Manga Spotlight: Drifters
by Kohta Hirano
Released by Dark Horse
As contradictory as it might sound, Kohta Hirano's follow-up to blisteringly outrageous vampire action hit Hellsing is both awesome and a tad underachieving. The high concept of dropping renowned warriors from history into a Dungeons and Dragons campaign is the perfect complement to Hirano's otaku verve, and it is possible to get a buzz off the geek intoxicating formula. However, the concoction seems primarily to be brewed to Hirano's tastes, potentially to the exclusion of those of a reader who might be unfamiliar with the historical figures that apparently fascinate KH.
Drifters opens with the supposed last stand of Shimazu Toyohisa at the Battle of Sekigahara (1600 AD). This is the engagement that more or less brought the Sengoku/Warring States period to an end, paving the way to the conclusion of Japan's unification under the Tokugawa shogunate. And, as opposed to all the Edo Era anime/manga you've seen with wandering ronin, inter-sword school agitation and dueling samurai, the Sengoku was an age in which samurai were a real warrior class, fighting battles in wide spread land dispute wars.
Hirano revels in the full bore conflict. Shimazu Toyohisa goes out with the aim of taking an enemy general's head before he can be cut down. The raging warrior charges through the enemy line, sending armored, mounted samurai flying. Hirano uses the inky ferocity that helped to establish the over the top excess of Hellsing, and in the final charge, the boldly drawn chaos is impressively embellished by the sheer amount of sharp objects on the panel. All the spears cutting through the gale of speed lines, a hair's width from puncturing Shimazu Toyohisa's eyes and limb, make for a fabulously violent sequence.
As the swordsman begins to falter, he stumbles towards a white light. Instead of a spiritual passage into the afterlife, this proves to be corporial entrance into a brightly lit hallway. An accountant looking man at office workers desk processes Shimazu Toyohisa's form and guides the confused samurai towards a door. He faints, where upon a pair of elves find the displaced swordsman and drag him to the ruins of a castle, where upon ST gets to meet two other warriors from the pages of Japanese history... arquebuse armed war lord, near unifier Oda Nobunaga (1534 - 1582) and a feminine looking archer who proves to be Nasu no Yoichi - famous for the Battle of Yashima in 1184, during which he legendarily road his horse into the sea to shoot a fan that had been mounted onto the opposing Taira clan's flag ship as a challenge to his Minamoto.
Our violence prone Japanese Trio find themselves fighting to save the not quite Tolkien-grand elves from plate armored clad knights. Soon, the Trio serving as the sword's edge in a conflict that sees the otherworldly accountant gathered team of Drifters... a party that includes the Carthaginian general Hannibal, his Roman rival Scipio Africanus Wild Bunch (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), and World War II fighter ace Naoshi Kanno versus their dark opposite numbers.
The literal forces of darkness in this Zoroastrian battle of raging goodies versus fanatical baddies include the Ring Wraith-ish Black King... who commands the expected fantasy forces of evil... ogres, dragons and the like, along with the Offscourings, a group of historical figures who have become super power imbued zealots. This includes Hijikata Toshizo (the rival in Gintama, Takeshi Kitano's character in Taboo) of the Shinsen Gumi militia, Joan of Arc and Gilles de Rais, Anastasia Nikolaevna Romanova and Rasputin.
There's plenty in Drifters that's f'n high caliber bad-ass-ness. Who doesn't want to see a swordsman go Ninja Scroll on an army of orcs or a crack team of special forces knights repel off a dragon or cowboys train their pistols and Gatling gun on an army of darkness.
Say one thing for Kohta Hirano, his work might be subject to geek decadence , but there's nothing condescending or cynical about it. On the contrary, it's hard to imagine anyone more enthusiastic about Drifters than Hirano himself. That's the trouble. It can feel like e KH screwing around; after dumping out the toy chests of history and fantasy, what he's doing with the spill of baubles seems with the purposed of amusing himself as much as the reader.
Hirano's obvious enthusiasm is more virulent than infectious.
Battle eager Drifters versus zealot Offscourings certainly makes for an angry hornet's nest of characters. "Action packed" was coined to describe works like this. However, it's not necessarily to the manga's benefit that, in terms of amplitude, the baseline volume of Drifters is a scream, with little modulation from the cranked up extreme. The first drawback of this is that it's all so constantly pitched that the lack of slack translates to a lack of reason for anticipation. More than failing to engender wondering or caring about what's next in the plot, the problem for this sort of action driven series is that there's never time or cause to speculate what would happen if characters X and Y threw down.
By a similar token, Drifters' cast is light on charisma. Despite that opening sequence showing the bad-assness of Shimazu, and references to the reputation of figures like Nobunaga, name recognition is relied upon to sell these historical personalities. The volume's end notes typify the operating attitude. These bonus pages describe the Japanese history hero trio with entries like "Nasu no Yoichi: the Golgo 13 of the Nasu Clan. Stand behind him, he'll kill you with a karate chop. Even if you're not standing behind him, he'll kill you with something other than a karate chop. if you fly a fan from a boat, he'll kill the fan and everyone else on the boat as well. kill. slaughter. pew! pew!" In other words, it's an unabashedly fanboy attitude driving the characterization. And that relies on a like mind on the part of the reader. The fact that Drifters collections tear up the Japanese sales charts speak to its ability to find like minds in Japan. Conversely, I can imagine, and from reviews have seen, North American readers are not too excited to see Shimazu Toyohisa plucked from history. If you aren't quite so enthusiastic about these historical personalities, particularly the Japan Fuck-Yeah crew, Drifters is able to come across as sturm und drang signifying not much.
