A look at the works of Japan’s bovine princess of hardcore shonen action
Hello gang, and welcome to the 4th installment of Monthly Mangaka Spotlight, featuring Hiromu Arakawa!
Hiromu Arakawa is an interesting character even in the eccentric world of mangaka. A famous recluse, there are only a few known pictures of her which are all of poor quality and all her portrayals of herself in manga are as an anthropomorphic cow. Recent interviews have revealed that she is married with three children, but even the gender of two of her children is still unknown. Hiromu isn’t even her real given name, but a masculine pen name she adopted early on in her career. Whether she hid her identity out of fear of not being taken seriously as a female shonen author is unclear, but by the point Arakawa had begun her career, Rumiko Takahashi had set a strong precedent for women in the shonen industry, already a quarter of the way into her run on Inuyasha and with Ranma 1/2 long finished. Arakawa's early style, however, was decidedly more similar to that of male mangaka than that of her female peers, emphasizing action in both her story and illustrations while avoiding complex social interaction in favor of more violent themes. Even 15 years later, it's hard to find another female author whose style so closely approaches such a traditional definition of shonen manga.
Born Hiromi Arakawa, she was raised on her family’s dairy farm in Hokkaido. She was a talented artist and dreamed about becoming a manga illustrator from an early age but, despite her early interest, she continued to work on her family’s farm into her mid-twenties while taking oil painting classes. It wasn't until 1999 that Arakawa finally moved to Tokyo to pursue her dream of becoming a mangaka. There, she formed a doujin group called Dennou Sanzoku Bukand with her friends and submitted four-panel comics called yonkoma to Gamest under the alias Edmund Arakawa. Her first professional work was for Enix (later Square Enix) for their publication Monthly Shonen Gangan as an assistant under Etou Hiroyuki on his series Magic Circle Guru Guru. In Noble Farmer she would humorously relate the culture shock she experienced moving to a large city like Tokyo from her family’s farm, primarily that she would have to purchase things like produce and meat instead of growing them herself or simply bartering for them.
Arakawa’s first work was Stray Dog, published in 1999, which was a thematic escape from her work as an assistant on the cute and humorous Magical Circle Guru Guru. Stray Dog was a single chapter short following a Guts-like sword-wielding mercenary named Fultac who crosses paths with a young Military Dog, the term used to identify genetically engineered humanoid chimeras used as super soldiers. Although a classic shonen anti-hero and therefore a loner, he decides to take the child with him on his journey. Following Stray Dog was the slightly longer four chapter short, Demons of Shanghai, also published in 2000. The series takes place in the year 2050, in which technology has become more advanced and science is widely accepted, except in the city of Shanghai which, for unknown reasons, has attracted the world's population of demons and supernatural creatures. Demons of Shanghai follows a detective agency staffed by demons and specializing in cases involving their kind. This series is known for having a number of character designs which would later appear in Fullmetal Alchemist, leading to the use of some of its panels to create false spoilers.
The manga easily most synonymous with Arakawa’s name is Fullmetal Alchemist, which ran in Monthly Shonen Gangan from 2001 to 2010. For those unfamiliar with the series, it follows the Elric brothers, two alchemists seeking the philosopher's stone to restore their bodies, which were disfigured in a failed attempt to bring their mother back to life using forbidden human transmutation. Arakawa stated she did a considerable amount of research into alchemy for the series but encountered a great deal of conflicting information and ultimately found several rules, such as equivalent exchange, that she found compelling enough to incorporate into the series. As the story progressed, Arakawa displayed an amazing ability to handle intrigue and juggle multiple plot lines as the bottom seemed to simply fell away from what had at first appeared to be a very simple story. What began as the personal quest of redemption for the Elric brothers became a conflict of apocalyptic scale. Revealing herself as the type of author who gives literally every single one of her characters a shining moment in the spotlight, events expanded laterally to sometimes include several fights, two chase scenes, and an expositional dialogue all presented concurrently, which Arakawa impressively managed without making the series feel rushed or disorganized.
