The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 239 | Hajime Segawa’s Tokyo ESP reconstructs Marvel’s X-Men

Leaving Proof 239 | Hajime Segawa’s Tokyo ESP reconstructs Marvel’s X-Men
Published on Monday, September 8, 2014 by
In this week’s Leaving Proof: We discuss how Hajime Segawa’s Tokyo ESP appropriates and reconstructs the themes associated with Marvel’s X-Men. ALSO: We hand out a pre-review graphic novel recommendation and listen to Adam WarRock’s Oni Press Mixtape.

One of the features that makes the superhero uniquely American as a construct in fiction is the fact that the superhero is rooted in the idea of the vigilante. It isn’t so much that vigilantes are unique to the Unites States, or that the United States is the only country whose history is so informed by the actions—good and bad—of vigilantes, men (and women) acting outside the law, implementing their idea of justice through violent, and often lethal, means. Rather, what is unique about American vigilantism is how it has been romanticized in the country’s historical narrative and its folklore, literature, and popular culture. Comics’ superhero stands alongside the Western gunslinger, the hard-boiled private eye, the loose cannon cop, the lone wolf soldier disobeying his commanding officer, and the everyman-driven-to-”justified” mayhem and murder as among the most popular flavors of the vigilante hero in American popular entertainment.

The distinctly American romanticization of “vigilante justice” partially explains why the classic vigilante-style superhero has found nowhere near the outsized role in comics outside of America like it has in its country of origin (and why the superhero conceit is viewed as abhorrent by its many critics in America and elsewhere). In many countries outside the US, it is the American costumed crimefighter exemplified by the likes of DC’s Batman and Marvel’s Spider-Man that is the most popular representative of the type, and not any homegrown superhero creation. And while that maybe a testament to the international ubiquity of America’s cultural exports, I think it also highlights entrenched differences in the so-called “emotional scripts” of various national cultures.

This discrepancy is perhaps most glaring in Japan, long the largest producer and per capita consumer of comics in the world, but also a country with relatively few notable examples of what can be described as local interpretations of your classic, American-style, vigilante superhero. Vigilante protagonists do exist in conflict-driven, action-oriented shonen and seinen manga, but they are often framed as antiheroes, or characters driven to desperate measures by extreme circumstances, and not so much as working for a greater, communal good. This should not be a surprise, as a cultural stance against vigilantism is encoded in Japan’s “national legend,” the story of the 47 ronin.


Dark Horse recently published an adaptation of the legend of the 47 ronin.

Based on actual events that happened in the early 18th century, the legend involves a group of 47 samurai who are left leaderless after their master is ordered by the shogunate to commit ritual suicide for assaulting a court official. In the most extreme interpretation of bushido (the samurai warrior code), masterless samurai are expected to commit ritual suicide themselves but the 47 samurai instead choose to disband and become ronin—wandering “freelance samurai” who are viewed with contempt and disdain in Japanese feudal society—enduring dishonor and various hardships whilst plotting in secret to kill the court official in retaliation for their master’s death and to redeem the name of their house in the process. After a year of covert planning, the 47 ronin regroup and launch a coordinated attack on the estate of the court official and succeed in killing him as well as over a dozen of his armed retainers. Afterwards, 46 of the ronin surrender to representatives of the shogun, stand trial for the murder of the court official and his men for which they are eventually found guilty, and stoically carry out their sentence of ritual suicide (the 47th ronin was tasked by his comrades to escape and ensure that the truth behind their story would not be forgotten).

It is in the epilogue to the story—the part where the ronin submit to a lawful authority and unquestioningly accept the punishment for their actions—where we find a key difference in the Japanese and American cultural views on vigilante lore. From the beginning, the ronin know that what they are doing is against the law and they do not seek to be absolved of any wrongdoing in the aftermath of their crime—in fact, their surrender, conviction, and execution by ritual suicide is as integral to the redemption of the honor of their house as their killing of the court official. The ronin break the law in order to exact their revenge and honor the memory of their master, but they also submit to the law in the end, thus restoring the Neo-Confucian order of things. In many American retellings of the story, however, the ronin commit ritual suicide on the estate grounds, almost immediately after their murder of the court official and before the shogunate can get its hands on them. In this version, their ritual suicide serves as a fatal affirmation of individual freedom, a final “fuck you” to the system—a thematic inversion that would no doubt be seen by the original mythmakers as a grotesque perversion of the story’s lessons. (It should be noted however, that Yamamoto Tsunetomo, author of the classic text of samurai conduct the Hagakure, disagreed with the 47 ronin‘s actions—he thought that the ronin should not have retaliated for their master’s death in the first place since his ritual suicide was the result of a lawful order from the shogunate. But having proceeded with the court official’s murder anyway, Tsunetomo thought that the ronin should have committed ritual suicide immediately after the crime if they thought to set things right, instead of waiting for the sentence to come from a higher authority.)


