FEATURE: Monthly Mangaka Spotlight 5: Naoki Urasawa

A look at the works of Japan’s master of suspense

Hello gang, and welcome to the 5th installment of Monthly Mangaka Spotlight, featuring Naoki Urasawa!



Since his debut in 1981, Urasawa has averaged over four volumes of manga annually for the past 34 years. Prolific is a word that has appeared in many of my spotlights, justifiably so given the amount of work each mangaka has produced, but none even approach the sheer quantity of material Urasawa has created, currently sitting somewhere around 140 volumes. To put that in perspective, that is over twice as many volumes as the entire anthology of Inuyasha, which unofficially qualifies it as an infinite value. If placed one upon the other in a giant stack, Urasawa’s collected works would stand at roughly 7'8", or the same height as Yasutaka Okayama, second degree black belt in Judo and the tallest player ever drafted in the NBA. All of this work produced by a man with a single maru pen accompanied by 8-tracks of Bob Dylan’s rock n’ roll.

Naoki Urasawa was born on January 2nd 1960 in Fuchu, Japan. Like many who find their way into the manga industry, Urasawa knew he wanted to be a mangaka from a young age. As early as five years old, he was drawing and copying the work of Osamu Tezuka, who, along with the french artist Moebius, would become his greatest artistic influences. He describes his childhood as rather unhappy, though nothing bad in particular had ever happened to him, instead he had a natural proclivity to look at things from a darker perspective. Despite his early assuredness that he wished to become a mangaka, he eventually grew to believe this aspiration was impossible and studied economics, graduating from Meisei University with a degree in the subject. It was almost by chance that he ultimately got into the industry, an editor asking him to work with them after seeing some of Urasawa's art. It was less than a year later that Urasawa, at the age of 21, was first published

In addition to his artistic influences in Tezuka and Moebius, two individuals have played a major part in Urasawa’s success over the course of his career. The first is Takashi Nagasaki, referred to as his collaborator, editor, and “Urasawa’s brain” in turn, he has been credited on Urasawa’s work since Monster and been present even longer to aid in the creative process. They describe their collaborative style as each developing strong ideas which they then strike together like rocks until the weaker one breaks. Second is an individual who Urasawa claims to have met only briefly, but who served as a major inspiration for how he chooses to live his life. Bob Dylan was a favorite musician of Urasawa’s growing up and became even more than that as Urasawa began to admire the rock star’s anti-war stance and the uncompromising manner in which he lived his life, even when Dylan's opinions or artistic decisions were unpopular. Bob Dylan’s music motivated Urasawa during the lowest point in his career, driving him to continue diligently working on Happy! even when the manga recieved tremendous criticism.



Return was Urasawa’s first work, published in 1981 as a single chapter short featuring the melancholic tale of a world in which robots are mercilessly destroyed by humans for unspecified reasons and the brief friendship between a poor boy and a damaged robot who seeks friendship with humans. The visuals and plot show Osamu Tezuka’s influence as Urasawa plays with some of the themes of Astro Boy. Next came Beta!! in 1983, an even shorter comedic piece about a boy who is believed to be criminal due to a censor bar over his eyes. Both stories were later compiled together with a number of other works in NASA in 1988, a single volume collection of short stories by Urasawa, among them the story of a white collar worker who trains during his free time in the hopes of becoming an astronaut. Shortly before NASA, Dancing Policeman was published in 1987, Urasawa’s first true one volume short about a police officer who attempts to avoid his duties while focusing on promoting his rock band.



Yawara! was Urasawa’s first multi-volume series, published in Big Comic Spirits and spanning 29 volumes between 1986 and 1993.  The eponymous Yawara Inokuma is a high school girl who wants nothing more than to live the average life of her peers. Unfortunately for Yawara, she is a transcendant Judo prodigy being groomed by her grandfather, Jigoro, to win the gold medal in the debut of women’s judo in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Yawara! is unique for following a fictional story leading up to, and including, a real life event in roughly real time. The story itself is lighthearted and typically revolves around the antics between Yawara and Jigoro as he comes up with various schemes to get Yawara more interested in Judo and improve her technique while hiding her talent from the world so her competition cannot prepare for her. Jigoro tries everything from repeatedly sneaking into Yawara’s room to spy on her and replace her band posters with images of judoka to engineering a—entirely one-sided—rivalry between Yawara and the wealthy sports prodigy Sayaka Honami. Over the series run leading up to the Olympics, Yawara learns to enjoy Judo and develops a stronger bond with her grandfather as she begins to understand his obsessive love for the sport. Yawara! was so popular that, when the Japanese Ryoko Tamura won the silver medal in Women’s Judo at the Barcelona Olympics, she was widely referred to as “Yawara-chan”. In 1994, Urasawa published a prequel titled Jigoro!, a collection of short stories taking place during Yawara’s grandfather’s younger years.