As with many mangaka featured in spotlight, Arakawa has been extremely prolific, releasing four separate works during her run of Fullmetal Alchemist. Raiden 18 was a three chapter short published in 2005 that follows the eponymous protagonist, Raiden 18, who is a Frankenstein’s monster created by the eccentric Dr. Tachibana. Tachibana designed Raiden 18 as the ultimate combat monster to win in the underground Frankenstein’s monster fighting circuit where the prize for victory is more “parts” for participants to use in their experiments. The short features a great deal of tongue-in-cheek humor as Raiden 18 is notably unhappy with his circumstances but follows his creators lead for a number of reasons beyond his control. Next was A Bat in Blue Sky, a melancholic single chapter short published in 2006 in the vein of Rurouni Kenshin, notable among Arakawa’s works for featuring a female protagonist, Henpukumaru, who has been trained as a ninja since childhood and seeks to escape her life of killing.
Also published in 2006, Arakawa was the illustrator for Hero Tales, a five volume series first released on Gangan Powered which later moved to Monthly Shonen Gangan. Hero Tales was a pet project of seven years between Arakawa and her friend Zhang Fei Long, who had together worked under the doujin group Dennou Sanzoku Bukando. Thematically the series is similar to Chinese wuxia and follows Taitou, one of seven divine warriors marked by the stars of the constellation of the big dipper. Taitou’s star is the Hagan, which is one of the two greater stars fated to come into a conflict that would shape the future of the empire. The other star, Tonrou, belongs to the evil general Keiro who seeks to overthrow the young emporer. Much like Fullmetal Alchemist, Hero Tales focuses on the conflicts between a predominantly male cast with several supporting female characters and includes several romantic subplots that reach resolution during the epilogue. Also like Fullmetal Alchemist, fate, the consequences of war, and loyalty are all predominant themes of the story.
Noble Farmer is perhaps the most unique among Arakawa’s titles, a single volume published in Wings in 2006 alongside her many other concurrent titles. Noble Farmer is illustrated in a sketchy, comic style and features Arakawa’s bovine alter ego acting as host while discussing her personal experiences moving from her family’s dairy farm to Tokyo. Although primarily a vehicle for a great deal of self-deprecating humor, Arakawa had a lot to say regarding the life of farmers and the agricultural industry, even commenting on the politics and economics regarding dairy production. The result was a humorous and informative short bridging the growing gap between farming and our increasingly industrialized world. It comes off in such a meandering manner that it is difficult to determine if this was intentional or simply a stream of consciousness comedy piece about Arakawa’s unique perspective as a cultural transplant.
Silver Spoon has, without a doubt, been the single greatest departure from departure from Arakawa’s typical style. First published in Weekly Shonen Sunday in 2011 and still ongoing, Silver Spoon is a slice of life series following Yugo, a brilliant student who has enrolled in Ooezo Agricultural High School far away from his friends and family as a means of escaping his stressful home life. A fish out of water, Yugo is forced to adapt from sedentary life as city boy to waking up early every morning to perform hours of manual labor. Having no interest in entering a field related to the school's subjects of study, Yugo is initially envious of his classmates who typically have had simple lives and a defined goal for their future which they are actively pursuing. The series focuses heavily upon interpersonal relationships between Yuugo and his peers while also revealing a great deal about the culture and work of farmers. Yugo’s experiences serve as a catalyst for his personal development and help him come to terms with his family issues. Arakawa has stated Silver Spoon was a personal test to write something more grounded, and it succeeded in breaking away from many of the tropes of her prior work, coming off as realistic and emphasizing personal interactions as a major force contributing to individual growth.
