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Sunday, May 24, 2015

Otoko Zaka (The Original Run): All Guts, No Glory

Weekly Shonen Jump is no stranger to controversial & infamous endings to some of its manga. Go Nagai's Harenchi Gakuen dared to kill off most of its schoolkid cast in a literal war against the PTA due to actual controversy with the organization (though this was obviously retconned years later). Yasuhari Kita's Makuhari revealed that the "main character" was actually Hiroshi Gamou, creator of Tottemo! Luckyman & likely the true identity of Tsugumi Ohba, due to the increasing hostility the two had for each other once they were paired together during the manga's serialization. This is only a small portion of a list of infamously known Jump endings, but it just showcases the various reasons why manga can come to a sudden end, whether it's forced upon by outside forces, the result of vile hatred between authors, or some other reason that can be listed.

The most common reason why manga ends, however, is simply because it didn't maintain the readers' interest. Jump is notorious for putting the ax to many new manga after only a couple volumes-worth of content, and sometimes it just happens to manga that weren't actually bad at all. For Masami Kurumada he had an early end with his debut manga Sukeban Arashi, back in 1975, before becoming one of the biggest names in the magazine with Ring ni Kakero. As I mentioned in the previous review, his follow-up, Fuma no Kojirou, seemed to end rather suddenly at the tail end of 1983. I think that was because he finally felt he was ready to do the story he had always wanted to tell. Kurumada admitted that he, in his own words, "became a manga creator to draw this manga," even admitting that he considered himself a "mangaya/manga drawer" up to this point instead of a "mangaka/manga creator". In 1984, ten years after his debut, Masami Kurumada finally drew the manga he had always wanted to do. Much like the "Man's Hill" it was named after, however, Otoko Zaka had a steep climb to traverse, and with Shonen Jump in the early days of its "Golden Age" at this point, the manga had no chance to succeed; it was canceled after only three volumes. Kurumada, however, refused to admit defeat & acknowledge the story as being over before its time, which made it's final page one of the most infamous in not just Jump history, but likely manga in general. Now, 30 years later, Otoko Zaka has returned, so I want to see what the original 84-85 run was like. I have a theory as to why it was canceled so early on to test, so let's look at "Masami Kurumada's Most Infamous Manga".


Jingi Kikukawa lives in Kujukuri, Chiba & has never lost a fight in his entire life. He'll take on any & all challengers, including the legendary Kenka Oni/Fighting Demon that lives in the Kizan/Demon Mountain area. One day, however, Kujukuri Beach is visited by Sho Takeshima, the "Don" of Western Japan who has learned to take on & defeat any fighting style he comes up against in order to become Don of the entire country. When Sho's men take out some local delinquents that got in their way, Jingi comes in to save the day... Only to be completely outclassed by Sho. Unwilling to accept defeat, unless it's with his death, Jingi chases Sho to Narita Airport, where a party is being held before Sho flies off to America. The fight makes Sho acknowledge Jingi as his last true rival when it comes to ruling Japan's young gangs, but this is more than just a domestic issue. Sho is heading to American to join the Junior World Connection, or JWC for short, a group made up of the strongest Dons in the world. The JWC have decided to soon invade Eastern Japan & make it their collective territory, without Sho's knowledge, leaving Jingi no choice but to try to get all of Japan's remaining gang leaders to help him take on the upcoming threat.

