Hero’s Comics on your screen

By now, everyone is aware of the upcoming Ultraman anime series hitting Netflix at the start of next month. The show is based on Eiichi Shimizu and Tomohiro Shimoguchi’s manga, also simply titled Ultraman (available in the US from Viz), following the adventures of Shin Hayata’s teenage son as he wears power armor and battles human-sized aliens that all resemble Showa-era Ultra characters. It’s an extremely different take, but bear in mind that this is the manga duo that gave us the Kamen Rider doujinshi Hybrid Insector, after all.

I’m a little trepidatious of what’s in that trailer. Shinji Aramaki and Kenji Kamiyama have certainly turned over some fine-looking CG anime in the past, but this doesn’t quite appear like it’s living up to the manga. But I’ll watch it, partially because I want to support the greater Ultraman franchise, but also out of brand loyalty to the manga’s source, Monthly Comic Magazine Hero’s (or, in Japanese: 月刊ヒーローズ, Gekkan Hero’s). This Ultraman series has been a mainstay of my favorite comic anthology since the very first issue in 2011:

It doesn’t take much to understand why Hero’s is so cool: it’s 100% dedicated to superheroes, monsters, mecha, and the similar purview that this very blog chooses to focus on. It’s certainly not the only title out there to meet such criteria, but it does have a diverse balance of titles and talent that have kept it around, with higher page counts and in a bigger circulation, than the likes of Tokusatsu Ace, and it probably filled a market sore from the cancellation of the seminal Magazine Z two years earlier. Also helping its case is that it’s sold at 7-11 rather than the niche bookstores of some of the other publications; heck, the fact that it’s a 7-11 exclusive is by itself enough to make that convenience store chain my favorite over Lawson or Family Mart (in fairness, I don’t eat the food there).

As a result, I find myself hoping that eventually the magazine will find that major breakthrough hit to put it on the international radar. Unfortunately, in the states at least, anime talks; rarely does a manga get licensed if its anime adaptation was a flop, and the adaptations of Hero’s titles have a sort of spotty track record, to put it mildly. Let’s take a look, shall we?

The most obvious point of comparison for Ultraman is Linebarrels of Iron, since it’s also from the creative duo of Shimizu and Shimoguchi. Linebarrels didn’t actually run in Hero’s (it was a Champion Red title for its 2004-2015, 25-volume run), but the series has been transferred over to the Hero’s imprint for later re-releases. While the super robot manga is fairly well-liked in the mecha community, it’s never been released in English, likely because the 2008 anime TV series is pretty widely reviled. Personally, I rather like it, but the most common criticisms are the CGI robots (par for the course, sadly), character designs by Hisashi Hirai (which probably triggered some Gundam Seed Destiny flashbacks), a discordant theme song by Ali Project (which is admittedly not for everyone), and an initially unlikable protagonist (which is what story arcs are there for, after all). Still, for a Gonzo show one could do a lot worse.

Linebarrels isn’t the brand’s only legacy title, though. They also picked up Toru Fujisawa’s cops-against-monsters horror manga Tokko (which ran in Monthly Afternoon and is available in the US from Tokyopop) for a prequel titled Tokko: Episode Zero, which somehow wound up with a longer run than the original did. American fans would likely know Tokko from its 2006 anime adaptation, which ran on Chiller and had constant advertisement in Rue Morgue magazines for like a year. The anime is a serviceable (if perhaps a bit too colorful) adaptation of the source material, but it’s probably not the best sign that the first thing I remember about it is cringing at its English dub.

On that subject, a funny thing is that Fujisawa actually had multiple concurrent manga running in Hero’s, since he was also doing Soul ReViver at the same time. The ghost detective manga looked like it had a promising life ahead of it, with Last Samurai/Shakespeare in Love producer Ed Zwick announcing a Hollywood adaptation back in 2014, but…so far the most it’s gotten is still a nine-minute Japanese live-action promo film. Compared to the numerous other Fujisawa properties that have gotten full TV dramas (Great Teacher Onizuka, Kamen Teacher, Shonan Junai Gumi), that’s a bit underwhelming.

Of course, Tokko isn’t the only known brand that the magazine banks on; it’s full of established characters that have been re-imagined for their new serials. In addition to Ultraman, there are two other Tsuburaya titles, Booska + (by Kyoko Tokutake and Tomoko Kanemaki, in which the titular friendly monster becomes a human transformer) and Meitei! Kaiju Sakaba (a web comic in the Hero’s imprint about the bar run by Ultraman villains) by Uhei Aoki. In a world where the US is somehow getting both manga Ultraman and The Ultra Kaiju Humanization Project, one has to wonder just how much of a longshot the Kaiju Sakaba manga could be…

On the Toei side, there’s a manga adaptation of Kamen Rider Kuuga (also including the Agito parts) written by franchise veteran Toshiki Inoue (with art by Hitotsu Yokoshima), along with the postmodern do-it-yourself superhero Tojima Tanzaburo Wants to be a Masked Rider from Air Master‘s Yokusaru Shibata. While there’s not much need to ever re-adapt Kuuga to another medium, I’d be all about watching a show with Tojima.

