In Dragon Ball, probably the most famous action manga of all time, the characters fighting those deadly-serious battles have names like Vegeta, Trunks, Freeza and Kiwi.
There's no deep meaning behind naming the characters after vegetables, clothes and food - it's just silly puns, and a mnemonic device to create names that Japanese 14-year-olds taking English classes will remember - but when I first read Dragon Ball I often wished, if the characters' names are just meaningless in-jokes anyway, wouldn't it be more exciting if they were named after political figures instead? That way, the readers would be looking up Wikipedia articles on politics instead of pu'er and oolong tea, and no matter what is actually happening in the story, there is a nice ring to lines like "You think you can defeat I, the great Kissinger?" or "Reagan! Now I'll show you my true power!"
At last my wish has been granted by Hideki Ohwada's Mudazumo naki Kaikaku: The Legend of Koizumi, a manga in which real-world politicians vie for power by beating one another in deadly mahjong battles. Begun in 2006 as an irregular feature in the mahjong manga magazine Kindai Mahjong Original, it was such an unexpected hit that the publishers didn't release the first collected graphic novel edition until 2008. Now, it's coming out at a steady pace, it's been adapted into an anime, its Japanese Wikipedia entry is miles long, and it's causing American fanboys to actually buy mahjong manga magazines, perhaps the most alien of all manga mags to Western readers, not to mention some of the lowest-circulation in the ailing print-manga market.
Of course, politicians and political messages are nothing uncommon in American comics: in addition to Obama on the cover of Spider-Man, there's the senile Ronald Reagan in Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, and Mark Millar's censored storyline in The Authority, in which (in the original version DC refused to publish) the evil president signing the Authority's death warrant is George W. Bush. But in Japan, even the serious seinen manga mags generally shy from politics, least of all showing real-life politicians; political manga is concentrated in newspaper editorial cartoons and a few specialist manga in political magazines like Yoshinori Kobayashi's (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yoshinori_Kobayashi) right-wing comics. Manga was a vehicle for underground-comics leftist dissent way back in the '60s, but when manga became big business, the politics went out. In addition to the desire of big publishers to avoid controversy, there's also the fact that Japan-a parliamentary democracy where the same party, the conservative Liberal Democratic Party, was in power nearly continually from 1955 to 2009-has a relatively low voter turnout and little public interest in politics. Recently, however, all that has changed. "Democratic participation is replacing quiescent obedience," said Haruko Satoh, a doctoral candidate at the University of Cambridge. The LDP is out of power, pro-Chinese and pro-American and other factions are having a vigorous debate, and what once seemed certain is now up for grabs. Japanese politics is interesting again.
LDP politician Junichiro Koizumi, Prime Minister for an unprecedented five one-year terms from 2001 to 2006, is one of the most popular politicians in recent Japanese history. His awesome mane of manga-character hair (a little grayer now than 10 years ago), his economic reforms, his encouragement of Japanese nationalism by sending Japanese troops on their first overseas deployment since WWII (as peacekeepers in Iraq) and visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine where WWII Japanese soldiers are honored-love him or hate him, you can't forget him. The manga title Mudazumo naki Kaikaku ("Reform without wasted tsumo," a mahjong term) is a parody of Koizumi's slogan Seiiki naki Keikaku ("Reform without sanctuary").
The premise of Mudazumo naki Keikaku is that Koizumi is not only an awesome politician but the greatest mahjong player who ever walked this earth. In the first chapter, Koizumi and George W. Bush engage in a long "international diplomacy" session which turns into a mahjong game for U.S./Japan supremacy. Turns out that Bush is an old Texas gambler, and mahjong is his favorite game, so soon they're playing mahjong for F-15 fighter jets…and for the honor of Taizo, Koizumi's hapless junior politician, who loses to Bush, gets locked in a cage in his underwear wearing a ball gag, and gets threatened by Donald Rumsfeld. ("Don't you dick around with the U.S. military! We'll use your ass for target practice!") Mahjong is normally a four-person game, so Rumsfeld and Condaleeza Rice, both of them looking as mean as rattlesnakes, take the extra seats to support the President. It's on! This being a manga, all the players shout out the names of their attacks as they play combinations of mahjong tiles. "Patriot tsumo! Bush doctrine riichi!" But in the end, Koizumi dominates the battlefield with his ultimate special move, the Rising Sun!!!
