Japanese cartoonist Takayuki Yamaguchi’s has found some support in English, but not enough. TY is praised for his eccentricity and brutality as a storyteller. Critics deride TY’s work for its perversion and adolescence. But much like David Cronenberg or Paul Verhoeven (directors from Yamaguchi’s generation working in a similar tone), the grotesqueries in TY’s comics are absurdist, satirical, and just plain silly for the sake of bein’ silly, and we highly recommend the work.
Takayuki Yamaguchi’s giant achievement is Shigurui, a comic series not published in the US. It is unfortunate that Shigurui has not gotten a proper release in the US, but some enthusiasts have organized and translated the first 10 volumes and made them available on-line. Shigurui is an epic tale set in Japan’s Tokugawa Era about two swordsman with an intricate and tragically intertwined history, now meeting for a final duel. Click here to read the comic in English now, though be warned that this link may not last.
Shigurui’s first few story arcs were animated in a television series by MADHOUSE and released in the US under the name Shigurui: Death Frenzy. TY has an idiosyncratic engagement with his mediums. For a tale of swords and honor, Shigurui: Death Frenzy is a sometimes plodding and always cerebral anime. The droning music, a mixture of traditional Japanese singing and instruments with a modern composition, is hypnotic. The borderline grotesque renderings of some of the faces, figures, and events in this series, as well as the deep attention paid to fighting stances, sets this series apart from the many other period pieces released today.
TY’s other large project, Apocalypse Zero (originally appearing weekly in Shonen Champion), is about a recent transfer to a high school stuck in the middle of a vast post-apocalyptic wasteland who fights bio-engineered cannibals with an armor suit fashioned from the blood and flesh of victims of a Nazi-like experiment.
I saw Apocalypse Zero as an inferior but hilarious animation before I read it as a manga. This weekend I read the first 1,000 or so pages of TY’s Zero as published and translated into English by Media Blasters. Zero is put together well with great design, clear translation, and few if any errors (which can plague these often quickly-produced books). Unfortunately Media Blasters has ceased production of the volumes, ending at volume 6.
Media Blasters’ trade paperback edition of Apocalypse Zero was really the first time I had the chance to consume some of TY’s writing and art in a more traditional situation, that is, sitting in a chair with real pages to look at. And what a pleasure it was. Zero is not just borderline grotesque like Shigurui, but couched firmly in total Neo Tokyo, “Tactical Fiend,” cross-gender, living-armor-suit comic absurdity. While there are some moments of sincerity in these pages, Apocalypse Zero is a satire of the armor-suit genre.
Like Akira, Blade of the Immortal, and other series I’ve had the chance to both watch as television series or movies and read as a comic, Zero on the page feels like the true home of these characters. Japanese comics are pure episodic indulgence, with elephantine story-lines that roll up and down in waves of intensity, suspense, masterful draftsmanship and poetry in the composition. I love the byzantine narratives these artists have been working on over the past thirty years, and am sorry to not have the chance to see more of this work.
Hopefully, we in the States haven’t seen the last of Takayuki Yamaguchi, and in the meantime, there is a generous amount of this man’s work for us to take a look at. Go now and pick up the first volume of Apocalypse Zero or Shigurui: Death Frenzy and you’ll see what I mean.