Hello again everyone, it’s been some time hasn’t it? I’ve been out of the manga scene for far too long, and I suppose one of the back-handed benefits of recent difficulties in the wider world has been to give me plenty of time to get back up to speed again with more reading. While easing myself back into manga I wanted to make baby steps and not overstretch myself with too long a striding commitment, which is what made Ryuko appealing – a neatly compact two-volume miniseries, this promised the satisfaction of a complete story without having to make an expensive outlay of a score-and-more volume count of a sprawling Shonen Jump saga to get there. Is the lower page count compared to most other manga series because it’s thin gruel, or is it a lean’n’mean case of no filler – all killer?
Ryuko is a svelte and cool beauty of a female Yakuza boss who runs an overseas mafia franchise out of a swanky nightclub in an Arab nation. Years ago, when the country’s monarchy was overthrown by a military coup d’etat, the king gave up his infant daughter Princess Valer into Ryuko’s care to protect her from the regicides. Valer has lived as a member of Ryuko’s gang completely unaware of her royal heritage, and now she’s grown up she’s getting fractious and rebellious and wants to live the independent life of the street urchin she believes herself to be. Trying to make her own mark on the criminal world, Valer makes a big heist without her mistress Ryuko’s approval.
The problems caused by Valer’s reckless act go far beyond not giving her boss a cut of the winnings, as it breaks the truce between the dictator and the yakuza and brings the full force of his military down on Ryuko’s head. It’s the first pebble in a chaotic avalanche, as being forced to leave the Middle East means that Ryuko must confront old crimes and bloodier sins that she thought she had left behind in Japan. Her own situation is a dark mirror to Valer’s, as she must contend with the question of her own succession to the ancient Black Glory clan that she has long denied but can no longer put off – other pretenders to her dragon throne are jockeying for position and global command of a loyal legion of made men is the jewel in the yakuza queen’s crown. Ryuko may not want it, but if she wants to stay alive then she may need to take it.
The first thing I have to address with Ryuko is its publishing label. The covers of both volumes are prominently badged as part of Titan Comics’ “Hard Case Crime” series – and I can’t think of another manga whose label has been more laughably inappropriate. I would have expected “Hard Case Crime” to promise the reader, well… hard case crime. Turning over stones to expose the squirming filth of the alley-way low-life, dolorous reflections on compromised lawmen inevitably mortgaging more of their souls to pawn some meagre inadequate justice, and grim helpless tragedies of sinking, drowning corruption.
Ryuko opens with two girls in bikinis stealing a trainload of oil sheikh money with a Chinook.
Suffice to say, if you buy Ryuko expecting a deft unravelling of the knotted trade union corruption of The Irishman or the chaotic carousel of bitter betrayal of The Battles Without Honour And Humanity you’re going to be in for quite the disappointment. One of the other titles in the “Hard Case Crime” series according to the back matter of volume 2 is a graphic novel adaptation of pulp detective Mike Hammer: Ryuko certainly has plenty of gunfights to get the hard-boiled violence down pat, but as Ryuko escalates into fighting alongside the mujahidin in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan and Langley spooks arranging black-bag operations in Japan it departs any resemblance of being even vaguely adjacent to “crime”. It feels much closer to some of the sillier extremes of Crying Freeman, like the bits where Triads have personal nuclear submarines with which to taxi themselves about the Pacific.
Perhaps publisher Titan Comics settled for sticking Ryuko in with “Hard Case Crime” because they weren’t quite sure how to make Ryuko fit in with their established lines? Titan really isn’t a natural manga publisher – in the last five years, the only other manga they’ve brought over have been West-friendly adaptations of the Benedict Cumberbatch Sherlock TV series and the Assassin’s Creed videogames, along with a series of Robotech comics which aren’t bad but probably offend weeaboo purists. Titan Comics’ own website doggedly insists that Ryuko is “a loving manga homage to film noir” – admittedly it’s been a while since I last watched Pale Flower but as much as a thrillseeker poor foolish Saeko was I don’t remember the bit where she ramped a motorbike into the air to collide with a flying helicopter. Maybe it’s in the deleted scenes?
Actually, I tell a lie. There is one crime that Ryuko pulls off with aplomb. The manga was originally published in Japan in 2016, a year after the release of Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain, and there’s a scene at the start of Volume 2 where a character proclaims himself commander of the “militia without borders” along with wearing an outfit that replicates Kaz’s from the game so exactly it’s blatant in its ‘homage’…!
