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"Tenken: Japanese Mythology, Manga-Style"

by on June 14, 2011

Plenty of classical myths and legends have gotten a modern reinterpretation, filtered to suit the tastes of present-day audiences. Tenken is the latest such offering from this genre.

Based on the Japanese myth of Susano and Yamata-no-Orochi, which is handily summarized in text form at the beginning of the book, Tenken, from new publisher One Peace Books, posits a post-apocalyptic future where mankind is gradually rebuilding from the ashes of war. At the forefront of such work is the Sakamoto Group, a construction company. Head worker Manaka has inspired the slightly withdrawn and tomboyish country girl Saki Kishima to join the company, and with her hard-working nature she proves a valuable asset to the group. Saki however is hiding a secret, one that eventually forces her to leave the group unwillingly and be return to her country shrine under whose she is.

Manaka stubbornly investigates, raising the ire of his boss as he digs information out of the very shrines that subsidize much of the Sakamoto Group’s business. Finally, simply uprooting himself from the city to the country on the pretext of working in some of the dangerously contaminated areas found in such comparatively remote areas, Manaka eventually reaches Saki. It is then that he discovers the unbelievable truth, that she is destined to be a sacrifice to the serpent monster Yamata-no-Orochi as part of the Tenken festival. Faced with this new reality, Manaka accepts the depth of feelings he has for Saki, and embarks on an almost insurmountable task of trying to free her from her awful destiny.

Tenken reads very much as a skillful horror/suspense story throughout the majority of its just over three hundred pages, with a lot of the more overt supernatural aspects of the story kept on the periphery of the action until the conclusion of the story. Thanks to the comparatively sparse use of those elements, the story for the most part manages to grip the reader simply through the wonderful characterizations of both main leads and the handful of supporting characters. While only a few characters throughout the book have a direct influene on the main story, just enough is revealed about them that the reader can have a perfect understanding of their motivations. Although the main two characters are young adults, with Saki still being in her teens, there’s no mistaking the maturity of these characters, in stark contrast to the more prolific younger heroes in many other translated manga of similar intent.

I was also pleasantly surprised that the details of the apocalypse are kept rather vague. Yes, there was a great war in the past, but this is a means to an end of establishing the story rather than a convoluted world-building exercise, so we do not get bogged down in the details as to exactly what happened. It was bad, and it did happen—case closed.

Yumiko Shirai’s artwork is beautiful, using what appear to be delicate painted strokes on top of pencils for the majority of the story’s panels, and more impressionistic paintings for the supernatural sequences that pepper the book. The only downside is that sometimes the artwork is so impressionistic as to only suggest what’s going on in certain action sequences, without it being abundantly clear exactly what’s going on. While this is perfectly fitting when the story brings in its mythological elements to the fore, it’s a little more frustrating when used on the comparatively more mundane action set pieces in the “real world”. This is only a minor point though, and is far outweighed by the skill level of the artwork in general. This impressionism also helps to downplay the more violent scenes in the book, simultaneously illustrating such events while sparing the reader from any sensationalistic gory details. Tenken was in production for ten years from conception to completion, and the clear and concise skill shown throughout the book’s artwork makes it clear that time was well spent in honing the author’s artistic skills, resulting in a true testament to the art-form’s potential.

My preview copy was clear to read, although there were the odd typos here and there throughout the book, as well as a few “alrights” rather than “all rights” to be found, but that’s nothing another proofread wouldn’t overcome by the time of general publication. Different fonts are used for some of the characters at times, usually when depicting non-verbal communication, but there were a couple of instances when the regular spoken dialogue font was used instead by mistake, which slightly obscured the original intent of such sequences. Also present, but far more infrequent, were basic formatting errors with the occasional word broken up by a misplaced space, and more notably, one or two instances of text running into the spine of the book.

Certain words are not translated as such within the story’s dialogue, instead being given full definitions in the back of the book. While I tend to favor full translations of such ethnocentric words in the context of the dialogue, it’s hard to argue against Tenken‘s appendix, since it provides thoroughly full definitions of the words in question.

Tenken represents a very impressive debut of a major work from Yumiko Shirai, and it’s relatively self-contained nature as a small softcover book all but guarantees a perfect way to take in a classical myth from Japanese folklore, and also spend some time with some wonderfully realized characters and concepts. While some of those concepts were a little obscure due to the nature of the story being only inspired by the Susano and Yamata-no-Orochi legend rather than slavishly reimagining it in a new setting, but there’s nothing that can’t be cleared up by a second reading. And since Tenken is such an impressive work in any case, that can only be yet another bonus as far as I am concerned. Recommended.

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