Kazuo Koike, 1936-2019

Kazuo Koike, the wildly prolific writer of Japanese commercial media, comics foremost among them, died of pneumonia on April 17, 2019. He was 82.

Born in Akita Prefecture on May 8, 1936 -- his true name was Seishu Tawaraya, though he may have been born under the given name Yuzuru -- Koike led an early life of disparate vocation. He studied law at Chuo University in Tokyo, but, like most students, did not pass Japan's formidable national bar examination. He studied writing with the novelist Kiichirō Yamate, but this brought him no success. Instead, he found work at the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, and took jobs in the leisure fields of golf and mahjong. It was not until his thirties, in 1968, that he arrived in comics via Saitō Production, the studio of popular gekiga artist Takao Saitō (b. 1936), who had broken away from the collective setup of the pioneering Gekiga Studio of the 1950s and built a house of mass production, an industrial sector of comics with room for a dedicated scriptwriter among the other work teams. Koike applied for the position, having caught word in a boys' comics magazine, and immediately became a unique figure in manga: a dedicated writer who did not come from any other literary field. Of historical note is his work on Saitō's Muyōnosuke, a period drama about a lone swordsman bounty hunter that brought Koike his first deep dip into comics jidaigeki, but western readers will best recognize Golgo 13, the still-running adventures of a sniper-for-hire, on which Koike served as founding scriptwriter with creator Saitō. The feature was devised for Big Comic, a new magazine aimed at teenagers and adult men; the character is introduced at the window of a hotel in Hamburg, bathed in neon, dispassionately smoking a cigarette while clad only in a pair of white briefs, a prostitute lolling in bed behind him. An era had begun.

Art by Takao Saitō & Saitō Production.

Gōseki Kojima cover art to a 2012 edition by Koike Shoin.
Koike separated from Saitō Production in 1970, and strode promptly into renown. In a 2015 interview with the Criterion Collection, he would describe the Japanese comics scene at the time as a close-knit one where people knew each other; that was how he came to approach the artist Gōseki Kojima (1928-2000), a 41-year-old veteran of kamishibai, rental manga, and magazine serialization, to create a new period drama for the young male market. Lone Wolf and Cub -- in which Ogami Ittō, the shōgun's executioner, suffers the slaughter of his household and the ruin of his honor, and gives his child, Diagorō, the choice of the ball and the sword, and the child chooses the sword, and thus joins his father on the assassin's road -- was a grand success, running from 1970 to 1976, selling more than eight million copies in collected form in Japan, and launching a feature film series for which Koike wrote many of the screenplays; there were also two television series, and various sequels, parodies and homages. Portions of two of those Koike-scripted feature films would subsequently be edited together and dubbed into English, released to American theaters in 1980 as Shogun Assassin, a blood-drenched foundation for Koike's overseas fame, beloved by cult movie enthusiasts on VHS, though few at that time would recognize the writer's name.

But while Lone Wolf and Cub remains the title most readily identified with Koike in the west, it is only a small portion of his body of work, very little of which has been translated into English. In the 1970s alone, Koike served as writer on more than three dozen manga projects, many of them lengthy serials, on top of his screenwriting, as well as musical pursuits - he wrote title song lyrics for the anime Mazinger Z, for example, as well as those for the Nippon Television adaptation of Lone Wolf and Cub. Some of the comics of this time were collaborations with well-known artists: Secretary Bird, with Lupin III creator Monkey Punch, in 1970; a story titled "In the Role of Lips" with horror comics master Kazuo Umezu, from a 1973 issue of Big Comic; a manga version of the Bannai Tarao mystery movie series with Cyborg 009 creator Shōtarō Ishinomori, 1977-78; and Hanappe Bazooka, the story of a boy who summons demons while masturbating and gains life-changing physical and sexual powers, with Devilman creator Gō Nagai, 1979-82. Less recognizable is the name Satomi Kōe (1950-2016), but his and Koike's period drama Nijitte Monogatari ran for one quarter of a century in the gossip magazine Weekly Post, amassing 110 collected volumes. Kōe was a fellow breakaway from Saitō Production, who, in 1972, helped Koike form Studio Ship: first a production house for new comics, and eventually a publisher of books and magazines. It would be renamed Koike Shoin in the 1990s, and declare bankruptcy in 2016.

Art by Ryōichi Ikegami, from I Ueo Boy.