There are others as well. Yoko Kimitoshi’s World Heroes is based on the old SNK video game series, sure to delight old-school Neo Geo fans.  Takashi Morita’s Adventurier is an adaptation of the French phantom thief character Arsene Lupin, who might have inspired a certain other manga character or two. Heck, their serialization of the horror manga Ushiro, based on the unreleased 2008 Level 5 PSP game,  may have even helped getting it finally announced for the Switch.

…and frankly, considering how popular Gurren Lagann is in the US, I cannot fathom why nobody is yet distributing Kazuki Nakashima’s Gurren Lagann “Otoko series” manga, an alternate take featuring the characters as baseball players in high school, based on a series of drama CDs. There’s a surprising amount of merchandise out there for this alternate take on the franchise, and at almost every anime convention I go to I still stumble across something from it.

The most popular alternate takes on existing franchises, though, such as this Ultraman manga, also inspire adaptations of their own, as a few of Hero’s greatest hits demonstrate. Going to the very roots of manga and anime as a medium, we have Atom the Beginning, which is a prequel to Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy by Tetsuro Kasahara with input from Masaami Yuki (Patlabor, Birdy the Mighty) and Osamu’s son Macoto Tezka. The series deals with not-yet-doctors Tenma and Ochanomizu’s university days, working together in a robotics lab on their new project A-10-6 (which, in Japanese, one could pronounce “A-to-m”. Get it?), complete with tension and yaoi-baiting bromance.

While Atom the Beginning‘s  2017 anime adaptation has a decent pedigree behind it (Psycho Pass‘s Katsuyuki Motohiro, Nadesico‘s Tatsuo Sato), it was a bit on the slow, slice-of-life side for mecha fans (especially with an action-packed opening credits sequence teasing a robot fighting tournament that it took too long to get to), and readers of the manga were annoyed by some of the changes (for example, Ochanomizu’s younger sister Ran never speaks in the manga, but she was given dialogue for the anime version). There’s promise of better things beyond the show’s first season, but it took too long to pick up steam and probably won’t ever get more episodes to do anything with it. In the West in particular, it was hindered by a distribution via Amazon Prime, slipping under the radar of the rare anime otaku that it could have appealed to.

Of course, considering that this retrospective was kicked off by discussion of the Ultraman anime, it might be good to look at another adaptation where a classic super-team is reimagined with intricate mechanical armor: Infini-T Force. This manga by Ukyo Kodachi and Tatsuma Ejiri (available in English from Udon) sees a girl with ill-defined reality-bending powers summoning four classic 1970s Tatsunoko heroes to modern Tokyo: Gatchaman, Polymar, Casshern, and Tekkaman. The manga manages a nice mix of charm and action, but the anime version, which followed two years later, is awash with ugly CGI animation, and worse, it re-imagines the premise in a dour, joyless way. The upbeat protagonist of the manga makes sense when she’s summoning heroes with a comically-oversized magic pencil, and her genki “can do” attitude make her tragic backstory and struggles to overcome more sympathetic and poignant. Meanwhile, the anime’s heroine is constantly miserable, which results in a series that’s simply not as compelling to watch, which is a shame, given that it’s a crossover with four beloved franchises in the mix. (There was also a movie with Joe the Condor, but by that point I’d tuned out.)

For American fans, though, the most iconic armored-&-CG re-imagined version of a classic superhero is definitely going to be Ninja Batman (or, as the US release is named, likely for no reason other than alphabetization on store shelves, Batman Ninja). This was an American-initiated multimedia project, including the manga version by Masato Hisa (Nobunagun), with a movie produced in Japan by Junpei Mizusaki and character designs from Afro Samurai‘s Takashi Okazaki, transposing Batman characters back into feudal Japan. The manga is decent, from what I’ve read, ironing out a few of the kinks in the rather insane film version…I haven’t gotten far enough to see if there’s still a super robot battle or a giant Batman made out of bats. Unfortunately, the US release of the movie was quite a problem, since the English dub was essentially made up of guess work rather than an actual translation of the script, which probably doesn’t help matters.

Getting back to Linebarrels, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that one of Hero’s earliest hits, and the first title to really get an adaptation (as well as the first project for the newly-formed Toho Animation), was also a mecha series, but it’s funny that it also wound up being one with Hisashi Hirai character designs. Majestic Prince debuted in 2013 during a competitive season for big robot shows (up against Valvrave the Liberator from Sunrise and Gargantia on the Verderous Planet from Production IG) and did alright for itself, even scoring a new episode and a theatrical sequel in 2016. The anime’s got decent action and a strong cast (including several Super Sentai alumni), but there’s one problem: it doesn’t bear all that strong a resemblance to the original manga by Rando Ayamine (Getbackers) and Hikaru Arashima. The manga focuses more on pilot school antics while the anime leaps headlong into space warfare, and the characters are so different that the cast of the manga actually gets a brief cameo in the anime and vice versa! Thus, even if the anime were a lot more popular than it already is, interest in the manga may not have been raised along with it.

