Spotlight: Naoki Urasawa

Having consumed manga for years, I’ve grown to like some authors a little more than the others. When this happens I go into a mad frenzy, reading as much as I could about the author and try to see  if he has grown as an author, if he has stagnated, or if my relationship with him as a fan would be tumultuous – loving, hating, agonizing, enjoying every single work he has released.

I thought I’d give myself a monthly special to put this habit of mine into good use, besides; it will at least give me the discipline of having to write something special every month. This will also allow me to do something I had wanted to do but never had the chance to – write about remarkable manga artists and writers. Perhaps this will encourage readers to explore more of that author’s work.

For my first spotlight, there’s no other author that comes to mind but the Tezuka of today: Naoki Urasawa.

THE MAKING OF A MONSTER

My life before Naoki Urasawa was packed with shounen and shoujo dreams. At that time, all I cared about was Naruto’s cloning technique and Sai’s search for the Hand of God. I was a voracious manga reader and it came to a point when I was looking for something different, something real and without the sparkle or the battles. An old friend of mine suggested that I check this title called Monster. He wasn’t exactly sure if it was my cup of tea but he knew for a fact that once I started reading, I won’t  stop reading.

And I didn’t. I ended up looking for more.

I’m quite sure that a lot of us started reading Urasawa-sensei through his work Monster. This award-winning title of a doctor trying to re-claim his innocence was shocking, captivating, and thrilling: the makings of an amazing suspense drama. I was turning pages in anticipation, each panel was filled with emotion that it was hard not to be engrossed. It was hard not think that Urasawa was amazing.

Despite the round and almost cartoony art style, this man managed to convince us that he was serious business. I remember feeling fear over a shadow of a boy, disgust at the sight of Eva, and hatred in Tenma’s eyes. His style does not compromises the story he wished to portray in fact his straightforward art only highlights the complexities of his stories.

It is in Monster that we see Urasawa’s brand of manga. It would make sense that while America clamored to get the license of 20th Century Boys, Urasawa and his publishers insisted that America should read Monster first. They come hand in hand like gin and lime, two acidic flavors that mellow out after it ruffles your feathers. Monster was a tart start that’s followed by the burning finish that came with 20th Century Boys. To understand the insane trip of 20th Century Boys, one had to first know what Urasawa has to offer.

But is Monster what Urasawa can only offer? His career in manga would say otherwise.

THE BOY AND GIRL NEXT DOOR WITH BIG DREAMS

A page from Urasawa's debut title: Return

While we are only reaping the success of Urasawa’s works, he has been quite a name already in Japanese manga. He began in 1983, handing out a comic about a man whose life’s changed after an encounter with a robot, Return. While we know how well Urasawa captures human and robot relations in Pluto, his one shot Return was nowhere near his masterpiece. The story and the art were too plain even if it has one of those subtle poignant messages about life. But even with that, Return managed to capture the judges of Shogakukan’s Rookie of the Year award. Urasawa worked hard to get himself published and it was a little later that he managed to debut as a mangaka with his work Beta, a cute and hilarious story of man who woke up with something strange on his face.

His rounded style matched his early humor and his works that came after, The Dancing Policeman, NASA, Sayonara Mr. Hani, Mighty Boy, and a couple of his other short works were all light-hearted comedies filled with big dreams. I’m thinking that in a way, it captured his energy as a mangaka, taking stories from what was closest to him and giving us a delightful view of life.

This early comedic brand of Urasawa follows in his first masterpiece, Yawara! The young fashionable girl who has great Judo potential brought a big Yawara! and Judo boom in Japan which eventually culminated to the addition of the sport in the Olympics. Of course, Urasawa’s not entirely to blame for that but he was one of the major influences that made Japan look towards the sport and to other Yawara potentials.