Otoko Zaka is Masami Kurumada's love letter to what one can call the "Oldest School", which is the early, early days of manga the way most people know of it now. Specifically, Kurumada made this an homage to Hiroshi Motomiya's debut manga, Otoko Ippiki Gaki Daisho/The Ideal Boy's Gang Leader, which ran in Shonen Jump from its debut year of 1968 to 1973. The basic concept of the two, a boy who must rise up & prove his true strength against insurmountable odds, is similar, with the main difference being how big the stakes are. Whereas Gaki Daisho's lead Mankichi Togawa was only aiming to be the roughest-toughest guy in Japan, Jingi has to prove himself to the entire world due to the incoming challenge from the JWC. There are some other similarities between the two titles as well, like both having a follower whose eye has a vertical scar (Mankichi has Masaeo Mito, while Jingi has Tokichi Kuroda) as well as an eye-patch-wearing compatriot (Ginji Kubo for Mankichi, Wolf [of] Akagi for Jingi), which are definitely done on purpose. In late 2005 a CD featuring music that Kurumada himself wrote for the anime adaptations of Saint Seiya, Fuma no Kojirou, B't X, & Ring ni Kakero 1 came out called Seisei Ruten Kurumada-ism ~Masami Kurumada Complete Works~, but at the very end was an bonus track that acted as the theme song for Otoko Zaka, sung by Sayuri Setoguchi. Said eponymous song is also true to this dedication to the oldest school by being a piece of enka that wouldn't sound out of place at all if it had been made in the 60s or 70s. Late last year, a CD single was released to celebrate Kurumada's 40th Anniversary as a mangaka, and the two songs on it were a new version of "Otoko Zaka", this time sung by Mayumi Gojo (of Pretty Cure theme song fame), as well as a brand new "sister song" called "Jinsei Misaki", also sung by Gojo. If "Otoko Zaka" sounds like the opening theme for the manga it's named after, then "Jinsei Misaki" is definitely the ending theme


Even if the characters are homages to those from Motomiya's manga, however, they are still Kurumada-created characters in the end. In fact. Jingi Kikukawa is possibly the most steadfast follower of Kurumada's usual style of "fight until you can fight no more", almost to the point of absurdity. When he first fights Sho on Kujukuri Beach it's obvious that Jingi can't win, yet he continually gets up, even when shoved into the water of the sea, where he could possibly drown; the fact that he even somehow gathers the energy to chase him down to Narita is insane. When he heads to Kizan to ask Kenka Oni to train him, he's told to jump off the cliff in front of them to prove his worth as a man; only then would he be trained. Jingi's response to this challenge is to actually jump off the cliff, nearly killing himself in the process! He's also a lighthearted & comical lead, however, like when he & Kuroda head to sea to battle on a small boat. Before fighting, Jingi asks to be given a moment to eat the bento he brought with him, annoying Kuroda. Much like Kojirou before him, Jingi may look like Ryuji Takane, but his attitude is much more like Ishimatsu Katori in that he can be as much of a comical relief as he is a steadfast & hardened warrior, fittingly so as both characters come from the Chiba area.

Tokichi Kuroda is similar to Jingi in that both can be relatively laid back & aloof at times, but he definitely pushes the whole "gundan/army corps" aspect more so. In fact, Jingi really had no care for being the "taisho/general" of a group of delinquents who wish to unite Japan; he only wanted to be able to fight tough opponents. While Sho introduces this aspect, it's Kuroda who (more or less) accidentally makes Jingi the leader of his forces. Jingi was just being a good guy by saving himself & Kuroda when their boat fight was interrupted by a raging storm; it just lead to him being looked at as a leader to follow. Kuroda makes a great counterpart to Jingi by being similar in some ways by personality, but fills in a missing piece by being the person Jingi can be a true leader with. As for later allies Wolf Akagi & Ranmaru Azusa, we unfortunately don't get to see much of them in this original run, as they both debut in the third volume. At the very least, Wolf & Ranmaru are given some sort of introductions. In fact, Ranmaru is the name of twin boys (each one using a different kanji for "Ran"), with the elder being the leader of the Showa White Tiger Corps who tests Kuroda's resolve & dedication to judge Jingi, while the younger is much more brash & leads his own force to take out Jingi. Wolf, on the other hand, is an archery prodigy who essentially joins Jingi's side upon debuting. There are also Ein & Kibou, two genius teens who have recently graduated from the University of Cambridge & are currently tied 203-203 in their computer war game matches. Sadly, they only appear in one chapter, plus a cameo from Kibou in the last, showcasing how both are heading back to their respective homes of America & Japan.


