Next up on our journey through the interesting and almost forgotten manga of yesteryear is Jyu-Oh-Sei: Planet of the Beast King. In this series, a young boy and his brother are wrongly convicted of murder and sent off to a prison planet. The place is covered in man-eating planets. The prisoners are divided into social units called rings that are led by a Top. The Top is the strong man in the ring (women live in separate colonies and only interact with men to mate) and if the Top of one ring defeats another in a duel, the entire ring must yield to the winner. The only way to get off the planet is for one Top to bring all the other rings under his control and then he will get a pardon. The protagonist, Thor, realizes the only way he’s going to survive on this planet is to get strong enough to conquer all the rings. But we will have plenty of time to talk about the content of the story later.
Running a shockingly long time for a five volume series (between 1993 and 2003), Natsumi Itsuki’s scifi story has the both the look and feel of a much older manga. Something about the character design and the look of the scifi tech when I first read it made me think it was originally published in the 80’s. As it turns out from checking out Itsuki’s bibliography, she started working as a manga artist in the early 80’s. I suspect that there was a long hiatus for either health reason or a snafu with the publisher because it was published in two different magazines, LaLa and Melody.
Interestingly enough, this is the first manga I’ve chosen for this feature that has an anime adaptation. There is an 11 episode TV series that ran as part of the prestigious noitanimA block in 2006. I remember seeing it back in the day and not really caring for it even though it was a very faithful adaptation. Something was off about the pacing. I recall feeling that it was too rushed in places it needed to go slow and too sluggish in others that it needed to go fast. While it was very true to the plot of the manga, the ending suffered because the short run time necessitated a few details being cut. It doesn’t sound like much, but it was enough to shift the tone of the ending in a way I didn’t like. While it’s available for streaming on Hulu, I have never had any desire to see this small screen adaptation of Jyu-Oh-Sei again.
Itsuki had one other series picked up for North American publication called Demon Sacred. While it was also a promising scifi series about a strange global pandemic of reverse aging and inter-dimensional beings, it only saw a few a volumes before the publisher, Tokyopop, peaced out of the publishing biz. This is as good a time to talk about that company as any, because jeez does it have a history.
The history of the North American manga market would not be complete without mentioning Tokyopop. It’s hard to know where to begin so I believe I will start with my first recollection of them as a publisher because it kind of characterizes my overall feelings toward them and the kind of company they were. They first entered the manga market back in the late 90s as Mixx Entertainment and even then they were making some bold moves. Some visionary moves. North America’s manga scene was pretty anemic at that time. There were only a few publishers who dealt with manga and what we got from them was pricey trade-sized volumes where the art was flipped to read left to right instead of the original right to left. Often we were lucky to see one volume every calendar year and the selection was limited. It’s nothing like it is today where it feels like anything half-way significant ends up on the bookshelves. While Viz did make a couple of attempts to bring over girls-targeted comics, they were always single volume collections from creators like Moto Hagio who are well-known in Japan but were unknown here. The common wisdom of the time was that girls don’t read comics and there was no point trying to bring over material that appealed to them.
Mixx had the bright idea to launch Mixxzine, a multi-series anthology just like most manga is published in Japan. Their even brighter idea? Sailor Moon was going to be the flagship title for this magazine. Their brightest idea? Offer the first issue free and try to get subscriptions based on that. Sailor Moon, considered one of the 90’s era gateway hit for North American anime fandom, was at the height of its popularity. Like a lot of little girls, I sent in my sign-up card for the free inaugural issue.
Three other series were also set to run in Mixxzine: Magic Knight Rayearth, Parasyte and Ice Blade. And we’d get one chapter of each every month. Putting Rayearth in with Sailor Moon made perfect sense. Rayearth was a work from the manga artist super-team CLAMP that was targeted at the same demographic as Sailor Moon – elementary school-aged girls. They ran in the same magazine in Japan (Nakayoshi). The problem was with other two series. Parayste is a manga aimed at high school and college-aged boys. It was also super violent and featured a gory decapitation in its first chapter, among other disturbing images. And they put it right after Sailor Moon. I can’t even tell you what Ice Blade was about because I didn’t get that far in the magazine. I don’t think I need to say that my parents were not going to shell out so their twelve year old daughter could see hardcore violence every month and I wasn’t the only Sailor Moon-loving little girl who ended up in that boat. Into the garbage that free magazine went.
