Monday, August 8, 2011

Murakami Motoka's Jin (2000-2010)

My mother-in-law got me hooked on this one:  Jin, by Murakami Motoka 村上もとか.  (The official Japanese title is JIN ー仁ー, for what it's worth.)  It's a manga that ran in Super Jump from 2000 to 2010;  it's set in the late Edo period and has samurai in it, and my mother-in-law knows I'm a sucker for that stuff.  She sent me the first few volumes about a year and a half ago and I was hooked.  Eventually she sent them all.

The story follows a surgeon in present-day Tokyo who falls and hits his head and wakes up in Edo on the eve of the Meiji Restoration.  His name is Minakata Jin (thus the title).  He spends six years in the past, making his way as a commoner physician in Edo, revolutionizing the practice of medicine with his 21st-century knowledge, and getting tangled up in the politics of the day.

Its flaws are many.  Above all it's a Jump comic, which means that it's basically for boys.  Adolescents.  This shows in the way all the characters are stock, and all his friends turn out to be major historical figures that, oh hey, didn't we study that guy in history class last year?  Cool!  Like, it's so inevitable that he befriend Sakamoto Ryōma (every Japanese boy's favorite historical martyr) and Saigō Takamori (every Japanese middle-aged dude's favorite historical martyr) that it's almost painful when he actually does...

Then there's the transparent flag-waving fantasy aspect of it.  I mean, it's a time-travel story that actually allows its protagonist to affect history, which means it qualifies as an alternate history of late 19th-century medicine as well.  And in this alternate history it ends up being a Japanese physician who pioneers penicillin, modern anesthetic, brain surgery, and other revolutionary techniques.  Which is clever and fun to read, but also ever-so-slightly pathetic - there's such an element of 12-year-old patriotic wish-fulfillment in seeing all these foreign advances being made by one of your own countrymen instead...

The thing is, it's a tremendously entertaining manga. Not groundbreaking, not particularly deep, but a lot of fun.  The stock characters in particular I ended up enjoying, because they were deployed with such sincerity and gusto - there really was a hooker with a heart of gold, there really was a spunky pickpocket with a dangerous boyfriend, there really was a rival doctor who hated Jin's methods until Jin saved his life, there really was a stern samurai matriarch who had to be tricked into accepting his unorthodox treatment...  It's all terribly old-fashioned and earnest, and quite refreshing because of it.

The art deserves special mention. In the early volumes especially Murakami has a particular quality to his lines that I really loved.  There's a clarity and solidity to them, an exactness, that I find quite graceful.  He's definitely working close to the realistic edge of the comics idiom, but for him that means careful shading and almost architectural exactness of line, not impressionistic sketchiness.  The backgrounds are lushly detailed, the perspectives and angles all effectively chosen, and the characters are rendered with the perfect measure of cartooniness - just enough to give them more life than the backgrounds, without breaking the mood establshed by the realistic backgrounds.

The later volumes kind of drag, as the politics of the Restoration take center stage (lots of people sitting in rooms delivering expository dialogue), and the art becomes a little more generic.  And the wind-up to the whole story is just kind of silly.  Read the first five or six volumes and then let the story hang, telling yourself that someday you'll get around to reading the rest.  It's better that way.

1 comment:

rey said...

I find this manga fun to read too, great art and story so far (just finished volume 1)