And the comic had every reason to cause a frenzy among the Japanese people. It was fresh, vibrant, a little crazy (well, Jigoro was crazy), and cute. I’m not exactly familiar with its contemporaries in Big Comic Spirits, but as a reader looking back, I found it to be a lively read for a seinen comic. It was in many ways similar to the previous sports manga superstar, Touch by Adachi Mitsuru. It was similar in a way that it had Urasawa draw a very strong heroine and a funny and almost dorky supportive hero. One of the major differences was the hesitant hero was turned into a heroine. Another was the major focus on the sport with the side story of a romance. It was possibly strange for those who were used to the hardboiled atmosphere of Spirits but Urasawa managed to sell the young fashionable Yawara to readers. His popularity with Yawara eventually led him to have the leverage to write other stories he wanted to write.

BUILDING THE SUSPENSE AND DRAMA

A panel from Master Keaton

Urasawa had grown leaps and bounds after Yawara. The once cute crooked and round lines eventually became slicker. Uniformed faces became more distinct and his knack for detail was slowly but surely came out. By the time Pineapple Army came out, a strange army drama, Urasawa was out of his readers’ comfort zone. I’m not exactly sure how popular Pineapple Army was and while I haven’t read it, looking at Kate Dacey’s responses only made me think that it was probably written enough for it to finish. Master Keaton came after Yawara and personally I think this laid ground to Urasawa’s brand of suspense. The comic was episodic in nature, with no direct story line beyond an understanding of Keaton’s capability of being the Mcguyver of manga.  What these manga built though was Urasawa’s ability to draw and take us to places. In Keaton particularly, the dessert, the cobbled streets, the images of the Western world would come alive in his pages.

These stories were different to Yawara and I would imagine that a clamoring for the old glory made Urasawa bring back his strong lovely heroine in the tennis drama, Happy!

Happy! was nowhere near the cheerful vibrant pages of Yawara but in its own way, it’s the most vibrant out of all of Urasawa’s works. It was quite an unhappy beginning for a title that bears happiness. But compared to some of Urasawa’s titles, it has the liveliest and interesting characters I’ve met in manga. I’m also not sure of the popularity of this title however I think Urasawa managed to hone his ability to weave and intertwine the lives of his characters in this title. It still turned out to be a lovely piece and it was perhaps at this stage that Urasawa proved to people that he had the ability to write and draw something that the audience would love without compromising his story. Years of training are now gone and he now had the equipment to do what he wanted. Once Happy wrapped up, Urasawa shifted his gears and created a monster.

MONSTER IN THE 20TH CENTURY

A page from Pluto

I’m quite sure that most of you have read his masterpiece Monster and was in awe of how he drew and wove his story together. Tenma’s dilemma was heartbreaking and horrifying that the word monster, while innate to the Japanese, has a very different bearing as soon as it came under Urasawa’s hand.

Monster was a different monster and as a story teller, Urasawa began to question what that word meant and how its meaning has changed in this day and age. In this comic we meet the human monster, the kind that we did not expect, and the kind that still terrified us because it was real. This psychological and sociological exploration became his most notable work, earning him awards left and right and finally gave him critical acclaim.

This exploration of semantics became the heart of Urasawa’s next line of works. In 20th Century Boys he explored the meaning of “Friend.” In Pluto, it was “humanity.” In his latest work, Billy Bat, he looked at the visual semantic of a cartoon. Are cartoons innocent of meaning or are they just as political? The man didn’t fear to raise questions on the banality of words and people. He was, in many ways, similar to Tezuka. While he may not have written shoujo or shounen, Urasawa too moved from his cheerful and simple beginnings to the complex monster of a mangaka that he is today. There were fragments of his livelier days in his later work, but overall they were pensive and questioning.

THE GENIUS

From Yawara!

I love to use the word genius to describe Naoki Urasawa and his works. There were so many things that he had done that was quite unexpected from what we’d usually expect in manga and while he wasn’t exactly the first to do it, he was one of the few of who was courageous enough to brave the panels with his beautiful art and compelling stories.

