Stan Lee Invades Japan With The Owl In The Rafters

Posted on Jul 07 2011

Welcome back to the rafters! As a patriotic American citizen I feel obligated to do something special for the week of the 4th of July. I considered doing a review of some of the various American cartoons inspired by anime, OEL manga, and similar web-comics, but upon second consideration I found a much better subject to cover: Stan Lee. Now obviously I can’t go over all of Stan Lee’s career as one of the cornerstones of the modern American comic book industry and culture, but what I will do is go over his brief excursion into the world of anime and manga.

Stan Lee, if you somehow don’t recognize the name, is one of the most notable creative forces in comic books, as co-creator behind Marvel Comics biggest hits; including Spider-man, the Fantastic Four, Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, the Silver Surfer, the Incredible Hulk, and of course the X-Men among many, many others. He has also made numerous cameo and guest appearances as both a live actor and voice talent in animated films and television, and has also served as the host of a number of superhero television series like the History Channel’s Stan Lee’s Superhumans, and SyFy’s Who Wants to Be a Superhero?.

As the single most recognizable icon of the comic book industry on a global scale, Stan Lee and his creations have served as inspiration for a number of successful manga authors, not the least of which include Nobuhiro Watsuki (author/artist of Rurouni Kenshin, Busou Renkin, and Embalming), Hideyuki Kurata (original author of Read or Die, EL-HAZARD, and Battle Athletess as well as script writer for anime titles like Magical Girl Pretty Sammy, Excel Saga, Now and Then, Here and There, Bamboo Blade, Kannagi, The World God Only Knows, and of course the anime adaptations of his own work.), and Yusuke Murata (artist of Eyeshield 21 and Donten Prism Solar Car).

The influence isn’t one-sided however, and with an interest in anime and manga, Stan Lee set out to see how well his creative powers held up in a slightly different medium, starting in 2008 with a team up with Hiroyuki Takei, artist and author of the manga Shaman King and Butsu Zone. This first attempt was Karakuri Douji ULTIMO (lit. “[The] Mechanical Child: Ultimo”) a cross generational story of the conflict between the forces of good and evil.

The initial pilot chapter ULTIMO: 0 introduces us briefly to the hero, Ultimo and the villain, Vice: Ultimo is a robot in the guise of a beautiful young boy with what appear to be large gauntlets and serves as the embodiment of pure goodness, while the villain, Vice is his violent counterpart embodying evil, again armed with large gauntlet-like hands. Both mechanical boys are the creations of Dr. Dunstan, a somewhat goofy Stan Lee look alike, and display a wide range of unspecified powers involving shapeshifting their gauntlets and sometimes their whole body.

Dunstan himself only appears for a few pages before committing “harakilli” while laughing, leaving the two robots as his final curse upon humanity.

I keep thinking that I ought to feel at least a little bad saying this, but there is something absolutely hilarious and really quite surreal about watching Stan Lee kill himself. Putting the element of death aside, it just comes across as such an absurd scenario that I can’t help but laugh at it. It is worth mentioning that Dunstan does come back in the main series, as a seemingly immortal antagonist, and in his wake follows a constant element of the humorously bizarre. (No, you’re not missing anything by the way. That collage of Stan Lee’s face to the right is just about as out of place and bizarre in its proper context in the story as it is on its own.)

Most of the pilot chapter is really just one big fight scene between Ultimo and Vice with some brief appearances of onlookers who will return in the main series as key figures. The fight does a great job of showing off Takei’s sense of style when it comes to action, and establishes both Ultimo and Vice’s signature moves, the Crane Sword and Turtle Saw, respectively. Both share Takei’s unique blend of organic and mechanical design that he developed while writing/drawing Shaman King and paired with thematic images of nature, it creates a really pretty kind of effect that actually looks more akin to glass sculpture than cold hard metal. Naturally, at the end of the chapter Vice is seemingly destroyed, although a part of one of his gauntlets is left behind and found by a soldier, while Ultimo survives the final conflict with heavy damage and crashes into the mountains of Japan where he is found by an old man. The nearly cataclysmic battle makes world wide news and prompts the movement of a number of mysterious forces across Japan before dropping the whole thing off on a “to be continued…” note.

