A common beginning exercise for the budding critic: take the work in question and create an explanatory parallel with another work. With Ghost Slayers Ayashi, f’rinstance, you could come up with something like this: “It’s Mushi-shi for people who liked that series but wanted to see more stuff hacked up and asploded real good.”
I keed, I keed. See, it’s easy to be flip when talking about something this good, not least of all because a) it’s loaded with all the things I savor (feudal Japan, fantasy elements derived from same) and b) it’s a solid piece of manga storytelling entirely apart from all that. Ayashi’s a good manga that happens to contain a great many things I already like, rather than it being a bunch of things I already like justifying the existence of the manga they happen to be in. By all accounts it’s the manga adaptation of the series of the same name, since it sports BONES, the animation studio for Ayashi, as one of the story credits. The other name’s Sho Aikawa — no, not the guy who stars in just about every Takashi Miike movie ever made (and good for him, too), but a screenwriter with a ton of venerable credits: 12 Kingdoms, Love Hina, Legend of the Overfiend (!), the criminally underrated Hakkenden, and many more.
Ayashi kicks off in Japan’s later Edo years — the mid-1800s or so, right before Commodore Perry’s black ships sailed into Yokohama and coined the term gunboat diplomacy. Edo is having a bad time of it regardless: a slew of newly-passed sumptuary laws forbid indulging in exactly the kinds of extravagances that helped drive a good chunk of Edo’s economy. Worse, famine in the countryside has forced many people into the city, which has become a hothouse of the hungry, the restless, the disaffected, and the newly-criminal. And underneath all that is yet another problem: the youi. This is the name the government has applied to various beings that have started to manifest — creatures of ostensibly supernatural origins, wreaking havoc on the peasantry and causing more of exactly the kind of unrest the already-edgy Shogunate doesn’t want. To combat this problem, the government has created the “Office of Barbarian Knowledge Enforcement” — a clandestine group whose mission is to find and put a stop to youi manifestations.Read more
We’re not always in control. Even when it looks like we have the powers of the gods at our command, it’s provisional. Nature, fate, and mankind too, all have their ways of getting their due.
I don’t want to make it sound like the main lesson to be learned in the second volume of Black Jack is “Give up” — it’s not, and Osamu Tezuka makes that clear time and again. But he also makes it clear that it’s not wise to equate absolute power with absolute control. You can’t stop nature from running its course in its own way — sometimes all you can do is stand back and let things happen, and it takes a wise man to know when to stand back. And sometimes it hurts like hell to do so.
If you haven’t read the series yet, Black Jack’s central premise — an unlicensed surgeon, an apparently amoral figure who can perform miracles for six- and seven-digit sums — probably sounds like a setup for stories where the biggest tests are the limits of the protagonist’s skills. That’s just the setup — the springboard that Tezuka uses to propel us into his universe of difficult moral and ethical choices. There’s one moment in this volume where Black Jack performs a delicate bit of surgery in complete darkness, and it’s not because he’s showing off: he’s trying to engineer a solution to a dilemma that has no easy solution. Read more
The most pleasant surprise of Black Lagoon Vol. 3 is how it isn’t just about the “gun love”, in the words of the “absolutely freakin’ not for children” parental advisory block. There’s the gun-fu, to be sure — along with the gun-jitsu, and the gun-kwan-do — but there’s also a generous dollop of several other different kinds of underworld grit. The crew of the Lagoon put their bread on the table thanks to the New World Disorder: terrorism and smuggling and human trafficking, but also the way those things shape the different characters’ philosophies and outlooks. This is the world that creates badasses, and in volume 3 you learn a little bit more about how and why.
You didn’t have to look very far last time around to get an idea of just how twisted people can get when the underworld is all they know. Viz.: the brother-and-sister team of kinder-assassins, Hansel and Gretel. They’re like something out of a Bobbsey Twins book as written by Hannibal Lecter, and they are creating serious problems for Balalaika and Hotel Moscow. Ditto Chang, the local triad boss; he’s suffered ghastly losses no thanks to these two, and rather reluctantly partners with Balalaika to send these two kids packing into the great day-care center in the sky.Read more