Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Color of Rage

The story: Two men, one Japanese and the other African-American, escape a slave ship in the Pacific Ocean in the late 1700s. After surviving the near-fatal experience, they make their way across Japan in search of a peaceful place to make their home. Unfortunately, this is Edo-era Japan and things aren't idyllic, to say the least. In their travels, they come across yakuza, sheriffs, criminals and other dark characters. While George, the Japanese half of the pair, knows his way around the customs and rigid social hierarchy, King, with his sense of slave-born justice, understands nothing of it and questions why he must hide himself from view. Will George and King ever find peace?

Reaction: This is an action-packed, violent manga that adds another layer of depth to its tale with the inclusion of a realistic African-American man. The action is hard to follow at times, especially since many scenes take place at night, but the story is worth following for its underlying sense of (out-of-place historically) moral justice. To think that these two, especially King, who was born into slavery in the American South, would survive drowning at sea to encounter nothing but violence, is somewhat remarkable in its creation, especially considering the once-prejudiced depiction of African-Americans in Japanese comics. But, perhaps best of all, underneath all the grittiness and violence of their escape, lies a story of true hope and optimism. This is a unique story that I enjoyed on an emotional level despite the historic inaccuracy, which was too numerous to recount. Overall, though, this manga goes nowhere fast, putting the "fight for your lives, rest, repeat" cycle on full display.

Deep thoughts: The presence of an African-American character in manga is fairly rare. While older manga tend to fall on the side of racist caricature (see: Moon Child), there are others that provide an honest depiction, most notably Me and the Devil Blues. Since Japan is a very homogeneous society, it is perhaps unsurprising, but still rather distasteful. While the U.S. is, for the most part, well integrated, Japan is not. Most recently, the Japanese government paid Brazilian nationals of Japanese descent to return to their homeland in an effort to provide more native Japanese with jobs. Jiro Kawasaki, a former health minister and senior lawmaker of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, even went so far as to state, "I do not think that Japan should ever become a multiethnic society."

Artwork: Seisaku Kano uses a realistic style to show off Edo-era Japan with great effect and captures the architecture and surroundings of the time well. However, as seen in many action scenes, it's hard to make out who is who and what it is they are doing. I blame this on the fact that manga is published in black and white, then necessarily the fault of the artist, although they do play a large part. Also, the opening pages of an underwater scene are done in watercolor and are hard to make out without any color. The same problem happens when panels are colored in watercolor and/or pastels—it washes out the scene and gives it an unearthly feel. While I could get artistic and say that was the intent, I think it's safe to say that it's simply a poorly executed choice.

The verdict: Meh. On its surface, I liked this historically inaccurate manga for its unexpected emotional and philosophical depth. But the confusing action scenes and constant violence wore a little thin, even with thoughtful moments sprinkled throughout. While I eventually got into the story, the ending was a bit cut off for me, providing an anticlimactic ending to a story I was hard-pressed to enjoy. Color of Rage is available in the U.S. from Dark Horse.

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