Smuggler Vol. #01 -

Anime/Manga Reviews

Mania Grade: A-

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  • Art Rating: A-
  • Packaging Rating: B+
  • Text/Translatin Rating: B
  • Age Rating: 16 & Up
  • Released By: TOKYOPOP
  • MSRP: 9.99
  • Pages: 248
  • ISBN: 1-59532-150-0
  • Size: B6
  • Orientation: Right to Left

Smuggler Vol. #01

By Jarred Pine     February 19, 2006
Release Date: January 10, 2006

Smuggler Vol.#01

Creative Talent
Writer/Artist:Shohei Manabe
Translated by:Sarah Backhouse
Adapted by:

What They Say
Ryosuke Kinuta is a struggling young actor with a mounting problem -- his unpaid debts to loan sharks have caught up with him, so they cut a deal, offering him a different type of role. Ryosuke will work as their "carrier," but unfortunately, this isn't the big break he has been hoping for. He has to smuggle the bodies of murdered victims, making sure they're never to be seen again... or he'll never be seen again!

The Review
Smuggler is a fantastic, violently executed urban tale about people who live amongst the garbage of the criminal underground, trying to do their best to climb out of the trash and take back their own lives.

Once again, TOKYOPOP uses a custom cover created in-house that I must say looks much better, and more appropriate, for this title than the original cover art. The new composition uses Manabe’s art from the panels as well as some interesting textures and graphical elements all put together in a paneled collage underneath a glowing cityscape. The effect of the collage really highlights the disconnected story structure. The artwork also wraps over to the back cover, with a ringed notebook effect on the spine. And to top it off, the cover has a matte finish and the color printing looks fabulous. Nice work!

The print reproduction is quite solid, clear and sharp, allowing the artwork to paint the picture Manabe intended. There is a “Character Chart” included at the front of the volume that helps understand the relationships between each of the seemingly unconnected characters. No other extras are included, but there is 250 pages of content here to make it feel like you got your money’s worth.

Although not quite as sharp as Shohei Manabe’s successor, Dead End, the artwork here continues to really hit all the right spots with me. Character designs have very thick jaw lines and big noses with nice etching work for shading that really highlights these pronounced features. It makes the characters look rugged and rough, which is exactly what they are. And man, the illustrations of those eyes are so intense!

The detail put into the backgrounds and panels is also quite lush, but it’s not a pretty rendering of the city. There is a dim and grimy feel to the setting, perfect for this violent underground world. Manabe’s panels are also incredibly dynamic and cinematic, with some nice direction using the panels to set up a shocking scene or funny joke. The action art was better in his latter work, but the strong compositions of it all hides this imperfection. I’ve come to wonder if Manabe has ever had any interest in directing film, as his composition and cinematic art triggers off feelings of seeing this type of work on the big screen.

SFX are not translated, which is a trend I wish would stop. Especially since I’ve seen TP add subbed text to other recent titles with great artwork, like BECK or Blame!. There are even margins between panels where text could have easily been added. The translation reads very well, with a nice use of foul language that is definitely appropriate for these types of characters. Although I think gang members who are on the verge off being killed off would yell something else other than, “Yikes”.

Contents (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers):
If there is one thing I learned while reading Shohei Manabe’s surreal mystery Dead End, it is that he has quite the affinity with the dark and seedy underground of urban life. From yakuza and drug dealers to drifters and vagabonds, his characters represent a side of city life that is hidden away from the casual observer. The common theme between them all is their thirst for becoming something other than a forgettable speck in always growing pile of rubble and trash that is this type of life. Created before the aforementioned Dead End, Smuggler is a much more concise and less convoluted story, which are much desired assets for a one-shot release.

When rival gangs get angry, they get violent. Steal another gang’s drugs or money, and most likely you can expect something in return in form of hitmen or a car bomb. When the hits get bloody, as they often do, and you don’t want any bodies to be found, that’s when you call loan shark Masahisa Yamaoka to take care of smuggling the bodies out into the country for disposal. However, most of the time they will never know what cargo there are transporting--just pick up the goods and take them where you are told. Don’t ask any questions and don’t botch it up, otherwise prison will be the last thing you’ll be worried about. So when a body smuggling job goes wrong, it will be up to the smugglers to fix the situation in order to save their asses not only from the Kodama yakuza but the See-Hi-Ban Chinese mafia as well.

The smugglers in this story are 34-year-old Jo Hanazono, 66-year-old Noboru, and 24-year-old Ryuske Kinuta, who could be considered our main protagonist. Jo is the seasoned vet who has been doing this job too long, probably not out of choice. He also has a sort of mother hen aspect to his personality as he looks out for his two partners, even though he’s constantly berating them. Noboru is an older man who never got serious in life, and now just basically waits for the final bell to toll, but he doesn’t live with regret. Ryuske had the most potential out of everyone, with a promising acting career that he walked out on, accidentally finding himself in debt after he got mixed up with the wrong crowd. He seems to quit everything he starts, a lost cause looking for some direction, and it is Jo that in the end makes sure that Ryuske goes back to the flock that he belongs with. There are many other characters in this story that are all just trying to climb up out of the trash. The characters are not very multi-dimensional, which is expected in a one-shot story, but their relationships and characterizations are quite solid.

The story all builds to a violent showdown, and the acting performance of a lifetime from Ryuske’s, that in the end was kept quite simple but executed in a way that kept the mystery and suspense quite high throughout, all while enjoying the seeming random character interactions along the way. I love the almost mundane banter of a drug dealer talking about why female students make the best clients (money, experimental, and have friends). Or the casual remarks of the smugglers about hot sauce in soup. In the end, the theme permeating Manabe’s story is that everyone is struggling to find their way out of the garbage bin of life that they have been given or fallen into against their will. And to get out, you must be willing to sacrifice a lot, sometimes even your own life.

While reading Smuggler, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the crime drama Pulp Fiction, although a bit grittier and without that QT coolness factor. The story follows a few central characters that are all tied to this central event of a gang boss who has recently been assassinated. The characters many times will have no clue about who else is involved, but inevitably their paths will cross as everything comes together at the end of the volume.

Like Pulp Fiction, it’s violent, gritty, and has some really good characterizations of the type of people involved in this world of smuggling. There are also the random, almost mundane, bits of conversations that happen that have nothing to do with the situation at hand, but really highlight the personalities of each of the characters. It is definitely not as witty or verbally loaded as Pulp Fiction, but the banter between characters makes them feel real. You want them to survive and get out of this hellhole of a life.

At 250 pages, you definitely get your money’s worth here with his one-shot from a creator that I consider on the cutting edge--one of the more refreshing manga artists and writers out there today. Shohei Manabe’s rawness and violent story might turn off a good amount of people, but it’s a setting that really allows for some interesting characters to develop. I’ve already read this a few times over, enjoying it more and more with each passing.


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