Master Keaton, Vol. 2

By Naoki Urasawa, Hokusei Katsushika, and Takashi Nagasaki. Released in Japan by Shogakukan, serialized in the magazine Big Comic Original. Released in North America by Viz Media.

This is another solid volume of Master Keaton, with a bit more attention paid to the mysteries and a bit less to the leading man this time around. As I kept reading, though, one thing kept coming back to me. There were stories of a man stealing to try to help the poor in Italy; Olympic runners who also fell afoul of running for money so they could give to charity; old revolutionaries who have found that betraying a cause or lying for the sake of a woman doesn’t make one happy; and even Keaton’s class, unable to finish its final lesson as the school is being shut down and evil bureaucrats want the mural on the wall behind him. Only occasionally tragic, what this manga really is deep down is sad. It’s about chasing dreams, even as you realize that it destroys your life and you likely won’t succeed very well in any case.


This is likely not a surprise to anyone who has followed the career of Urasawa, a man who wrote one of the most depressing manga ever and called it “Happy!”, or Katsushika, who wrote for Golgo 13, another series that tended to end in death and disappointment, just with less focus on the emotions involved. But Master Keaton seems to go that extra mile. it’s the tail end of the Cold War in these stories, and everyone is simply weary. Even the terrorists are giving themselves up as they’ve had enough. The bounty hunters are ex-cops who got tired of letting the criminals get away. Little girls are cynical before their time as they see adultery and cruelty in their daily lives. And even Keaton, a man who loves his ex-wife but let her go anyway because he thinks it helped him grow up.

There are moments of triumph here, but they’re less in the emotions and more in the action and deduction. You see Keaton figure out the story behind a “werewolf”-inspired serial killer, or fend off neo-Nazi assassins to save some Turks in West Germany. There’s also one emotional high point in the story, where Keaton reminisces about his old mentor, who he named his daughter after, and finds his friends and family have managed to track him down for a reunion. Even then, though, the event is muted: Professor Scott looks at Keaton and says he’s turned out well, which brings the man to silent tears. I get the feeling as I read this series that despite being an archaeologist/insurance investigator/ex-SAS soldier/detective/awesome guy, Keaton really doesn’t like himself all that much.

But for this sort of series, I think that’s OK. It’s evocative of a mood, one that fits its time: Europe in the late 80s, with the Soviet Union starting to crumble and the last vestiges of the old guard left with nothing but regrets. I will even forgive this volume for trotting out the old “a man has his dreams” cliche. Keaton is the type of series you want to read while swirling around a glass of brandy and listening to Sonny Rollins. Just don’t be surprised if you’re counting your own regrets after you finish it.

Master Keaton, Vol. 1

By Naoki Urasawa, Hokusei Katsushika, and Takashi Nagasaki. Released in Japan by Shogakukan, serialized in the magazine Big Comic Original. Released in North America by Viz Media.

A long awaited release on these shores, this is the sort of title that you’d have expected to be licensed back in the old Viz days of the early to mid 90s, filled with Crying Freeman and Mai the Psychic Girl. The series had an anime in the 1990s, but by then the fashion for seinen had passed, and it’s taken a resurgence, helped by the cult popularity of 20th Century Boys and Monster, to see the series out here at last as a deluxe Signature edition. There’s also some question over the actual creation. When it came out in the late 80s, it was credited to Katsushika as the writer and Urasawa as the artist. After Katsushika’s death, Urasawa claimed that they’d fought early in the series, and from that point Urasawa did the story himself, a viewpoint which has led to some criticism. Also, the third author on the cover is the writer for the CURRENT Master Keaton revival, which started in 2012, and which… isn’t this. (As with many Signature releases of older works, this is a release of the Japanese re-release, which may have updated art/storylines.)


What is this, then? It’s been called “Indiana Jones manga”, but I’d compare it to another 80s icon, MacGyver. Taichi Keaton is a former SAS soldier turned freelance insurance investigator for Lloyd’s of London. He looks into wrongful death claims, art forgeries, and archaeological digs, all the while finding trouble and managing to maneuver his way out of it by virtue of his amazing survival skills. Sadly, he’s not nearly so competent in his personal live, being divorced and having a teenage daughter, Yuriko, who seems to find her father admirable and aggravating in equal measures.

I understand her frustration. Keaton is a man who it’s easy to admire but hard to like. His lax personality was highly popular at the time, and makes a nice change from, say, Golgo 13 (a series Katsushika also wrote for) or Crying Freeman. These days I think a reader might find it trying, especially his obsession with his ex-wife getting together with someone else (we never see the wife, and actually it occurs to me that Yuriko may have made the whole thing up to attempt to spur him into action). Later in the volume we see Keaton’s father, whose name he disavows (he takes his mother’s last name), and he’s also an eccentric, frustrating individual, who Keaton probably takes after more than he’d like. Keaton as a man seems mostly half-baked and half-hearted.

The series is on firmer ground with the mystery stories, which much of the time turn into spy stories. Master Keaton began in 1988, at the tail end of the Cold War, but feels more like an early 80s tale, with the Communists still exerting their hold behind the Iron Curtain. I wonder if we’ll see that change as the series went on – it lasted till 1994. The first few chapters are not fleshed out enough – Keaton is the sort of story that requires a bit of room to breathe, particularly with all the exposition, and it’s no surprise that it’s the multi-chapter works that are the best in the volume.

Master Keaton, in the end, is classic seinen. If I said this was a mystery series in Big Comic Original in the late 80s, the well-read manga fan would likely be able to predict precisely the types of stories you’d see here. But it’s very well-told, as expected from Urasawa, and when he’s not getting involved in personal business, Keaton makes an excellent investigator. I’ll definitely be picking up more.