Susano-o, the dragon Orochi and the Princess Kushiinada
It is very rare that I come across a comic book that I think truly deserves the name “Graphic Novel.” For 99% of the stuff out there, be they American or Japanese, the term “comic book” works just fine. They are serialized ongoing adventures, light entertainment and a genre I really love. They are comic books.
Yumiko Shirai’s “Tenken,” on the other hand, is a true Graphic Novel. Conceived and created over a ten year period, “Tenken” is a complex and complete story, rendered in beautiful inks with a deft hand that walks the thin border between illustration and art.
A blend of science fiction with Japanese mythology, “Tenken” mixes the ancient legend of Susano-o, the dragon Orochi and the Princess Kushiinada with an unnamed dystopian future marred by the cycle of war and recovery.
Set sometime after the “dirty war” when the planet has become tainted by a mysterious pollution called “fukashi” (the term can mean “invisible” in Japanese, although I am not sure if that is the allusion here.) Fukashi taints the Earth’s soil, but it has been discovered that (in shades of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind) bamboo has the property of being able to draw the fukashi from the soil, thus cleansing it and making it safe for farming. The bamboo turns blue in the process, and becomes a giant poison stick that needs to be dealt with. Only those over the age of thirty-five have the job of clearing the fukashi forests, which is generally fatal.
At the opening of the book, we meet Manaka, the boss of a construction crew that uses clean bamboo for high-rise construction projects. One day he meets a teenage girl named Saki who wants to work for him. Saki claims to be a village girl fleeing an arranged marriage, and Manaka asks no questions. She loves to work the high-rise jobs, but has an overwhelming fear of being underground. Manaka and his crew is getting ready for the Tenken festival, and annual event marking the marriage of the Princess Kushiinada to the handsome “Master Orochi.” This is a special year for Tenken, as every fifty years there is a special festival, and rumors of a “hidden festival” where a chosen girl is actually sacrificed to the dragon rather than just playing the part. Of course, it is not long before Manaka and Saki are caught up in this, and are quick to learn that legend is not always divorced from reality, and it is up to Manaka to discover and embody the lost character of the legend, Susano-o the dragon slayer.
Blending ancient mythology with Science Fiction is a somewhat classic combination (think Stargate), but Shirai keeps the focus more on the myth than the future. She is dealing with the primal here, the Earth-forces and hungers of the gods that stay constant no matter how much the humans advance and retreat. The Susano-o legend has been dealt with before in Masamune Shiro’s Orion, but this is a much more serious and somber take.
I loved “Tenken.” There was a nice balance here of story, and Shirai’s artwork is lovely. She has very a nice painterly feel, full of smudged inks and emotion combined with controlled line work. She does a great job with the facial expressions, and pulls all the possible drama out of a scene.
The only possible difficulty I can see with “Tenken” is that it assumes a familiarity with the Susano-o/Orochi/Kushiinada legend. To a Japanese audience, this would be so familiar that it no more needs to be explained than “A guy named Noah with a Really Big Boat” would need to be explained to Western audiences. That makes the bar of entry higher than normal manga, but worth it.