Then there are the Dons of the JWC, who aren't anywhere near as stereotypical as the international Jr. boxing champions of RnK, but are a litany of references to actual people, complete with some of their physical features matching the people they reference. The seeming leader is Jermaine, Don of New York, who tries somewhat to keep Sho calm when he's told that Foreman, Don of Chicago, has already sent some forces to his home country in an initial skirmish; they thought that Eastern Japan would have no Don. Really, the most you can surmise about the JWC Dons is just mass guessing by the people they reference. Seriously, we have Don (George) Foreman & Jermaine (Jackson) from America, (Moshe) Dayan from Israel, (Wim) Ruska of the Netherlands, (Wilfredo) Goméz from Puerto Rico, & (Erwin) Rommel from West Germany. There's also Don Sillitoe from England (who is either referencing Director general of MI5 Percy Sillitoe or famed author Alan Sillitoe), Valentino from Italy (likely a reference to the legendary Rudolph Valentino), San Jose from Spain, & the feminine Mademoiselle from France. Finally, Foreman's forces include (Joe) Frazier, (Ken) Norton, & Tito and La Toya (Jackson). You really get the feeling that Kurumada had a lot of fun conceptualizing these Dons & who each of them would be making references to.

In fact, that's the absolute best thing about Otoko Zaka: You can easily tell that Masami Kurumada was having a blast making this manga, and his love of the genre it fits into permeates throughout. Manga like Gaki Daisho came from a time when over-the-top feats of strength & superhuman attacks were not a thing, and Otoko Zaka follows that style by being very much based in reality. Guys like Jingi, Kuroda, & Sho are just young teens who became the people they are simply by being double-tough & never giving up. The actions seen in these volumes are hardcore, old-school kind of things. As mentioned earlier, when Kuroda fails to beat Jingi in a quick baseball challenge, they decide to have a fight, out in the middle of the sea, on a small boat. Following that, Jingi admires Kuroda's guts so much that the two cut their arms & bump them together, making them blood brothers. When Tito tries to sneak up on Jingi to take him out, Jingi first catches him with the fishing line he was just using before simply smashing the giant log he was sitting on over Tito's head. When Ranmaru (the younger) fights Jingi with a sword, Jingi doesn't try to avoid or do something spiffy, like shinken shirahadori; instead, he simply stops the sword with the palm of his hand! There are no moments of sheer unbelievable feats of power, like all of the crazy things the characters in Ring ni Kakero can do, the ninja techniques of Fuma no Kojirou, or the super-powered attacks of Saint Seiya, outside of Jingi lifting Norton up with one hand; compared to most Kurumada manga, though, that's child's play. In fact, there aren't even any named, superblow-esque attacks in these volumes, minus one done by Frazier. Even then, Frazier's Midnight Special feels more like Kurumada's editor forced him to put it in, complete with imagery of Jingi being launched into a coffin (just for effect), because that's what helped make his previous work so popular. This is meant to be a manga about young teenagers being MEN who fight other MEN because its what MEN do, with everything being done by nothing more than sheer guts, determination, & MANLINESS. In fact, Kurumada's sheer dedication to this older style of shonen manga storytelling is likely what killed this title so fast.


There's no problem with paying homage to the stuff that inspired & influenced you, but Otoko Zaka was debuting in a brand new world; one that, ironically enough, Kurumada himself helped create. 1972-1976's Astro Kyudan/Team Astro started the momentum with its insane spectacle, but Kurumada took the baton & made over-the-top action with crazy imagery the cool thing to do in shonen action via Ring ni Kakero. Manga duo, & close friends of Kurumada, Yudetamago saw what RnK was doing & used that momentum to transform their Jump manga Kinnikuman from a gag manga that poked fun at superheroes into a full-on, over-the-top, action manga about super-powered beings who fight each other in the wrestling ring, complete with all kinds of wild maneuvers & holds (some of which would be brought over into the actual sport!); Kinnikuman would run until mid-1987. Yoichi Takahashi would bring soccer into a much more dramatized spectacle with the insanely popular Captain Tsubasa in 1981. In late 1983, just two months before Kurumada would finish up Fuma no Kojirou, manga author Buronson (who had seen prior success with 1975-1979's Doberman Deka) would team up with a nobody artist by the name of Tetsuo Hara (whose debut work, motorcross manga Tetsu no Don Quixote, saw cancellation within just two weeks). Yeah, that collaboration would result in Fist of the North Star, the manga that marks the beginning of Shonen Jump's "Golden Age".

