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Monday, February 29, 2016

Ai no Jidai/Indigo Period -Ichigo Ichie-: And You May Ask Yourself, "Well...How Did I Get Here?"

It's the rarest of days that the world sees, February 29, a.k.a. Leap Day. Happening only once every four years, to account for the fact that a year is technically 365.25 days (not an exact estimate, obviously), I wanted to celebrate the day with a review. I did the same thing four years ago in 2012 when I reviewed the OVA series Goddamn, and I wondered what title would fit Leap Day thematically. A rally racing anime fit the vague concept of "time", but for the blog's second Leap Day I decided to use a different take on that concept. For this year, I'll be reviewing a manga that acts as a remembrance of older times.

Autobiographical manga isn't a new genre by any means. The late Shinji Nagashima did it back in the early 60s with Mangaka Zankoku Monogatari/The Harsh Tale of a Manga Artist & Keiji Nakazawa's Ore wa Mita/I Saw It from 1972 was about his actual experience of being in Hiroshima when the first atomic bomb was dropped. More often than not, though, this type of manga is told with some sort of fictionalization. Nakazawa's iconic Barefoot Gen, for example, is based on his life but told via made up characters. Yoshihiro Tatsumi's beloved manga A Drifting Life is "technically" about the life of Hiroshi Katsumi. Kazuhiko Shimamoto's still-running Aoi Honou/Blue Blazes, & by relation his Hoero/Shouting & Moeyo/Burning Pen titles, uses the super-passionate Moyuru Hono in place of Shimamoto himself. This way, the author can still tell his or her story, but without having to (potentially) directly insult or embarrass any actual people; also, the author can embellish to whatever length is deemed appropriate. Acting as the (literal) "Final" part of his 40th Anniversary celebration, Masami Kurumada made his own autobiographical manga with 2015's Ai no Jidai -Ichigo Ichie-/Indigo Period -Once in a Lifetime-; the title was directly inspired by Picasso's Blue Period. The first short series from Kurumada since 1993-1994's Akane-iro no Kaze -Shinsengumi Keppuroku-/Crimson Wind -The Shinsengumi Bloodshed Record-, as in longer than just a couple of chapters, the manga explores why & how Kurumada himself decided to become a manga artist, even if it obviously winds up being a fictional tale overall. Remember, as Kurumada himself warns at the very beginning, "This story is fiction based on fact."

Masami Higashida is a young man growing up in late-60s/early-70s Japan. After being given an issue of Shonen Jump by his sickly friend Junichi Kobayashi, Higashida becomes enthralled by a manga called Otoko Ippiki Gaki Daisho, which is made by Hiroshi Motomiya. Having always thought that only people with special qualifications, like Osamu Tezuka's doctorate, could become mangaka, Higashida is inspired by Motomiya, as well as others like Go Nagai & Mitsuteru Yokoyama, deciding to truly follow his childhood dream of making manga professionally. After failing to enter through Jump, though, Higashida decides to try his luck with Shonen Champion magazine, where he's forced to use the pen name Masami Kurumada. Eventually, Higashida comes up with a boxing story called Ring ni Hoero/Shout in the Ring, but will it be enough to keep his dream of being a mangaka alive?

Considering that Masami Kurumada's entire catalog is mostly comprised of fighting manga, with the rest being a small amount of comedy manga, Indigo Period's introspective, semi-autobiographical tale instantly makes it completely different from everything else the man has done in his 40+ years in manga. Sure, there are a few moments involving a scuffle or two, one of which features Hiroshi Motomiya himself beating up three guys on his own, but this is definitely a character-driven drama more than anything. Higashida starts off as a simple person, initially wanting to be just like the yakuza characters his idol, Ken Takakura, played in the movies (& maybe in this manga's reality, too). While his friend Toshio Nakayama ends up following that path, Higashida realizes the dangers of that way of life (after some "influence" by Takakura), but still needs encouragement to actually chase his childhood dream of becoming a mangaka, due to his initial misconceptions. It was through Jun that Higashida learns that everyday people, like Motomiya, Nagai, & Yokoyama, could make manga as long as they had the passion & drive to do so. The fictionalization mainly comes through in the path that Higashida takes compared to Kurumada. For example, Kurumada didn't fail to get an opportunity to work for Jump, as that would be his first professional home for nearly 20 years, while Higashida didn't work as an assistant to anyone in the story (Kurumada initially worked for Ko Inoue on Samurai Giants). Among these events are two minor subplots involving Higashida's friends. Jun is obviously on his last legs, often being bedridden at the hospital, seemingly holding onto life just so he can see his friend's manga get published, while Toshi winds up becoming a hotshot yakuza, complete with the dangerous risks of living such a life. They're obviously done to give the manga some sense of dramatic tension & gravitas so that it still feels like a Kurumada manga, and luckily they don't interfere with the main story in any bad ways, though they are a bit predictable in concept; executed well enough, but still predictable.