Hajime Segawa’s Tokyo ESP is published in Japan by Kadokawa Shoten.

This cultural contrast and context thus makes for an interesting metatextual backdrop for Hajime Segawa’s Tokyo ESP, a manga that is quite clearly inspired by American superhero comics, most notably Marvel’s X-Men and its related titles. Tokyo ESP has yet to be picked up for translation and distribution in North America as far as I know (although unlicensed “scanlations” can be found without too much difficulty on the Internet by those willing to flout copyright laws), but the reasonably faithful anime series adaptation has been available for viewing on these past couple of months as part of its “Summer Simulcast” program (registration required, Tokyo ESP episodes restricted to viewers aged 17 or older) that streams new anime almost simultaneously with their Japanese television debut.

In Segawa’s manga (and the anime adaptation), superpowered individuals known as ESPers stand in for Marvel’s mutants: There are good and bad ESPers—there are those ESPers who protect a world that fears and hates them and there are those ESPers who think themselves the next rung in human evolution and seek to dominate and displace normal humans.

One of those ESPers who uses their powers for good is Rinka Urushiba, a high school student who, through exposure to some as-yet unexplained quasi-mystical phenomenon, gains the power to become intangible and phase through solid objects, much like the X-Men’s Kitty Pryde (although Rinka’s power comes with the additional constraint of not working on living matter—she can’t make herself intangible to human touch). The callbacks to Kitty Pryde go beyond the powers: When Rinka’s powers first activate (without her conscious control), she phases through the floor of her family’s second floor apartment and finds herself naked in her first floor neighbor’s living room (she apparently phased through her clothes as well), a fanservice-tinged recreation of the time Kitty’s powers first manifested in X-Men (Vol. 1) # 129 (January 1980).


Left: Screenshot from Episode 2 (Season 1) of Tokyo ESP, showing Rinka fleeing in embarrassment and confusion after waking up to find that she has phased through the floor of her family’s second floor apartment into their first floor neighbor’s living room. Right: The sequence from X-Men (Vol. 1) #129 (January 1980) that served as the scene’s inspiration. [Click to view in larger size]

Rinka isn’t initially predisposed to use her powers for good—her first instinct is to find a way to return to normal—but her new ESPer friend Kyotaro Azuma eventually convinces her that “gaining power means gaining that much more responsibility” (a rephrasing of Stan Lee’s famous superhero aphorism) and she joins him in his altruistic superhero do-gooder adventures.


Kyotaro, by the way, possesses the ability of teleportation and his use of the power is marked by a puff of dark-colored smoke not unlike the one associated with the X-Men’s Nightcrawler. Pretty soon, Rinka and Kyotaro find themselves defending ESPers and humans from a terrorist organization that subscribes to an extremist ESPer superiority ideology, the manga’s take on the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, if you will.

There are other obvious references to the American comics that serve as Tokyo ESP‘s inspiration: Rinka’s ex-cop father Rindo Urushiba, also an ESPer, bears an uncanny resemblance to the X-Men’s Wolverine, and in the manga, it is revealed that he actually earned “Wolverine” as his nickname during his time as a member of Tokyo’s police for his hairstyle, gruff demeanor, and penchant for using three collapsible buttons in one hand—held between the fingers of his clenched fist—in combat (perhaps due to copyright concerns, this little bit of backstory trivia does not appear in the anime).


Segawa obviously has a personal affinity for Marvel’s mutants, but his appropriation and effective reconstruction (as opposed to deconstruction) of what former Uncanny X-Men and New Mutants editor Ann Nocenti describes as the “misfit identity theme” also says something about the universal appeal of the basic X-Men superhero concept that goes beyond the draw of simple vigilantism. Unlike Batman or Spider-Man, the X-Men do not operate from a position of presumed moral superiority and superhero exceptionalism that allow them to act as a law unto themselves. Instead, the X-Men are motivated, at least nominally, by a desire for equality and acceptance within extant society—they only want mutants to be accorded the same rights as normal humans and to be treated the same way as other people—and they work towards that goal by policing rogue mutant elements as well as serving as something of a volunteer first responder team helping both mutant and human alike. If that has them falling foul of the law now and again, so be it.

