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zeroes and heroes

One of these days I should get something to remind me to read more manga. I feel as if I’ve neglected the medium in favor its animated counterpart, and I don’t think it’s that good of an idea. It is also sort of unfair to focus on anime and ignore manga altogether, when there are a lot more manga compared to the output of anime in a given period. So again, on a whim, I picked out another manga that I’ve left sitting for so long and read all two volumes of it. While I wasn’t really crazy about it, I thought it was pretty good, and therefore worth typing out a few words about.

Sports manga have always been a sort of a fascination of mine. This genre is where the abilities of artists get tested–in the way they translate movement into such a static medium, and in the way they represent the numerous ups-and-downs sports inherently entail. A lot of mangaka also made their name with sports manga–Koichi Takahashi with Captain Tsubasa, Yusuke Murata (who is, in my opinion, the best artist in Shonen Jump right now) with Eyeshield 21, and of course Takehiko Inoue himself, a confessed basketball fan, with his almost legendary Slam Dunk. While the series I mentioned above relied on the conventional tropes of the genre, this one is different. It presents boxing from an interesting perspective, and that’s what I liked about it.

Taiyo Matsumoto’s boxing manga Zero offers a small glimpse into the world of boxing through the eyes of a definitely interesting character. It’s in the same genre as say, Ashita no Joe and Hajime no Ippo, but I feel as if it really can’t be compared starkly with these two.

I confess. I haven’t been exposed to Matsumoto’s works aside from his collection Brothers of Japan, which I didn’t like that much. However, I’ve heard great things about the creator of Tekkon Kinkreet (which was adapted into a movie by Studio 4c), and numerous other acclaimed titles, thus I’ve put him in my checklist. Brothers reminded me of Usamaru Furuyas early work, namely Palepoli–which I’ve read only a day prior to Brothers–in the way it presented its admittedly crazy ideas. However I felt it was inferior to Palepoli, simply because Palepoli was just an explosion of creativity and an infusion of crazy ideas and inspired art. (I sure wish Furuya would create another manga like that–his current works are pretty good, but they lack what Palepoli had.)

Now then, onto the good bits.

Art – What’s really impressed me about Taiyo Matsumoto is his art. He has a knack for drawing realistic characters while using an unconventional art style. I saw it in Brothers, and again in Zero. There’s an edge to his drawings rarely seen in manga today. He stands between the realist mangaka such as say, Inoue and Kentaro Miura, and the ultra-fancy ones, such as Furuya and even Igarashi Daisuke. Matsumoto also boasts flexibility, as is shown by what I’ve seen of his latest output Takemitsu Zamurai. Comparing the two, one could hardly guess that both of them were drawn by the same artist.

In Zero, Matsumoto shows his realist side. Characters are drawn without the conventional tropes of manga character design, and they also give off a feeling of rawness, which I like. His panel composition is also quite unique, but not quite as odd-ball as Brothers. Like I said, the abilities of an artist gets tested in sports manga, and Matsumoto undergoes the same in Zero.

Action is one of the biggest things in sports manga, and I say Zero passes it. However, it doesn’t pass the test with flying colors like Slam Dunk’s latter chapters in terms of pure movement. Sometimes I even feel as if Matsumoto’s style doesn’t really suit the more intense bits of Zero, and that the benefits of realism don’t really get translated into the fights that well. The composition and fight choreography can get confusing at times, and I wasn’t able to follow the action with the exactness that I liked. Zero has a nice sense of paneling, though, and Matsumoto’s use of interesting perspectives gives the fights enough dynamism and sense of movement to last me through all 12 rounds.

Story – Zero isn’t just your ordinary boxing manga, and I like it for that. While other such stories revolve around an underdog attempting to go from Point A to Point B–with point B being a championship belt–with all the conventional tropes of the genre infused into it, such as romance, friendship, effort, and guts, Zero is widely different. Instead, it takes an already established boxer, Goshima, and his mindset and view as to what boxing means for him, and lays it on the table.

The manga takes its name from the main character, Goshima, who was nicknamed “Zero” because of his undefeated streak through his ten-year boxing career. Not coincidentally, his monstrous skills in the ring also take him to the Middleweight World Championship, which he holds throughout the manga. Goshima is feared all throughout the boxing world, and alongside that fear is the desire for his fellow boxers to unseat him and finally take away his nickname “Zero”.

