Beautiful art paired with a disappointing story
“Shinjuku” is an illustrated prose work combining text with full-page illustrations in black, white and red. Oversized and with a heavy cardboard stock cover, it looks beautiful and is brilliantly illustrated by Yoshitaka Amano, but the story by Chistopher “Mink” Morrison comes off more as amateurish fan-fic trying to juggle too many genres.
First off, “Shinjuku” is one of those comics where I might just know too much of the subject to truly enjoy the story. I lived in Japan for many years, speak Japanese and spent considerable time in Shinjuku, Tokyo. I know the place. On top of that, I have a Master’s Degree in Japanese mythology and folklore. So when author Morrison (Sorry. I feel stupid writing “Mink”) writes about people taking the drug “obake” it illicit a giggle, but when he writes that a “bakemono” is a “shape shifter that could take the form of a beautiful woman whose flesh would bestow immortality to anyone consumed it…” I just have to sigh and say….
No it isn’t.
Now, I realize that not every reader has the background that I have, but come on. If I were to write a story set in Seattle featuring a (literally) underground network of to-the-death cage fights, where everyone was snorting “werewolf” to get high and the comic finished in a battle with a 50-foot tall fire-breathing lizard that I referred to as a “vampire,” I think more than a few readers would have a hard time buying it. I’m not saying you have to stick to the textbooks as a storyteller but there are limits. If you want to set your story in fantasyland set it in fantasyland, but be careful of actually referencing things that exist.
Not that Morrison alone is guilty of this. In the way it pops up in movies and comics, I sometimes wonder if Shinjuku has become to Americans what Paris is to the Japanese. In Japan, Paris is built up to be such a fantasy of romance and beauty that when some Japanese actually visit the real-world city the disparity between their idealized image and reality causes a psychological shock. (It’s true. Look up “Paris Syndrome” if you don’t believe me.) Any Americans heading to Japan might experience a similar “Shinjuku Syndrome” when things don’t match up with their expectations.
Of course, Morrison gets around this by setting the story in the immediate future (2020), and by using some scientific techno-babble to say that Shinjuku sits on a sort of nexus of realities, points where parallel dimensions intersect and people “cycle” from one reality to another (A similar concept to Will Farrell’s 2009 Land of the Lost, in case you need a reference). Morrison’s Shinjuku is the territory of three gangster families who each corner a black market, be it in girls, fights, graft, or the ubiquitous drug “obake” which is some sort of super-opium genetically distilled from poppies.
Into this Shinjuki comes Daniel Legend, a licensed bounty-hunter called a Scout, following the trail of his sister Angela Legend who disappeared into Tokyo’s underworld many years ago. The trail leads him to a bar called Poppies, run by the mysterious Shi (which means “death” in Japanese. How clever.) and his trio of supernatural women who work as hostesses at the bar. Angela also works as a hostess, along with a mysterious young girl called Rokkun who seems to be able to disappear at will, as do several others under Shi’s influence.
A dangerous man himself, Daniel soon finds himself working off a debt to Shi as the star fighter in his underground death-matches, all the while trying to find a way to get himself and his sister safely out of this world. But the more he tries to escape, the more deeply he gets entangled and things get even more complicated as an American mobster named Sticky arrives in town seeking vengeance, allying himself with the Russian mob who have their own desires to take out Shi. Shi, on the other hand, seems more interested in the Daniel and Angela’s father, and his theories of parallel dimensions, and in raising a Bull-headed god named Togensa and, in the best Lo Pan tradition, can go off and rule the universe from beyond the grave.
The whole story comes off as a mish-mash of disparate elements from other works. The monstrous Shi and his three hostesses are Dracula and his three brides. The “secret Asian underground where monsters dwell” is right out of Big Trouble in Little China, and Rokkun might as well be Go-Go Yubari from Kill Bill. It is funny that Morrison said the seeds for the story came from when he was in Tokyo directing the 2005 Steven Seagal flick Into the Sun (I know. I have never heard of it either.), and one can even get a sense of Seagal here with the underground fight clubs and ex-military heroes. Sci Fi. Horror. Fantasy. Hard Sci Fi. Noir. Morrison tries his best to pack it all in.
His characters are all as flat as cardboard, with absolutely no development or story arcs. The main protagonist, Daniel Legend, might as well be called Mary Sue as he is practically perfect in every way, able to out-fight, out-shoot and out-think any problem that comes his way. Some of the plot contrivances are just ridiculous, as when Daniel arrives in Shinjuku and the police hand him a GPS tracker so they can watch him, warning him never to lose the card or he will suffer the consequences. When he does lose the card, the cops reaction is basically just finger-wagging and then handing him a new card. What is the point of adding that to the story? A lot of tidbits are tossed in that way, such as the brilliant (and of course, strikingly beautiful) Dr. Sato that appears on stage for no other reason than to give Daniel a love interest and a satisfying conclusion.
So why should anyone buy “Shinjuku?” For the artwork. If you think of this as an Yoshitaka Amano artbook with some unnecessary text pages thrown in then it is totally worth it. The style here is completely different from previous Amano work such as his delicate paintings done for Gaiman’s Sandman: The Dream Hunters). His style here is brusque and immediate, being aggressive ink-strokes on stark white paper with red washes for tone and effect. The work here has more in common with his exhibitions done in the Galerie Michael Janssen in Germany than his usual refined images, although everything in “Shinjuku” is much rougher even than his German work.
It is a thrill to see Amano work so differently from his usual style, almost to the point where it is unrecognizable as Amano. I didn’t realize he had the capacity to do such raw work. If you are a fan of Amano, then by all means pick up “Shinjuku”. Just do yourself a favor and don’t waste too much time on the story.