The Owl in the Rafters – All Eyes on Komi Naoshi

Posted on Jan 05 2011

A nice warm “Welcome Back!” –or maybe just a first time “Welcome!” for some of you- to another installment of The Owl in The Rafters, where I, Tyto, (that’s “Tai” like how you make a knot, and “Toh” as in the ten wiggly things on the ends of your feet), your lovable, (or detestable), ramble-o-matic wind bag of an anime/manga reviewer, gives you the bird’s eye view on the careers of various artists, authors, and directors.

If this is your first time stumbling into one of my articles, or if you’ve just been ignoring me for the past two months, I’ll just briefly call your attention to the 3-part review I did on the hit shounen styling’s of one Tite Kubo, author and artist of BLEACH, before moving on with the new article:
A Tale of Two Kubos: Book the First
… Book the Second and … Book the Third

This week’s overview will stray from the well followed trails of Kubo Tite to cover a little known, but much loved underdog author/artist who has been struggling with Japan’s shonen flagship, Shueisha’s Weekly JUMP magazine, for the past several years. The name that I’m sure you’ve never heard, but that I beg you remember, is Komi Naoshi.

Under the skin of your typical of shonen artist lies a truly unusual author. Naoshi’s art is clean, crisp, and conforms to all the expectations one might normally hold for a shonen title.

His line work is bold and dynamic; his characters easily identifiable and always memorable; even his background art’s detail is perfectly weighed between sparse and cluttered. His technique alone is on par with hit artists like Kubo Tite, Masashi Kishimoto, and Eichiro Oda, but on top of that he carries his work with a stunningly diverse range of style. To date, he has published one-shot titles in various JUMP magazines fitting into fantasy, sci-fi, and modern settings. But even with his impressive artistic range, what makes Komi Naoshi’s work really shine in my eyes, and perhaps what has held him back most in JUMP’s editorial offices, is his writing.

Naoshi has published six different stories thus far (5 one-shots + 1 short-lived serial), all of which share an ongoing theme of human relationships. In all of his stories there are two main characters, and rather than having the story focus around just one of those characters, the story instead revolves around their relationship together. His character writing is strangely touching and often heartbreaking, as he finds little places to tug at your heart-strings and all the perfect ways to draw you into the wants, needs, and dreams of his characters. He heavily plays on feelings of trust, admiration, responsibility, friendship, and individuality.

To start, Island, Naoshi’s first and possibly most notable one-shots is a wonderfully endearing and uplifting story about following your dreams. In a small town nestled at the bottom of an enormous manmade well, there live two little girls, Aira and Marue, known to be the town’s troublemakers. Their constant schemes to escape the town and get over the massive, sheer walls surrounding the town to the outside world drive them to all sorts of mischief.

To them, the adults in the town, who can think only of working to maintain their tiny settlement, are visionless defeatists with no curiosity or sense of adventure. Come her 14th birthday, however, Aira must undergo a coming of age practice that nearly breaks her heart. Faced with the weight of an adult’s responsibility, Aira must reevaluate her dreams of escaping the town and seeing the world over the wall.

Island is one of the most touching and ultimately uplifting stories in Naoshi’s lineup. The message doesn’t underlie the story so much as permeates it, and draws the readers into the simplistic but lovable antics of two little girls out to do what no one has done before and all of the emotional investment that goes into chasing your a childhood dreams.

His art style, which remains fairly consistent, with only minor tweaks between each new story, is astonishingly clean for an amateur author even in his first one-shot. In Island in particular, Naoshi’s character models are soft edged -though perhaps too much so, as the designs, as well as several other elements of the story, lean too far outside the realms of the shonen target audience- his sense of direction and pacing are superb, and his expressions in both face and body are adorably livid. There are moments where I can practically feel the tremble of excitement and anguish from certain characters shaking through the pages. All this being said, I can firmly insist that Island be anyone’s first dive into Naoshi’s still budding career.

Island was but one of three different one-shots published by Naoshi in 2007. While Island debuted in an issue of Akamaru Jump –a seasonal magazine dedicated to showcasing new talent, that goes on sale during holidays when Jump’s weekly publications have the week off- the rest of his 2007 submissions were bumped into one-shot slots in the Weekly Jump. Of these two one-shots, the first was a romantic comedy titled, Koi no Kami-sama.

