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Japan? We need to talk. Have a seat.

It has come to my attention that you have shown a… lack of appreciation for some of the finer members of your community. Among these is one Nobuhiro Watsuki. I’ve looked into the case of Busou Renkin, and my associate Dio Bravo has written up an excellent analysis of this issue, but it seems that there is an even earlier case of your disrespecting this man.

I speak, of course, of your strange reaction to Gun Blaze West.

I now have, in my possession, the first volume of three from this series, and I cannot find anything to complain about. So, I would very much like to ask: why do you favor Rurouni Kenshin and shun the equally good but in different ways Gun Blaze West and Busou Renkin?

(The above is a lead in to the essay, after the more.)

A Mad Genius and his Unappreciated Work

So recently, Viz completed the release of the Busou Renkin manga series. Lo and behold, the manga is in fact better than the anime. The anime inexplicably rewrites the last story arc of the manga, and in doing so makes some of the actually interesting enemies that Kazuki faces in the manga seemingly pointless nameless side characters with really stupid powers. Also, the end of the manga explains itself better, and just in general it all works out for the better. The anime still ends about the same as the manga, but it leaves out enough that I can safely say the manga is the superior work, and in fact is a mere few steps short of being a pantheon-class manga like Rurouni Kenshin.

Well, it seems after Busou Renkin, the Watsuki team at Viz was just about out of Watsuki’s major works to translate and Embalming hadn’t even received a graphic novel release yet. So in an attempt to stopgap, they have picked up the Watsuki series between Rurouni Kenshin and Busou Renkin, the three-volume western series called Gun Blaze West.

Now, I toyed with the idea of picking it up or not. After all, it was a series that got pulled after 24 chapters. Was it just not good, or was there something else?

However, in the end, because I’m a Watsuki fanboy and I just like to analyze the whys of things, I determined that I HAD to purchase it.

So, what was my response?

In terms of overall potential, I think this series easily had the potential to best One Piece in the adventure manga category. And in fact, One Piece is what I kept comparing it to; looking at the lanky character designs and more cartoony faces, it’s almost hard to tell that it is a Watsuki series.

In fact, if Busou Renkin’s likely initial fault is that it resembled Bleach a little too closely, then Gun Blaze West seems a touch too similar to One Piece. The plucky lead Viu Bannes wants to become a gunslinger and travel to the west, much like the plucky Monkey D. Luffy wants to become a pirate and travel to the Grand Line. Both meet an unlikely mentor in the first path, and the circumstances surrounding this mentor set them off on their journey, several years later.

However, the backstory that One Piece tells in one chapter with mostly humor and a little bit of interestingness regarding Shanks, Gun Blaze West tells in a surprisingly well-written five chapter arc, featuring the growth of both Viu and his own mentor Marcus Homer and a rather impressive version of the typical “sheriff and bandits” spaghetti western story. That was the first thing that struck me about Gun Blaze West: due to the time Watsuki spent with Viu at 9 years old when his adventure seems to begin at 14 reveals the idea that Watsuki really had a big epic adventure in mind.

The mentor character of these chapters is the real star, though. Cowardly “Underdog” Marcus Homer is the last person you’d expect to be a mentor in a series, but never the less he proves to be an admirable one, and a fun twist on the mentor idea. He reminds me of Usopp from One Piece, and his character growth in four chapters is as impressive as Usopp’s growth over 400. He’s a mentor mostly in spirit, as he’s a man whose hopes of going west were dashed when he saw just how weak he was compared to the men out there. Thusly, when he begins training young Viu, he also starts training HIMSELF. And his apparent last moments in chapter four, an amazingly touching and kinda brutal gunfight with the leader of the bandit gang that ends with his apparent death (though since the body fell in a river it stands to reason he’s probably not dead yet,)  give him a wonderful scene that shows just why Watsuki went with a more cartoony style: caricatures show emotion better. Watsuki seemed to understand that his own apprentice Oda’s art style was excellent for conveying emotion in a shouneny setting, and chose to use it well right from the get go, but also not overuse it like Oda tends to in One Piece.

Another quick note on the art style is that not a single character design was recycled from Rurouni Kenshin. Every character in Gun Blaze West has a unique look and feel to their character.