Koizumi wins because he's not just lucky and a super genius; he's also a cheating bastard. Among other things, he has the awesome power of gômôpai, the ability to erase the symbols off of mahjong tiles with his intense finger friction, turning them into versatile blank tiles. If, in the process, his sleeve is torn off by the fiery heat or his arm erupts in spurts of blood…as Koizumi himself says "This old man's life is a small price to pay for world peace!!!" Then he walks away from the battlefield with his hair blowing in the wind, saying stoically "I'm fine. My fingers just hurt a little." Mudazumo naki Kaikaku depicts mahjong even less realistically than Yu-Gi-Oh! depicts collectible card games. The focus is on all the clichés and hyper-melodrama of shonen battle manga; the actual medium could be anything (karate, cooking contests, Dungeons & Dragons…). As Koizumi says, "This is a battle between men!!!" This is a story of massive egos and massive exaggeration. Early on, Koizumi reveals a winning mahjong hand that is so awesome it's too much for a two-page spread, so Ohwada draws a four-page spread, presumably requiring you to buy extra copies of the manga so you can tear out the pages and pin them to your wall. That's not the worst of it; one of the later chapters features what may be a world record, a 26-page spread.
Once Ohwada realizes he has gold on his hands, the manga picks up steam. Like Freeza in Dragon Ball Z running to his daddy King Cold, George W. Bush runs back to Washington, where he meets Papa Bush, aka George H.W. Bush, his dad. In this manga, he is a seven-foot-tall grey giant who embodies all the fearsome military might that U.S. hegemony once represented before his son became a global laughingstock. "Dad! Koizumi won our F-15s! Let's tell everyone they have weapons of mass destruction!" a pretzel-munching W. tells daddy. But Papa Bush at least has a sense of honor. "What happens at the gaming table, stays at the gaming table!" he snarls. He commands Koizumi to come to the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas, where he fights his own match with Koizumi, to avenge his humiliation for being shot down by the Japanese in WW2. "Potsdam declaration riichi! Apocalypse now!" Bush Sr. roars.
After that brutal battle, Koizumi is called back to Japan to fight North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il on an aircraft carrier. When he loses, an angry Kim Jong-Il fires a nuclear missile at Japan, so Koizumi jumps in a plane, takes off (blowing Kim Jong-Il overboard with the engine draft) and intercepts the missile, seemingly dying in a huge explosion. As Koizumi's supporters weep at his sacrifice, the X Japan song "Forever Love," which Koizumi used in some of his campaign commercials, plays in the background — the manga creators even bothered to get the rights to quote the lyrics. But you can't keep him down, and soon Koizumi is back in mahjong action against Vladimir Putin and another respected world leader, Pope Ratzinger!!!
Of course, you can't have a geopolitical manga without political opinions (unless it's Hetalia). Particularly in a battle manga, you need a bad guy; while anti-nationalism and pacifism may make good politics, they make awful fight scenes. As you'd expect for Mudazumo naki Kaikaku's glorification (however ironic) of hawkish-leaning Koizumi, the manga's political leanings are conservative.
Taro Aso, the right-wing politician known for his racist comments as well as for being a proud manga fan, is Koizumi's badass playing partner. Naoto Kan, the opposition candidate who was accused of having an extramarital affair in 1998, is depicted a sleazy lech (he's actually a mahjong expert in real life, but ironically, not in Mudazumo naki Kaikaku). Of course, a lot of this mockery probably isn't particularly political: it's just indiscriminate Team America-style cynicism. All the politicians in Mudazumo naki Kaikaku are ruthless bastards, shouting patriotic slogans as they fuck over the enemy by any means necessary. Cheating is "the reason for the Japanese economic miracle!" Screwing over your fellow players is "the American way!" Shinzo Abe, a right-wing politician, is so humiliated by a mahjong loss that he commits seppuku, opening his guts with a sword. "We told the press that he's retired from politics due to stomach problems," Aso says, a reference to the real-life reason for Abe's retirement. "Heh…yeah, there's something wrong with his stomach, all right."
Some of the most sensitive issues in Asia are Japanese depictions of Chinese and South Koreans, who hold Japan responsible for unapologized-for war crimes and general arrogance. Although Chinese politicians are conspicuous by their absence in the manga, the anime adaptation, also written by Ohwada, "goes there." In brief, Koizumi goes to Japan for a ceremony on the Three Gorges Japan, where he faces Premier Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao in battle. The depiction of the Chinese leaders as high-jumping martial artist bad guys ("Japan's 4000-year history and cutting-edge technology is simply invincible! Mahjong was born in our country! Mwa ha ha ha ha!") is pretty much on par with the sensitivity level of the rest of the manga, but it's still bad enough to cause some commenters online to call it "the most racist anime ever made." The depiction of liberal Yukio Hatoyama, the first Prime Minister from the opposition party, as a bug-eyed freak subservient to his Chinese masters, is even more heavy-handed. But who could possibly object to Chairman Mao and Pol Pot rising from the grave and challenging Koizumi to a duel? Indeed, in true shonen manga form, the living Chinese politicians become reluctant allies of Koizumi when Big Bad Mao shows up. Actually, probably the most offensive thing in Mudazumo to American sensibilities is Colin Powell revealing that he's been a faithful servant of the Bush family for years, or being the one to deliver the obligatory racist anti-Japanese line "There's no way that yellow monkey can defeat a white person!"