If you look through the Japanese-language coverage of Koike's death online, you'll frequently encounter the term アナーキー ("anarchy") in relation to his 1970s work. Perhaps the quintessential example of that is I Ueo Boy (sometimes known as "AEIOU Boy" or "The Starving Man"), a serial begun in 1973 with the artist Ryōichi Ikegami (b. 1944), a contributor to the leftist juvenile comics magazine-turned-alternative manga forum Garo, whose longest work up until then had been a memorably grim and violent rendition of Marvel's Spider-Man, outfitted for an age of social unrest. Koike himself had written some Japanese Hulk comics for artist Yoshihiro Morifuji, and was likewise interested in the state of the nation. "The '70s in Japan was an era rife with student protests," Koike told the English-language manga editor Carl Horn, in a 2006 interview. "There was a lot of anguish in the air towards public policy. The state was threatened by these movements, and attempted to limit freedom of expression. There was a lot of resistance and overall, people were very angry. The mood in the air affected manga creators as well in the subject and content of their work. And I was not an exception. That's why I created [I Ueo Boy]."

There are indeed few discernible limits to the expression in that series, which has never been published in the west. Concerning the adventures of an angry young man on a mission to avenge his fiancée, a photographer who killed herself after being raped and blackmailed by agents of political power -- an incident which occupies roughly thirty pages of the first collected volume -- I Ueo Boy speaks in the cadence of utter sensation: blood-drenched fights abound; cars and motorcycles scream down the highway; a mansion burns, hair and dresses catching light; a villain's semen spatters the image of a lady singer on television; many cops are shot; The Who perform in concert; sexual violence, a good portion of it done by the protagonist, is eroticized in a manner akin to that of the rougher pink films; New York City is introduced with images of homeless people laying on the curb like corpses and an elderly woman pulling down her drawers to piss on the street; beautiful women die choking deaths as their wild-haired lover glowers nearby or sheds manly tears. All of these things are spices in the cabinet, to be used at will, as the Starving Man strides angrily across the globe, beholden to no law. Yet it was not a craftsman's accident that the world might seem to bend around his desires.

Cover of the 2016 Sesame Books release Kazuo Koike's Character Creation Theory.
In 1977, Koike debuted his Gekiga Sonjuku, an educational program for instructing aspirant creators. "I do not believe creating the story from the outset is a good way to begin," Koike stated in a 2016 Reddit AMA. "I teach about how to create a good character." This method of conceptualizing comics -- of devising characters first, delineating their motives and allowing the story to dictate itself around the conflict of those motives -- accommodates the rollicking, improvisational nature of Koike's serials, which can summon machinations enough to sustain themselves for many lucrative years. Yet even to read a smaller work like Offered, a later, 1989-90 Ikegami collaboration, which concerns a gifted college athlete on a mission to discover the truth of his parental connection to the Sumerian king Gilgamesh and a lost underground civilization, is to fly through a series of feverish narrative contortions; in one chapter we might learn how to break hypnosis by pressing a needle toward your eye, while in another the heroes might establish a nudist colony by the seashore. There are not a few Ikegami-drawn comics out in English, but none of them read like those he did with Koike, which barrel ahead with rare elan, yet retain an almost subconscious cohesion, which is that of character worldview. Among the very first Gekiga Sonjuku students to learn such lessons was Rumiko Takahashi, who soon thereafter began Urusei Yatsura , the first of her many successes. Other students included Yūji Horii, creator of the Dragon Quest video game series; Tetsuo Hara, artist of the boys' comics superhit Fist of the North Star; Keisuke Itagaki, creator of the still-running Grappler Baki fighting comics franchise; and Naoki Yamamoto, artist of disquieting, sexually-charged serials, and supervisor of the offbeat porn magazine Manga Erotics F. The program initially closed down in 1988, but revived itself periodically throughout the 21st century, as Koike authored numerous books espousing his character theories; none are available in English.

The next decade presented new projects, of which I will name only a few. Koike was given a special prize at the 1981 Shōgakukan Manga Awards in conjunction with Mamonogatari Itoshi no Betty, an erotic love comedy about a yakuza's relationship with a witch, written for artist Seisaku Kanō (b. 1949), another steady hand on Studio Ship; Koike would serve as supervisor on the series' 1986 anime video adaptation. Beginning in 1987, he and Kanō would also collaborate on Shin Agatte Nanbo!! Taichi yo Nakuna, a 36-volume golf manga, which ran in Koike's own golf magazine, Albatross View. Though prominent, these comics are not well known to English readers - but others soon would be.

Cover art by Frank Miller & Lynn Varley.