What Fist did was take what Astro Kyudan, RnK, Kinnikuman, & Captain Tsubasa had done before it & bring it all into a non-sports manga, with a Mad Max-inspired dash of post-apocalypse for flavor. Needless to say, it was a gigantic success, bringing in even more readers to Jump & forever changing the way shonen action manga would be made. By the time Otoko Zaka debuted in 1984, Fist was already 10 months into serialization & the biggest title in the magazine. The writing was pretty much on the wall, and it stated that doing shonen action like how the 60s & 70s did was not going to attract audiences anymore. Unfortunately for Kurumada, four months after he debuted what he planned on being his life's work, another manga appeared in the pages of Jump that would outright deal the death blow to Otoko Zaka. It was the quick return of Akira Toriyama, who's debut gag manga Dr. Slump ended earlier that same year; in fact, Otoko Zaka debuted shortly before Dr. Slump ended. Obviously I'm talking about Dragon Ball, which pulled what Kurumada did with RnK in 1977 by grabbing the baton that Fist had & took over-the-top action to an even higher & more notable level. Hell, even Hirohiko Araki, who was still struggling to see success at this time, couldn't quite take on the combo of Fist & DB either, as his hyper-violent second series, Baoh the Visitor, debuted & ended during Otoko Zaka's entire second half!


I'm not saying that Masami Kurumada should have never tried making Otoko Zaka when he finally decided to do so. He had, & still has, every right to make whatever he wants, whenever he wants to. Still, I hope that he understood that the landscape of Shonen Jump had changed by the time 1984 came around. Even his idol, Hiroshi Motomiya, couldn't replicate a sliver of the kind of success he saw with Otoko Ippiki Gaki Daisho, and he was still drawing manga for Jump at this time. Even his early-80s title Tenchi wo Kurau/Devouring Heaven & Earth, which would see video game adaptations in the late-80s & 90s (including two beloved Capcom beat-em-ups) & was his only other notable Jump manga, only ran for a year & totaled seven volumes; Motomiya would leave Shonen Jump in 1987. Still, even when Kurumada was told to stop working on Otoko Zaka because it wasn't attracting readers, he would not waver. Having finally started working on the manga he wanted to draw more than anything else, Masami Kurumada would not accept it being finished before it was meant to. Therefore, when the final chapter appeared on the 1984 #12 issue of Shonen Jump, Kurumada refused to use the kanji 完, which means finished or complete. Instead, he used the kanji 未完, which means incomplete. To my knowledge, this was never done before in manga, or at least in a major publication, and I'm kind of amazed that Kurumada's editor (let alone Shueisha) allowed him to make such a statement in an industry where mangaka can easily be told to stop working on their dreams.

As the years have gone on, these last two pages have become pretty infamous, and it has opened the door for other mangaka to state displeasure with being forced to end early, though not as blatantly. When Hiroyuki Takei was forced to put an end to Shaman King in 2004, the full story of that decision still being a mystery to the general public (because the manga was very popular for its time), it resulted in the infamous "Princess Hao" ending; look it up yourself if you're curious. On the final page, next to the word "Owari/End", Takei added the image of a mandarin orange, which in Japanese is pronounced "mikan". This is also how the kanji for "incomplete" is pronounced, making the result both a pun as well as the equivalent of Takei going, "The End... Not!" Kurumada's final shot of Jingi running up the "endlessly distant man's hill" has also been parodied numerous times, especially within the past decade or so. The easiest are the ones that simply alter the text, but the most impressive are the ones that outright imitate Kurumada's wavy stone path & feature a completely different character running up it. Even other professional mangaka have paid homage to Otoko Zaka's not-end, resulting in titles like Hayate the Combat Butler, He is My Master, Zen Nihon Imouto Zenshuken!!, & Good Luck Girl!/Binbougami ga! having moments that imitate Jingi's run. Even Type Moon referenced it in its 2013 April Fools joke!


The artwork in Otoko Zaka is honestly really good, showcasing just how much this manga meant to Kurumada. While it is his usual style in action (i.e. low angles, the Tezuka Star System, etc.), you can tell that Kurumada put his all into every page with this title. His characters look striking, his backgrounds are either the actual environment or a great visual representation of the mood, and the giant sound effects will even be cracked & damaged if the power being used against someone is strong enough. The environments also look great, and I personally just can't get enough of the tiger motif Kurumada uses to showcase how wild & tough the "kouha/strong ones" of Japan are. Yes, the best gang leaders here are more than just delinquents or the like, but rather they're the toughest of the tough; the hardcore strong. That last image isn't simply parodied because of its infamy, but instead it's also just a very striking image in general. Even in absolute defeat, Masami Kurumada didn't hold back on what he was drawing.