The X-Men’s focus on community and compromise (even if their attempts at conflict resolution almost always results in the usual comic book punch ‘em-ups) contrasts strongly with the updated version of the rugged frontier-style individualism that informs many other American superheroes, and it thus makes all kinds of sense that it is the X-Men’s particular brand of superhero vigilantism that Segawa has chosen to emulate and comment on in Tokyo ESP. If nothing else, the X-Men’s motivation for doing what they do makes their vigilantism more palatable to those who may otherwise find the idea of people practicing law enforcement without a legal remit antithetical to cultural norms, uninteresting, or even personally disagreeable.

All that said, it doesn’t look like Rinka’s impromptu superhero team of ESPers will be vigilantes for long. As of Episode 8 of the anime series (and as suggested by the “flash-forward” scenes of the series’ first episode), it seems like Rinka is on the way to being officially deputized to work alongside the Paranormal Disaster Countermeasure Headquarters (a government task force created specifically to counter ESPer terrorism) and the Security Police, paving the way for her to graduate from the role of the ronin and become a sanctioned superpowered operator working for the preservation of law and order.


On Tokyo ESP and kali/eskrima: While I’ve watched animated adaptations of Hajime Segawa’s manga before—I previously discussed in this space Ga-Rei-Zero, the anime prequel to Segawa’s Ga-Rei manga—Tokyo ESP only really came to my attention in the course of my search for depictions of the Filipino martial art eskrima (also known by the names arnis, kali, and FMA—a catch-all initialism that stands for “Filipino martial arts”) in comics and comics-related media. As readers of last year’s article on eskrima and comics know, Tokyo ESP‘s Rinka Urushiba is a kali practitioner and I’m glad to see that design element retained as a prominent feature in the anime—when I first heard the news that Tokyo ESP would be getting an anime adaptation, I had some minor concern that some of its elements like the incorporation of the Filipino martial arts and the clear nods to American comics would be altered or discarded outright so as to be more familiar to Japanese audiences. I’m happy to report that save for a few minor concessions, the Filipino martial arts aspect of the manga seems to have made the jump to animation intact.


In Episode 7, the show actually pays a comedy-inflected tribute to the memorable Game of Death showdown between kali guro Dan Inosanto and the late martial arts cinema legend Bruce Lee as Rinka’s ESPer companions, the overconfident kali prodigy Ayumu Oozora and the reluctant fighter Murasaki Edoyama, duke it out in training:


I do think that Ga-Rei-Zero had better production values—something about Tokyo ESP just looks slightly off—and as with many manga-to-anime adaptations, there does seem to be a greater emphasis on fanservice than in the source material. Still, it’s about as good an animated-for-TV adaptation of a manga as one can expect.

Trade and hardcover reviews update: I’ve been doing my damndest to read as many of the solicited and unsolicited trades and hardcovers sent to us for review and make a dent in our forever-growing review backlog—it’s truly a Sisyphean task. I hope to come out with a proper review article within the next few days covering at least a half dozen volumes from Dark Horse, Oni Press, BOOM! Studios, Image Comics, IDW, and Zenescope we’ve received for review over the past eight months but in the meantime, I will say this: Dave Wachter and James Andrew Clark’s recently released supernatural/superhero Western The Guns of Shadow Valley (Dark Horse Books) is among the top three or four leading candidates as my choice for my favorite original graphic novel of the year.


Adam WarRock’s Oni Press Mixtape: Speaking of Oni Press, check out lawyer-turned-nerdcore rapper Adam WarRock’s song “Wasteland,” based on the Antony Johnston-penned Oni Press comic of the same title:

The song is from the official Oni Press Mixtape released back in 2011, which can be downloaded for free from Adam WarRock’s site.

Interestingly enough, Antony Johnston (under the moniker Ruin Runner) actually has his own free-to-download soundtrack to the Wasteland comic, with each song meant to evoke the individual story-arcs in the long-running (and soon to end) post-apocalyptic series.

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