Venturing back to the world of Tough Guys and tougher situations, Calling Manga Island takes a look at Hiroshi Takahashi's "Worst." With two issues out already and a third on the way this month, "Worst" joins the emerging list of manga coming out these days with the tough guy anti-hero as the protagonist. I'm a big fan of hard boiled drama, High School hi-jinks, and fictional accounts of politics solved by fists instead of elections and manga like "Worst" delivers on all these accounts. The genre that "Worst" falls into is known as "Yankee" manga. "Yankee" in this case being a Japanese term equivalent to rebel, delinquent or punk teenagers and gangs. After having reviewed "Cromartie High School" a couple of columns back, it was interesting to read the exact type of manga that was parodied so well in "Cromartie," this time played (mostly) straight. I luckily never had to deal with a high school like that found in either manga, but the genre plays a big part in shaping the landscape of Manga Island.
"Worst" tells the tale of the Hana Tsukishima, a country boy who comes to Tokyo to attend high school. His first encounters with the big city foretell of some tough adjustments for the bald headed, (often called rice ball head, alluding to his baldness and the fact he is a bumpkin) naive Hana. Coming from a village that doesn't even have cell phone service, Hana learns to deal with the hustle and bustle of the city, and the gang element present in each section. Even before making it to the boarding house where he is to stay, he discovers that the wrong side of town can be dangerous, unless of course, you are gifted with lightning fast reflexes and nearly unbeatable fighting skills. Then (as Hana soon finds out) it gives you a chance to establish your rep even before you enroll in school.
Upon finding the boarding house he encounters some of the most colorful characters in the story, his landlord Masashi and his twin brother, the effeminate, lipstick wearing, cook of the house, Yasushi (aka "Sis Mari"). Masashi's Yakuza-like demeanor is a stark contrast from Yasushi's emotional and flamboyant actions. The two add a welcome "Odd Couple" brand of humor to the often violent and dramatic action of "Worst." In a comic full of gangs and punks and few other types of characters their relationship and the one they share with their tenants is a welcome distraction and an entertaining side story.
Hana soon recognizes the other tenants from his earlier wanderings around the city, and it appears his reputation from earlier in the day precedes him. Having established the fact that he can hold his own, he is welcomed by the other tenants and they form a pact to be brothers in all but blood, but not before Hana is forced to fight for the equality of the brothers, showing his character and his need to unite people and fight for what he feels is right. Despite his fighting prowess and willingness to use it, Hana is almost immediately likeable. An affable country guy at heart, his dark tough guy side only shows up when the need arises in these first few volumes. I found the way he deals with his new life at a city high school a different take on the character arcs of most manga tough guys. Hana easily adapts to the gang dynamics of chivalry and "honor among gangs." His adaptability due in part to his natural "roll with the punches" attitude, but without the brooding "man of few words" personality of most anti heroes. I found myself genuinely caring about Hana even if he solves many of his problems through kicks and punches. Instead of thumbing through the pages waiting for the next cool battle scene, I wanted to find out how he deals with his new life and his place in his home life, school life, and gang life.
For those unfamiliar with the Japanese school system, going to high school involves taking fairly rigid entrance exams. The higher the caliber of high school, the harder the entrance exams tend to be. High school lasts for three years (after 6 years of elementary school and 3 years of junior high) and students are classified as Freshmen (10th grade), Sophomore (11th grade) and Senior (12th grade). As a student of Suzuran high school, one of the roughest schools in the city, he has three years of hard fighting to gain respect and a place in the ranks of the gangs that seemingly run the school. When he hears about the annual Freshman's Battle, where potential freshman secure their place in the tough guy hierarchy, Hana decides to go for it. With the help of one his "brothers," Toranosuke, (a former errand boy and wealth of knowledge about all things gang related in Suzuran high) Hana gets right down to establishing his foothold in the school's only respected past time, duking it out among classmates.
As a ferocious fighter, this dark side of Hana is stark contrast to his usually smiling face and demeanor. When he is in a fight, he is dead serious and seems to boast the knockdown skills of Tyson in his heyday. However, this dark side gives way to what can be seen as Hana's ultimate goal: Uniting the school under one name and dissolving all the gang vying for power. I don't get the impression that Hana has chosen this path for ultimate glory alone, but perhaps to dissolve the gang system all together. However, at this stage in the story, all bets are off.
In issue 2 not only do we get to see a little more of the tough side of Hana, but the political intrigue and machinations of the gangs of Suzuran high start to move to the forefront. As more gangs inside and out of Suzuran high come to light, the leaders of the gangs and those on the fringe become more and more developed, and the stakes are revealed. The lines begin to be drawn between the gangs that are for Hana's bold unification plan, and those who have stakes in maintaining things just the way they are. Also the succession of bad asses and potential bad asses begin to come out of the woodwork to challenge Hana's bold bid for power. This is the kind of stuff I wish we saw more of in our TV shows, give me the challenges and intrigue of "Worst" over the overly dramatic, sappy, or soapy "Boston Public," the "OC" or "90210" any day. The only detriment to all of this gang action in issue 2 is that with so many factions and characters, I found it hard to keep track of them and tell them apart. In a world of spiky hair, crew cuts, and doo-wop style "punch perms," differentiating characters is sometimes hard to manage. As much as I love black and white manga, this is one case when I long for anime crazy colored hair as a good device for telling similar characters apart.
The two volumes I have read of "Worst" (and one more coming out this month) have definitely left me wanting more! I can't wait to see the further adventures of Hana, his brothers, and the ne'er do wells of Suzuran high. Digital Manga Publishing has certainly added value to this story with their presentation of "Worst." Each volume includes a dustcover, the art reproduction is fantastic and the translation is solid and flows well. Slang is well represented and there are enough side notes in the margins to explain many of the cultural aspects that non Japanese readers may be unfamiliar with. DMP has also translated the sound effects, leaving in the originals and including their approximate equivalents in English. I didn't find it distracting at all and in some cases it helped me understand the action and flow just a little bit better. A few other manga publishers are taking similar steps in their presentation, but DMP is at the top of the game in this aspect.
If you are into fighting games, manga, and gang power struggles you should enjoy "Worst." If you loved ADV's Cromartie High School and want to see all the great stuff they were parodying, you are also in luck. Also, if you add in that "Worst" has already sold a million+ copies and is ranked third in the Japanese market (with a prequel, "Crows" that is already on its 26th volume) you have a manga force to be reckoned with. If this book is any indication of how good other Yankee manga can be, I need to track more down for reading here on Manga Island!
Note: Some readers have made suggestions, and your emails have been heard. Whenever possible from here on out on "Calling Manga Island" I will include the Publisher, Rating, and proposed # of volumes at the bottom of the column for quick reference. Thanks to all of you who are reading, giving comments and suggestions, and digging the column. I appreciate the feedback, kind words, and the occasional email or post that keeps me on the straight and narrow.
Publisher: Digital Manga Publishing
Rating: YA 16+
Number of Volumes available: 3 (of 9)
Links of interest:
Digital Manga Publishing's "Worst" page: http://www.dmpbooks.com/titles?n=1
Tony Salvaggio has been a fan of anime and manga from an early age. He has been an animator in the video games industry and is currently co-writing an original graphic novel for Tokyopop. He regularly hosts anime and Japanese related shows in Austin and his passion for all things anime and manga related is only excelled by his quest to become King of the Monsters.