A Ten For Tenken

Last year One Peace Books introduced itself to American manga readers with its English language publication of the essay manga So I Need to Lose 15 Pounds. Now the publisher deepens its relationship with its first conventional manga, the very unconventional romantic sci-fi fantasy adventure Tenken, by independent artist Yumiko Shirai. Fully ten years in development, Tenken is at once an epic and very intimate story of conviction, tradition, and the strength of humanity set in a recovering post-apocalyptic Japan. Winner of the Japanese governmental Agency for Cultural Affairs’ 2007 Japan Media Arts Festival Encouragement Prize, Tenken is a work ideal for readers seeking a manga that’s more mature and literary than conventional shounen ninja or shoujo magical girls, and an ideal graphic novel for readers attracted to sequential art but not necessarily attracted to stereotypical Japanese manga.

Tenken is set in rural Japan a number of years after a “dirty war” irradiated and scorched the country. Life – plant, animal, and human – has returned, and construction worker Manaka toils daily to rebuild and prepare for the fast approaching Tenken Festival, a celebration of renewal that harkens back to the ancient Japanese creation myth of Susano slaying the dragon Yamata no Orochi. However, the myth isn’t just an ancient fairy tail, as Manaka realizes when he learns that his young female employee Saki has been chosen as the next sacrifice to Yamata no Orochi, and her sacrifice will be much more than ceremonial. Saki struggles with a personal decision to accept or fight her fate. Manaka must face the difficult decision of either respecting tradition and ensuring his place in the social heirarchy or risking not only his job, but also his life to oppose the priests and the traditions that demand a tremendous sacrifice from one to ensure the good of all.

In just over 300 pages, Tenken tells its complete story, deftly merging a science-fiction setting with natural and traditional Japanese folk culture and mythology. The boy-meets-girl and heroic journey narratives may be well worn, but in Tenken they’re presented refreshingly free of cliché. Although Saki is young, all the the story’s characters are adults that speak and behave like adults. There’s a great deal of nuance in this story, in subtle expressions and movement, believable dialogue, and in character actions and decisions that always feel rational, justified, and believable. Unlike typical manga that are beholden to conventional routines and expectations, Tenken has the creative integrity of a genuine illustrated novel.

Yumiko Shirai’s art may be described as a modern incarnation of traditional Japanese sumi ink painting. Much is implied and evoked through impressionistic brush strokes, yet there’s also a degree of specific detail present in the artwork that’s uncharacteristic for sumi. The effect is striking, like a masterful hybrid of Goseki Kojima’s Lone Wolf & Cub brush strokes and the fine line work of Hiroaki Samura’s Blade of the Immortal. The visual component of the story conveys a literal sense of motion enhanced by sparing, selective use of sound effects. The art isn’t stylized enough to jettison its Japanese roots, but it is unique enough to be accessible and attractive to readers who usually dislike the typical big eyes and speed lines associated with Japanese manga. With the infrequent exception of translated captions, the artwork is untouched in One Peace Books’ publication. Sound effects are left in Japanese with translation provided nearby.

The dialogue is translated naturally and is easy to read, although about a dozen typos slipped past editorial notice throughout the 300 plus pages. They’re minor and easily overlooked. The narrative includes a little bit of profanity, used appropriately and without sensationalism. There’s no sex or nudity. Violence is depicted tastefully. Japanese cultural terms and references that are integral to the story are Romanized rather than translated, and explained in detailed, illustrated translator notes at the back of the book. The book’s print quality is outstanding. Heavy weight cream colored pages give the book a substantial heft and magnificently reproduce the beautiful artwork without any seeming loss of detail, texture, or tone.

Tenken is a commendable addition to the ranks of English translated manga, and a highly recommended addition to the bookshelf of any collector or connoisseur of fine Japanese manga art. The characters and story are engaging and respectable. Suspenseful tension gradually builds toward a surprise filled climax that brilliantly intertwines concrete science fiction with ethereal Japanese mythology. The beautiful line and ink artwork has a fascinating ability to depict much more than it literally illustrates by capturing essence and evoking impression. This acclaimed manga is absolutely one which discriminating readers should explore and experience.

Tenken is a 328 page softcover retailing at $16.95. It’s available from finer retailers now.

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