Naoki Urasawa is widely considered to be one of the best in the manga industry for a reason. His characters are well-rounded, his plots are intricate, and his art is fantastic. Another great thing about Urasawa is his name isn’t tied to only one work. Perhaps it has to do with the nature of the beast, but if you think about it, not many mangaka have more than one well-known series. Sure, there are exceptions like the legendary Osamu Tezuka (too many titles to mention), Yoshihiro Togashi (Yu Yu Hakusho, Hunter x Hunter), Ken Akamatsu (Love Hina, Negima), and Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata (Death Note, Bakuman), among others, but most seem to hit it big with one title and that’s it. Granted, this is from the view of an American fan who’s probably not as well-versed as he should be in making these assumptions, but I’m working with what I know. And what I know is Naoki Urasawa is the best manga creator I’ve come across. I won’t be looking at Pluto in this article (but you should all still go read that) since I read it many moons ago, but I did read quite a bit of Urasawa last month.
Master Keaton vols. 1-2
Created by Hokusei Katsushika and Naoki Urasawa (it’s definitely Urasawa’s art, but how much of the story is his is up for debate), Master Keaton follows the titular Taichi Hiraga-Keaton, the son of a Japanese zoologist and an Englishwoman. After the two split, Keaton grew up in England with his mother and earned an archaeology degree at Oxford. While at Oxford, he married and divorced his only wife, leaving their daughter with her. He soon joined the SAS, served as a survival instructor, fought in the Falklands War, and now he’s a lecturer at local college. Also, he’s an insurance investigator at Lloyd’s of London, which often takes precedence over his lecturing. So yeah…Keaton’s kinda a beast.
If you’re looking for an in-depth look into how insurance fraud investigation works, then look elsewhere. The set-up exists solely to give Keaton a reason to travel the world on go on adventures. Normally, that’s something a young shonen hero does, but this is very much a seinen series. Keaton lectures at a college and has a teenage daughter. Nothing shonen-y about him. The series does remind me a lot of Case Closed, though. Not entirely sure why. Maybe it’s because Keaton swoops into the lives of these strangers, investigates their problems, and most are better for having his help. So, I guess he is kinda like a middle-aged Jimmy Kudo. I often had the soundtrack from Case Closed playing through my head when I was reading this.
One of the main things I love about Urasawa is his art. His characters look so different from one another but are usually still realistic. Well, he has been known to ape his own designs from one series to another, but no two characters look alike in a single Urasawa story. Also, some of his characters have huge schnozes (something he’s picked up from Tezuka). In all of his works, though, his characters actually look like their nationalities. No spiky blue hair for his protagonists. The characters actually look like they belong where they are. He’s also an Anglophile, and that comes through in not only the backgrounds but also in the story itself.
Master Keaton is pretty episodic, so this isn’t a terribly good example of what the man’s capable of. It’s an okay indicator, but for a prime example of what Urasawa can do, check out the next two entries.
Monster: Perfect Edition vols. 2-3
Many moons ago, Dr. Kenzo Tenma, star surgeon at a hospital in Dusseldorf, essentially gave up his career to save the life of the child Johan Liebert instead of operating on the mayor of Dusseldorf, who arrived after the child. Since their number one guy didn’t perform the surgery, the mayor died and Tenma got knocked way down on the totem pole. Yeah, he did the right thing, but he lost his reputation and fiancee (the daughter of the hospital’s director). His fortune takes a turn for the better, however, when the jackasses who outrank him are mysteriously murdered, and Johan and his twin sister, Anna, vanish from the hospital. Not a good way for fortunes to turn, but Tenma becomes the Chief of Surgery. Years pass before Tenma is reunited with Johan, and their meeting once again changes his life. Johan is a psychopath. The series is about Tenma not only clearing his name (since Johan’s murders are blamed on him), but clearing his conscience since he believes he’s responsible for Johan’s actions. He believes he has to kill the Monster he saved.
Good and evil have never quite danced to the tune of action and consequence like they have here. I wanted to only talk about what happens in volumes 2 and 3, but I really wanted to type that quick little synopsis in hopes that people get interested. Anyhoo, Tenma is well into his search and is steadily finding out more about Johan and Anna’s past. He’s still being hunted by Inspector Lunge of the BKA, and even his ex-fiancee Eva is looking for him. Also, Anna is now trying to hunt down Johan, albeit separately from Tenma. There are quite a few other players in the mix like a con artist, a child who was being groomed as the next Johan, a bunch of neo-Nazis, a midget crimelord, and a college student just trying to find out about his dad, among others. Loads and loads of characters is one of Urasawa’s favored tropes.
Monster is the complex, well-drawn story Urasawa is known for. It’s suspenseful, it’s paced great, and everything has a reason for being there. This series is a prime example of Urasawa’s work, and I think many consider it his best. I can’t say that since I haven’t read all of it, but I have read all of the next one.
20th Century Boys and 21st Century Boys
It’s kinda hard describing this series. See that group up there? Well, way back in 1969, they were in elementary school together. One fateful summer day, four of them build a grass fort out in the middle of a field. There, they stash manga, porn mags, a radio, and a few other random things. The four soon inform other friends of theirs of their secret base, and they eventually come up with the Book of Prophecy. It’s just a book created by a bunch of kids detailing how they’d destroy the world and then save it. They’re kids! They want to be superheroes! Heck, the plan involves giant robots and laser guns! They also come up with this weird symbol that only those in their group know about. Flash-forward to 1997, and Kenji (the man front-and-center in the pic) is running his family’s store and taking care of his sister’s daughter. Donkey, one of the old crew, commits suicide, but Kenji receives a letter from Donkey shortly before that leading him to think there’s more to Donkey’s death. And he’s right. A new semi-political/semi-religious cult known as the Friends is somehow connected, and also, to add even more mystery, their symbol is the same one Kenji and his crew used way back in 1969.
You want to talk about intricate plots? This takes the cake. I’m not gonna spoil much right here, but just know that the events in this series span from 1969 all the way to 2017. And everything matters. Yes, everything. Every character, every bit of dialogue, every location, every item–they all come into play one way or another. I’ve never run across something so well-woven out of so many seemingly random occurrences. Effing brilliant.
I also really love the cast. This has to be one of the strangest gatherings of protagonists to save the world I’ve run across. Including Kenji we have a customs officer, a traveling soba chef, a former Yakuza-turned-priest, a manga artist, and a student who just wants to listen to her favorite band. That’s not even half the characters that could be considered major protagonists in this story. The amount of characters alone should let you know the scope of this series is huge.
Much like Monster, 20th Century Boys deals with the theme of actions and consequences. I won’t exactly go into too much detail here because spoilers, but the set-up alone uses this theme. I mean, an evil cult is using a world domination plan created by a bunch of kids as their blueprint for success. Another theme of this series music. The title is taken from a T-Rex song, and other artists like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones are mentioned numerous times. The main protagonist Kenji used to be in a band, and, once he begins his quest to take down the Friends, he picks his guitar back up and starts playing it again on sidewalks.
20th Century Boys is–so far–not only my favorite Naoki Urasawa series, but it is also quite possibly my favorite manga. It’s Urasawa’s love letter to anime, manga, and music as he subverts and takes to new levels many staples of all three mediums. If you want to read an action/adventure/mystery/scif-fi/drama/thriller, or if you just want to read something good, then look no further than 20th Century Boys. Hell, read any of Urasawa’s works. You can’t go wrong.
Well, that’s it for March Manga. Guess it’s time to get back to the Book of Sawce.