"Quite honestly, though, this may be one of Kurumada's strongest works when it comes to story. 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."
Back in May of 2015, I reviewed the first three volumes of Masami Kurumada's Otoko Zaka, which was everything that was originally serialized in Weekly Shonen Jump back in the 80s. As I explained in that review, I felt that the manga that Kurumada devised to be his magnum opus, & homage to Hiroshi Motomiya's Otoko Ippiki Gaki Daisho, wound up being canceled primarily due to the fact that shonen action manga had changed so much, partially because of Kurumada, that an "oldest school" execution just wasn't going to appeal to audiences anymore. In 2014, as part of his 40th Anniversary as a mangaka, Masami Kurumada decided to finally bring back Otoko Zaka, nearly 30 years after he infamously "not-ended" it. The "magazine" of choice for it to come back to was Weekly PlayNews, the digital manga-front for Shueisha's Weekly Playboy magazine, where it appeared from 2014 to 2016 in three separate, volume-length stretches. In 2017, Otoko Zaka moved its online serialization over to Shonen Jump+, effectively returning the manga to its original home after a 32-year absence; all new volumes since 2014 have featured the "Jump Comics" labeling, however. Therefore, let's see what happened in the Weekly PlayNews run (Volumes 4 to 6) of Otoko Zaka, & examine what Masami Kurumada has always wanted to draw while working on Saint Seiya, B't X, & Ring ni Kakero 2.
With the initial fight against Don Foreman's Chicago Corps over & done with, the idea of the Junior World Connection wanting to invade Japan & take command over its young gangs has become a real, looming threat. To get ready for the JWC, Jingi Kikukawa has decided to try to unite all of the remaining gangs in Japan together, with Joshu's Wolf Akagi & Aizu's Ranmaru Azusa having joined his ranks, recently. After he & his friends take out the 13 Heads of Tohoku's Ouu Union after a challenge, Jingi decides to run off to Hokkaido on his own to meet with Ken Kamui, the "King of the North", & get him to join their forces. Even if Jingi manages to convince Kamui to help out, though, that's only the start, with Kanagawa's "Julie of Hama" & Hagi's Kyosuke Takasugi also needing some good convincing. Luckily, Jingi knows how to talk to people like these: With his fists.
With the return of Otoko Zaka, Masami Kurumada serializes it similarly to how someone like Yoshihiro Togashi handles Hunter X Hunter right now, i.e. enough chapters are made so that another volume can be released as a tankouban, followed by a break until the creator feels ready to return. During the Weekly PlayNews Run, this meant that Volumes 4-6 all featured eight chapters, and Kurumada decided that each new volume would contain a self-contained mini story arc. Volume 4 has the Northern Vast Lands Chapter, where Jingi finds his way to the Kamui Compound in Hokkaido, make friends with Ken Kamui's sister Yuki, & then the two have a "fair & square fight" in the forest. Volume 5 features the Julie of Hama Chapter, where Jingi Army Second-in-Command Tokichi Kuroda tries his hand at getting the eponymous head from Yokohama to join, only to wind up having to deal with Julie's small cadre of sukeban, his personal force called the Hyakkasen/Hundred Select Flowers, & Julie's own personal distrust of humanity. Finally, Volumes 6 tells the Thunder & Lightning! Kyosuke Chapter, which introduces the "Three Heroes of the West" that control the Chugoku, Shikoku, & Kyushu regions, & Jingi's decision to head to Hagi to challenge Kyosuke Takasugi of Chugoku, "Fighting Fool" vs. "Fighting Fool". Unfortunately, forces belonging to Sho Takeshima, Jingi's rival who joined the JWC, try to interfere by enlisting the sword-wielding services of "The Manslayer of Showa" Shinbe Mikaeri; Ryoko Domoto of Shikoku is also shown here, setting up her focus in Volume 7 (but that's a story for another day).
One thing that always made me curious about the return of Otoko Zaka was how closely actually it follows Kurumada's original plans for it back in the 80s. Remember, this manga was meant to be Masami Kurumada's magnum opus, the manga that truly let him consider himself a mangaka/manga creator (before then, he only considered himself a mangaya/manga drawer), and he had apparently spent about a good decade planning out Otoko Zaka in advance; he literally had always wanted to tell this story since he started making manga professionally. When it got canceled back in 1985, then, one would think that Kurumada had to change the pacing of his story somewhat so that he could hit a good stopping point which would allow him to, theoretically, come back to it; in this case, it was Jingi heading off to Hokkaido to meet Ken Kamui. By that same token, part of me wonders if Kurumada always planned for these storylines involving Kamui, Julie, & Kyosuke to be so neatly paced so as to fit inside individual, self-contained volumes, or if Kurumada had to alter his original outline so that he could pace them like such. Regardless of whether plans were changed or not, though, the stories told in each of these volumes are very well paced & flow excellently, so if there were concepts & plot beats removed, then at least Kurumada did a fine job hiding their footprints.