Legend of Koizumi Episode 1:
Legend of Koizumi Episode 2:
Legend of Koizumi Episode 3:
Battles between real-world politicians are just the beginning of Mudazumo naki Kaikaku, though. For it to be a true fighting manga, former enemies must unite against a common threat, and in the middle of volume 2 Ohwada comes up with his necessary Big Bad: THE NAZIS.
It turns out that after WWII Hitler escaped to the moon, where he raised a massive Nazi army, led by all the resurrected Nazis that you could possibly think of. (Including Josef Mengele, Hans Rudel, Otto Skorzeny, and Joseph Goebbels' fictional granddaughter Isolde, a little Nazi girl whose purpose is to have her skirt blown back revealing her panties.) The Nazis blow up a bunch of stuff with their moon cannon, in scenes of destruction that are just realistic enough to maintain the veneer of melodrama, and then Hitler comes down in a UFO and gives the people of earth one chance: they must choose five pairs of champions and defeat his Nazis at mahjong. The losers will be instantly executed in electric chairs linked to their mahjong scores. Putin, the Bushes, Koizumi and the Pope volunteer. For their fifth, the heroes consider recruiting Margaret Thatcher, but she's too old, although she's still strong enough to crush a pair of walnuts in her bare palm in a suggestive manner.
Instead, they team up with Putin's old enemy Yulia Tymoshenko, the (now former) Prime Minister of Ukraine, who gives the series even more moe cute-girl cheesecake. (Yes, she really does dress like that.)
And then, in the long storyline subtitled "Ragnarok: Twilight of the Gods," the series goes completely nuts. Mudazumo naki Kaikaku is a parody of every battle manga you could think of, with probably many in-jokes I don't even get. Add a layer of knowledge of real-world politics, and it's like being trapped in an echo chamber where the human mind draws previously unthought-of connections between politics and manga clichés. Pope Ratzinger, the former Hitler Youth IRL, has some history with Hitler, having unwittingly helped him escape from Germany at the end of the war; now he must defeat Hitler to purge his sin. George H.W. Bush is his father's partner for a 2-on-2 match with the Nazis, but he feels the crushing pressure of his father's high expectations. We segue into a flashback of George Bush in 1965 as a bosozoku bad boy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bōsōzoku) getting in fights at Harvard and getting bailed out of jail by dad. Later, Bush Jr. gets a powerup, and the Nazis, using their mahjong power detectors, are shocked to see that his mahjong power is now "over 8,000"! (http://injoke.blogspot.com/2008/05/over-9000.html). Bush doing an emotional rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" is another highlight, as is Yulia Tymoshenko gushing blood from her neck in a particularly harsh battle and negotiating with Josef Mengele's cybernetic brain for the secret of eternal youth. People are electrocuted, poisoned, shot and blown up at the mahjong table. In the end, for Dragon Ball Z fans, the most mind-blowing moment may be when Hitler reveals that he was only using a small portion of his true power. At the most critical moment, Hitler's hair turns blonde and shoots straight up, as he transforms into his ultimate mode…"the legendary Super Aryan!!!" (http://dragonball.wikia.com/wiki/Super_Saiyan)
At this point you're probably wondering, "How can I read this brilliant manga?" Well, it's available illegally online, of course, both the manga and the short anime (it's just three well-animated 8-minute episodes, an anime for the age of youtube). Or, you can pester your favorite manga publisher to "officially" translate it, if the have the guts. If the mahjong thing puts you off, I should confess: I know nothing about mahjong, but I still loved this manga. In fact, it made me want to actually play the darn game, partly because it seems so insanely confusing and complicated. Will manga like Mudazumo naki Kaikaku, and Ritz Kobayashi's Saki with its cast of cute go-playing girls (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saki_(manga)), boost the popularity of mahjong in Japan the way Hikaru no Go (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hikaru_no_Go) boosted the popularity of Go? Of course, Hideki Ohwada could be accused of trivializing real events, like in Timaking's dojinshi Afghanisu-tan in which 9/11 is represented by a spoiled rich girl getting scratched by a cat, or Hidekaz Himaruya's Hetalia where WWII Germany, Japan and Italy are all represented by loveable boys. But forget the risks, think of the rewards of what tvtropes.org calls refuge in audacity (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/RefugeInAudacity). As the Nazi storyline is just now winding down in Japan, I can only hope that Ohwada will encourage other creators of political manga, or start a hinted-at "second season" featuring new challenges and opponents. Here's my dream team: Obama. China. Ahmadinejad. Bin Laden. Netanyahu. GO KICK SOME MORE ASS, KOIZUMI. I know you'll never crying back to us and telling us how it hurts.