Writer/Artist: Kazuo Koike / Seisaku Kano
Translated by: Naomi Kokobu
Adapted by: Naomi Kokobu
What They Say
Two slaves free themselves from a slave ship; one a Japanese man, the other an African American. After escaping they find themselves on the shore of Edo-era Japan, a society with a strong caste system, isolated from the world. How will the Japanese people perceive this giant black man, and how will they survive? But first things first: how will they get these shackles off their feet?
Weighing in at 414 pages, Color of Rage is a brick of a book. It's the typical B6 size, sure, but it's a bit over an inch and a half thick. The cover is pretty and inviting, and it tells your right off the bat that this is a book about the yakuza. When it comes to the particulars, everything is pretty standard: sound effects are left in the Japanese and translated, gray-scaled color images are muddy and hard to see, but Dark Horse is a bit different in that they are very good at keeping page borders and page numbers. Even though that's pretty standard for them, I think it's a good idea to point out people doing the right thing.
The art here is quite nice, and even though this is the first time any of his work has been available in English, Seisaku Kano's style should be instantly recognizable as being indicative of yakuza and other tough-guy manga. If you are a fan of things like Lone Wolf and Cub, Golgo 13, and Blade of the Immortal, you should feel pretty comfortable flipping though Color of Rage. There's lot of hatching, flowing lines, and detailed minutiae. Faces are all expressive and more realistic than standard; men are all burly and feudal, while women are all drawn to be subtly erotic with smooth lines, lithe bodies, but realistic features. All together, the lines and characters make the art very expressive.
Everything isn't perfect, though. The art does tend to fluctuate in quality here and there: the de-colored pages are often so dark that you can barely see what's going on, action can sometimes get muddled and confusing, and the amount of detail per panel can change per page. Nothing egregious, though, just notable.
This is one of those interesting times when things are just a little off. Just to get the basics out of the way, sound effects are left in the original Japanese with translations written next to them. Also, cultural notes are written in the margins of the page of, or the page next to, the noted term. None of the terms that are defined, however, are indicated as such. No asterisk is there to tell you there there is a definition to be found (particularly tricky since the first time a term is defined you have to turn a page to see the definition), but it's fairly obvious when a word will need definition.
The dialog itself is pretty ham-fisted, actually, which makes things feel a little askew when you are reading. It isn't a problem with the translation or the adaptation as far as I can tell, it's just that the dialog is pretty dumb. Seldom do any of the characters feel like they are speaking naturally. Everything is just stated with simple, declarative sentences with hardly any exposition. So really, there is hardly any drama in what is being said and certainly no identity. Aside from their use of identifiers (like King saying “back in the deep South”), there is no identity in the dialog of the characters. Phrases could easily be swapped from character to character and it wouldn't make a bit of difference.
One choice that I thought was curious was the lack of delineation between English and Japanese dialog. King (African American) and George (Japanese) are speaking English most of the time when they are together, but they interact with other Japanese people quite often, so George switches to Japanese. Nothing tells you that this is what it happening, it just does. Around 80 pages into the book, circumstances reveal that King can not speak Japanese, leaving readers to deduce that George is switching back and forth between languages. Of course, with this all written out in English, there just isn't any kind of distinction, so you will have to keep up with what King can and can't understand on your own. There is at least one interaction between King and a Japanese woman where he is trying to talk to her and you don't know that she can't understand what he is saying because they haven't established that King neither speaks nor understands Japanese yet. I can't say for sure since I haven't read this in the original Japanese, but often in Japanese manga where different languages are being spoken, they do something to differentiate between the languages. Even if that isn't the case for this particular manga, something like an early editor's note could have helped clear up some initial confusion.
You wouldn't think that a violent seinen manga set in the Feudal era would be the ideal medium for a discussion on social and racial inequality, and you'd be right. Now there's proof.
Actually, take that back, it could work just fine. Just not this time.
Color of Rage is about two slaves, one Japanese, the other African American. They are both on board a slave ship when they revolt against its captain and free themselves. They start off on a journey through Japan in search of a place where they can live freely as themselves and not worry about tyranny; if they can't find such a place, they plan on building one. Along their way they encounter numerous examples of injustice and oppression which they fight against.
In spite of being 414 pages, this book is a pretty quick read. The majority of it is entertaining: there's lots of blood, tons of fights, boobs, and honor. Pretty much everything you need for a successful swords & yakuza adventure, right? Well despite all that, Color of Rage ends up being a fairly confused manga that's not quite sure what it's going for; it just moves from one thing to the next hoping to find some real meaning. I understand that searching for meaning in a manga like this is often considered a futile effort and, even worse, missing the point, but Koike started it. He wanted to put the commentary in there – explicitly, even – so now, instead of having what should be a simple hack & slash, we've got a story that's going in all sorts of directions.