Thinking back to when I read the original three volumes back in 2015, I must say that these new three volumes manage to truly feel like a natural continuation of what happened back in the 80s. Jingi is still a fun-loving rascal & Tokichi is still a bit too impetuous for his own good, and now we actually get some extra development for Wolf & Ranmaru. In fact, almost all of Volume 5 focuses on Tokichi, with Wolf helping out on a couple of occasions, which really helps give the character a real sense of focus that he only shortly received in Volume 3, when he appealed to Ranmaru, & I honestly feel this wouldn't even be possible without Kurumada having carte blanche to tell whatever story he wants to nowadays. At the same time, however, these new volumes also evolve the ideology & methodology behind Otoko Zaka, & I definitely feel that this only happened because of how Kurumada has looked at his style of storytelling over the 40+ years he's been doing manga.
When in Hokkaido, Jingi starts to realize that always being willing to fight anyone isn't the way to go, with Ken Kamui in particular teaching him to not go after "small fights", because those can be won without direct conflict. This, in turn, results in how Jingi tackles dealing with Julie of Hama, as his own past, which involves him learning to stop trusting in other people & instead only rely on them for his own achievements, has made him quick to fight when pushed. Sure, Tokichi & Wolf try taking on Julie, but at this point Tokichi had already fought off 80 of the Hyakkasen (the rest were sent to take out Wolf & Ranmaru back in Kujukuri, only to fail), & Wolf's rock-hard marbles were useless against Julie's steel batons. The end result, then, is something that sounds completely foreign to a Masami Kurumada action series: Jingi goes the pacifist route. He uses his own convictions & hope to unite Japan's gangs to protect their home country, something that Julie finds ridiculous, & pleads for Julie to join him. Jingi even lets Julie attack him repeatedly without repercussion, because this is a "small fight" in comparison to what's on the horizon: The Showa Era's equivalent of Sekigahara. This is in stark contrast to what Kurumada was doing with Otoko Zaka back in the 80s, which I even called "the most steadfast follower of Kurumada's usual style of 'fight until you can fight no more', almost to the point of absurdity," back in my review of Volumes 1-3; Kurumada has grown, & has made his magnum opus feel all the more impressive, in turn.
But, again, that's not to say that Kurumada doesn't still embrace the "oldest school" influence that he debuted this manga with back in 1984. Jingi & Kamui fight simply because that how MEN determine things, and Jingi heads off to Hagi on his own simply because he's curious to see just how bullheadedly similar Kyosuke is to him; they are both "Fighting Fools", after all. In fact, the Jingi/Kyosuke fight is literally a couple of young teens just beating the ever living crap out of each other on a beach, even ending in the shallows of the ocean. Not just that, but as much as this story handles itself with some modicum of realism to it, Kurumada does still occasionally use a touch of superhuman strength for effect. Kamui can knock large trees over by punching them, though this is obviously only used when he has to go all-out. Kyosuke's large bokken (likely a variant of the suburito) has a black steel rod inside it, making it not just more dangerous but also insanely heavy; Kyouke, though, can swing it with one hand. Julie's so good that he can split Wolf's stone-like marbles in twain, though his baton gets bent from the sheer force used to do so. Granted, these volumes don't go quite into the levels of craizness that the original Jump run had, like Jingi stopping an actual sword with the bare palm of his hand, but there's just enough of the over-the-top to remind you that this is a Kurumada manga.
Finally, while these volumes do have a bit of a formula behind them, they still set up some of the larger story, primarily in regards to Jingi. The biggest is Jingi now being often referred to as "A Man Like the Sun", with Ranmaru even stating that Jingi is meant to have "Nine Siblings" by his side, like how the our Sun has the nine planets; remember, this takes place before Pluto got pulled from the cool kids' table. Though I don't recall this descriptor ever being used in the original run, Kurumada's acting like it's described Jingi all his life, right down to when he was found as a baby. Yes, Jingi was found by the head of the Kikukawa family as a baby abandoned on a boat that came in from the direction of the rising sun; that's pushing "chosen one" territory, but Kurumada does enjoy romanticized storytelling. By the end of the PlayNews run, Jingi now has Ranmaru, Tokichi, Wolf, Kamui, Julie, & Kyosuke on his side, & more than likely even prodigal genius Kibou, introduced in the original run, who appears here & there in these volumes on his search for someone he can "protect Japan" with; the end of Volume 6 has Ranmaru speak with Kibou, after Tokichi accidentally spurns him away. Sho's forces also make some moves to try to stop Jingi's advancements, like having a squad try to fight Kamui or another squad bringing in Shinbe over at Hagi. In the end, the only ones remaining are Ryoko Domoto & Kyushu's "Hero", Daisaku Nango. They should be brought into the fold by the end of Volume 8, so I'm very curious where the story will be going from there.