Written as “Lover of God”, or “God’s Beloved”, Koi no Kami -sama is a wacky romantic comedy set in the modern Japan. The unlikely hero is a middle school boy named Tsuchibe, who loves shoujo manga and yearns for a bubbly, pink, fantasy-like romance. In his own attempts to live out his ideal, genre-savvy romance, he has asked out every girl in his school, hoping to play the odds of bumping into his one true love. The results thus far have, of course, been without success and as a result he has developed a poor reputation among the girls of his school.

So, naturally, when a new girl, Kinokura Yasuko, is transferred into his class, Tsuchibe wastes no time in immediately asking her out –only barely giving her time to finish introducing herself. As usual she turns him down, but Tsuchibe is determined that this girl is the one. What he never bargained for, however, was that he’d be in for some steep competition. When a string of accidents of escalating magnitude befall young Tsuchibe while on his quest for love, it becomes clear that there is more than sheer coincidence to blame. As luck would have it, pretty little Yasuko is a girl loved by the gods. Literally.

Jealous and wrathful, the “God of Love” has taken a hand in showering this girl with good fortune, while going out of the way to scare off or make short work of anyone who might vie for her affections. So begins Tsuchibe’s crusade for love, as he risks his hide against car crashes, falling billboards, and all other manner of misfortune to prove his love and show the gods that he’s not about to give up. Other than being a truly adorable romance and a unique, wacky comedy, Koi no Kami drives home the idea that love is something two people make for themselves and not something governed by fate alone, and that love is something built by mutual self-sacrifice.

The story, much like Island before it, ends with the sense that the main characters continue on into a life in which their dreams are fulfilled, and that the entire one-shot was just the first step on a much bigger journey. Just as a good one-shot should end, it leaves you feeling happy for the characters making it to the end, but pining for the story itself to go on. Naoshi has a distinct love of these sorts of stories, where a pair of people help one another make their dreams come true, but he always seems mindful of keeping the adventure just beyond that final page, so it really does leave you wanting more than just the couple dozen pages of the one-shot. Once again providing testament to Komi Naoshi’s genuinely talented and refreshingly unique take on storytelling within the realms of Jump’s target demographic.

While we’re looking at Naoshi’s sense of style in story telling it’s hard not to notice that, for an author who later becomes clearly dead set on publishing in a shonen magazine, his aesthetics are slightly off kilter. Young female protagonists, shoujo loving middle school students, and tales of true love, while all charming and entertaining in their own rights are far from the usual stock and standard trends of Shonen Jump. In an attempt to compensate for this weak point, Naoshi produced this next one-shot, Williams.

Williams puts us in the colonial age of a fantasy world where the great adventurer, Aradoff Hopkins, has been told of in sensationalized books of questionable factual credibility. Playing upon the sense of wonder and longing for adventure that had taken historical Europe by storm during the colonial occupation and exploration of the uncharted American continents and the far east, Williams evokes a very particular air of the old fashioned adventures of 17th century explorers: a fresh and unique setting for Jump.

Among the fans of Aradoff’s whimsical travel logs, is a particular young boy, the titular William, the son of a wealthy family and an adventure seeking little trouble maker. The story follows the young master and his maid/nanny, Conni, who is constantly finding herself picking up after the young master’s messes. The young Master William, however, is convinced of the authenticity of the tales of the great Aradoff, his hero, and one day runs off with his pitiable maid in tow to search for a man called, Kamkwas Hairo, the author behind the popular Adventures of Aradoff novels. They quickly manage to track the author down, but what they find is a man of little more credibility than the books themselves and as the trio takes off to find a landmark told of in the books to try and verify the mad author’s ambiguous claims, they find themselves on their own wild adventure.

The story’s themes are reminiscent of the messages in Island, but while Island followed the lives of two young girls in an isolated town, Williams brings a touch of worldly adventure and boyish hi-jinx to the table, appropriating itself to JUMP’s general audience. The setting also leaves much more to the imagination with passing comments hearkening back to a sense of fantasy the likes of Gulliver’s Travels.

Unlike Naoshi’s previous and even later works, Williams takes its time establishing the relationship between William and Connie, spending the better half of the one-shot playing up the wacky antics and adventure aspect of the setting before finally all the fantastic chaos leads to a surprisingly logical conclusion when Connie finally has enough of her peewee employer’s reckless self-endangerment.