What’s nice about Zero is its not-so familiar main character. Goshima isn’t the standard protagonist who just wants to win through effort and guts, in fact he destroys his opponents left and right, but he’s the silent brooding type who is in a crossroads. He was already 30 years old in the manga, arguably past his prime, undergoing a dilemma common to all famously skilled athletes–to keep on fighting, or to finally lay down his gloves and retire. Goshima’s personality also throws a nice twist to things. He is an eccentric person, who knows nothing else aside from boxing. All he desires is to fight, and the way the manga handles that facet of his problem is quite effective. It shows how his innate competitive nature leads him to a final confrontation, in which his dilemma could be solved.

The manga also gives a nice glimpse into the sport of boxing itself. Sports manga generally don’t delve into the business side of the sport, but Zero does just that. The president of Zero’s gym is given the generic materialistic corporate boss slant, but it’s handled interestingly enough not to make him an annoying bastard, but rather a stoic businessman. In the end, he even gives Zero what he ultimately wanted, although under the pretense of a “last hurrah” kind of thing.

Zero is ultimately an introspective manga with bits of intense action here and there, and it does the first part quite well. Goshima’s motivations and his overall viewpoint is interspersed with good timing into the action parts, and it gives each match of his a personal edge. I felt as if the matches were slowly showing glimpses of Zero’s ultimate desire, and the entire manga does a great job at building up into a very intense climax.

However, I had a problem with that. The manga does a very good job of building up into a memorable finish, but ultimately it falls flat. The result of Zero’s final match didn’t have a lasting effect, nor did it rouse any kind of emotion at all. I thought it wasn’t handled that well, and I felt that the end result of everything did not match the overall narrative content and the finish it was reaching. The whole thing reminded me of Naoki Urasawa‘s works–both Monster and 20th Century Boys had tremendously awesome beginning and middle parts, only to fall short in the ending. (And it could be argued that Pluto also shared the same fate.) Maybe the 2-volume constraint limited the story in whatever way, but deep down I knew it could have been executed in a much better manner.

*My desired scenario would have been a bit melodramatic, but Zero deserved a more energetic ending than what happened.

Characters – All that aside, I found the characters of Zero another of its strong points. Aside from Goshima, the characters around him were given development and personality. Their interactions with Zero in terms of boxing and outside it were believable, and matched the eccentricity of the manga quite well.

One of the characters I took special note of was Takada, one of Goshima’s co-boxers. He was a young spunky kid, with overflowing confidence, and considerable skills to match. He exuded the air of a young challenger, poised to finally dethrone the powerhouse who has dominated his field for a decade. Even if he is portrayed as an arrogant and cocky kid, he doesn’t come off as an insufferably annoying brat. In fact, I sensed that his personality and his actions were rooted in his deep respect for Goshima, and not just baseless overconfidence as it seemed at first. In the end, Matsumoto’s impressive handling of that contrast really told me of his skill at characterization, and I liked it.

Zero’s own coach/trainer, Araki, was memorable himself. Being known as the “father” of the monstrous Goshima, he displays hesitation and a bit of restraint in his dealings with the current champion. He knows what Zero wants, but he is torn by the business side of his sport and the wild personality of his talent. It isn’t exactly easy leading someone with an oddball nature into the peak of success, and sustaining it for ten years, and the manga shows how it has taken a toll on Araki with its introspective bits. Araki is deeply committed to Goshima, and I felt that Matsumoto gave him a believable reason to be like that.

Goshima’s eventual rival, Toravis, didn’t strike me the same as the previous two however. He seemed like an arbitrary rival put in there to finally give Zero the conflict it needed to drive it to the finish line. Skill-wise, he’s arguably even better than Zero, given his age–he was 19, Goshima was 30–and he was hyped as being a monster as well–he was rumored to have killed a man during a sparring session. Toravis’s transformation from a bright and fun-loving kid into a fearsome monster is done believably enough, however, but the overall disappointing ending shortchanged him. He was the boxer Takada could not become, and he really did deserve a better ending.

Verdict – Two volumes of boxing goodness were put on display by Zero. Taiyo Matsumoto’s skill came through in all the important facets, and excuses whatever flaws the manga had. It felt limited at some parts, but overall it is a good boxing manga worth reading. The art is drawn by a clearly skilled artist and does justice to the important things in sports manga like this one, even if it the skill itself somewhat hampers it. Story-wise, it was a decent, if not great ride through the twilight of an aging champion’s career. Even if the ending was a bit lackluster to my tastes, the manga had a slew of interesting and human characters that gave it a refreshing edge and a breath of fresh air into the world of sports manga. I say Taiyo Matsumoto’s Zero deserves a read–it’s only two volumes anyway–and should serve as a good gateway into his other works (as a gateway, this was better than Brothers).

While not exactly a knock0ut, Zero keeps your interest for 11 out of 12 rounds, and I know I’m going to dive into Taiyo Matsumoto’s catalogue sooner rather than later.

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