as acting very similar to that of Pegasus Seiya in that he's brash, devoted to the one he cares for, rebellious to his adversaries, and is seemingly eager to jump the gun & punch someone first before asking questions. Combine that with his Battle Gear, which even features a tiara-like headpiece (like the Pegasus Cloth), and Teppei comes off as nothing more than a Seiya clone himself. Kurumada, in turn, outright deconstructs the headstrong attitude of Seiya, and shonen action protagonists in general, by having Teppei's attitude & actions result in disastrous, and even realistic, conclusions. You see, a big theme of B't X is working together as a team & not simply relying on the self. A B't is has a "Brain" running off the "Blood" of its donor that showcases great "Bravery" and is created as a "Battler", but the term also has an underlying fifth meaning: A B't & its donor can only work to their highest potential when they operate together as "Buddies" (the anime pushes the actual word, while the manga makes it more subdued).

In Saint Seiya the main lesson is to never give up when challenges keep you down, but only in very specific situations is the team aspect really pushed, while in B't X it is all about the idea of working together to achieve greatness. Sure, this manga starts off very similar to its predecessor by having Teppei & X go to each "Point" & take out its respective guardian on their way to the The Area's center, but in these early volumes its obvious that Teppei is going about this the wrong way. Sure, they win their fights & advance, but each fight results in X sustaining more & more damage. While it's okay for something like a Cloth or Battle Gear to take damage & still be usable in the next fight, a B't is, for all intents & purposes, a living being. In these early fights Teppei treats X as little more than a talking chariot, and the consequence of this attitude is revealed in Volume 4.

[highlight if you wish to read the spoiler]X dies after he & Teppei finally achieve unison & showcase what is called "Five-Fold Phosphorescence", a power that has them literally plow through a Point Guard with no resistance. Spirit General Hokuto repairs X, though, better than ever, and Teppei learns his lesson.[end spoiler]

Before going into more of how the story works out, let me finally get to the rest of the major cast. The Spirit Generals are made up of Foh Rafine, who operates the only church in The Area & fights using a violin bow that works in unison with Je T'aime, a phoenix-themed B't that emits destructive sound waves; Lon, a battle-hardened warrior who fights with a spear alongside Raidou, a dragon B't that can fire thunder blasts; Hokuto, a pacifist doctor who heals & repairs enemy warriors & B'ts due to his detest for violence and is backed up by the gigantic genbu B't Max, who acts as a medical facility; and Karen, X's former donor who fights with triple rods & even creates a brand-new B't for her own use as the story goes on. All four Spirit Generals have nicely shown, individual personalities, like Lon's hot-blooded nature or Foh's calm demeanor, and the story actually has them act mostly apart from each other. Foh & Hokuto end up following Teppei but otherwise act on their own, while Lon's journey involves figuring out exactly how powerful Raphaello is & Karen stays on Kamui Island, where she does her research on finding out how to stop the ultimate B't. Karen, in particular, shows great strength & can easily take care of herself, making her another polar opposite of Athena and is another one of Kurumada's best female characters, next to RnK's Kiku Takane. A nice change from Kurumada's usual cast of main characters, though, is the fact that the Teppei never really befriends the Spirit Generals, outside of Karen. There's no moment where Foh or Hokuto cheer on Teppei when he's down, nor does Teppei ever actually defeat any of them to make them his friends (he actually loses to Foh early on & comes to a draw with Lon). These warriors simply end up travelling the same path because their goals are in the same area (no pun intended). True, by the end the Spirit Generals have a great respect for Teppei & would likely consider him a "comrade in arms", same as they would to each other, but it's actually hard to really call the leads "friends". It's a neat little twist that makes for some fun dialogue.