Narratively, this is can be pretty straight forward. The protagonists are wandering, they fight for justice, they look for a place to call home. If that's all you need, you've got yourself a winner. It's a toss-up after that, though. Characters are flat – flat as hell. There isn't one person in the whole book that doesn't act like a walking stereotype; for a book that, at least marginally, is trying to expose and dissuade social prejudices, this portrayal of characters can be downright insulting at times. On the surface, Koike is trying to show that King, the African American slave, is just another person like any other and there is no reason for the Japanese to be afraid of him. King is a character that is very concerned with justice and fairness. This is noble, but it's the tacit stereotypes that undermine the message and make things confused.
Aside from being a genuinely nice guy, he is also the “African brute,” large and muscular, who is temperamental, volatile, and yes, a bit savage. When King sees an injustice, he can't hold back, he goes into a rage, he jumps into action without thinking and fights, more often than not, without the skill of a blade, but with his hands or huge, heavy objects like trees and statues. Yes, he pummels people with statues. More that once, even. He is not, however, played up as being stupid or incapable, but he is a tempestuous stereotype, unlike his stalwart Japanese companion. King's cultural ignorance is played up for comic effect here and there, but that's common enough in Japanese entertainment that it's practically a trope. But these stereotypical character cutouts aren't limited to just King, either. George is the always-in-control sword master hero who's practicality is offset by King's idealism. This is a bit more of an archetype than a stereotype, but having a walking archetype teamed with a character stereotype comes with its own implicit subjugation. Even though the two characters are shown to be equals, they aren't always portrayed that way. There is a superiority to George that is oh-so-subtle, but is definitely there. What other characters there are do, also, fill their predestined roles, so the inevitable conclusion here is that all of these characters, big and small, are just paper dolls – lacking in depth and cut from molds.
Another weak element is King and George's wanderings. When the book starts, King and George get some clothes, break their chains, and then they just start going somewhere. Their first two actions are prudent, but after that, what? Actually, you spend almost the entire book not knowing where they are heading. Sure, after a while, they say that they are looking for a place where they can live in peace, but that's well after they have already started moving. Aimless wandering is fine, really, but what I'm getting at here is that there isn't much that pushes the sequence of events along. There are very few moments that start with them having a need and then going some place or doing something to address that need. Without this logical progression, the reader ends up wandering just as aimlessly as the characters. It just seems like Koike had ideas for certain situations that he wanted to highlight because he thought they were poignant in some way, but didn't take the time to string them together with context. And without that primary need, otherwise known as a main conflict, you have to keep yourself from asking questions like, “why are they doing this,” and “what goal are they ultimately working toward.”
This is further complicated when you consider that without a main conflict, there can't be a climax – and there isn't one to be spoken of. I'm all for open-ended endings to stories: usually there is some internal conflict in the characters that drive them forward, and while the action may leave the story feeling unresolved, the character has come to terms with his or her own internal main conflict. That is a satisfying end, in my opinion. But you don't get any of that here. OK, so they are looking for a place to live in peace, but they aren't actively seeking it out. They aren't wandering from place to place and saying things like, “I hope this is the place,” they just end up somewhere for some reason, have a huge fight that centers around some injustice, and King ends off by saying, “is there no place that we can live?” and then they go off somewhere else.
Also, at the end of the manga, there is a minor resolution concerning a vow that King makes in the chapter before last, but nothing unifying. When you get to the end of the book, everything just stops. There is no reward, no culmination of all of their efforts, just another fight like all of their previous fights, and they continue walking. You can probably make arguments that there is certain meaning to how the book ends, and I feel that, to a degree, there is, but these arguments are ultimately just a bunch of small fry issues. This ending that we get is unsatisfying, plain and simple. And the reason for that is because there is no main conflict, nothing to drive the action, and nothing to resolve.
While there are certainly lots of elements that are introduced that would seemingly make this stick out among other feudal fiction, it is unsuccessful in that regard. While it can be entertaining to read Feudal Fiction Trope Digest, it is still, in the end, completely cookie cutter.
All that can be said for Color of Rage, though, can not be said for “Crybaby Ishimatsu,” an unrelated one-shot short that closes out the book. It's about a boy who was known as a crybaby when he was young, but then grows up to be a punk. It turns out that this short is the best thing about Color of Rage. It has good characters, conflict, a climax, resolution, and a decent amount of action for being so short. I can in no way recommend the whole book just because of a single short that is in it, but if you do run across Color of Rage in the store, maybe you should flip to the back and read “Crybaby.” I think it says more than I ever could about the quality of this manga that the best thing about it is the one-shot special which has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the story.
Color of Rage is a failure. It tries to do something different, but it doesn't make it. It isn't a horrible book, certainly, just one that isn't all that good. You don't have to struggle to keep reading it, but you have to be proactive if you want it to be engaging. But don't be so proactive that you are fully engaged by it, then you will start to see all the stereotypical silliness. Just to keep that claim in check, I'm in no way saying that this book is racist. This is just an uninformed depiction of an African American slave, so it can't be said that there is any malice involved when King disproves stereotypical elements with one hand, yet embodies them with the other. That duality is just another thing that makes this narrative so confused. So when it comes to reading this and you, working to be engaged, you have to try and find a nice, mediocre line between entertaining and insulting for the story to shine its brightest. It is unfortunate that that mediocrity is what defines the tone of the whole book.