He is one of the reminders of how powerful manga can get, that there’s no need to compromise in order to get the story told. While I’m a big fan of his works, lately I’ve been questioning my own affections because of some of the decisions he has made at the end of 20th Century Boys as well as with his new work, Billy Bat. The problem with Urasawa now is he’s taken comfort with his formula. And while I love the great WTFs he’s been throwing our way, at least in his latest work, Billy Bat, I believe I’ve had enough. I will be honest in saying that I do miss the old happy-go-lucky Urasawa. I can only hope he brings back those lively characters again and still write a story that would hold his philosophy.

That said, it doesn’t mean I no longer have the admiration I have for the man. He is still, in many ways, the man who opened my eyes to seinen manga and I cannot rob him of that respect.

THE READING LIST

For those who want to get into Urasawa, here’s a couple of titles that would probably make you enjoy his works… at least in English: MONSTER, 20th Century Boys, Pluto.

For those who can read Japanese and has access to some Japanese manga, here are some of the more accessible Urasawa titles: YAWARA!, Happy!, Master Keaton.

For those who can read Japanese and would like to go through the lengths of reading more of his works, here are some of his works: 初期のURASAWA (Shoki no Urasawa – Early works of Urasawa),  Pineapple Army, Billy Bat, Jigoro!


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10 thoughts on “Spotlight: Naoki Urasawa”

  • tenma wasn’t trying to prove his innocence
    he’s just trying to kill the monster that he
    brought back to life to prevent more death
    a different way of saving lives as a doctor

  • 20th Century Boys has one of the best narratives I’ve ever seen in manga. I’m continually blown away by each volume as it comes out here in America.
    Viz’s PR guy passed the link to this article along to me, and I’m glad he did. It’s a good read and a good ode to one of the manga greats.

  • Fantastic post. That said, I don’t think formula necessarily implies comfort or stagnation. Perhaps as a reader you feel less entertained by Urasawa because of it, but I don’t think the fact that he continues to write suspense/mystery fiction should lessen anyone’s admiration. Many excellent artists have stuck to formulas. Borges is fairly predictable in the kinds of stories he tells, yet the metaphysics he populates them with don’t cease to produce wonder. James Ellroy writes hardboiled mystery fiction, most of which is from the intertwining perspectives of three main characters. These kinds of artists don’t tend to be the innovating genius types, (Urasawa is no Tezuka, Schoenberg or Cézanne) but that doesn’t keep their art from being meaningful.

    Urasawa actually has a decent amount of range as you point out in this post and that perhaps makes it disappointing when he doesn’t employ it. But 20th Century Boys, Pluto, Monster and Billy Bat are all distinct enough in substance that I do not think there is anything necessarily wrong with the fact that they are similar in form.

    I for one am glad to see a master storyteller who is both accessible and deep, who has no fear in politicizing manga (what is 20th Century Boys if not political?) or ending his stories in ways that challenge us as readers, and who continues to work relatively prolifically.

    • I actually have no issue if he continues suspense/mystery for a long while. When I speak of his formula, I was primarily referring to his style where he brings the character to a crazy situation or he introduced a really screwed up scenario only to be toppled by another and another and another in a very short span of time without really managing to find new direction for the story or even closure.

      He was more calculated with Pluto, Monster and the early parts of 20th Century Boys however I don’t see the same execution in Billy Bat or in 21st Century Boys. As a fan, it makes me waver a little but I can hope for great things because he’s that great of an author. I think his genius came out in those works.And I think it was because he had the balance to weave his story in patience. Right now… it’s a little worrisome and I’m patiently waiting for that moment of genius again.

      There was a time where I’m caught in anticipation for his works, seriously following the chapters of Pluto and 20th Century Boys every month. Sadly, I have a subscription to Morning and while I had been enthusiastic about Billy Bat, a good few years after, I cannot say that I feel the same enthusiasm. I’m doing the 10 volume wait. Maybe I’ll finally get his genius when I read him in bulk.

  • Great post. I’ve only watched the Monster anime, which I really like. But I’ve also read all of 20th Century Boys (though it’s taking me time to complete the collection) and Pluto (same situation). Both are in my top 5 favorite manga ever.

    I suppose I should really read Monster then.

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