And through those five chapters, the story plays out like shounen actually taking itself seriously. While we have the plucky young lead, the mentor, and some enemies to fight, plus a rather cartoony art style, the training that Viu and Marcus undertake is actually kinda reasonable (they choose a destination, and then each day run to try and reach it before sundown, trying to get a little farther each day) and not once in any of the well-drawn gunfights are attacks called. Viu’s determination to go west is strengthened even further by the loss of his mentor, and after a five year timeskip, we can safely assume that he’s ready in his own way.

Even the quirkiest ability seen in the series so far, Will Johnson’s lasso skills, are fairly reasonable. While I expect nothing less than absurdity later, there is at this point no sign of a “Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu” type gun style, and I rather like that.

So after seven chapters total, I realized this: Busou Renkin, for all its subversion of the shounen genre, was actually playing it safe when compared to Gun Blaze West.

And looking at Wikipedia about the series only confirms this suspicion. The major complaint people apparently had about Gun Blaze West was that it was moving “too slow.” Five chapters of well written prologue gives an indication of the kind of detail Watsuki hoped to put into the story for this series, and the journey west would likely be fairly long.

So wait. It’s okay for One Piece to drag through each of its story arcs, but a well written introductory arc that serves as a backstory for the main and sets up the plot admirably isn’t allowed to do the same?

Watsuki was taking risks with this series. He was quite literally giving his answer to Oda’s One Piece, at that point around 200 chapters in. He was taking the basic plot of Oda’s series, which he likely did know due to the apprenticeship, and putting his own spin on it, having fun with a goofier series than Kenshin while still telling compelling narrative. Compared to Gun Blaze West, Busou Renkin seems really safe for using the typical shounen tropes more closely and even resorting to variations on his old character design.

Gun Blaze West was trying to be something big, and unfortunately Watsuki wasn’t allowed to let it shine because fans of Kenshin thought it was going too slow.

I can see one thing that people probably thought was slow. Looking at the Wikipedia entry, it seems that getting to the titular Gun Blaze West, a place where the best in the west go every ten years, would be the bulk of the story, and the final arc would take place there. Meanwhile, One Piece goes straight to the Grand Line once four more crew members are gathered, and the series STARTS 100 chapters in.

Fans probably noticed this, and wanted the series to really start at arrival to Gun Blaze West, not to end. Me, I was disappointed that we were ignoring three quarters of the world when I first got into One Piece, though in retrospect Oda likely just wanted to get to drawing his snow islands and desert kingdoms and introduce his reindeer doctor, cyborg shipwright and skeleton musician sooner rather than later, even if sooner is still about 100 chapters apart in each case.

The adventure of Gun Blaze West is the draw of the series to me, and it makes me sad knowing that it’s going to end after two more volumes. But I will be buying those two volumes quite willingly.

Fans are Annoying

The title of the second, admittedly shorter, part of this essay is based on something I’ve observed. Once a fanbase is formed in Japan, that fanbase tends to expect the same thing over and over rather than letting the artist do something new. Not only does this explain why Watsuki’s later series are held to comparison with Rurouni Kenshin, but it also explains why Square Enix is churning out Final Fantasy VII spin-offs after firing all their talent and that Hideo Kojima is being forced to make Metal Gear Solid 4 when he’d rather be making Zone of the Enders 3. Japanese fans expect more of the same rather than looking forward to something new.

We can see this in anime as well. Once something comes along that is all the rage, all the other studios make something that’s exactly the same if not similar. Revolutionary series define the eras, and very few series really try to think outside the box.

Hell, it’s a problem all around. Derivative works and sequelitis plague countless industries, not just anime and video games. Fanbases crop up around single things and refuse to move away from that thing over time, and that causes companies to try catering to that group over an over.

Frankly, it irritates me. Why limit yourself to one thing, and judge everything else against it? Sometimes I think these days that after Gurren Lagann lots of series aren’t very impressive, but it’s still foolish to judge series against it, because doing so means I’d miss out on other great works that are completely different, like Kaiji or Bamboo Blade or Shigofumi.

Bah, I just don’t know. Here’s to waiting another three months for silly spaghetti western manga.