The Manga Test Drive has reached its sixth birthday! As usual, that means a full month of manga reviews. This year, I'm making it a month of one-volume wonders, single-volume stories that are divine, diabolical, and all points in between. We begin with a stand-alone story from a man who was not hugely successful as a mangaka but would later become one of the anime world's greatest directors.
TROPIC OF THE SEA (Kaikasen), by Satoshi Kon. First published in 1990 and first published in 2013.
Yosuke's family has been running the shrine in their sleepy little fishing town for centuries. It is said that the shrine contains a mermaid's egg which must be returned to the sea every sixty years to ensure calm seas and bountiful fishing. The harmony of the town is disturbed when a developer wants to turn it into a bustling modern seaside resort. It'll take all the help Yosuke can get from his friends, family, and other locals if he's going to be able to save the egg and his hometown from exploitation and destruction.
Tropic of the Sea is a perfectly charming story, a David-and Goliath conflict between a small town and its traditions against the churning waves of big-city businessmen and their notions of 'progress.' If it seems a little safe, that's only because Kon's later works makes it feel that way in retrospect.
Kon would be known for surreal premises and nuanced characters, so some might see the comparatively simple cast and straightforward (if slightly supernatural) premise as a step down. It doesn't help that while Yosuke is a good kid, but he spends most of the story getting swept up in the events of the plot versus taking action. He's also completely oblivious to his friend Nami's many attempts to hit on him.
Meanwhile, Ozawa the developer is the sort of greedy yuppie villain that were a dime-a-dozen in the 80s and 90s. He has no other cause other than the pursuit of profit, and worse still he doesn't learn a lesson. He scales down his plans in the end, but he still more or less gets his way and the damage he does to the town's sacred island is irreversible. The only character who demonstrates any complexity is Yosuke's dad. While he may be the town's head Shinto priest, he prioritizes real-world logic over old-fashioned superstition. To him, the resort represents prosperity for the whole town and the possibility of modern facilities like a proper hospital, something that might have saved his wife years ago. Neither he nor Kon see him as a bad guy, merely misguided.
While the characters and premise may be basic, that doesn't mean the story isn't told in a thrilling way. The first half may be sleepy as the town itself, but the second half amps up the pace and the action, ending with a series of fist fights, car chases, and the threat of natural disaster. Kon also does a good job at teasing the reader with the mermaid throughout the story. We see flashes of a long, serpentine tail, a series of mysterious splashes, and the occasional glimpse of a figure in the sea. Her presence is felt constantly, but there's enough mystery about her that the reader can buy that others could be skeptical about her existence. It's this atmosphere combined with Kon's talent that helps to boost what might otherwise be a very basic, family-friendly affair into a compelling little adventure.
Satoshi Kon got his start as an assistant to Akira creator Katsuhiro Otomo, and Otomo's influence is all over the book. Most obviously, it's present in the character designs, with their frank little eyes and snub noses. There's a lot of love put into the backgrounds here, and I'd be curious to learn what town (if any) served as reference. Even the undersea sequences are beautiful and surreal, capturing both the scale and depths of the ocean. The same goes for the mermaid and her egg, striking a balance between unearthly and homely. He may not have quite developed his own visual style just yet, but Tropic of the Sea is proof that Kon had the skills to draw good manga.
Included here a couple of afterwords from Satoshi Kon himself. The first, made just after this manga's initial release, talks about all the stress he put himself under making it. Tropic of the Sea was his first full-length work and its making was just as much a story about youthful enthusiasm as it was about long hours and hard work. The second afterward, written after Kon established himself as a director, rues how his days as a mangaka have been forgotten by time.
I am glad and grateful that Vertical was able to include both of these afterwards for their release. It serves not only as tribute to a talented man who had died only two years prior to this book's original release, but gave his fans a glimpse into his own evolving perspectives on his early work.
Tropic of the Sea may be an early and somewhat unpolished work from one of anime's late, lamented masters, but it still has enough thrills and beauty within its pages to delight readers and gives fans of Satoshi Kon some insight into the early days of his all too brief career.
This book was published by Vertical. It is currently in print.