Pineapple Army, an eight volume series published in Big Comic Original between 1986 and 1988, was Urasawa’s second extended series and first of the many collaborations of his career. Written by Kazuya Kudou and illustrated by Urasawa, Pineapple Army follows Goushi, a former soldier who served in Vietnam and now tries to find work as a self defense trainer, instructing individuals in the use of military techniques to protect themselves. Despite his intention to remain uninvolved in his clients conflict outside of his obligation to equip with the skills necessary to defend themselves, Goushi is inevitably drawn into each case and ends up fighting on their behalf. The antagonists are most often also Vietman veterans who have taken to using the skills they learned during the war, such as demolitions, to work as criminals and assassins. A recurrent theme in the series are the changes caused to individuals by their experiences in Vietnam. Conversely, many of the antagonists were also the perpetrators of terrible crimes against humanity during the conflict and simply continued committing these misdeeds upon returning home.



Master Keaton, which was an 18 volume series that ran in Big Comic Original between 1988 and 1994, is a bit of James Bond, Sherlock Holmes, Indiana Jones, and Macgyver. The son of a British mother and Japanese father, Taichi Hiraga-Keaton was raised with his mother in England and attended Oxford, where he earned a degree in archeology, before enlisting in the SAS as a survival specialist during the Falkland War. Now working as a lecturer in the prestigious XXX University in Japan, Keaton moonlights as a contractor with Lloyd’s of London investigating complicated life insurance claims involving disappearances and suspected murder. Keaton’s interest in archeology drives him to take cases with historical significance or located in exotic locations, while his intelligence and vast array of proficiencies make him an expert investigator. Although he dislike’s violence, Keaton is often forced to defend himself, where he typically relies on his hand-to-hand abilities and survival training to improvise weapons. Keaton’s family and close friends are all similarly intelligent and, when not on the job, much of the manga involve Keaton’s personal archeological research and a great deal of discussion about the subject with other characters. The authorship of the Master Keaton was recently called into question when Urasawa, originally credited as the artist, claimed the author, Hajime Kimura—writing under the pseudonym Hokusei Katsushika—had stopped working on the series and left Urasawa to both write and illustrate the manga. Since then, Urasawa has revisited the series with his frequent writing partner Takashi Nagasaski, with a one volume short titled Master Keaton Remaster published between 2012 and 2014, taking place, both fictionally and literally, 20 years after the original story.



Happy! could be considered a dark reflection of Urasawa’s earlier work Yawara!. Published in Big Comic Spirits between 1993 and 1999 to total 23 volumes, Happy! was a sports manga with female protagonist Miyuki Umino who, unlike Yawara Inokuma, loves hey family sport of tennis at a young age. Although a young prodigy of the sport circumstances force Umino to give up the sport to take care of her younger siblings after the accidental death of her parents. Her deadbeat brother, constantly coming up with schemes to make money, finally bites off more than he can chew and ends up abondoning his siblings after taking out a 250 million Yen loan from loan sharks working for the Yakuza then skipping town. Umino is approached by the Yakuza and is told she must make good on her brother’s debt by working at a business called “soapland” in the red light district. In desperation, Umino decides to return to the court as a professional tennis player to pay back the debt in winnings. Happy! has a huge foundation upon which the plot is slowly constructed, originating in the rivalry between two wealthy tennis stars of the last generation and their conflict carrying into the new generation of tennis. While initially reticent to create a new sports manga, Urasawa finally agreed due to popular demand by fans of Yawara!. He quickly received a great deal of criticism for Happy! as he used the backdrop of a sports manga as an exploration of the darker aspects of human nature, which was initially not well recieved by fans. Eventually the series would recieve critical acclaim for the depth of its large cast of characters and uncompromising view of humanity, validating Urasawa's belief in the work.



