With beach reading season finally upon us it is time yet again for a look across the ocean at a few Japanese comic gems that have yet to make their western debut in English. This month we look to Weekly Shonen Jump for Kyosuke Usuta’s absurdist comedy, Sexy Commmando Gaiden: Sugoi Yo! Masaru-San, and Kenta Tsuchida’s, Lock On!, a classic blend of shonen action and risqué comedy—a couple of comedy serials just begging for a creative localization team.
We’ll begin with a personal favorite: the splendid absurdist comedy, Sexy Commando Gaiden: Sugoi Yo!! Masaru-san. Its author, 36 year-old Aichi native Kyosuke Usuta, has been one of Japan’s most cutting edge comedy writers for the last two decades.
“Manzai” really is the key word when examining Sexy Commando’s comedy. The term refers to a kind of Japanese comedic dialogue featuring a “straight man,” or, “Tsukkomi,” and a “fool,” or “Boke.” Sexy Commando’s boke protagonist is the handsome Masaru Hananakajima, a practitioner of the ancient Sexy Commando martial art. He leads a high school club devoted to the distraction-centered form of combat. Think suggestive poses and unzipping of trousers instead of kicks and leg holds.
The riotous Masaru’s tsukkomi counterpart is Fujiyama Okometsubu, an average high school kid who functions as the story’s narrator. From his perspective we watch as Masaru prances and dances his way to victory over Karate and Judo fighters and eventually gets the school principal and Fujiyama himself to join the Sexy Commando club. The adventures that ensue as a result are full of smart yet bawdy humor, as Usuta’s writing consistently avoids the obvious gags found in typical shonen comedy and instead challenges readers with its clever satire and wit. Readers discover that what on the surface appears to be just another sexy high school action comedy is actually something much richer.
Sexy Commando ran from 1995 to 1997 in Weekly Shonen Jump, culminating in an anime series in 1998. Usuta’s most recent works, 2007’s Double Mamedaishi and 2009’s Shoulder Tackle Yasuzaki-man, still appear there regularly. His 2000 musical comedy Pyu to Fuku! Jaguar, is also still delighting manzai fans as a serial and live action film.
Unlike many of the other works introduced here, I have a pretty good idea as to why no North American or European publisher has bothered to license Sexy Commando or any of Usuta’s other works. The humor is just too Japanese for a lot of westerners. With so many gags demanding a strong understanding of Japanese thinking and social conventions, even a brilliant translator would be hard pressed to create context and provide western equivalents for readers. Lacking that foundation, the work loses much of its power, rooted as it is in the music of the language, and can only appeal to dedicated students of Japanese society – the sort of folks who would read the comic not just as a source of entertainment, but as a text for their own studies. As a member of this very demographic, I know for certain that it is not large enough to attract much in the way of investment.
I have much more hope for our second featured work, Kenta Tsuchida’s Lock On!. With its classic blend of shonen action and risqué comedy, it was no surprise when the 2009 Shonen Jump one-shot became a regular series in less than one year. It is the first major work of the 29 year-old Tsuchida and this manga will likely define both his style and eventual audience.
Lock On! Tells the story of Utsuru Sanada, a 17 year-old master photographer with a powerful photographic memory and a “Shutter Eye” that grants him incredible fighting abilities. His first name even uses the Japanese character for “photo processing,” and his eye is so sharp that he can guess a girl's three clothing sizes after one glance. This latter talent should hint at the mildly sexual humor found in volume one.
Utsuru's love interest is the voluptuous Niko, a femme fatale martial artist who refuses to let poor Utsuru take her picture. Our hero spends much of the story trying to win her over with various heroics, battling the perverts that have turned Niko off of men, and perfecting his skill with the camera. Both the jokes and the fights seem to channel Ranma--minus the gender-bending. It’s fun if formulaic, though it is still quite early in the series, and I am optimistic that Tsuchida will find a way to put his own spin on the genre.
In truth I still have some ambivalence about the series. The one-shot felt so complete that I worry a serialization might dilute the enjoyable set-up. Volume one both strives for longevity by opening up new conflicts and attempts to find a bigger audience with rushed new character introductions. Though I can almost literally feel myself outgrowing the aesthetic Tsuchida is aiming for, I know that Utsuru’s story can easily find an audience outside of Japan. If history is any guide, Lock On! is likely to see a western release in the near future given its broad appeal to school-age manga collectors.