Naoki Urasawa update - from the past!

*Right after this summary of


The Goon #14

Top Ten: Beyond the Farthest Precinct #2 (of 5) (I checked another copy of this on the stands today - it was also misprinted)

Seven Soldiers - Mister Miracle #1 (of 4)

And that is that.

*Well, we’re still waiting on the US release of the 20th Century Boys and Pluto author’s Monster, but I’ve uncovered a little something that just might hold you over. Remember when I mentioned a while back that the hugely popular (in Japan) Urasawa has yet to see an official US release of any of his manga? It seems that wasn’t entirely true. No, none of Urasawa’s work as a writer/artist has seen official release, and I presume that’s what most people are waiting for. But just this weekend I discovered much to my surprise, that there was a prior legit Urasawa-related manga release. Very very prior…

Pineapple Army #9 (of 10)

(EDIT 9/29/05 2:11 PM: A paragraph in the below review has been rewritten to reflect recent findings as to the format of Viz's collected edition of this series, and a quote has been added to another section, taken from the same collected edition.)

(EDIT#2 10/2/05 4:32 PM: A well-informed fellow by the name of Althalus posted some great info in the comments section below, including some corrections as to errors made by Anime News Network; all of this stuff has now been added to the review as well. Go visit his blog, The Interested Layman)

Many fans rightfully consider the Judo epic Yawara!, begun in 1986, to be Urasawa’s true arrival on the longform manga scene; it is, to my knowledge, his first ‘big’ series (in terms of popularity) as a writer/artist. But Urasawa had been making comics for years prior, and had indeed begin work (as an artist only) on a seperate longform series a few months prior to Yawara! in early 1986 - that series was Pineapple Army, which managed to broker a partial US release from Viz way back in 1989. At this early point, you’ll recall, Viz was still playing around with multiple release formats. Pineapple Army was released biweekly as a 10-issue miniseries, in standard b&w pamphlet format; this was a style Viz had worked with since their mid-’80s affiliation with the now-defunct Eclipse Comics (another Eclipse accomplishment: in 1988, they became the first publisher to release a full-length solo comic by Chris Ware - just try and find a copy of Floyd Farland: Citizen of the Future for under twenty bucks these days).

Indeed, it was an Eclipse book that likely prompted the release of Pineapple Army - the successful Mai the Psychic Girl, from the same writer as Pineapple Army, Kazuya Kudo. It’s unlikely that Urasawa entered into such considerations; while I’m fairly sure Yawara! was a big hit in Japan by 1989 (indeed, by the time Viz's 1990 collected edition of this material rolled around, they were referring to Urasawa as "...currently one of the most successful young manga artists in Japan."), the contemporaneous US market just wasn’t ready for an extended Judo series, and Urasawa had yet to prove himself to be a master of non-sports suspense. Ah, but an extended series of action-packed stand-alone stories featuring military gunplay and copious explosions? All but built for the US Direct Market in ’89, at least to the extent that Japanese comics were welcome at all.

Pineapple Army ultimately filled eight tankoubon compilations in Japan (Anime News Network claims that these collections only featured 130 pages each, though I've been assured by an actual owner of these Japanese editions that they're actually 210-230 pages each - a later six volume re-release beefed up the page count to 300 pages each, then yet another re-release arrived in a four book format at 450 pages each); obviously, the material released in the US is hardly comprehensive, and according to Althalus, the same source cited above in regards to tankoubon page count, it's actually a combination of material from the first and second tankoubon collections (Vol. 1 Ch. 1-3, 8, Vol. 2 Ch. 1-4, 7-8, in that order). It ought be noted that Viz's later collected edition of this series is a very attractive softcover item, weighing in at 284 pages (as opposed to the 90 pages that Amazon.com erroneously lists) with a nice dustjacket, a color intro page and an afterward by co-translator/ESPers writer James D. Hudnall (who also contributed an essay to Viz's short-lived Golgo 13 release around the same time). That still leaves five or so books worth of stuff missing, however.