Arakawa’s most recent project has been working as the artist for The Heroic Legend of Arslan, an ongoing series first published in 2013 in Bessatsu Shonen Magazine. The series has a bit of a history, first starting as a series of light novels, Arakawa’s manga being its second manga adaptation. Whether Arakawa sought out the project or if she was chosen based on her previous work in unknown, but the story features many elements common in her previous work. Originally penned by Yoshiki Tanaka, The Heroic Legend of Arslan takes place in a fictional setting very similar to Persia and was likely inspired by the Persian epic Amir Arsalan. The story follows prince Arslan, a soft-hearted boy whose kingdom is conquered as the result of a betrayal by one of the King’s retainers. Removed from his sequestered lifestyle in the palace, Arslan is introduced to the evils of the world and eventually raises an army to take back his birthright as ruler. The story and region it takes place in are strongly reminiscent of tales of many historical conquerors such as Alexander The Great and Arakawa’s illustrations of the regional garb and warfare are excellent.
Arakawa has a simple and clean art style reminiscent of western cartoons, rarely using more detail than is necessary and emphasizing creating familiar and dynamic designs over elaborate visuals. Fights are extremely common in her work and the focus of a great deal of her efforts, they are also where her flexible designs are really able to show their utility in conveying movement and being placed in any number energetic poses at varying perspectives. The philosophy of her work seems similar to that of Oeming’s in his work on the western comic Powers, challenging normal conceptions about art by forcing the artist to accomplish more while using less. Arakawa's neat style also allows her to make scenes extremely impactful by including a greater amount of detail, which she usually employs to drive home grotesque or horrifying scenes with heavy use of crosshatching and shading. Rather than developing in the direction of greater complexity and realistic anatomy as with most mangaka, Arakawa has fine-tuned her style, introducing more detail while keeping simple silhouettes and improving her action. Aesthetically, Arakawa has been extremely diverse, incorporating visuals from traditional fantasy as well as Chinese, Middle Eastern, and European history into both her character designs and environments.
Recurring themes in Arakawa’s work most frequently include war and typically portray the victims of international conflict by having her characters encounter refugees, battlefield hospitals, environmental destruction, slavery, and the bodies of both soldiers and civilians. Her narratives contain many elements which have become hallmarks of mainstream shonen, often featuring ideologues who come into conflict with each other over differences in their beliefs, either reaching mutual understanding in combat or proving the superiority of their own philosophy through victory. A romantic subplot is usually present in her longer works, but is often not resolved until the epilogue of the story. Arakawa’s more recent work on Noble Farmer and Silver Spoon have revealed new dimensions to her work, the former departing from her visual and narrative style with a very simplistic and humorous self-referential piece and the latter by emphasizing interactions and exploring personal growth as well as prioritizing romance as an important element in the body of her story.
Arakawa has had a career perhaps just as unique as her personal life, carrying herself from the extremely labor-intensive, down-to-earth work of a dairy farmer to creating stories exploring the horrors of war, the esoteric laws of alchemy, and the conflicting ideologies of warriors and rulers, while displaying a talent for humor, horror, action, and drama. If that growth literally taking her from the soil of the earth to the philosophical wasn’t enough, Arakawa then returned to her roots and began a story anchored in realism and interpersonal relationships while revealing the complexities, both simple and local to far-reaching and economic, of a trade as humble as farming. Her visual aesthetic has traveled across space and time, wrapping around the globe, picking up elements from the history of every country it has crossed and returned back to modern styles and environments of Japan. It’s hard to imagine where she might go next, but for the time being she has succeeded in making a manga about waking up at 5AM to shovel horse manure into an award-winning best seller.
That’s it for our fourth Monthly Mangaka Spotlight--have you checked out The Heroic Legend of Arslan? Any fans of Fullmetal Alchemist or Silver Spoon? Next month, we're focusing on the master of detail and groundwork, Naoki Urasawa, author of Monster and 20th Century Boys. Who else would you like to see covered? Let us know which mangaka you'd like to see featured in MONTHLY MANGAKA SPOTLIGHT!