Apple, introduces us to the first and lighter of Naoshi’s attempts to tackle the sci-fi genre. Apple takes us into a fairly humble vision of the future where a rogue human mutation, Aramiya Satoshi, codenamed Apple, is on the run from the world government. Apple has been endowed with two broad abilities: The ability to take the shape of any living organism on Earth and the ability to use psychic powers like telekinesis. Apple has been identified by a certain evolutionary theory as the “ultimate life form” and has thus become a target for military capture or eradication. In the ongoing battle between the super-powered pretty boy and the pursuing military, a wealthy and eccentric boy genius, Grimm Steward, offers his hand in coaxing Apple into cooperating with mankind to save the world.

Despite the potential for a fast paced action story, Naoshi instead takes us into a quirky couple of months as Satoshi and Grimm engage in cohabitation for the sake of peace and science. Rather than really learn anything about Apple’s scientific benefits however, the boy genius finds himself engaged in the only true friendship he’s ever known. The unlikely duo’s time together runs its course; however, when the military grows tired of waiting on the boy genius’ diplomatic approach, and then when circumstances take a turn for the worse, Apple is forced to take drastic measures to protect the thing he cares about the most.

The story really tries to hammer home a sense of friendship between the two boys, but gets to the point where it still ventures too far from the core features of the shonen demographic. I should point out now that this was the only of Naoshi’s works to publish outside of Shueisha’s Jump line. Instead, Apple ran in Kodansha’s Young magazine, which I should say is a very odd choice. Given Naoshi’s already soft and fairly round art style and the fact that the character designs in Apple in particular actually lean pretty clearly -although I can’t say if intentionally or not- into the realms of shotacon and boylove, which is probably even more out of place in a seinen magazine like Young than it would be in any of Jump’s magazines. Apple also falls back pretty heavily on exposition dialogue. Not in a bad way, mind you, but it leaves an unusual lack of action, even by Naoshi’s standards.

I would venture as far as to say that this could easily be the weakest of Naoshi’s stories, but I’ve heard a good number of fans call it their favorite, so I won’t really attempt to make any definite claims. Read it for yourself, along with the rest of Naoshi’s one-shots and judge for yourself.

Speaking of the rest of Naoshi’s one-shots, there’s only one left for me to touch on, but before I can get to that, I’d like to continue working my way through Naoshi’s work chronologically, which brings us to his first and only serialized title. A sadly short lived piece of work, Double Arts ran in the Weekly Shonen Jump magazine for just 6 short months between March and September, 2008, before it was canceled. Despite, or perhaps in light of cancellation, the third and final volume of Double Arts, released in December 2008, ranked 17th in the top selling manga, with 38,106 copies sold in the first week.

Double Arts brings us into the fantasy world of Turm, a land plagued by a growing epidemic of a disease known as Troi. The disease strikes without warning or reason and produces toxins in the human body that quietly accumulate in the patient until the poison’s effect trigger violent spasms. By that point the patient is considered lost as the spams continue until the toxin’s ultimate effects take hold the person fades from existence entirely. The disease is fatal, incurable, and to make matter worse it spreads through skin to skin contact instantaneously.

The only defense against this growing plague are an organization of gifted young girls called Sisters. These brave young missionaries are scouted and recruited from around the continent. The sisters are comprised of those girls who are born with a naturally high tolerance to Troi, a genetic trait seemingly exclusive to females. Tolerance, but not immunity. By making physical contact with those afflicted by Troi, the Sisters selflessly take that patient’s toxins into themselves to stave off the symptoms. Inevitably the girls too will all succumb to the effects of Troi, and all are given extraordinarily short expected life spans which are shortened with every treatment.

It is following one such Sister that the story gets its start. When the traveling Sister Elraine Figarette, finds herself in the throes of death from Troi spasms in a lonely alley, one boy reaches out to her and miraculously saves her life. It is quickly realized that this young man, Kiri Luchile, possesses an unheard of natural ability that renders him the sole human alive immune to Troi and all its symptoms, and by staying in constant contact he can even share his immunity temporarily with others. On top of that he possesses another fantastic power that he can share through touch which proves key to his good health. Upon consulting her superiors, Sister Elraine is tasked with the mission of escorting the boy, Kiri Luchile, to the Sister’s headquarters so that he can be examined in the hopes of finding in him the secret to the cure for Troi.