On the side of the Machine Empire there's Major Aramis, who did the actual kidnapping of Kotaro, and though it's meant to be a bit of a secret in the world of B't X, it's obvious that Aramis is another female character. Aramis' importance in the story is mostly as an observer, slowly coming to a realization that the Machine Emperor may be more of a demon than a god; this is also why Foh, Lon, & Hokuto end up being considered traitors to the Empire. The other major Empire character is Lt. Metal Face (Yes, that is indeed his name... Even as a child in a late-story flashback!), who is the first person Teppei meets upon enterting The Area. Metal Face's journey is more of a personal one in that he starts off wanting revenge on Teppei due to his loss in the beginning, but later changes his focus over to Karen, who he thought he killed back during her defection years ago. Though he remains a stubborn jerk through & through, Metal Face does show that he still has a human heart underneath the cybernetic body he willingly accepted from the Empire; it's honestly hard to hate the character. Later on Juggler, a vile man dressed as a masked pierrot, is introduced, and he definitely delivers on the demonic nature that the Empire gives off, but deep inside him is a personal reason for his actions. Even Misha, in all his pomp & arrogance, has reasons for his behavior, and in the end the real evil is inside specific individuals & not the Empire as a whole. It's really neat to see Kurumada showcase that even the villains have hearts, backstories, & even "good" in them.

Still, there are outright "evil" villains in B't X, and they come in the form of the Point Guards & then, from Volume 5 to 15, the Seven Demon Generals. Though a couple of them do "reform" in some way, these characters are definitely the kinds of villains that Kurumada is known for. The Points Guards do have their memorability to them, though, like Captain Hook, who dresses like a pirate & wields an electric fishing rod. The Demon Generals, on the other hand, are much more memorable & fleshed out, which I'll get to later with some of the other themes of the manga. Finally, I can't forget the B'ts themselves, who all have their own personalities & nuances to them. Whether it's X's logical way of handling things, Raidou's soldier-like loyalty to Lon, or Madonna's dedication to Metal Face all of the B'ts end up being their own characters, resulting in a really damn large line-up of characters for this manga. Luckily, Kurumada doesn't get lost in the shuffle with so many characters & manages to make everything work extremely well. He even showcases how advanced & "alive" the B'ts are by giving them the ability to cry when sad or even, maybe, have feelings of love for each other.

With this being a manga with a heavy focus on robotics & technology, it's no surprise that Kurumada puts science heavily into the forefront. In fact, it sometimes feels like Kurumada had a field day with this manga, because the further you go into the story the more wild & crazy the theoretical science gets. For example, Foh & Je T'aime utilize attacks that are all about sound waves & frequencies, since it is technically possible to damage things via sound. Teppei is brought up as being special because he has "A Piece of the Sun" inside him, due to how the Sun's creation billions of years ago resulted in the formation of the Solar System. It's similar to the idea of the Cosmo in Saint Seiya, but rather than something anyone can train to use it's instead something that only a small few have access to (if they even realize they have it). Still, unlike Cosmo the idea of the Piece of the Sun is more of a plot element than anything. In fact, Karen's part of the story is about finding the Great Light, which may be enough to destroy Raphaello. By the end there's even philosophical ideas brought about by Demon General Gai, who can utilize what he calls "Eternal Matter", concepts like Marionette Points (blind points of the Sun), & a bunch of mathematical ideals. In fact, my favorite fight in the entire manga (and maybe even of all time) isn't even a traditional "fight". In Volume 13 there's a battle of wits between Hokuto & Demon General Dr. Poe, his old rival from the Empire's hellish school Academia, where the two challenge each other with questions covering topics like advanced algebra, high-level calculus, statistics, & even insane logic questions. When that's finished Poe decides to simply blow up his opponent, but even then Hokuto stays a pacifist and instead tries killing Poe's partner, the garuda B't Cadenza, via a virus upload. It's absolute insanity in execution, especially the first part, but it's engaging, thrilling, &, above all, completely original for a shonen action title.