Efforts had been made to bring Japanese comics to English readers since the 1970s, but only in 1987 did publishers begin concentrated efforts at releasing serial manga in translation. Among the very earliest of those was First Comics' edition of Lone Wolf and Cub, a monthly series launched with the prominent participation of cartoonist Frank Miller, who had been a passionate admirer since reading the pictures in an untranslated volume; Miller's popular 1983-84 series Ronin was avowedly informed by the Koike/Kojima work. These early manga translations, prepared for the North American comic book direct market, adopted the form of American comics, and hewed closely to themes and visual styles that would flatter the tastes of that audience, so much smaller than Japan's. Koike specialized in writing comics aimed at grown or nearly-grown men, though manga itself was a far more complex thing than his area of prosperity; to the predominantly male and action-oriented audience of American comics, however, Lone Wolf and Cub could play the role of exemplary 'manga' with ease, both exotic in its samurai and ninja theme, and grounded in the splendid and influential art of Kojima.

Kazuo Kamimura cover art to Koike Shoin's 2014 reprinting of Lady Snowblood, which readily flaunts its influence on Kill Bill.
Most English translations of Koike's works would follow the period drama example of Lone Wolf and Cub, which was ultimately published in complete form by Dark Horse. The same publisher would release English editions of the 1972-76 Koike/Kojima series Samurai Executioner, and their 1978-84 series Path of the Assassin, plus translations of Color of Rage -- a 1973 collaboration with Seisaku Kanō, in which a black man from the Americas wanders the Japanese landscape of the 18th century with a native ally, observing parallels between the slave trade and Japanese feudalism -- and Lady Snowblood, a 1972-73 project with the superb artist Kazuo Kamimura (1940-1986), which was adapted into two films in 1973 and 1974; these movies proved influential on the American filmmaker Quentin Tarantino's 2003-04 feature film series Kill Bill, which at one point samples the song Shura No Hana, its lyrics written by Koike. Outside the period drama sphere, Koike's 1986-88 Ikegami collaboration Crying Freeman would see numerous printings: first as a comic book serial from the young manga-in-English specialty giant VIZ Media; then as a series of books from VIZ; and then as a new printing of books from Dark Horse. Gentler than the Koike/Ikegami pair's earlier series, if still loaded with sex and violence, the story depicts the relationship between a beautiful assassin and the civilian woman he comes to adore, and who adores him. The millennial upstart manga publisher ComicsOne would release two further Koike/Ikegami works: the aforementioned Offered; and Wounded Man, a 1982-86 barrage of hot-blooded carnage along the lines of I Ueo Boy. And, on a similar note, one volume's worth of English-translated content from the 27-volume 1985-91 series Mad Bull 34 -- a cop drama carnivalesque of New York City and its myriad racial and economic woes as a livid wonderland of ultraviolence, drawn by Noriyoshi Inoue (b. 1959) -- periodically materializes on digital comics platforms, only to vanish like a baffling dream; it does not appear to be legally available anywhere, as of this writing.

Virtually nothing Koike wrote from the 1990s onward has been published in English, though he did keep writing; highlights include Auction House, a 34-volume series about a two-fisted art appraiser, drawn by the indefatigable Kanō, and Yume Genji Tsurugi No Saimon, a folkloric novel serialized in the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper, and reissued in 2016 with illustrations by Koike’s old student, Rumiko Takahashi. In translation, all we have is New Lone Wolf and Cub, a 2003-06 sequel to the original classic, with artist Hideki Mori (b. 1961) replacing the departed Gōseki Kojima. Koike also contributed a Wolverine-as-a-samurai scenario to 2003's X-Men Unlimited #50, which was fleshed out by co-writer Kengo Kaji, another Gekiga Sonjuku alum, and drawn by mutant superhero favorite Paul Smith. By then, the motion picture Road to Perdition, adapted from Max Allan Collins‘ & Richard Piers Rayner’s eponymous graphic novel homage to Lone Wolf and Cub, had been nominated for six Academy Awards; Koike’s stateside legacy was set. In 2004, he and Kojima became the second and third Japanese talents admitted to the Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame, following only Osamu Tezuka. Manga in English is no longer in such a state that it matches the traits of American comic books, but Ogami Ittō and tiny Diagorō, and the karmic vice that binds them, remain vivid in the memory.

Koike's manga output slowed in the 21st century. "[The] kind of manga readers I wrote The Starving Man for aren't around any more," he remarked to Carl Horn. "Nowadays, I'm not trying to adjust myself to the personal mood of the readers." He took a professorship at the Osaka University of the Arts in 2000. He appeared on television shows, accepted awards at international comics festivals, published books of interviews and reflections, ran an advice column on his blog, and started a Twitter account, which he continued to maintain after he was committed to a hospital in the summer of 2018. The following January, he tweeted that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's and dementia. Yet the writer remained present. The penultimate tweet from his account, memorializing Monkey Punch, his peer from the new and vivid days of magazine comics for men, came on April 17.

That same day, he would be gone.

Art by Ryōichi Ikegami, from Offered.