Santa Inoue's Tokyo Tribes is one of the year's most anticipated new manga series. Originally published in Japan in the 1990s, it's a tale about hip-hop—influenced Japanese gangbangers that offers a fascinating glimpse at the mutual influence and exchanges between black American urban style and Japanese youth culture.
It's the story of Kai and Mero, two former high school friends, now members of rival Tokyo gangs, who find themselves in confrontation after the brutal murder of two of Kai's gang buddies by Mero's gang.
Unlike most Japanese manga, which are usually launched in weekly manga anthologies, Tokyo Tribes was published in a fashion magazine, says Tokyopop editor Luis Reyes. The book was a publishing as well as a fashion and merchandising sensation. The series led to the launch of two Tokyo hip-hop clothing stores as well as an online site (www.santa.co.jp) selling Tokyo Tribes clothing, action figures and CDs.
Reyes tells PW that Tokyopop took great care in creating an American translation that is faithful to the original edition—but there are some changes. "It's a very violent book, so it's for older readers," explains Reyes. "It captures one aspect of what hip-hop used to be, the gang wars that were going on in the '90s," he says. "It's not what hip-hop is now. We didn't want to stereotype the music."
In fact, the American edition is marked by an ironic censorship—certain violent scenes in the book are partially blacked out, leaving evidence of the action but without the blatant details. But despite its violence, the lively plot offers deft characterizations, sly comedy and a host of visual details about Tokyo life, all enriched by Inoue's love of hip-hop.
Inoue is also influenced by movies like Menace to Society and Boyz in the Hood. "It's full of old and newer hip-hop influences," Reyes says. "Inoue knows the music." To get the translation right, Tokyopop brought in writer David Walker, publisher of the retro blaxploitation fanzine Badass Mofo, to work with the translators. "David was already familiar with the book and dug it even in the Japanese," says Reyes. "He worked on the script to make sure it has a hip edge."
"It's not real hip-hop," Reyes explains. "It's perceived hip-hop, as seen through Inoue's eyes. Manga has always had all kinds of influences. Tokyo Tribes is very influenced by hip-hop, but it's also very Japanese."