In a really cool idea, alongside the focus on technology is a lot of religious concepts, mainly from Christianity. Unlike in Ring ni Kakero, where the Christianity reference was only through World Bantamweight Champion Jesus Christ, B't X has a lot of biblical undertones & outright references. For example, Foh is introduced as the priest of the church he runs, which houses orphans, but when his backstory with Demon General Quatro is told the reader finds out that both of them come from a village named Sodom. Likewise, Demon General Salome is admitted to being named after the dancer from the New Testament who asked for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. These aren't simply references made for the sake of reference, but rather there is always some sense of relevance in their usage & it's really neat to see such respect for the religion from a manga-ka. In fact, the last volume itself features a long quote from Ecclesiastes that is absolutely beautiful in its use & not only fits the scene it's used in but also fits the manga as a whole. It's neat to see this kind of religious undertone in a manga that's very much focused around technology & science and have these "conflicting" thematics actually co-exist, especially with what goes on in this country nowadays.

Masami Kurumada's artwork here is definitely much more refined than it was in his early days of Ring ni Kakero & Fuma no Kojirou. There are really no big quirks to make note of outside of Kurumada's usual habits (low angle shots, minimal backgrounds unless needed, etc.), and it's easy to see his use of Osamu Tezuka's Star System. Teppei looks like Ryuji/Seiya, Foh looks like Hyoga, Lon looks like Shiryu to an extent, etc., but do remember that part of the idea of the Star System is that similar-looking characters can have pretty different personalities. I've mentioned how Teppei starts off like Seiya before getting deconstructed, but Foh is nowhere near as emotional & passionate as Hyoga, nor is Lon anywhere near as suicidal in his fighting efforts as Shiryu is. In fact, the concept of fighting until you have nothing left to give, a staple of Ring ni Kakero & Saint Seiya's fights, is almost non-existent in B't X. Sure, the fights are generally to the death in this story, but the heroes here all have a desire to stay alive, which makes the execution feel different from Kurumada's usual fare. What really shines, though, are the designs of the B'ts, because Kurumada has always been such a magnificent designer of monsters & non-human creations. All of the B'ts look really cool and this especially extends to Raphaello, who goes through a good few looks (even one that reminded me of Anthrasax from Bastard!!). Overall, a fine showing artistically from Kurumada.

TokyoPop licensed this manga back at Anime Expo 2003 and considering the titles it was announced alongside, such as the semi-successful GetBackers & the legitimate smash hit Fruits Basket, there was no doubt that the company was hoping for big things from B't X. It's obvious that they were planning on riding the wave of popularity from DiC's TV adaptation of the Saint Seiya anime, Knights of the Zodiac, even getting the first volume released before Viz got Seiya's first volume out... But that was obviously a misfire when KotZ bombed on Cartoon Network; after Volume 4 they dropped the "From the Creator of Knights of the Zodiac" promotion. They released the first 9 volumes of the manga every two months, followed by a slowing down of the release schedule to twice a year, a sure sign that the manga bombed. To TokyoPop's credit they kept releasing B't X until the penultimate Volume 15 in July of 2008. After that there was no word at all regarding the last volume's release, and when I personally asked about the manga on the company's forums I was told that "only eight people bought B't X" & that the staff were actually taking bets about whether or not the last volume would ever see release. As the next couple of years went on it was obvious that TokyoPop wasn't doing well at all, especially when Kodansha literally yanked away every title they ever licensed to the company, and as a fan of this Kurumada manga I was on the verge of losing all hope of ever seeing the end. Miraculously, TokyoPop did eventually release Volume 16 in November of 2010, mere months before closing down their publishing division, though the premium price point of $12.99 was obvious proof that they wanted to offset the almost non-existent sales with some sort of extra income. But enough release history... How was TokyoPop's translation in the first place?