Really, though, I’m fixating too much on what is ultimately just the corner of the covers. However inappropriately Ryuko has been marketed, we should be focusing less on what Ryuko is not and more on what it actually is. The tidbits of scenes that I have referred to in the earlier paragraphs should tantalise, because while Ryuko is terrible as a new Fifties noir… but as a new Eighties action thriller, it’s magnificent.
Ryuko is replete with explosive, blockbuster combat scenes which are ridiculous – Ryuko wearing a backless dinner gown blowing up APCs with grenade launchers akimbo is another memorable highlight – but no less intense, impactful, and impressive. You’re brought to quaking palpitations by the adrenalin frenzy of close-quarters combat and the deafening, blinding roar of gunfights as inky lashings stretch and scrawl into confused scribble, but well-balanced as there’s still a method behind it which means you can still see the figures patterned beneath it. One of the endorsements on the backs of each volume call Ryuko “operatic”, which is a bit of stretch (and another says it offers “a complex exploration of morality” which is clearly misprinted from a different title!), but the one which calls the art “dynamic” I can certainly agree with – excellent use of angles of the action put you in the front row each time, whether it be speeding along hitching a ride on the engine of a motorbike – which are also drawn with unstinting mechanical detail – or hanging off the barrel of a gun. Blizzards of shattering glass or tongues of blazing fires are all mesmerising kaleidoscopes to get lost in.
The art offers quieter moments too. There are multiple interlude pages featuring Ryuko posing while her long hair silhouettes patterned collages – these do show off the wider interests of the mangaka, Eldo Yoshimitsu. Yoshimitsu is actually not a full-time manga artist and is chiefly a sculptor with a background in fine art: Ryuko is a subject of some of his paintings (and several of these interlude panels are taken from exhibitions you can see on the gallery on his personal website) and this whole manga is promoting an art study into a full-fledged character. In that respect I have to give some kudos to Yoshimitsu – while Ryuko is certainly an action heroine I never got the impression that she was the author’s OC DONUT STEEL or precious unblemished daughteru to be coddled from the otaku – unlike, say, Satomi Mikuriya’s notorious Twinkle Nora Rock Me – so there’s a fair balance to proceedings.
The artistic sensibilities continue in that although there’s lots of violence there’s not really much sex. Ryuko herself exquisitely models a whole catwalk parade of devastatingly plunging V-cut dresses and there are plenty of panels of other girls prancing around in their skivvies, but there is barely any actual nudity in this book at all – only two pages, one at the end of each volume, show some and they are presented not as salacious sex scenes but as porcelain artistic nudes.
So the action is powerful and the art is striking, but Eldo Yoshimitsu is more an artist than writer and that does show up in the pretty thin plotting. I mocked another review’s “complex morality” earlier as it can only be said to be complex because the hypocrisies are unexamined. Ryuko may be revolted by the familicidal traditions of her Black Glory inheritance and want to live justly, but she is a yakuza boss who’s been running a racket for decades – are we supposed to believe that she pays for her beachfront property, arsenal of weapons, jet-setting garage and network of faithful agents with nothing but the entirely legitimate income of one nightclub? The rest of the plotting to set up the final conflict is also pretty thin – in particular, Valer herself seems perfectly redundant and for all the fuss made about her in the first chapter she’s pretty much entirely superfluous to requirements: once the first heist is done she’s no more than a hanger-on having no real purpose other than to break up the black backgrounds with a bit of blonde hair. She only has one single line of relevance in the remaining ten chapters: admitting that she’s not really interested in becoming a princess again or restoring her kingdom; this is presented as giving Ryuko confidence to fight against becoming a yakuza queen herself, but Ryuko was already set in that mood anyway and didn’t need Valer’s permission to do so. The belated attempt to draw Ryuko’s fighting into a geopoliticial CIA intrigue also feels like an unnecessary attempt to puff the story up into feeling bigger than it is.
Spy games did however have a useful purpose as they clarified what Ryuko was reminding me of – from Hong Kong Triads to ex-Soviet Afghanistan-veteran mercenaries, Ryuko reads like an alternative to Black Lagoon, Rei Hiroe’s manga of modern-day piracy on the South Seas. Black Lagoon is missing from our manga and anime lives – while the series has not been cancelled, with multiple prolonged hiatuses its publication schedule is as slow as Berserk and as unreliable as Hunter x Hunter, and it’s been many long years since we’ve had a Western release. Nonetheless, Black Lagoon remains fondly regarded today, and while it’s not an exact match – Ryuko’s more pained attitudes lack the knockabout cheerful brashness of Rei Hiroe’s work – Ryuko can still stir you with some Pacific-Rim peril. As an unapologetic action-adventure Ryuko stabs out with two clean, quick volumes that will knock some energy into you and send you skipping back into your day with a left-right jab of girls and guns.