January 19, 2008
by: Serdar Yegulalp
Yu Koyama's manga was the inspiration for the live-action movie starring Aya Ueto -- but you can't find it in English yet.
An Introduction to “What You’re Missing”
Anime and manga are like icebergs; there’s so much below the waterline we never get to see from where we sit. For every one thing that gets translated into English and released domestically, there are five more that don’t—and that’s not just because those five others are “too Japanese.” Sometimes they never come to the attention of an eager licensor, and end up unheralded and untranslated. Sometimes they do get a translation, but slip out of print due to inept distribution or unreceptive audiences. And sometimes they just end up in limbo, unlicensed—and unlicensable—no thanks to litigation over who actually owns the finished product, or in what form. We’re missing out.
Well, I say it’s time we stopped missing out. Each month (sometimes more often, depending on what’s at hand), What You’re Missing will cover a different property, anime or manga, which for whatever reason hasn’t yet reached an English-speaking audience in a legit edition but deserves your attention. Said titles usually fit into one of the above three categories—previously licensed but out of print; unlicensed; unlicensable—but for all I know, some of these titles may already have been picked up and are being negotiated for as we speak.
But why wait for them to turn up on their own? It’s my hope that by talking about them, I’ll be able to bring a previously undiscovered or not widely known title to light, and maybe spur its adaptation for an English-speaking market if it hasn’t already been snapped up. There are so many genuinely good and undiscovered (or at least under-promoted) releases out there, it’s about time I quit lamenting that fact and did what I could to give them the exposure they deserve. Read, and learn.
What It’s About:
Mention Azumi to anime/manga fans and they’ll probably think of the live-action movie, released domestically in 2006 and starring idol Aya Ueto as a young ninja assassin trying to find a semblance of life in the middle of an endless rain of death. Not enough has been made of the fact that it was adapted from a long-running manga series by Yû Koyama, now into its 39th volume and still going strong. I guess one major obstacle towards licensing the series is its sheer length: assuming whoever picked it up put out one book a month, they’d need three years and change just to get caught up. But the fact that the movie itself got picked up domestically could be used as a hook to get an audience for the manga—and let’s face it, if titles as deliberately tough to swallow as Satsuma Gishiden (which I’m a fan of myself) can get an audience in English, then so can Azumi, 39 volumes or not.
If you’ve seen the film, you know the basic setup: Azumi’s one of a cadre of orphans raised in seclusion by the grandfatherly “Jii,” trained from the beginning to be ruthless ninja assassins. Their missions, should they choose to accept them (and they usually have no choice): to fight in secret against those who would upset the order of things in Tokugawa-era Japan. But the emphasis is at least as much on the emotional impact of such a thing on the person doing it as it is the larger plotting it all drives. This goes double for Azumi’s first mission of importance, echoed note-for-note in the film: she and the other eleven trainee orphans are to pair up with the one person they feel closest to—and kill them.
Azumi survives her “graduation,” but is horrified that she has the strength to do something that terrible—but wait, does that just mean her now-dead friend was a weakling? And off she goes on one mission after another, dealing out death in ways so cinematically violent it’s not hard to see why they adapted this into a movie … and yet also so emotionally charged, so loaded with grief that we almost feel bad for cheering her on.
It’s this kind of no-win morality that informs most of Azumi—but rather than becoming a dead end, it transforms into a source of great gravity for the story. In many circumstances Azumi is sent to kill to resolve some existing conflict, only to find that killing is hardly a solution to the underlying problem. Kill one enemy and you create five more in the process, to say nothing of passing the stigma of murder down across the generations. Try telling that to a man with a knife at his neck, though.
This dilemma is also used to set up a dynamic that I’ve seen elsewhere in Japanese popular culture: the heroic failure. Azumi survives even though—and maybe because—everything she comes close to in this world, she also endangers. The first several volumes of the manga depict this with grinding heartlessness: one by one her other five cohorts are whittled away, and whatever joys Azumi can find are transitory. She has survived, yes, but to what end? Just to kill again?
(C) Yu Koyama. All rights reserved.
Azumi eventually becomes the sole survivor of her group of ninja trainees, whether or not she actually wants to be.
Despite my limited command of Japanese, I got hooked quickly on the series and bought the first 13 or so volumes untranslated. It wasn’t hard to see how bits and pieces of the first couple of volumes were lifted and reworked into the first film, such as how the dandyish Bijomaru was turned into a major bad guy in the movie (he gets entirely too little time in the manga). But what went missing was even more crucial: the movie doesn’t do justice at all to Azumi’s playful sense of humor and life-affirming personality. Even when she’s squatting by the graves of her fallen comrades, she can still find the energy to clown a bit for the repose of their spirits. She’s a girl first and a killer second, but sadly the world demands the latter of her a lot more often than the former.
That will to joy, when so many other people around her are motivated more by the will to power, buoys her up again and again throughout the series, even when she has every reason in the world to simply lie down and die. It also forms the heart for a story which could easily have degenerated into an endless filmstrip of mindless slaughter, but with someone like Azumi at the center it’s automatically that much smarter and more compelling.
Who Should License It And Why: Dark Horse, if only because of their excellent translations of equally gritty samurai/ninja titles like Lone Wolf and Cub, Path of the Assassin, Blade of the Immortal and (yes, again) Satsuma Gishiden. Azumi is a lot more accessible than almost all of those titles in both its art style and storytelling, and it comes with a certain amount of newly-minted built-in name recognition thanks to the movie. Failing the Horse, perhaps Del Rey could snap it up; they did a solid, fan-centric job with their rendition of the intriguing if abortive Kurogane (another quasi-samurai story albeit with some fantasy-themed twists).