Well, to be absolutely honest, it's a solid translation that unfortunately comes with a somewhat nagging issue: The tone. Whether it was due to original translator Juna Amano or Lianne Sentar, who was in charge of the adaptation, B't X was originally given a translation that sometimes went into what one can call a "loose translation". Now, to be fair, the story was unchanged & the general translation was fine, but Teppei in particular would be given a more "punched up" vocabulary, like calling Kotaro "Bro" & being a fair bit of a sarcastic character with lines like "Get Bent!". Now, sure, Teppei can be like that to an extent but it really did feel like TokyoPop was trying a little too hard to be "hip" with this translation & generally failing at it; it wasn't unreadable by any means, but there was a line on rare occasion that sounded a little groan worthy. Hell, even the narrator that would recap the prior volume would come off as absolutely snarky & almost making fun of the manga itself! Thankfully, as the release went on the "hip" dialogue was kept to a minimum, though a completely unneeded joke (complete with rimshot onomatopoeia!) was done in the panel margins early in Volume 15 that was more than likely done by TokyoPop's staff, & overall it's still a fine translation. Personally, I'd prefer a spruced up translation if this manga was to ever get re-released by another company, which will likely never happen, but if this translation was to be re-used I'd be fine with it.

Truly a miracle that this book came out...

I normally prefer to not sound like I'm using hyperbole to hype something up more than needed, but I honestly do feel that B't X is one of the most underrated manga to have ever been released in North America. While it will obviously never truly get its fair shot in a world obsessed with Saint Seiya when it comes to Masami Kurumada, this manga is much more than it originally seems in the first volume. While the whole idea of rescuing Kotaro is the overarching story, the tale expands quite nicely into a rush to stop a force that can potentially destroy everything. The biggest theme of all in B't X is, quite simply, that war is never the answer & only results in loss. The warriors of the Machine Empire believe that their Emperor is going to bring about an era of peace, but as B't Raphaello inches closer & closer to finality it becomes obvious that conflict & war is almost never the path to absolute peace. In terms of execution the manga also differs from Kurumada's previous fare. Yeah, the fighting is still a focus, but each fight always feels somewhat different from the last, keeping everything from feeling repetitive & predictable, and the scenes involving Kotaro in UnderHell or Lon's attempt to confront Raphaello in person are always a welcome change of pace. Among shonen action titles B't X definitely offers some nice changes from the formula, and the homages to classic series like God Mars & Cyborg 009 are neat to see. Unfortunately, it's near impossible to own the entire manga now, as some volumes are highly out-of-print & go for insane prices; Volume 12 goes for ~$30-$40, while Volume 14 will run you over $110, at least. I would gladly welcome even a digital-only re-release, but that will likely never happen.

Personally, B't X means a lot to me from a nostalgic & fandom perspective, because this is the series (the anime adaptation especially) that got me interested in the works of Masami Kurumada. DiC's Knights of the Zodiac admittedly turned me off from wanting to give Saint Seiya a chance a decade ago, but the look & concept of B't X intrigued me. After watching that anime & really enjoying it I then gave the first season of Ring ni Kakero 1 a try, as it was the only season made at that point, and I really enjoyed that anime as well. Saint Seiya was actually the third Kurumada series I tried out (this time via the manga), hence why I jokingly say I got into Kurumada "the wrong way", but if I never gave B't X a try I may have never become the big fan of Masami Kurumada's catalog as I am now. Still, I tend to consider this series to be Kurumada's third-best work, but only if I really have to order them in terms of favorites. What puts Saint Seiya (my #2) & Ring ni Kakero 1 (#1) ahead of B't X really comes down to small, almost nitpicky things. For example, attack names in B't X, while not bad by any means, just don't quite have the same instant memorability that the attack names the other two titles have; Teppei's Shining Knuckle or Foh & Je T'aime's Fortune Symphonic are notable exceptions, though. Also, while B't X's story is much more focused & planned out, it does lack that kind of epic grandiosity that Seiya & even RnK carry with them. Still, B't X is a manga that was horrifically ignored here in North America, and it's a shame that it will probably never be given a second chance, even as Kurumada's notoriety is slowly becoming more & more positive here. By all means, if you have the opportunity, do read this manga because it absolutely deserves more love, but do know that it's hard to do so at the moment.

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