But all intricacies aside, it’s Urasawa art on English-language comics, out a decade and a half ago. Sure, it’s not pure Urasawa; hell, it’s not even written by the guy. But Urasawa himself has said that such name-making epics as Yawara! and Happy! were largely forced on him by editors, and that they basically reflect an attempt to reconcile his personal tastes with the demands of the Japanese mainstream manga readership, as opposed to the later likes of Monster or 20th Century Boys, which incarnate his own storytelling proclivities in a much less diffused manner. Pineapple Army is even farther back from those earlier works as a writer/artist, but certainly there’s the development of Urasawa’s visual style for fans to track, his way of staging a scene.

The premise of Pineapple Army concerns one Jed Goshi, a legendary American-born combat expert who travels around the globe, instructing those with money to burn and a compelling story as to the fine art of combat. And while I can’t say I’ve read more than this one issue, I’ll hazard a guess that he often winds up getting personally involved, with the use of his magnificent skills for, ah, non-educational purposes an inevitability. That’s certainly what happens in this one, with Jed being summoned by a young woman in Honduras in order to teach her how to rescue her fruit magnate father, who’s been kidnapped by terrorists; nasty mercenaries, hired directly by Big Fruit to sweep in and eradicate the abductors in the event of the hostage‘s death (although really nobody save for the daughter seems to believe the hostage will be delivered alive), taunt and tease poor Jed in genre-proven fashion. One of them even says that he only knows of three men who are true combat professionals, one of which he's never seen the face of. C'mon - try and guess who that turns out to be. Naturally, Jed winds up leading them the charge when push comes to shove, pulling off magnificent feats of wall-climbing and precision grenade-launching. And if all of this is beginning to sound just a bit like a humanist Golgo 13, it’s understandable - Kudo also served as a writer on that venerable manga institution.

It’s not that great a story; even to relatively new readers it’ll feel predictable, the whole ‘mystery underdog master-of-something shows them all’ arc pretty much ingrained in our minds, regardless of culture. The plot trudges along dutifully enough, hitting every expected emotional beat, but without the panache or clockwork precision of similarly-structured short story collections like Viz’s Jinpachi Mori/Jiro Taniguchi one-off Benkei in New York (yet another in the long line of manga about superkillers doing dirty work for pay). So what we’re left with is Urasawa, and his still-blossoming visual powers. Jed has a great, stocky character design, and Urasawa holds his own with the action scenes, trucks exploding nicely. There’s a great sequence of Jed perched on a wall, aiming his grenade launcher; in two panels our perspective pulls up to his face as he silently muses on his shot, then another panel pulls away as he decides what to do, then the next panel reverses the viewpoint, showing us a soldier standing way down on the ground from Jed’s angle, then the perspective creeps up to the soldier’s face as he comes to his own realization (basically: “Oh my that Jed is awesome and I should not have made light of him!”), then the perspective reverses yet again, showing Jed’s amazing grenade launch from the point of view of the soldier on the ground. It’s not flashy at all, but it’s excellent meat ’n potatoes action staging, signaling Urasawa’s skills at this early date.

After the conclusion of Pineapple Army, the never-slacking Urasawa immediately moved on to another art-only project, Master Keaton, the anime adaptation of which has garnered something of a cult-within-a-cult following in the US. Not so for this thing, which I fished out of a manga-themed dollar bin; it shouldn’t come that expensive, at least. It’s far from 20th Century Boys, but it’s a small, delightful surprise to see such a familiar name unexpectedly peeking out from the past, and with such skill. I don’t know how much authority Urasawa would have in regards to any future US release; certainly he’s successfully kept the English-language 20th Century Boys tied up while Monster plays out, apparently out of concern for the visual leaps of the former overshadowing the latter - one might suppose he wouldn’t be crazy about this stuff reappearing, though I think it would make an interesting counterpoint to the upcoming Monster release. Regardless, there’s always the past to search, always things to find buried away.