Don't count on frequency to rocket Drifters past this need to share the author's enthusiasm. Drifters is a monthly, with volume two of the 2009 manga just published in Japan, and as such, while Dark Horse might deserve some of the grief fans give the publisher for the multi-year gaps between volumes of Eden or Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service, if it's a long time before you see the next sage of the war between the Drifters and Offscourings, that's not really on DH.
How often is being awesome a problem? Drifters manages exactly that. The trouble with the manga is that it's so busy being a titanic geek spectacle, it's little else.. especially not inclusive. Though a thrilling ride, as the saying goes, your millage may vary.
Manga Spotlight: Blood Blockade Battlefront
by Yasuhiro Nightow
Release by Dark Horse
Three years ago, a gateway between Earth and The Beyond opened over the city of New York. In one terrible night, the American metropolis was destroyed, and rebuilt, trapping its human residents and extra dimensional creatures alike in an impenetrable bubble. Now, this paranormal melting top has been rechristened New Jerusalem (as the back of the book references it, or Jerusalem’s Lot in the interior).
Light novels are physically tiny books, printed smaller than an American paperback or a graphic novel, often illustrated, often collecting works serialized in a magazine, often read by school aged audiences. They also typically pair rapid paced writing with development of a place and its spirit.
These prose books thrive on the sort of exotic, meeting of worlds found in Blood Blockade Battlefront (B3) for their exercise in exploring their particular setting. One of the parents of the light novel tradition, Hideyuki Kikuchi (Vampire Hunter D) certainly got a lot of mileage out of B3's brand of demonic/urban collision. And because light novels like Kikuchi’s are prime material for anime, and because when you think of violent, supernatural action anime, you’re probably thinking of Kikuchi novel adaptations from Ninja Scroll's Yoshiaki Kawajiri, B3 is inescapably reminiscent of anime like Wicked City and Demon City Shinjuku.
A light novel like Wicked City is apt to launch into a long description of a crowd of urban demons, along with what their appearance represents about the world in which they inhabit. Alternatively, the anime adaptation is apt to start fighting the ghoulies as soon as it gets a good look. B3 is a lot more in line with the quick sensation oriented latter.
Blood Blockade Battlefront isn't quite as off the cuff as the early goings of Nightow's "Deep Space Planet Future Gun Action!" Trigun might have been, which saw the author parody his own cover illustrations on the opening pages of his collections, but it still takes a breezy, half joking approach.
Leonard Watch, a young reporter (though that could be false pretenses), joins the picture having had tragic prior experiences with a demon that gave him enhanced eyes, with which he can witness the doings of the occult world. Entering into Jerusalem’s Lot, he finds a place in what seems like it's status quo: a chaotic mess frantic under the pressure of an imminent existential crisis.
He stumbles into Libra, a secret society (the purpose for the secrecy, or even why anyone is supposed to assume that they actually are secret is far from obvious), determined to keep Jerusalem’s Lot's troubles to a mild pandemonium. There's violent, cigar chomping, blood weapon wielding Zap Ranfro; fanged, shaggy and intense Klaus V. Reinhertz and busty, acerbic, cool suit wearing Chain Sumeragi.
These folks assume that Leo is new recruit Johnny Landis (demonstrating Nightow's sense of humor, not only is their the movie reference in the name, there's a goofy optical illusion at work where Leo's photograph upside is identical to Landis') and sortof welcome him into the fold.
In contrast to the younger, actively working through some issues Leo, the Libra crew have a more adult goundedness. This isn’t so much to say that the fractious trio is terribly mature. Instead, they’re apparently settled in their ways and resolved to be the wacky personalities laid out. At this early point of the manga’s run, they appear like sitcomy volatile fixtures of the volatile setting.
It turns out that Leo and Libra's meeting is quite fortunate for Jerusalem’s Lot. Baddie boss Femt, King of Depravity bisects a particularly hard to kill "blood breed" demon criminal and hides half the infuriated monster on the other side of a gateway (presumably the mechanism that allows for all of Jerusalem’s Lot's commerce). So, with Chain scouting the roof tops, Zap and Klaus handling the violent business, and Leo using his special sight, the group runs through the city searching for a gateway... attached to an invisible monkey.
This sort of scenario seems tailor made for the author to launch into a grand tour of the city he’s inventing. Nightow doesn't walk through that door. He doesn't show much interest in spelling out what is unique or at least particular in his supernatural world, versus all of anime/manga/light novel's others.
The problem is that the manga doesn't answer the questions it begs as to how this world has diverged from our own. We're told "though the city was feared at first, it has now become home to every kind of violent crimonals, terrorist, large corporation, religious groups, illegal organizations, the mafia, refugees and spies from every nation." And that's different from New York City, or at least how it's imagined, in what way? Beyond that, how did New Yorkers, a populous predisposed to at least a bit of local pride/chauvinism, react to having their metropolis invaded and replaced? The result is, unlike those Kikuchi stories, here, isn't a much of a sense of a real identity that transition into or has tension with the outlandish demon world.
Instead, once the scenario is established, it’s all dashing, leaping, things cracking, severed or exploding. Nightow is not thinking hard, but he is trying hard. There’s never a static panel. When in motion, and it’s in action for quite a while, every moment is speed line hurling violence, some new monster or looming humanoid, some demonstration of super powers or an expression close-up of one of the heroes emoting with full force. Though this is far from Nightow at his least coherent, it’s still crowded, dizzying business.
Nightow is apparently going for energy and bounce, and he manages a manga that bounds and manages to convey some jolt even if the story doesn’t have the plot or conceptual depth to carry proceedings along. The result is a manga that is unlikely to be anyone's favorite, or even memorable, but which fun to read, or even leaf through.