So Viz Media sent me an advance copy of the first volume of Master Keaton, one of Naoki Urusawa's hit manga series from the 1980s before he became a much bigger deal with series like Monster, 20th Century Boys and Billy Bat later.
Master Keaton is an adventure series from a less complicated time. The hero is a half-English, half-Japanese former SAS man turned archaeology lecturer and insurance investigator for Lloyd's of London. He's an underdog. Even though he's smart and sharp as a pin and able to improvise and fight his way out of any situation, he's a humble, low-key guy. He doesn't make much as a lecturer, so he depends on assignments from Lloyd's that take him around the world, pitting him against art thieves, spies, hitmen, smugglers and terrorists. Just because the stories seem light and breezy doesn't mean they're not sophisticated or lacking nuance and complexity. This is the manga equivalent of Clive Cussler or Jack Higgins novels.
The series was actually written by Hokusei Katsuhika and Takashi Nagasaki though the real star of the show is Urusawa, of course. It's one of the series he was best known for during the 80s, next to his other adventure series Pinapple Army and the still untranslated comedies Yawara, about a teenage female martial arts competitor, and Happy!, about a girl who becomes a tennis champion to help clear her family debts. All these series had Urusawa's trademark of elegant, deceptively light-footed storytelling and dense research. Master Keaton also followed an 80s-style TV series format of self-contained stories per instalment. These were all long series that prepared Urusawa for his reinvention as the darker, more epic postmodern, deconstructionist storyteller of Monster, Pluto, 20th Century Boys and his current series Billy Bat. With these recent series, he is now Japan's equivalent of Alan Moore.
Reading Master Keaton also makes me think of Japanese manga in the 80s and 90s and how different they've become after the year 2000. In the 1980s, when Japan was going through its period of economic prosperity and international expansion, manga and anime also had a more mature confident, international feel. This was the period that Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira, Masamune Shiro"s Appleseed and Ghost in the Shell came to the West and helped start the manga boom and the whole manga market that exists now. A lot of adventure and Science Fiction manga and anime was imported to the West. There was a shift, though, once the economic bubble burst in 1991. It took a few years before that shift permeated manga and anime, but the 90s began to see more kid-friendly series like Dragon Ball and Sailor Moon began to hit the West and that got young kids and teens into manga and anime. By the late 90s and early 2000s, the shift in manga and anime became to get less international in story content, the stories more focused on teenagers and high school stories. Granted, back in Japan, there were and still are series in the Science Fiction, Crime and Adventure genres aimed at older audiences, but less and less of them are heading to the West. The material in manga and anime feels increasingly less international-minded, more culturally insular, focussing on teenagers and high school, Shonen and Shoujo (boys and girls). The market becomes a more closed loop of geeks or Otaku instead of wider mainstream popularity. It feels like a loss in confidence reflecting the failed stagnant economy. As a result, the manga and anime market in the West becomes its own niche as much as the DC-Marvel superhero market is.
In Japan, mainstream success is on Shonen and Shoujo series rather than the likes of Akira or Master Keaton now. We're less likely to get a series featuring a Eurasian hero with a global outlook traveling all over Europe on adventures now, so we might as well savour Master Keaton finally getting translated into English.
As stated above, a review copy of the book was provided to Bleeding Cool for review purposes.
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