The story of the serialized title starts in 12th century Japan, where a still living Dunstan runs into a self-proclaimed chivalrous-bandit, by the name of Yamato while transporting the two to Kyoto. As I said, the truly surreal imagery of Stan Lee walking around Heian era classical Japan with his signature aviator sunglasses on is just so blatantly out of place that it comes across as some kind of joke, and to be fair, given Takei’s sense of humor it could very easily have been. (Alternatively it may have been totally unintentional as Stan Lee would have been near impossible to identify without the shades.) In any case, the bandits force open Dunstan’s cargo and mistakenly awaken the two robots, unleashing Vice and Ultimo who quickly turn against each other and begin the cross generation battle that drives the story.

Skipping ahead to modern Japan, We find that the thief Yamamoto has been reincarnated as Yamato Agari, and take some time to follow him around as he goes about his goofy life as a high school kid until fate brings he and Ultimo together again when he bumps into the boy robot in an antique store run by the old man who found Ultimo -whose name I should point out is shortened to just Uru at this point- in the mountains at the end of chapter 0. While the bandit Yamato was portrayed as a crass but heroic kind of character, the modern Yamato is very clearly a comedic character. To help balance him out he has a childhood friend, Kodaira Lune, a short and very feminine looking boy with glasses who gets brushed aside for a short period in the early story before assuming a key role later. There is also a host of high school girls, among which is Yamato’s love interest, Sayaka.

So, Yamato learns about his role and his past and of the vow that must be taken between the Karakuri Douji and their human partners and Vice makes his grand reappearance along with his partner, the cowardly and pitifully selfish K. In the fight, Vice is beaten back by Ultimo, but not before doing some serious damage to Ultimo’s core that leave our heroic super robot at less than full strength. We also learn that while Vice and Ultimo may be the ultimate embodiments of good and evil, they are not the only Karakuri Douji. The duo are in fact the original prototypes for Dunstan’s 100 Karakuri Douji army, split evenly into factions of good and evil with each of the lesser robots embodying different elements of virtue and sin. Each robot has a human partner and each human is a reincarnation of some figure from Yamato’s past in Heian Japan.

I don’t know how many of you read Shaman King, or remember any of the details of the Over Soul modes and weapons the characters used during the final stretch of the story, but the Karakuri Douji’s transformations bare a strong resemblance and Hiroyuki Takei’s art style really does make a strong impression with a unique look and designs. His strong emphasis on special moves and a very good sense of style when it comes to panel layout makes every key moment in the story, both in and out of combat, really pop.

As for the story and characters, the writing is all surprisingly enticing. While the dialogue comes across as fairly generic shounen banter it all comes across with a strong sense of purpose. When the hero gives a heroic line, it doesn’t come across as half hearted, or ill suited for the mood or pace of things at the time, and when the villain sneaks in a shady comment or snide remark, it flows a lot more naturally than the dialogue in most shounen titles, and the jokes are executed cleanly with no drag between set up and punch line. Even though Takei does technically take care of most of the character writing, it all carries a certain very subtle flavor of western comics.

I guess I should give some warning, or disclaimer that for whatever reasons there is some strong homoerotic tension between certain characters, although of an almost purely comical nature. The series is by no means a boy-love series, and the main character is very clearly shown to be in love with Sayaka, but for any number of reasons Yamato just seems to stumble into one awkward moment after another, to which he of course he constantly over reacts. Ultimately nothing becomes of these little jokes but they’re common enough to be worth pointing out should that somehow bother anyone, or more likely be a selling point for certain kinds of fans.

Karakuri Douji ULTIMO is a still ongoing series published irregularly in Jump SQ II. To date Shueisha has published 6 volumes and as of December 2010 Viz Media has released 3 volumes in English, although volumes 4 and 5 were originally scheduled to be released in March and June of this year.

In another experiment in the Japanese market, Stan Lee and no-name artist Tamon Outa began the preview manga for the anime Heroman just last year in 2010. I say “no-name artist” because Heroman appears to be Tamon Outa’s first and only job in the anime/manga industry; a truly impressive first gig to be paired with someone like Stan Lee. On the flip side, the director of the Heroman anime, Hitoshi Nanba, of BONES studio had already served as director of Baki the Grappler, Jungle King Taa-chan, and a number of other tv series, OVAs, and films that haven’t seen much attention in America. He is more recently the director of the Gosick anime, and he also drew storyboards for the Pokémon: Destiny Deoxys movie, the Full Moon O Sagashite amd Utawarerumono tv series, and episodes of Eureka 7.