So begins the journey of a boy and a girl out to try and save the world. The catch of course is that to keep Elraine alive, she and Kiri must remain in constant physical, skin-to-skin, contact. As if it weren’t grounds enough for an adorable romantic comedy alone, Naoshi, in a wonderfully clever move, adds a bit of action to the mix.

An organization of expert and ruthless assassins called the Gazelle roams the county acting upon some inexplicable vendetta against the Sisters. Once Kiri’s existence is discovered by the Gazelle, the journey to the Sisters’ HQ suddenly becomes a race for survival for both Kiri and Elraine. So, to defend themselves on their journey, Elraine and Kiri slowly develop a fighting style to cater to their unique situation, which consequentially takes on the visual appearance of an elegant kind of martial duet. Aided, or perhaps only ever made possible by Naoshi’s wonderfully fluid sense of motion, the combat that Naoshi’s previous stories had been so short on literally dances across Double Arts chapter by chapter, presenting a lovably soft and whimsical kind of action unlike anything Jump has ever seen.

In both my Kubo Tite and Nobuhiro Watsuki reviews I addressed the popular trend in shonen manga of: Boy leads normal life. Boy encounters special girl. Girls saves/resurrects boy from death. Boy gains super powers. Double Arts cleverly subverts this little trope, turning it on its head, as we find a girl -gifted, but one of many- rescued and revived from death by a special boy, with whom she then embarks on a dire mission with.

Last but certainly not least of all, we come to Naoshi’s latest work, Personant. Now, it may seem a bit anticlimactic, touching on another one-shot coming down off of Naoshi’s big serialized title, but Naoshi’s most recent one-shot proved to be yet another great stride for him as both an artist and a story teller. Riding on his love for world building, we find ourselves in another sci-fi, but unlike Apple, Naoshi really turns the sci-fi on high and lands us in a distant cybernetic utopian future where a century of a socialist-like government has provided the basis for a world without poverty, famine, or war.

The key to maintaining this perfect world of the future? The Personant System. By distributing masks equipped with the most cutting edge technology of the century as a system of all-purpose identification, the Personant government has succeeded in eradicating the basis of all prejudice: Individuality.

But even after 100 years, there is one man left alive who opposes this monotonous utopian society. A man known only as Damore. In a world where hiding people’s faces has become the very basis of peace, this rebellious young man called Damore and his brazen refusal to wear a mask has branded him criminal of the highest order. And for what reason does this lone man continue to defy the authority of the Personant government by refusing to wear a mask? He is a flagrant narcissist who can’t help but show off his face and chest to the world. In other words: an exhibitionist.

The story itself follows a young female reporter, Oly, who has been assigned to track down Damore and who gets kidnapped by her interviewee after running into him during a mad escape from Public Safety officials. Once alone, she does get her interview with Damore, however unusual as it turns out to be, but it is brought to an abrupt end by Lord Rui, Director of the Public Safety Department.

The corrupt official makes a point of casually divulging his plans for world domination in their entirety, which of course ultimately hinge upon capturing Damore and extracting certain bits of information pertaining to Damore’s background from him. The final few pages are delightfully lighthearted and uplifting, following Naoshi’s already well establish trend of emotionally fulfilling endings. The story itself stays fairly busy all throughout, rolling from a genuinely interesting premise into what looks like it could be an action-packed sci-fi romp worthy of running in Jump SQ, only to make a sudden turn toward the comedic before doubling back to action, and finally ending on another run of comedy.

What really makes Personant the most fun, like with most of Naoshi’s work, is seeing just what kind of a statement he’s going to make. Where as Island and Williams spoke about not giving up your dreams; Koi no Kami-sama spoke of love; Apple of friendship, and Double Arts all of the above, Personant champions freedom and individuality.

So, now that I’ve dragged you through Komi Naoshi’s fairly sizable list of titles, I leave it to you to look into some of the one-shots I’ve mentioned here, and of course Double Arts, and I hope you enjoy yourself not only while you read Naoshi’s manga, but while you wait with me to see just where this talented and under-appreciated artist’s talents take him in the future. So, remember that name, Komi Naoshi as you continue to read Jump titles, because some day, not so far in the future, he may be the next big rising star in manga!

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