.Naoki Urasawa article published in Animerica Extra Vol. 4, No. 4, May 2001
This article was written by and is copyrighted to Patricia Duffield and may not be reproduced in part or whole without permission.

Naoki Urasawa is the artistic half of the duo responsible for one of VIZ' earliest translated comics, Pineapple Army. In this first Urasawa series, he brought to life author Kudo (long o) Kazuya's Jed Goshi, a McGyveresque ex-military mercenary who hires himself out to teach people in need how to defend themselves. Pineapple Army is as humanistic as it is exciting and has been recognized by critics and readers alike as a well-crafted, quality series. In the fifteen years since then, Urasawa has not only teamed up with several other talented writers, but he has created a number of well-loved original stories as well.

Urasawa's most famous title is YAWARA!, the story of Yawara Inokuma, a lovely, cute and fashionable miss who also happens to be a reluctant judo genius. Yawara's greatest desire is to be a regular girl, but it's a daily struggle against grandpa Jigoro, who is determined to see her win Olympic gold. Of course, there's more to YAWARA! than a sympathetic and charming girl, or the series could never have run for 29 volumes and 124 episodes! Besides the obvious sports theme, there are also many large and small everyday dramas in YAWARA! --from first crushes to first jobs-- which set an engaging backdrop to this delightful series.

When sports reporter Kosaku Matsuda sees a mysterious girl stop a mugger with an effortless judo flip, he sets his sights on finding this girl and following her inevitable rise to greatness, a much nobler duty than the scandal chasing he'd been doing. Once he meets Yawara, he gradually becomes torn between his desires to support Yawara's personal choices and to encourage her to pursue her athletic potential of becoming a sports legend. Yawara's insensitive, manipulative grandfather isn't the only one who wants her to keep training. Her accidental rival, Sayaka, is a rich girl who sets her goal and much of her self-worth on defeating Yawara. Her high school male judo team, especially the socially awkward but fairly talented Hanazono, want her to be their coach. Despite her lack of enthusiasm for her own judo success, Yawara can't help but aid others in their attempts to reach their athletic goals. Although she intentionally chooses a two year college with no judo team, Yawara manages to become involved with training a team and competing once more. This is where we meet Fujiko, who becomes a close friend. Fujiko turns her not-quite-good-enough ballet talents to judo, forms a club, and succeeds in encouraging Yawara to return to judo. Eventually she follows Yawara into international competition.

All these characters and more play a part in influencing Yawara's life, just as she affects theirs. Everyone, whether you like them or not, has personal motivations which you can relate to and feelings you can sympathize with. This is a quality which all of Urasawa's work shares; the characters are realistic. His are not stories where everyone is beautiful, where romance or fighting are the primary motivations, or where you hardly see anyone over the age of twenty. YAWARA! and the rest of Urasawa's work are filled with all the different kinds of people you might meet in your own life, from high school punks to crotchety grandpas. His extraordinary ability for portraying such diverse characters and their interactions in a plain, straightforward manner yet still convey subtle, complex emotions is what makes him such an outstanding artist.

Happy!, another original Urasawa series, may seem like a YAWARA! clone, at first. After all, this 23-volume series started right after YAWARA! ended, stars a charming girl with athletic skill, has a similarly diverse and interesting cast, is set in Japan, and ends in a "!." But don't let appearances fool you; these two are no more the same than are Mitsuru Adachi's Touch and H2 baseball series. To begin with, the heroine Miyuki Unimo is not the single child of a well off family with a history of athletic excellence; Miyuki is poor and must take care of her three younger siblings all alone. When her brother's debt of 250 million yen (over $2,000,000) falls on her shoulders, Miyuki quits high school in order to pursue the only chance she has of earning that kind of money --becoming a professional tennis champ.

After Happy!, Urasawa teamed up with writer Hokusei Katsushika for the exceedingly popular mystery series, Master Keaton. This popularity understandable, because Taichi* Keaton is such an agreeable, interesting guy. As a divorced, half Japanese/half English, ex SAS (Special Air Service) Staff Sargent, Oxford educated archeologist who lectures and works as a special insurance investigator, Keaton leads a pretty interesting life. With cases ranging from kidnaping to terrorism, there's plenty of action and intrigue to get a reader hooked. With frequent peeks into Keaton's regular life and many interesting characters, there's plenty of insightful human experience to make the story involving and well-rounded. Urasawa's work on Pineapple Army proved he was skilled at working as a team and illustrating gritty, intricate plots. Combined with his years of conveying complex action, it's impossible to imagine anyone else could have brought this series to life with equal mastery. Mostly set in Europe, this 18-volume series has gone on to become a 24 episode TV show with a continuing video series.

All the plot and intrigue picked up while working with Katsushika is deftly applied in Urasawa's original thriller, MONSTER, currently 15-volumes long*. This dark, edgy series follows the life of Dr. Kenzo Tenma, a talented surgeon working in West Germany and engaged to the daughter of the man who owns the hospital where he works. His seemingly perfect life develops a flaw when he learns a man died because he was instructed to operate on a more famous patient instead. While struggling with this personal strife, Tenma disobeys orders and saves the life of a child. Johan* Ribert is no ordinary kid, however, and when the recovered boy begins killing, Tenma becomes a suspect. Reminiscent of The Fugitive, Tenma is forced to flee his vaulted career and secure life in an attempt to prove himself innocent and uncover the mystery behind the ever growing string of murders. Aside from being a complex, gripping story, this comic demonstrates that Urasawa's remarkable talent at expressions is as well suited to a serious drama as it is to more light-hearted series like YAWARA! and Happy! One can only imagine what awaits readers in Urasawa's most recent series, 20th Century Boy (a.k.a. Niju (long u) Seiki Shonen (long o)).

Along with all these great series, Urasawa has also published several volumes of short stories. JIGORO! focuses mainly on stories about Yawara's grandfather in his youth. The full color collection Taichi Keaton's Zoology is made up of stories with ecological themes, while Keaton Master's Book allows the creators space to spill the secrets behind the series. Most of the tales in Dancing Policeman (a.k.a. Odoru Keikan) concern the charming and amusing exploits of hip young Officer Yamashita. NASA has several of Urasawa's earliest works, including the award winning science fiction story, Return, and his debut story BETA!!. Even more can be found in Shoki no Urasawa (Urasawa's Early Years), a wideband collection which combines the contents of Dancing Policeman and NASA with several other short stories.

Despite his long and talented history as an artist and writer, Urasawa is still not well known among U.S. fans. This is primarily because only two of his series have been animated, neither of which have been brought out in English. Also, as a Big Comics author, Urasawa's work is generally aimed at an older audience which needs no furigana (the syllabary characters seen above or next to kanji in some manga). This makes his manga less accessible, but language difficulties aren't a good enough reason to keep people from great stories! So go surf the web, ask fan friends, dig up old copies of translated Pineapple Army at your local comic book store; do whatever you have to do to try out some of Urasawa's stories. They're worth the effort.

 

NOTES:
I don't know which spelling you chose for the detective article, but Taichi Keaton's Zoology settled it for me.

This one's also spelled Yohan (katakana yo-ha-n), although Bach's name is spelled Johann. I don't know from German names. Your call.

I don't know if MONSTER ended at 15 or not, but it's possible. MONSTER #15 came out 10/00, while the first 20th Century Boy came out in 1999, so it's hard to guess.


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