Still, from what I can find out about Kurumada's early days, the manga is still definitely based on fact, with Higashida hitting a lot of the same experiences as Kurumada. His very first manga, which was made while in high school, was in fact rejected by Jump; in reality, it was submitted for an award that it didn't win instead of simply being a non-solicited work. He had nothing but the highest regard for Osamu Tezuka, with the real life Kurumada initially being hesitant to call himself a "mangaka/manga artist" because he didn't feel worthy of that designation; he initially called himself a "mangaya/manga drawer" instead. As for Jun & Toshi, I'm sure they were based on friends Kurumada had in his younger days, but I'm going to guess that they weren't exactly like their manga counterparts. Kurumada likely didn't have a friend who was nearing death's door due to illness & another who became the exact some thing as Ken Takakura was to them, so I'm going to chalk that up to creative license in order to tell a more compelling story; I could always be wrong, though. Kurumada's own portrayal via Higashida is one that I'm just going to have to hope is true to himself, since I can only go off of things like author's notes in manga volumes, who his inspirations are, & the kinds of stories he tends to tell. It definitely feels accurate, however, like in how Higashida does an inner monologue about why heroes need to have special attacks in order to defeat their foes; the explanation just sounds completely Kurumada.

That's not to say that that Kurumada doesn't poke fun at his own expense, however. Higashida being forced to use the Kurumada name comes about simply because of a typographical error which turned the "東/higashi" in his last name to "車/kuruma", and the editor at Champion simply tells him to go with it. When Higashida argues that a pen name should sound more "hard boiled", like Jouji Samidare or Go Saotome, he then realizes how silly they sound; those were actual pen names that Kurumada considered using for his debut. The most amusing, however, is when Higashida, after researching his butt off to come up with his next story (after getting a debut one-shot in Champion), finds his inspiration for Ring ni Hoero after seeing Ryuji & Kiku Takane (from Ring ni Kakero) do some boxing training outside of their Omura Boxing Gym home. I've always imagined that all of Kurumada's works take place in a shared universe, since none of his series really contradict each other in an overall sense, so seeing him adapt his own personal story in a way that has his self-insert character base his big manga off of the characters from his own (actual) first big hit is a fun bit of self-aware humor. Finally, Kurumada ends the manga in a perfect example of directly contradicting actual history, not to mention going against Kurumada's usual themes, yet it still feels very appropriate for the story that was established &, most of all, is intensely amusing; it also fits the "Once in a Lifetime" subtitle perfectly. You can tell that Kurumada had fun making this manga, both in waxing nostalgic about his early years & in playing around with expectations & how his actual career played out, which is awesome.

Something that is odd about the series, though, is that it does show images of a number of actual manga from the time like Gaki Daisho, with proper credits at the end to the various studios that own the rights, yet the Shonen Champion magazine itself in the story uses nothing but altered names for the manga housed within. Stuff like Hokaben, Black Shock, Babul II, ∞ Man (okay, that one's funny), & even Dokonjo Karubi (even though that parody was a Jump manga... Maybe Kurumada's a fan) are used, which is pretty bizarre considering that the manga ran in Shonen Champion. I can only guess the changes are because it takes place in a fictional world, though it does contradict the use of actual manga earlier on. I also wonder if the names of other industry people, like Champion editor Kabemura or flamboyant mangaka Rui Shiratori, are accurate to real people Kurumada met back then or if they are similarly altered for the story, if they're even based on actual people at all.

