November 3rd, 2008 by Bad Jew
Reviewed by: Bad Jew
Title rating: 16+ for political drama and scandal, and then there’s the Eagle incest thing.
- Eagle: 5 volumes of manga (1997-2001), complete; in English courtesy of Viz
- First President: 4 volumes of manga (2003ish); in English courtesy of Gutsoon
West Wing changed my life. I say that with all seriousness. It was this one scene about the Mercator map projection that convinced me to take my first geography class as a freshman, and here I am getting my Ph.D in geography. So I’m necessarily a big fan of political fiction: TV shows and comics that make me get really into zoning reapportionments and that make me sit up and notice when the president of the Senate issues a 15 minute quorum, ushering in the soft classical music of CSPAN-2.
Now, astute readers will have noticed that this is supposed to be a review of political manga, and not a rambling blog post about why everything after season 2 of West Wing sucked. Our even more astute readers will notice that I’ve already used this exact joke in a previous review. Our most astute readers will know that I’m intellectually lazy and generally steal all my jokes from other sources. But leaving that aside, there are two political manga titles that will interest western audiences: Eagle and First President of Japan. They’re both good for a western audience (by which I really mean American, but Canadians might be able to squeeze in here), because they’re both about politics that might be somewhat familiar to them. Japanese politics are pretty much incomprehensible to anyone not steeped in it: an economy based around a technocratic Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry; elections based around local political machines that dole out government jobs and grants; and the ever-present shadow of North Korea. Not to say that American politics aren’t at times inscrutable (what with the filibusters and the Electoral College), but if you pay attention to the news or, like me, just watch the West Wing, you’ll at least know what’s going on.
Eagle is by far the best political manga out there. In 2002 it even got an Eisner nomination for best U.S edition of a foreign comic. Written by Kaiji Kawaguchi – Japan’s answer to Tom Clancy – it follows US senator Kenneth Yamaoka, a Japanese-American politician, as he runs for the democratic nomination for the presidency. Since as I write this we’re in the middle of the never-ending 2008 presidential election, I’ll just point out that Yamaoka is no Barack Obama. He’s a Vietnam veteran who married into a prominent northeastern banking family. Since Eagle is about the 2000 election, the primary opponent for Yamaoka is Albert Noah, the sitting vice-president who is somewhat boring and concerned about the environment. It goes unmentioned, but I’d also assume he has a super-hot daughter who writes for Futurama.
My favorite scene in the entire 5-volume series comes in the first volume, where Yamaoka is raising money for his campaign. He has to go to several fund-raising lunches, but some stupid intern scheduled the Chinese Association lunch right after the Italian Cultural Association’s lunch, and as we all know, those groups pump out a lot of food. If Yamaoka can’t eat a full Chinese lunch, he’ll shame both his hosts and himself, and lose plenty of campaign contributions in the process. Can he do it? Does he have the iron stomach needed for American politics? You’d better be prepared for the exciting conclusion in the next issue. Who knew American politics could be this exciting?!
So, despite being about American politics, Eagle most definitely retains the Japanese talent for melodrama. This is aptly represented through the side story of Takeshi Jo, a cub reporter from the Japanese news-rag Machio Shimbun specially requested by Yamaoka to cover his campaign. Might this have something to do with a picture Jo finds in his dead mother’s apartment of her and a young Yamaoka embracing? Is Jo the son of the senator? Does this mean that he should really stop having sex with the senator’s daughter? Incest – that’s one thing West Wing never had! And no one missed it. Why must you always do this, manga?!
Despite Eagle having its share of annoying melodrama, it still makes some prescient points about politics and campaigns. The challenges of making various groups support you, the pain of compromising personal beliefs for electability, the importance of hiring a homeless transient as your campaign manager because you served with him in the ‘Nam. The storyline following a young Japanese reporter covering the election is also a really good idea, since he gets to explain all the obscure political and social points that a Japanese audience might not know (electoral college system, appeasing various interests groups, etc.).
All in all, Eagle is an excellent manga and deserving of your reading, if you can find it. Viz published it between 2000-2002 and it’s seriously out of print now. But don’t just take my word for it, both animefringe and comicbookresources gave long, in-depth reviews and critiques. This one, however, is much funnier than either of theirs.
The second political manga of note, First President of Japan, is, how do I say…not good. The story of First President is about Sakuragi Kenichiro becoming the first president of Japan after the country transition from a parliamentary-based system under a prime minister to a bicameral system under a strong president. (For you non-policy wonks reading this, the big change is that parliamentary systems have many different political parties, requiring more negotiation to make sure that everyone gets a bit. Presidential systems have two parties, but with much more debates within and between parties.) The problem with First President is that there’s too much political action. That might sound weird; I bet you’re saying to yourself right now: “But…but Bad Jew, don’t we want thrilling and dramatic political drama in our political manga?” The thing is, political dramas live and die on their believability and realism. It’s not enough to just have some cool and interesting story ideas – those ideas need to mesh within a realistic system that is similar to the world that we live in. In First President, there’s too much happening at once.
In the first two volumes alone, the following things happen:
-Japan drastically alters it constitution to change the system of government. -The United States Navy pulls out of their Yokosuka base, its largest foreign naval base.
-Emboldened by this, China (the communist one) invades Taiwan.
-Emboldened by this, North Korea (the communist one) invades South Korea.
That’s a lot of political action over the space of very little time. It’s just not believable that all these things would happen just as an untested, young, dynamic leader takes the reins of a skittish nation. There are so many improbable events occurring simultaneously that it stops being a political drama and ventures into the realm of political melodrama porn. Like the last two seasons of the West Wing (*sob* *sob*) and the entire series of E-Ring and Commander and Chief.
Overview: Read Eagle. It’s great. The First President of Japan is not great.