Monster was Urasawa’s breakout work in the West, published in Big Comic Original from 1994 to 2001, it is a tale of suspense spanning 18 volumes. Dr. Kenzo Tenma is a gifted Japanese neurosurgeon working in Eisler Memorial Hospital in Dusseldorf whose life is on an upward trajectory after his engagement to Eva, the daughter of the hospital director Heinemann, and recent promotion to chief of neurosurgery. He experiences a crisis of conscience after realizing he is being taken off surgeries where his expertise is necessary to operate on wealthy clients and he defies Heinemann’s orders by operating on young boy who was admitted with a gunshot wound to the head rather than the mayor as he was ordered. Tenma saves the child but is blacklisted by Heinemann, demoted from his position as chief as Eva calls off their engagement. Shortly afterward, Heinemann and the new chief of neurosurgery are poisoned and the boy who Tenma saved disappears. Nine years later Tenma has a chance encounter with the now-grown boy, Johan Liebert, who he discovers was responsible for the poisoning and is a psychopath manipulating other pathological individuals to commit a number of murders for some unknown purpose. Feeling responsible for the creation of this monster, Tenma resolves to kill him and right the wrong that he inflicted on the world by saving Johan's life. Monster has many apocalyptic themes and begins to raise more questions about Johan's origins, whether he might be a new Hilter or perhaps even the antricrist himself. Passages from a children's story are eerily woven into the manga which hint at Johan’s true nature while providing a surreal horror to the series. Urasawa has said that he actually considers the story something of a comedy. I have no idea what that says about Urasawa.

20th Century Boys is where things start to get weird. If you think we had already arrived in that territory, then prepare yourself. Spanning 22 volumes, 20th Century Boys was published between 1999 and 2006 in Big Comic Spirits. The series follows a group of childhood friends whose lives have taken different directions, being collectively drawn into a conspiracy that seems to involve a fictitious supervillain they invented when they were boys in 1969. 20th Century Boys transitions between three time periods over the course of the story, flashing back to 1969, then to “present” day in the 1990s, to over 14 years in the future after a catastrophic event. Kenji Endo is the closest to what could be considered the protagonist, a rock enthusiast working at his parent’s convenience store in the 1990s, when the mysterious death of one of the childhood group, nicknamed "Donkey", draws them into the conspiracy. A mysterious leader referred to only as “Friend” is the head of a dangerous cult wielding a great deal of political power and willing to murder anyone who opposes their aims. Friend’s actions bear a striking familiarity to a story the group had put together when they were boys involving a terrible villain’s plan to take over the world. The identity of Friend and the specifics of the plan are poorly remembered by the group, who attempt to piece together the mystery before it’s too late. Or, at least, that would be premise if except the catastrophic event representing the culmination of Friend’s plan leads to the third concurrent arc of the story taking place during its aftermath. Urasawa has described 20th Century Boys as somewhat autobiographical, with Kenji acting as his avatar in the series. The rebelliousness of Kenji's rock persona against a world headed toward disaster reflect Urasawa's personal disappointment in stagnant modern era compared with the cultural revolution he experienced as a child in the Post-War Era.



Pluto, an eight volume series which ran in Big Comic Original between 2003 and 2009, was based on a story arc of Astro Boy imaginatively adapted into a murder mystery. The series follows Gesicht, a German detective and one of the seven most powerful robots in the world, tasked with investigating the murder/destruction of one of war hero and fellow robot, Mont Blanc. He soon discovers that seven robots are being targeted along with the seven human members of an investigation squad sent to the people’s Republic of Persia, both of whom played a part in the subsequent war known as the 39th Central Asian War. Pluto features an Astro Boy surrogate named Atom who becomes one of the leading characters along with Gesicht in the investigation. In addition to splendidly twisting a relatively simple premise taken straight from Astro Boy into a complex investigative noir featuring a complicated international politics, Urasawa also introduces many mature themes more traditionally associated with science fiction featuring advanced artificial intelligence. Resting on the backburner of the plot are concerns about the development of AI and the exploration of their role in society and the ramifications of their ability to experience human emotion. This manga was described as a very personal project by Urasawa, as it was a retelling of one of the first stories he had read by Tezuka from his own perspective.



Billy Bat, running in Weekly Morning since 2008, is still ongoing and the only project Urasawa is currently working on at the moment of this writing.  Another surreal--and somewhat meta--murder mystery, Billy Bat follows popular American comic artist Kevin Yamagata, whose fame arose from his anthropomorphic noir series starring the titular character Billy Bat, a bat who works as a private detective. After a policeman tells Kevin that he recognizes Billy Bats character design from Japan, Kevin puts the comic on hiatus to travel to Japan and discover if this is true and, if so, to request permission to continue using the character from its creator. Taking place in 1949, Japan still suffers from their defeat in WWII, and Kevin seeks the aid of the American occupational force for his investigation. Events rapidly develop, as several Americans are murdered and their deaths made to look like suicides or accidents during Kevin’s inquiries. He soon begins to see hallucinations of Billy Bat speaking to him and guiding him away from danger. Kevin soon encounters an artist who also illustrates Billy Bat but claims the character has even more ancient origins. The mangaka disappears and leaves a manga that seems to prophesize the future. As the story continues, it is revealed that there are two Billy Bats, one white and the other black, whose origins come from an ancient scroll and a legend that its possessor can rule the world. Although conceptually unique, Billy Bat is thematically similar to much of Urasawa’s work, standing out most strongly in the historic scope of the story, spanning thousands of years to include Billy Bat's role in the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, the rivalry between the Iga and Koga clans, and the events leading to Lee Harvey Oswalds assassination of JFK.



