Before Masayuki Ishikawa had his big hit with Moyasimon (a tale of talking bacteria, no less), he had a couple of other one-shot titles that may or may not get an English release. I’ve been pushing for “may”, as after I discovered Del Rey was putting out Moyasimon I went to their acquisitions editor and encouraged her to look into also picking up Ishikawa’s Kataribe. It only ran for one volume, but what a volume it is: it’s a rousing, violent, eye-filling adventure that comes off like one of Miyazaki’s wide-gauge productions, right down to the stubborn young heroine in the titular lead. A clone it’s not, though, and the Japan Media Arts Festival gave it a recommendation when it appeared back in 2006 (right alongside Honey and Clover, and Moyasimon itself).
The plot: Kataribe’s the disguised daughter of a noble family returning to Japan after being in exile*, now that the internecine conflict on the island finally seems to be winding down. Unfortunately they return just in time to be captured by a band of marauding warriors, the “Demon Masters”. The lucky prisoners only get killed and have their bodies thrown to the Demon Masters’ pack of cannibal-like conscripts. The unlucky ones probably end up as those beasts — and they’re a truly creepy gang, with their names tattooed on their backs, their faces always obscured behind rough hoods with eyeholes, and buckets of severed human ears as proof of their conquests.
Kataribe (her name turns out to be a punning use of the term “storyteller” [語り部]) is saved — sort of — by the devil-may-care swordsman Maekawa and his gang of compatriots: the grizzled old battle master Gojiram, the cannon-wielding Karakuma, and the sickle-slinging Bahan. Soon the conflict involves into a multi-way struggle between Kataribe’s saviors, the Demon Masters, the army of Princess Rie (who comes on like what Kataribe’s going to be in a few years if she lives through all this), and a couple of other parties with equally eccentric manners of dress and warfare. It’s all too much battle for Kataribe to handle alone, but that doesn’t mean she’s going to sit by idly and let herself be dragged along. When Maekawa takes an arrow to the shoulder and sinks deep into the sea, she’s the first one to dive after him with a length of line slung over her shoulder. Act first, think later, regret never. Especially not when it means making a friend for life out of someone like Maekawa.
The art alone would be reason enough to bring this into English. Ishikawa’s character design and scene layouts are superb: he uses fine-line crosshatching instead of tone screens, and thick, powerful borders around the principal players in each frame. Action scenes are put together with the confidence of a big-budget epic (think of the newly-released Red Cliff); you’re always certain of where everything is and how the action’s likely to unfold. I mentioned the scene where Kataribe goes diving for Maekawa after he’s injured, but earlier on there’s another bravura sequence where Kataribe, hands tied together, manages to save herself from drowning thanks to the placement of a sword only slightly smaller than a horse’s leg.
Another thing that comes through, even without the benefit of a translation, is Ishikawa’s confidence in his story. Maekawa’s own violent past is exposed in a series of cleverly-deployed flashbacks — they’re slotted in whenever he falls asleep, and explain both how he got that nasty scar on his forehead and why his recklessness may be at least one part guilt. And the last stretch of the story is not a violent showdown, but an attempt at reconciliation: when some of the “demon soldiers” are brought back home, there’s the troubling question of whether or not the very people that they were stolen away from will want them back now. The comparison with Miyazaki holds up all the more at the end of Kataribe; it doesn’t quit once everyone designated as a Bad Guy has been finally killed off. It has more heart and soul than that.
*Take my plot summary with a grain of salt, as at this stage of my self-teaching my translation skills are just good enough to get me into trouble … but not always back out of it again.