On the other end of the spectrum, the 2018 adaptation of Shinya Murata and Kazuasa Sumita’s Killing Bites is pitch perfect… it’s just the material in general that’s polarizing. If you know Murata’s Arachnid or Sumita’s Witchblade manga, you’ve got a pretty good idea of what to expect: stupid, schlocky, hyperviolent, ubersexualized monster girls, and as such it’s a fine match for Liden Films (Terra Formars: The Revenge, Magical Girl Spec Ops Asuka). If the idea of scantily-clad animal people brutalizing each other using ludicrous martial arts based on half-understood zoological trivia as part of a tournament with inscrutable rules sounds appealing to you, you’ll probably get a kick out of Killing Bites, and you’ll also form a lifelong respect and fear of honey badgers and pangolins. Otherwise, well, it’s not for everyone.

Another tentpole of the Hero’s lineup from day one has been Kazuhiko Shimamoto’s Hero Company. It’s a comedy about clock-punching corporate superheroes, centering around a desert-themed five-man sentai. Shimamoto’s  style of manic, hot-blooded spoof seems to have been on the popularity upswing lately, but evidently not enough to justify a proper anime series for Hero Company just yet. It did manage to get a half-hour OVA that was packaged with the manga’s eighth volume in 2015, which, needless to say, has yet to be released in the US or even fansubbed.

As a tie-in for Hero Company, Shimamoto also designed costumes for Yuichi Fukuda’s all-girl sentai spoof movie Jossy’s, which takes place in the same universe, so Hero’s naturally ran a short Jossy’s manga by Shimamoto as well when the film came out. While the movie isn’t the best collaboration between Fukuda and Shimamoto (that would be Blue Blazes), Jossy’s is pretty amusing, arguably on par with The Hero Yoshihiko, so hopefully it gets some sort of US distribution eventually.

Speaking of all-girl casts, another Hero’s manga was the AKB48 collaboration Sailor Zombie. It was another mixed-media project, with the manga, arcade game, and live-action TV series all developed in tandem, with the TV series being helmed by Isshin Inudo (who co-directed The Floating Castle with Shinji Higuchi). I’ve only seen the first couple of episodes, so no idea if it has the werewolves and other monsters from the game, but what was presented was pretty solid, dealing with a group of teenagers holding out at a school a few months after the zombie apocalypse. The hook: music can make the zombies dance! You won’t see that on The Walking Dead.

Finally, the last Hero’s title to get an adaptation, which was, like Ultraman, a Netflix original: Sword Gai. I’m a die-hard Keita Amemiya fan, so a comic with his character designs was a shoe-in for my favorite in the lineup, and while Toshiki Inoue gets some crap from tokusatsu fans, he’s done a lot of amazing scripts. Inoue handled writing both the manga and the 2018 anime adaptation and….well, frankly, it was one of the worst-received anime shows in quite a while. It’s strange, because it chose not to simply follow the manga, but instead jumbled events around to the point of near incoherence, introducing way too many characters only to seemingly forget them for long stretches; I don’t know if Inoue just got bored with his own material or what, but then again his Jetman novels have a bit of the same problem. It’s a darn shame, since Inoue has done plenty of successful anime adaptations before (e.g. Death Note), and I was hoping that this could have paved the way for the manga getting a US release rather than poisoning that well.

At least it did wind up looking a lot better than the original Sword Gai promo animation from 2013, which was all CGI…which brings us back to some of my issues with Ultraman again.

Speaking of that Sword Gai trailer, I do appreciate how many short promotional pieces the magazine does seem to be willing to try out, even if they’re not all great. The most fun is probably the tokusatsu ad for the giantess manga Onideka, but there were also some neat ones for the school superhero comic Hero Mask (no relation to the eponymous series on Netflix) and the mecha series Buddy Spirits… maybe they’ll have longer adaptations some day as well.

For English-speakers looking to check out their manga catalog, Hero’s does have an English web page with descriptions and some (crudely-translated) sample chapters for free browsing, likely to drum up interest from overseas licencors. However, as of 2019, they’re starting something else cool on the Japanese end: free chapters posted daily, with several web-exclusives not part of the magazine (including Ultraman Anthology). Plus, they do charity for real-world earthquake victims, since that’s what heroics are all about, so you can feel good about giving the imprint your support.

Hopefully the magazine can continue to thrive, with print being down across the board, and the price tag on the anthology, until recently a boldly-advertised “200 yen”, now sheepishly says “350 yen” in the smallest font possible. That’s exactly why these multimedia collaborations are important, and I hope Hero’s can get a major hit to gain some international exposure as well. I’d gleefully purchase the book every month, if it were to get distribution like Shonen Jump‘s had stateside, but until then, I’ll support the related media, even when it’s in the form of some dodgy anime. Fingers crossed Ultraman could be a winner, but even if it’s not, I’ll give it a solid chance. Maybe more manga of the manga that inspire these shows could get licensed…or perhaps there could even be a great Booska+ anime next, who knows?

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