Rather than apply Western comic and cartoon influences to an anime/manga setting the way ULTIMO did, Heromon takes the reverse approach of creating an anime set in a generic American city. The story follows American middle school student, Joey Jones, a hard working, but wimpy kind of boy living with his grandmother in the absence of his parents and his toy robot turned alien fighting super hero. After being struck by lightning during a less than average thunder storm, Joey’s broken Heybo robot toy is transformed into a giant robot and its voice activated remote control is transformed into a giant command gauntlet that Joey uses to issue commands to the robot he dubs Heroman.

The manga’s first enemy monster is actually not used in the anime at all. In the manga a random American man running a Japanese antique shop is possessed by the spirit of a samurai sword and suit of armor. In a strangely symbolic but ironic first encounter, Joey and his giant red, white and blue super robot vanquish the giant suit of samurai armor and its Japan-o-phile host and rescue Rina, who was taken hostage. In the anime this fight and character were entirely removed but the traffic accident he caused in the manga still happens. I can understand why the samurai armor was taken out of the anime however, seeing as it is totally inconsistent with the rest of the enemies.

The first major plot development comes when Joey’s science teacher, Professor Denton, successfully makes contact with alien life. The insect-like aliens called the Skrugg prove to be extremely hostile however and Joey and Heroman spend the rest of the series fighting off their invasion force of giant monsters.

The fight scenes in Heroman have a very different style from ULTIMO. Where as ULTIMO paints a uniquely elegant image of super powered combat, Heroman neatly sews together elements of the stereotypical muscle bound American comic book hero and the classic super robot genre of anime. I can’t help but think of it as sort of like a cross between The Incredible Hulk and Tetsujin 28 (aka Gigantor). Heroman also changes into a few different forms triggered by different circumstances, including a wild, rage fueled berserker mode.

The anime actually ends on a partial cliffhanger where, after seeing the main conflict resolved, we’re left waiting on a second season after watching mad scientist character, Dr. Minami and his assistants braking out of jail. Originally employed by the U.S. government to help develop weapons to defeat the Skrugg, the group later turns their research against Heroman for essentially taking their jobs by defeating the Skrugg first. They are of course suggested to be the second season’s potential antagonists and there are sketches of a villainous looking super robot etched into Minami’s prison cell wall.

I have to admit that while I enjoyed both titles, I do feel that they both lacked a certain kind of sensational appeal. Stan Lee’s reputation has been built upon his ability to add subtle and genre savvy twists to the existing comic book super hero formula. What he presents readers/viewers with in both ULTIMO and Heroman, despite different approaches, is a remarkably balanced mix of Japanese and American comic book cliches. The appeal of the titles however, I feel is limited to a niche audience that can recognize/understand/appreciate the subtle fusion of tropes and archetypes, while other elements of the settings and characters are just a bit too out of place for the Japanese, and just a little too mundane for most Americans, or vice-versa.

Again, it is a real shame, because there certainly wasn’t anything overtly wrong with either ULTIMO or Heroman as ideas, or even in regards to design. The blend of American and Japanese styles was just a little too evenly balanced in both and I think that as a result both audiences in either case were alienated just enough to really prevent the titles from taking off the way I think Stan Lee may have been hoping they would.

Before I let you go, however you may be interested to know that up until last year, Stan Lee’s Pow! Entertainment company was reportedly working on a third anime/manga title -another television series working under the name Quartz– with GDH, the production company behind series like Desert Punk, the Hellsing Ultimate OVAs, and Samurai 7 among many others. Unfortunately the project has since been taken off Pow! Entertainment’s list of working titles.

While not under any direct direction from Stan Lee, some other Marvel related anime worth mentioning include the Ironman anime, the Wolverine anime, the recent X-Men anime, and the upcoming Blade anime.

You Might Also Like...

  • Bargain Gamer July 7, 2011 at 10:45 PM

    Oh God, Dunstan was the greatest character! He made no sense! But then again Stan Lee is pure awesome, so it makes sense that the character based off of him would also be awesome! XD

  • You must be logged in to comment. Log in