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Saturday, March 12, 2016

Raimei no Zaji: You've Been... Thunderstruck!

Having now reviewed the "Final" part of Masami Kurumada's 40th Anniversary celebration, allow me to cover one last manga that had something to do with the man's year of revival. While there were a couple of special chapters of Saint Seiya Next Dimension published in 2014 & 2015, respectively, before the series came back for an actual short revival for December 2015 & January 2016, Kurumada's focus was obviously on returning to other works that he had to put on the back burner for literally decades. He brought back Otoko Zaka after a 30 year hiatus, making two more volumes-worth of content, with a third short run having just started last week, but aside from that & Indigo Period there was one other series that Kurumada celebrated his 40th Anniversary with...

At the start of Fuma no Kojirou's second & final year of serialization in Shonen Jump in 1983, Masami Kurumada drew a one-shot that appeared in that February's issue of spin-off magazine Fresh Jump called Raimei no Zaji/Thunder Clap Zaji. A year later, in between FnK's end & Otoko Zaka's start, came a second chapter in Shonen Jump, followed by years later with a third chapter in Shonen Jump in early 1988 (during the run of Saint Seiya). A few years later, though, would come the whole Silent Knight Sho debacle in 1992 that resulted in Kurumada's departure from Shonen Jump & eventually Shueisha as a whole, which resulted in Shueisha putting out a single (not quite) volume for Raimei no Zaji in 1993; it would later be re-published as a double-feature with Aoi Tori no Shinwa in 2001 under the name Never End Heroes 1. While Kurumada did put a "The End" at the end of the last chapter, he also put in a "To Be Continued" below it, indicating that he had plans to continue the story. On October 21, 2014, the debut issue of Akita Shoten's new online magazine Champion Cross featured a Kurumada manga titled Raimei no Zaji Tokubestu-hen ~Haruka Kanata~/Thunder Clap Zaji Special Chapter ~Far Away~, an eight-page return that literally promised at the end that "Zaji will be back!", though said promise has yet to be fulfilled. Until that moment truly happens, though, let's examine what the original three chapters from the 80s, plus those recent eight pages, brought to the table, and see if old Zaji is even worth caring about in the first place.

Zaji is a 16 year old boy who has been raised by a mysterious organization known as Home (the kanji literally means "White Tomb") to be a Hitman (literally "Killing Person"); to Home, he is just known as "WG919". Zaji, though, decides to break away from life as a Hitman, wanting to find the whereabouts of his mother, who lives in Japan. Home, however, feels differently about this & decides to send some of its best First Soldiers out to kill the traitor. Unfortunately for Zaji, his own fellow Mates ("Grave Friends", get it?) & Ladies have no qualms about killing their former ally.

The three main chapters that make up Raimei no Zaji (at least, for the past 28 years) each focus on one main Hitman that is sent after Zaji, each of which has a code name that matches their fighting specialty. The first is Break Cannon Kei, who hunts down Zaji to a school that he (for no discernible reason) enrolls in for a single day & fights via two giant rods that are chained together; yes, his code name doesn't quite describe his weapon. The second is Iron Soldier Zoro, who challenges Zaji at a dock & dons a superalloy armor that can withstand a million volts. The third is Million Volt Joker (no relation to what Zoro's armor can defend against), who finds Zaji at a town where he's staying with a doctor & her son while recuperating from an arm injury; not far behind Joker is a Ladies Hitman named Killer Bee, as well. Overall, all three chapters follow more or less the same general path when it comes to telling their stories: Zaji comes to a new location, winds up saving a girl of some sort (either from random thugs or a Home Hitman), fights his Hitman foe, & winds up taking next to no real damage in the process. Now, to be fair, this is a very basic way of looking at things, as there are some slight differences in execution among each chapter (the third one in particular features some needed character development), but in general this is easily the biggest flaw with Raimei no Zaji.

That very flaw is that Zaji comes off as a good bit boring due to this "steel-like body", which means that he doesn't take any of the usual damage & bloodletting that Kurumada's leads tend to take in fights. He takes damaging hits & reacts with some modicum of pain, but none of it really matters; the arm injury in Chapter 3 surprises even him, actually. If anything, Zaji kind of feels like a hero from an old pulp story, one who you know will also come out on top because he's obviously better than his villainous foes. There is an air of mystery behind Zaji, though, that Kurumada explains very slightly with each chapter, even giving the reader the slight thought that he might actually be a cyborg, but the development comes too slow to really make the character anything more than enigmatic. Obviously, a big part of this is because Kurumada essentially had to put a stop to making more chapters due to his departure from Jump, but at the same time one must consider that there was a four-year gap between the second & third chapters, & by the time the compiled book came out, said third chapter came out five years prior. No matter what, it was likely hard to really get into Raimei no Zaji in the first place due to its glacial (& that's putting it nicely) publication pace.

Still, one can't say that there isn't some intrigue left behind by what was published. Kurumada still made it so that readers would constantly have questions that they would want answered. What is Home's reason for existing? Why is Home against Zaji wanting to find his mother? Is Zaji truly a cyborg, or is he simply a type of super Hitman? Compared to his usual stories, where you tend to always have a general sense of who's who & what's established, Kurumada really planned Raimei no Zaji out to be a bit of a mystery, letting readers come up with their own answers while slowly placing pieces of the puzzle down himself. Sure, the fact that so little actually got told (& made) more or less negates some of the sense of one day finding out all of the answers, but at the very least it does show some nice variety from Masami Kurumada when it comes to storytelling here.

