Sunday, May 26, 2013

Scummy Manga Reviews #9: WORST

Title: WORST (ワースト)
Serialized in: Weekly Shonen Jump, Volume 11 1970-Volume 34 1971
Art and Story by: Komuro Kotaro (小室孝太郎)
Genre: New Age Science Fiction

What It's About
It took the Old Testament forty days and nights of rain to purge the planet of humankind and their sin. WORST did the same in half a weeks time.

The population of Earth contracts a mysterious, incurable disease following a three day worldwide storm. Death is swift, but is only the beginning. As the dead rise, their skin splits and molts, revealing the ghastly form underneath—hairless ghouls with glowing, globular eyes, their emaciated stomachs hungry for human flesh.

Shoot them and they get right back up. Blast them apart with dynamite and their giblets recongeal. Their only weakness is direct sunlight, which merely repels, not kills them. The survivors have a long, futile struggle ahead of them. A bite is all it takes for the virus to spread, and the monsters multiply faster than cancer cells. Mankind's reign has ended. The age of the Worst Man has begun.

Why It's Awesome
WORST challenges the divide between kid's entertainment and social commentary. The author frequently breaks through the fourth wall with his gag hammer to diffuse the tension and keep things from getting too scary for the young 'uns. But then the next page will open to a U.S. Air Force pilot's flashback showing American troops gunning down unarmed Vietnamese woman and children. While anti-war sentiment was beginning to boil at the end of the 60's, it would still be some time before other mainstream youth serials began obliquely criticizing the conflict with Devil Man (1972) and Barefoot Gen (1973).

Komura was also among the first authors to tackle the issue of industrial pollution seeping into the public sphere. The Worst Man virus evolved to thrive in the toxic environment created by Japan's unchecked economic growth, echoing tragic real world headlines detailing the outbreak of mercury poisoning in Minamata City, or the cadmium-induced “itai-itai” syndrome that turned its victim's bones into taffy. Nukes were one thing. At this rate, we were going to poison ourselves before we got around the blowing ourselves up.

Komuro interned under Tezuka and it clearly shows in his art and themes. His character designs are lifted from the master mangaka, but Komuro pushes his dystopian vision further than his mentor ever dared. In The World to Come(来るべき世界) (1951), Tezuka brings the world to the brink of extinction in a Cold War gone wrong, only to pull it back to safety at the 11th hour. WORST is not as charitable and sets mankind running on its last legs from the starting line. Extinction is the least of their worries. As the Worst Men evolve and grow in intelligence, they pry loose humanity's grip as the dominant species, one finger at a time.

But just as the reign of the dinosaurs was usurped by the advent of mammals, this changeover may be in civilization's best interest. Pollution-induced climate change has ushered in a sudden ice age that homo sapians do not have the resources to endure. Man's best hope to continue its lineage may be to relinquish it to the Worst Man.

Why It Won't Come Out In English
One major appeal of mid-Showa titles is how they cram so much content into a short span. WORST is no exception, chronicling the struggle of three generations of survivors in under a thousand pages. The character's limited screen time doesn't make them any less memorable.

We start with Eiji “The Razor,” a quick-witted punk who sets up base camp for the pro-human league in the Kasumigaseki Building, Japan's first office skyscraper. It's only a matter of time before the metropolis becomes a death trap and we take refuge on a deserted tropical island. This arc focuses on Taku, an orphan Eiji rescued, now a grown man researching how to destroy the Worst Man with the limited resources available from their island prison. The drama plays out like Matheson's “I Am Legend” with a volatile cast drafted from “Night of the Living Dead,” though the latter would not see a Japanese release until years later.

In hindsight, WORST may not be the most original work ever, but for a sophomore effort it hints at great things later in Komuro's career. Unfortunately his talent was suffocated before it could develop. Despite regularly securing the top spot of Shonen Jump's infamous reader popularity polls, his Big Brother-ruled dystopia title Outer REC(アウターレック) (1973) was cut from circulation in favor of Mazinger Z. The editor only wanted one sci-fi serial in his magazine, and with the anime adaptation riding on it, Mazinger Z received top billing. Komuro walked out in protest, only to discover that the Shonen Jump exclusivity contract prevented him from working with another publisher for the next year.

The manga industry shrunk as paper prices soared following the 1973 oil shock, and Komuro wouldn't be given another paid gig until 1978, when he ironically came back to the pages of Shonen Jump. He never produced another piece of science fiction, instead focusing on historical fiction and Eastern religion. Tezuka's prodigy never had a chance to upstage his master.

If only his connection to Tezuka could give him a free pass to be reprinted. Komura's art may be dated, but his themes and panel compositions are new wave science fiction shot through the lens of the best experimental cinematographers of his day. His stories influenced the occult classrooms of Tsunoda Jiro, the survival horror of Hanazawa Kengo's I Am a Hero and even Gekiga artists with Koike Kazuo's sci-fi thriller Shonen no Machi ZF. Komura never became one of the greats, but the teeming ranks below him are far, far worse.

1 comment:

  1. Ah, the 70's. A perfect storm of nihilistic cynicism swept across the developed world and as a result produced some of the finest dystopian works in entertainment history.

    Japan certainly was at the forefront in that regard. As a regional exclusive I clearly see the offspring of said cynicism in the works of today's hottest mangaka who were fed said nihilistic worldview in the cultural mother milk of their childhood.