What were they thinking? Were they even thinking at all? Did it never cross their mind that putting such a violent title in right after one that was meant to appeal to young girls was not going to go over well with the parents who hold the purse strings? Especially since I doubt there were many people who would have given a tinker’s damn about Mixxzine if not for Sailor Moon. If they really wanted to do a hardcore violent series and a couple of series about girl superheroes they should have split it into two separate magazines and marketed them appropriately. The crazy thing is that this is what Tokyopop was like – the occasional brilliant idea and sloppy spaghetti-on-the-wall implementation. Scratch that. What it is like.
Technically Tokyopop ceased to be a manga publisher in 2011 and it is a wonder they lasted that long. While they were a major player in the industry boom years, (they pioneered such things as bi-monthly release dates on multi-volume series, unflipped manga and the accessible $9.99 price point that was once the industry standard), they made many decisions over the years that had them on the edge of ruin multiple times. Those included licensing everything they could get their hands on regardless of quality and abandoning manga to try to push OEL, original English language works that mimicked manga. Many of these comics were of questionable quality from naïve, young creators who signed contracts that many comic-industry veterans criticized as being downright exploitive. To prune a release schedule bloated with unprofitable garbage, they would announce the cancelation a series, bringing it back for one or two more volumes out of the blue and then cancel it again for realsies. I believe that the last volume Jyu-Oh-Sei was put on indefinite hiatus at one point as Tokyopop struggled to decide if they would spend the money to finish it. When they did release it, they cut production corners. Instead of using sturdy paper, the final volume is printed on Kleenexes. The paper is so thin and flimsy I have to be careful not to tear the pages when I turn them. I have never seen a book this poorly put together. It looks and feels like a good strong breeze could tear it apart.
But like a slasher movie villain in a string of bad horror sequels, they managed to refocus and come back from the brink. I actually started to become a fan of theirs after their last restructure. They seemed to be more careful in what they licensed and the shojo comics they picked up in those final years honestly felt a lot like stuff CMX would have worked on. TP shuttered its publishing operations in the US just as the manga market was imploding the wake of the Borders bankruptcy. They weren’t the first casualty. Seimaden publisher CMX had the plug pulled on it by its parent company. Go!Comi, a promising up and comer that had just entered in a few years early, went silent around that time – missing their street dates for books and then their website disappeared into that place websites go went you don’t pay your domain host. You can kind of understand that Tokyopop was ready to throw in the towel when the situation seemed grim and unlikely to change for the better.
And their exit lasted all of a couple months. After leaving their loyal customers with dozens of titles that would never be finished, they announced that there was one single series that would stick their head out of the ground and continue to release every once and a while as a print on demand book through just one retailer. So Tokyopop is technically still alive and a manga publisher. Even their closing had a disorganized, non-committal feel to it as if they can’t decide what they want to be. They fooled around with making documentaries and the CEO has stated a couple of times that is where his passion truly lies. Manga just seems to be something they keep being reluctantly drawn back to. They’ve threatened to relaunch their manga line once or twice but all that ever came of it was some manga related to Disney properties. While I’m sure there is a market for anything Disney and that is probably a safe choice from an economic perspective, Japanese artists assigned to work on Western IPs is not really what I’d call a grand return to the manga biz.
But that’s finally changed. Just a few weeks ago, they announced that they are formally returning to the North American market with four new licenses they expect to start releasing later this year. And they expect people to trust them enough to buy them when they’ve already proven they are a flaky and unfocused company who can’t be trusted to finish what they start. When I heard this my first thought was: Back into your grave, unclean thing! I’ve been burnt by them too many times over the years to ever buy another one of their products.
But let’s not punish a manga series based on the sins of the publisher. Let’s dig in and access its quality. Is Jyu-Oh-Sei a title that deserves to be remembered or is the funny title the only thing that remains significant about it? I will be handling this read along a bit differently. This is a five volume series that was later re-released in three plus size omnibus editions in Japan. The omnibus version is the one Tokyopop released here. Since I can’t tell where the original volumes ended and the individual chapters are quite lengthy, I am only to break this read along into parts. Each part will cover at least a one full chapter of manga.
Get ready to read along!