Urasawa artwork has transformed over the course of his career, both in quality and the number of styles he has developed to tackle different genres and settings. The variety of his environments seems almost limitless, including everything from the ancient ruins explore by Keaton to Post-WWII Japan in Billy Bat to 1980’s Germany in Monster all the way to Pluto's futuristic cityscapes as depicted by 1950’s science fiction. As his writing began delving deeper into stories of suspense, Urasawa’s art has served admirably in giving his vast variety of visuals a foreboding ambience, making Billy Bat’s comic expressions seem sinister and Tezuka's robotic designs adapted to Pluto’s a lethal, almost elemental property. In incorporating characters from so many cultures and ethnicities spanning the globe, Urasawa departs from the usual manga style by having very detailed faces, featuring differences in facial structures prominent among different global ethnicities such as large noses, high cheekbones, square jaws, and sloped foreheads. Faces in particular can really be considered the centerpiece of Urasawa's art. While his assistants assist him with many aspects of his illustrative work, he works primarily on gesture and faces. He obsesses over creating the perfect expressions, attempting to convey a variety of emotions are ultimately enigmatic. His explanation for this decision is simply that expressions should not be simple because people are not simple. Perhaps the most consistent visual in Urasawa’s art is slightly dated western fashions, with three-piece suits of '60s styles being ubiquitous regardless of location and a variety of women’s fashions dating back perhaps even further, this being especially true of many of the styles worn by the prominent female characters in Happy!.

With each of Urasawa’s tales, his plots have developed greater depth and he has found increasingly intricate methods of slowly unwrapping them to tantalizingly reveal each new layer of secrets. The scale of his works have grown tremendous, spanning greater lengths of time and space while introducing larger casts of increasingly complex characters who each have an important part to play in the advancement of his story. Although his initial popularity stemmed from his sports manga, it is ultimately his work with mystery and suspense that have made him an icon. Happy! is perhaps Urasawa’s first true work as the beginning of his exploration into the darker side of human nature. Many of his characters are deeply flawed in fundamentally human ways, such a Choko Ryugasaki’s childish cruelty, Utako Ohtori’s pride, and director Heinemann’s lust for power and control. Often the fallibility of humans leads to the majority of characters in Urasawa’s stories to fall gullibly after the promises of the villain and the protagonist's struggle against the populous has a sense of inevitable defeat. One of the aspects of Monster that may have contributed to Urasawa’s international success, which has since become a regular tool in his repertoire, is twisting childish themes to create dark and surreal atmosphere in his stories. The use of a children's book character in Monster was an excellent device to show how divorced from other humans Johan had become. Conversely, the adaptation of Astro Boy to Atom in Pluto portrayed the popular character as a robot capable of human emotion trying desperately to become a human despite his inability to mature.

As far as legacies go, Urasawa is rapidly approaching the lofty heights of names like Osamu Tezuka and Akira Toriyama. He has been referred to as a national treasure of Japan and an artist that changed the history of manga. His trophy cabinet contains both domestic and international accolades including a Pulitzer and two Eisner awards. Monster alone won both the Shogakukan Manga Award and the Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize, of which Urasawa has three of the former and two of the later. His resume includes works of humor, sports, slice of life, mystery, and suspense. Although Urasawa’s early work received a great deal of domestic acclaim, it wasn’t until the release of Monster that his international notoriety took off. At the request of Nagoya Zokei University, he gives monthly guest lectures on modern expression to help create the next generation of artists. To top it all off, Urasawa released a rock single in 2008 and an album in 2009 acting as a vocalist and guitarist for his musical alter ego, Bob Lennon. Despite all his sucess, Urasawa shows no signs of slowing down, aspiring to one day make a work equal to that of Osamu Tezuka's masterpiece Pheonix. It isn't hard to imagine that one day he will reach that goal. 




That’s it for the 5th Monthly Mangaka Spotlight! Urasawa’s latest manga have been his most popular, but have you read any of his older work? Which is his villains is your favorite? Which of their plots is the most compelling? Next month, we’ll be featuring fashionista and social rebel, Ai Yazawa. Tell us about your favorite mangaka and let us know who else you would like to see featured in the next MONTHLY MANGAKA SPOTLIGHT!

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