There has been talk by many fans of Saint Seiya that Masami Kurumada has had problems with his drawing hand for the past decade or so, hence why he draws manga so slowly now. While I'm sure his age has resulted in some unfortunate hand pain, he just turned 62 a couple of months ago, it sure hasn't messed with his drawing ability overall, because Indigo Period looks great. There is just a neat feeling to see his early work from the 70s & then look at what he does now; the general look is the same, but there's just so much refinement to be seen now. Also, Kurumada actually does not utilize a lot of his usual drawing habits that people tend to notice about his work. While the photocopier is used here & there for some effects, like the first mid-story image I used, it's only for moments like that very example. Also, Kurumada's general habit of drawing characters as if the metaphorical camera was down low & angled upwards is effectively nowhere to be found here; if anything, they've been replaced by overhead shots. Finally, due to the general lack of action scenes, there are lots of backgrounds to be found in most panels; Kurumada tends to simplify backgrounds during stuff like action set pieces. There is the occasional use of things like speed lines for when he wants to convey intensity, and small panels featuring only a character's head tend to be without a background, but for the most part you can tell that Kurumada put a lot of effort into this work.

Of course, his use of the Tezuka Star System is in effect here, with Toshi being blatantly "performed" by Ring ni Kakero's Kazuki Shinatora (granted, Kurumada rarely uses this one) & Jun looking like B't X's Kotaro Takamiya. Also, Higashida does not use the usual lead character design, but rather looks more like an altered Ishimatsu Katori from RnK, which makes sense considering that Kurumada has admitted that Ishimatsu is the character that's most like him in real life. In fact, Kurumada doesn't re-use any of his more instantly identifiable characters here, with the closest being Hiroshi Motomiya's portrayal looking somewhat like Ryuji Takane, Pegasus Seiya, or Teppei Takamiya. Everyone else uses lesser-seen "actors" that Kurumada has in his arsenal, which helps keep the reader from simply thinking of his other works while reading this. Overall, it's a great choice to go in this direction, in my opinion.

Pablo Picasso's Blue Period was named as such because of his heavy use of the color blue, which represented the sadness that he was feeling in his life at the moment. When it comes to the color indigo, though, the only real correlation I could find about it refers to New Age philosophy, where the color represents intuition & insight (specifically gnosis, or "spiritual knowledge"). Regardless of the exact reason why he chose to use that specific color for the title, Ai no Jidai/Indigo Period is, truly, a manga that feels completely unlike anything Masami Kurumada has done before. This is a man who revolutionized action manga & has generally been about old-school, romantic ideals of boys becoming "true men" through sheer ardor, dedication, & battle; he also did the rare comedy that sometimes poked fun at his very style. This, on the other hand, is a fictional story based on Kurumada's own personal life, showcasing a bit of introspection & giving some insights into why he makes the manga that he does. In fact, outside of the whole Ring ni Hoero part of the story, the entire manga makes absolutely no reference or homage to Kurumada's entire catalog (minus the use of images here & there just to hint at Kurumada's then-future); you do not need to be a fan of Masami Kurumada to enjoy this manga. It really is a different side of the man, & is definitely worth checking out if you ever have the chance... Should it ever get an English translation.

Sadly, I doubt we'll ever see this manga released officially in English, seeing as both Saint Seiya & B't X bombed pretty hard when they were released in the 00s. Seiya's more recent digital re-release apparently did better, but by how much is impossible to deduce, & who knows if B't X will ever be given a second chance; Viz has started digitally re-relasing some Shonen Ace manga that TokyoPop originally put out, though. If some miracle was to happen & a company that has a working relationship with Akita Shoten (like Yen Press) was to pick up Indigo Period just on the merit of it being semi-autobiographical fiction, though, then I'd say it would be well worth the purchase.

I do wonder, though, if Masami Kurumada, upon making this manga & looking back at his career, ever did say to himself, "My god, what have I done?!"

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