As for the characters that Zaji interacts with, they are more or less your basic Kurumada bad guys, especially since each chapter essentially has its own set of supporting cast. Unless you count the silhouetted leaders of Home that tell Zoro & Joker to go after Zaji, who do "appear" in Chapters 2 & 3, the only recurring character in the entire manga is Zaji himself. In true Kurumada fashion, though, they do make their short appearances count as well as they possibly could, partially due to their ways of fighting. Kei's Break Cannon, though not really a "cannon", is still pretty impressive simply due to the sheer size of the rods, and his ability to leave walls with giant craters in them is cool. Zoro makes his appearance in front of Zaji by taking out two runaway cars, which were driven by thugs terrified of Zaji's invincibility, with a single swipe of his arm, though his superalloy armor is pretty simple in design; a far cry from the Cloths of Saint Seiya or even the Battle Gear of B't X. If anything, Joker & Killer Bee are the most generic, with their "weapons" being purposefully simplistic by nature, though Joker's fatalistic actions against the doctor who tends to Zaji's injury more or less makes up for his simple design. By no means are Zaji's foes, or even Zaji for that matter, anywhere near Kurumada's best creations, but the variety in styles does make one wonder just what else Home trained its Hitmen in.

All that leaves is the "Special Chapter" from 2014, which really is nothing more than a tease & prologue to more. Though Chapter 3 ends with Zaji walking down a beach, his return after 26 years has him knocked out in Hokkaido with no explanation as to how he got there. After waking up, & scaring the ever living crap out of a giant bear, he comes across a new gakuran at a local house & simply walks off into the distance. The only real new info comes from Zaji reminiscing about how he only knows that his mother, named Keiko, is in Japan by finding a record of it from Home's database. Like the title indicates, it's not a real full-length chapter meant to advance the story in any real way, but rather help set up what will be coming next. Admittedly, though, it is a pretty sparse eight pages that doesn't do anything more than remind readers that Raimei no Zaji is something that Masami Kurumada does intend to, one day, get back to.

At the very least, Raimei no Zaji is a good way to showcase the refinement that I keep bringing up in regards to Kurumada's art style over the course of his career. The initial three volumes are Masami Kurumada in the way most people tend to know his artwork, with a lot of low-angle shots, simple backgrounds during more heated moments, & a lot of dramatic posing & style. Comparing those chapters from the 80s with the 2014 Special Chapter really shows how much Kurumada has evolved. His close ups are much more detailed & stark, he utilizes backdrops much more for his general paneling, & his overall style feels familiar but overall improved with time. In terms of his use of the Tezuka Star System, Kurumada also mixes things up slightly. Instead of using his usual Ryuji/Seiya template for Zaji, he instead uses what would later be known as Saint Seiya's Gold Saint Leo Aiolia, i.e. Aiolia is a re-use of Zaji. Now, to be fair, Zaji/Aiolia more or less looks like an older Ryuji/Seiya, but it is subtle enough to tell the difference, and the crescent-shaped scar under his left eye (& lighting-shaped scar on his back) is the biggest tell that makes him easily differentiated from Kurumada's other leads. Other Star System appearances come from Asaha (a school girl from Chapter 1 that looks like Takako Kawai from Ring ni Kakero) & Zoro (who looks like Zeus from RnK), for example, but overall Kurumada tries to avoid using the "usual" character designs that his biggest works have tended to utilize, which is a point in its favor.

Simply put, there's some nice potential to be found in Raimei no Zaji, but there's nowhere near enough of it to really be nothing more than a neat curiosity in Masami Kurumada's catalog. I do wonder just how much of an impression these initial three chapters made on Japanese readers during their initial appearances in 1983, 1984, & 1988, but there has been at least one notable reference to it. In April 2014, Inti Creates' Yoshihisa Tsuda talked about the various influences that inspired the creation of 3DS platformer Azure Striker Gunvolt, & one of the manga influences Tsuda mentioned specifically was Raimei no Zaji; he also cited Fuma no Kojirou (manga) & Saint Seiya (anime), as well. The likely influence Zaji had on Gunvolt is the fact the latter's titular lead defected from his old home of QUILL, similar to how Zaji defected from Home; a fun coincidence there, seeing as Zaji would return just half a year following Gunvolt's release. Zaji himself is also seen in the still-running, Yun Kouga-drawn official crossover manga, Kurumada Suikoden ~Hero of Heroes~, where he's paired with Otoko Zaka's Jingi Kikukawa at the moment; interesting that those two are in the manga already, while B't X's Teppei Takamiya is still missing.

As for whether or not Masami Kurumada will ever truly fulfill the promise of Zaji's return in 2014, I really can't answer that at the moment. He apparently is planning to put an end to Saint Seiya Next Dimension this year, though that is obviously not going to be end of that series' overall story, & is presently doing what will be the sixth volume of Otoko Zaka, so maybe he'll continue Zaji after finishing up his return to Seiya. As it is right now, though, Raimei no Zaji is something that has potential but has nothing else to it to make it a must read; a lack of an English translation doesn't help in any way, either. If you're curious about Kurumada's short works, I'd easily recommend Evil Crusher Maya first, as it's the better product overall, but I'd say that this is (ever so slightly) better than Aoi Tori no Shinwa; the latter does have an English fan translation, however.

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