Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Review: EAGLE

Today's review is just one of those happy coincidences.  What could be more perfect for an Old-School Month review in 2016 than an old manga that's all about an American presidential campaign?  Lord knows it couldn't be any weirder than the real deal.

EAGLE (Iguru), by Kenji Kawaguchi.  First published in 1997 and first published in North America in 2000.


Just as he loses his mother, Takashi Jo gets the opportunity of a lifetime: a chance to cover the presidential campaign for Kenneth Yamaoka, a up-and-coming Japanese-American senator.  As Takashi immerses himself inside Yamaoka's campaign staff, he discovers that there's a lot more political wheeling and dealing behind-the-scenes than he could have imagined.  Takashi also discovers a secret that connects his and Yamaoka's family, one that leaves him wondering just what Kenneth truly want from him?


It's a hard thing to make something as intellectual as a political campaign exciting, particularly when translating it to comic form.  Eagle manages this feat through a heady combination of personal drama and good research.

Takashi may be our audience stand-in, but it doesn't take long for him to get lost in the metaphorical shadow of Kenneth Yamaoka.  It's easy to understand how this could happen, as Kenneth is the sort of charismatic, larger-than-life figure that most politicians strive to be, a politician clearly cut from the Clinton mold.  He's a brilliant speaker, he's thoughtful, resourceful, and able to trade on both his Asian-American heritage and his wealthy, loving, and very white family.  More than once, Takashi has to mentally stop himself from getting swept up in the campaign so that he can remain objective. 

Of course, as any reasonably observant American reader would know, just about any seemingly perfect politician has a scandal or two hidden within them, and Yamaoka ends up being no exception to that.  Takashi's enthusiasm transforms into equal parts curiosity and skepticism after Yamaoka makes a major confession to him.  It's a fairly predictable one, considering how much the story emphasized at the beginning that Takashi has a American serviceman father that he's never known.  There's also family drama within the Yamaokas, as Kenneth's wife is fully aware of Takashi's connection to him and Kenneth's teenage son is dealing with a massive inferiority complex, a short temper, and a lack of scruples, something which threatens to make him a liability  Still, this confession and the fallout from it leads Takashi (and the reader) to suspect that Takashi's coverage is part of a larger plan on Kenneth's part, and it's this internal conflict that drives much of the emotional drama in the story.

I do have to give Kawaguchi credit for doing his research when it came to American politics.  He clearly did a lot of reading on the Clinton-era elections and he does a good job covering the ins and outs of the process.  We see a lot of the everyday work with the campaign managers, meetings with influential donors, campaign staff canvassing for votes, and even independent analysts doing their best to guess the meaning behind an opponent's actions and find ways to one-up them at their own game.  He even throws in some rather obvious riffs on real-life politicans, the most obvious being Yamaoka's opponent Albert Gore Albert Noah, who currently serves as vice-president in-story.  Now, that does mean that a significant portion of the story boils down to a lot of heated conversations and not a lot of physical action, but Kawaguchi puts enough strategy and passion in each one to make them compelling. 

These kinds of stories are not often told outside of nonfiction, so finding a manga like Eagle that translates this sort of talkative political action so faithfully and so thrillingly is a true marvel.  I can understand why such a story would not connect with the larger manga audience, but they are truly missing out by doing so.


Kawaguchi's art style is one that's common in this sort of seinen story, and one that's likely to remind most readers of Naoto Urasawa.  The characters look much like the target audience for this work - lots of blocky, square-jawed, guys that are middle-aged or close enough to it to count.  I guess Kawaguchi wanted to give these guys enough of a physical presence on the page to match the intellectual and/or political power they wield.  The women are a little more varied in age and shape, but fanservice in any form is nonexistent.  Kawaguchi's research can often be seen in his backgrounds, as they feature everything from actual New Hampshire campaign landmarks to billboards showing off a then-current ad campaign for the Marines.  I haven't seen this level of detail applied to an American setting since Gunsmith Cats, and I'm genuinely impressed with the effort.

That being said, he's still got his limits as an artist.  The characters may all be fairly grounded in style, but their expressions and movements are kind of stiff on the page.  The politicians in particular then to come off like walking Ken dolls, that's how stiff they are.  He also isn't terribly good at drawing crying.  That becomes a problem as Takeshi starts to weep in frustration as the story goes on, and he tends to look more like his eyes are melting while he stares into the middle distance.  These are minor quibbles, admittedly, but they do detract from what is otherwise a solidly drawn work with a great eye for the geographic details.


Eagle manages to combine the drama of a political campaign with the drama of one man searching for the truth behind his own past, and the end result is effective and compelling.  Even if you're not the sort who consumes political thrillers like candy, this is an underrated manga that deserves a second look.

This series was published by Viz.  This series is complete in Japan with 11 volumes available.  All 11 were published as 22 comics and as 5 omnibuses, and all are currently out of print.

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