As different as Otoko Zaka does feel when compared to his other major works, these volumes do sneak in a couple of fun or clever homages to the past. For example, when Jingi starts fighting Kamui, Jingi throws out a flurry of punches, calling a couple of them "Galactica Magnum" & "Boomerang Hook", in reference to the superblows done by Ring ni Kakero's Jun Kenzaki & Ryuji Takane, respectively; I like to imagine that Jingi was a fan of their work. Then, in Volume 6, Jingi is taught about Hagi-style pottery by an old master, only to find an insane spiral piece made by Kyosuke a few years back. While the master doesn't quite "get it", he tells Jingi that Kyosuke called it "cosmo", with the manga using the same exact kanji for the term as Saint Seiya does. Granted, in this instance it's meant to reference the actual universe, or at least a part of it, instead of being a direct reference to the "inner universe" that every individual has inside of them for power, but it's a well done & clever homage to a piece of terminology that became well-known after the manga's original run.
|See, even Yuki doesn't take Jingi's crap about fighting "Man to Man"...|
Since these three volumes are meant to be a direct continuation of the prior three volumes, they make for an excellent example of how Masami Kurumada's way of drawing has evolved over the past 30 years. Kurumada is one of those artists that, when asked about, people go to his most iconic time in manga, which is the 80s. Though primarly known via Saint Seiya, Kurumada's personal drawing style could also be seen in Fuma no Kojirou, the latter half of Ring ni Kakero, & also Otoko Zaka's original run. This included the way he drew faces, his penchant for low-angled perspective, often not drawing backgrounds in order to focus on the characters themselves (except for things like establishing shots), & his adoption of Osamu Tezuka's "Star System" when it came to re-using certain characters in new "roles". As time moved on, though, Kurumada did see some changes in how he drew, though his overall style remained more or less the same.
Mainly becoming more obvious since 2000, with the start of Ring ni Kakero 2, Kurumada's current refined style still maintains most of his stylistic touches, but with some obvious differences. Characters' faces, for example, aren't quite like they were in the 80s, and that's all the more obvious in this PlayNews run of Otoko Zaka; Wolf & Ranmaru, in particular, almost look like completely different characters at first. Kurumada also doesn't rely on low-angled perspective as much as he used to, as he now also utilizes high angles often, as well. This change in perspective also results in Kurumada having to draw environments more often in his panel work, though Otoko Zaka's original run was more focused on showing off environments, as well. Finally, though the Tezuka Star System is still in effect, its balanced out by Kurumada using lesser-used "actors" for roles here. In fact, Jingi has moved from looking like Seiya (technically RnK's Ryuji, but oh well) to looking more like RnK's Ishimatsu, due to the character's habit of being more silly & playful; Shinbe is also obviously RnK's Shinatora, only with an eye missing. At the same time, however, characters like Kamui, Julie, & Kyosuke use smaller name characters as their bases, so much so that the only one I can instantly name is Kamui looking like Seiya's Bear Geki, and even then they have enough slight alterations to make them their own designs.
To finish on a quick note, I really like how Kurumada put forth a strong focus on making sure each region of Japan gets its own identity by way of the various dialects. This is especially shown in Volume 6, as the Western Japanese dialects aren't showcased as much in manga as the "standard" Kanto dialect or synonymous Kansai dialect. In fact, Kurumada goes so far in utilizing "Western Japanese" that he actually has to use footnotes in three instances in order to explain certain phrases for the majority of the Japanese readers. At the very least, now I know that "sasara mosara" is used in Chugoku in place of "mecha kucha/to pieces", "konna" means "omae wa/you", & "hotaena" is used in place of "ugokuna/don't move", alongside standard dialect alterations, like "omoroi" instead of "omoshiroi/interesting".
|"Jump Comics" & Masami Kurumada, back again after 19 years...|
Very rarely do canceled manga get a second chance at life, so when such a thing happens, the creator must make the most of that opportunity. In that regard, Masami Kurumada has so far taken his second chance at making Otoko Zaka, and given it the love & care he always planned for. The original Shonen Jump run stopped at Jingi realizing that Japan's various gangs needed to come together to protect their home country from being put under the command of the Junior World Connection, and the Weekly PlayNews run is dedicated to that idea. Jingi & Tokichi go to three of the remaining areas that aren't on their side, all in an effort to unite everyone for a common cause. In turn, we see Jingi grow as a person through his confrontation with Kamui, Tokichi reminds us of his dedication to Jingi's cause in his attempt to track down & convince Julie, & the trip to Hagi gives a solid first impression as to how things are done "down south(west)" in Japan. Just as in the original run, Otoko Zaka feels very much like a story that Kurumada planned out from the start, & even if some concessions may have possibly been made to accommodate the new on-&-off serilization, Kurumada looks to have modified things without removing the general idea of each of these single-volume storylines.
I'm still not fully sure where exactly I would rank Otoko Zaka among Masami Kurumada's major works, but I'd at least put it above Fuma no Kojirou already, simply due to it having a more defined story & characters behind it. Regardless, I am looking forward to seeing where things head next, & though it may result in me not getting to make a new review for a good while, I hope Otoko Zaka has found a new, permanent home with Shonen Jump+. After roughly 24 years, Masami Kurumada has finally returned home...