What's most annoying about this original run, however, is that it was all building up to something special. The battle between the "Jingi Corps" & Frazier and his men is really just a prelude to something bigger, and between that confrontation & the third volume you really start to see things coming into place. We're introduced to Naoto Jindai & Sei Minazuki, two of Sho's stalwarts, who are obviously meant to be more important later on. La Toya is also showcased as being a potential third party factor at the start of Volume 3, following the initial skirmish between Jingi & Frazier. Finally, Ein & Kibou's introduction makes it obvious that, eventually, the two will become opposing strategists, with Kibou sooner or later joining Jingi's growing forces & Ein helping Jermaine out; they're playful "war games" will one day become real. The final shot of Jingi running isn't merely a visual representation of Kurumada acknowledging that his life as a mangaka will forever be a man's hill for him to climb, but it's also meant to be taken literally. Otoko Zaka's original run ends with Jingi deciding to head out on his own to convince Ken Kamui, the leader of the Ouu Union of the northern Tohoku region, to join his forces for the upcoming invasion; yes, Jingi runs all the way from Chiba to North Japan. The way it was left incomplete is such a tease, and had I really been interested in Otoko Zaka before last year I would have likely felt really disappointed with the way it was cancelled.


Otoko Zaka was conceived to be Masami Kurumada's magnum opus, the title that was going to best showcase what he's all about as a mangaka & storyteller. It was meant to be the Otoko Ippiki Gaki Daisho for a new generation of readers, showing the trials & tribulations of young boys who represented the classical ideals of what being a man was about. The only problem with all of this was that Kurumada himself paved the way for a new form of manga storytelling some years prior, and at the time his opus debuted the over-the-top, superhuman action style was in full swing with Fist of the North Star, which would go on to become one of the most iconic manga of all time. Combine that with Dragon Ball debuting some months later, and there was just no way for Otoko Zaka to ever succeed when it originally ran in Shonen Jump. To his credit, however, Kurumada did not waver & stayed true to his vision all the way until he had to stop, even going as far as to tell everyone in Japan that this was not going to be the end of Jingi's tale. He wasn't the only one to fail in this regard, either, as even Tetsuo Hara would try his hand at paying homage to Gaki Daisho with 1995's Takeki Ryusei, which ended just as quickly as Otoko Zaka in the pages of Jump & also stopped at three volumes.

Quite honestly, though, this may be one of Kurumada's strongest works when it comes to story. Unlike Ring ni Kakero, which had a beginning that wound up being somewhat extraneous once he transitioned to the "SF Boxing" it would be known for, or the later Saint Seiya, which definitely had an unfocused & unsure start to it, Otoko Zaka is absolutely positive of what it wants to be from the very first page. There is no part in these three volumes that feels useless or vague; everything & everyone has some sort of purpose that you can think about (except maybe Jingi's female classmate Haruna, but even that could change in the future). This is truly a story that Kurumada had planned out in advance, and it shows. Oddly enough, however, I think Otoko Zaka actually works better now, in 2015, than it did in 1984-1985. The oldest school execution gives it a really cool style nowadays, and even in Japan the audience for it now is nostalgic adults rather than the young boys that Shonen Jump is targeted at. For the longest time these three volumes are all that existed of this manga, and had that never changed I would consider this to be disappointing in that it was truly killed before it could fully deliver on what it was building up to. Last year, however, Kurumada finally returned to Otoko Zaka after 30 years, and has since done two more volumes worth of content, with plans for more. I really hope that what comes next is just as good as these three volumes, because, if so, then this will definitely be one of my absolute favorite Masami Kurumada manga. As of now, however, the jury is still out. I'd love to see an anime adaptation, though... That'd be awesome.

As for when I'll review the return of Otoko Zaka... Well, we'll just have to see when Kurumada finally says it's over, I guess.

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