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Manga Review: Color of Rage, Vol. 1

Posted by: Katherine Dacey on May 14, 2008 at 3:43 pm

Color of Rage, Vol. 1

By Kazuo Koike and Seisaku Kano
Dark Horse, 416 pp.
Rating: Mature

colorofrage1.jpgWhen reading historical manga, I grant the artist creative license to tell a story that evokes the spirit of an age rather than its details. I’m willing to tolerate certain anachronisms—i.e. flying steam cars—if they serve a demonstrable purpose—e.g. revealing that an inventor’s vision outstrips the technology of his day. What rankles my inner historian, however, are the kind of anachronisms that result from sheer laziness or paucity of imagination: modern slang, gross disregard for well-established fact. Alas, Color of Rage is filled with the kind of historical howlers that would make C. Vann Woodward or Doris Kearns Goodwin gnash their teeth in despair.

The story begins in 1783. Off the coast of Japan, a whaling ship sinks in turbulent seas, claiming the lives of all but two crew members: George, a Japanese man, and King, an African-American slave. The two wash ashore, cut away their shackles, and set out in search of a community where they can live peacefully—no small challenge, given how conspicuous King is among such a homogenous population. Of course, this being a manga by Kazuo Koike, George and King’s journey is anything but picaresque, as they bump up against the vigorous defenders of Edo-era status quo: ruthless daimyo, yakuza thugs, samurai-for-hire.

For such a far-fetched premise to work, its principal characters’ thoughts, words, and actions need to make sense in historical context. Yet George and King behave like two modern action heroes deposited in feudal Japan, not two products of the eighteenth century. During scenes of limb-severing carnage, for example, they banter with the consummate skill of Harrison Ford and Will Smith, pausing occasionally to deliver speeches about finding a place where “color doesn’t matter”—a noble sentiment, to be sure, but one cribbed from a Civil Rights speech circa 1964, not an eighteenth century abolitionist’s tract. A similar sense of historical amnesia informs another scene in which King declares that conditions are worse for Japanese peasants than for slaves in the American South, leaving me to wonder how a slave working on a colonial plantation would have any comparative basis for making such an assertion or, frankly, any notion of the “American South,” given that the Revolutionary War was still in full swing at the time King was gang-pressed into whaling. Other historical oversights abound: how did a Japanese man end up in the galley of an American whaling ship? Where did George learn to speak fluent English? Who taught King to handle a sword? And so forth.

The bigger problem, however, is that King entertains notions of race, class, and gender that would have been as alien to American colonists as they were to Japanese farmers and overlords. His blind commitment to addressing inequality wherever he encounters it—on the road, at a brothel—leads him to do and say incredibly reckless things that require George’s boffo swordsmanship and insider knowledge of the culture to rectify. If anything, King’s idealism makes him seem simple-minded in comparison with George, who comes across as far more worldly, pragmatic, and clever. I’m guessing that Koike thought he’d created an honorable character in King without realizing the degree to which stereotypes, good and bad, informed the portrayal. In fairness to Koike, it’s a trap that’s ensnared plenty of American authors and screenwriters who ought to know that the saintly black character is as clichéd and potentially offensive a stereotype as the most craven character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. By relying on American popular entertainment for his information on slavery, Koike falls into the very same trap, inadvertently resurrecting some hoary racial and sexual tropes in the process.

Koike’s treatment of female characters, like his handling of racial issues, can be downright ugly. In a valiant effort to head off feminists at the pass, the editors acknowledge Koike’s propensity for writing “samurai-era yarns with a certain sense of chauvinist violence and pulpy sexiness.” Now I’m all for “pulpy sexiness”—doesn’t that sound like fun? But the casual mingling of sex and violence in Color of Rage crosses the line from mere chauvinism to outright misogyny. The nadir is a scene in which King strips a woman naked and crams dirt into her mouth until she chokes. Her crime: prurient interest in King’s physique. Richard Wright might have known how to make the moment horrific, tragic, and peculiarly just, but someone as ill-versed in American history as Koike does not. The result is an uncomfortable mixture of kink and racism, the sort of scene I might have expected in Mandingo, not a manga written in 2004.

The artwork is a hodgepodge of styles and techniques. The best pages appear to be done in charcoal or pastels, and have the soft edges and expressionist lighting I associate with fin-de-siecle modernists such as Käthe Kollwitz. Most of the art looks like homage to Goseki Kojima’s work on Lone Wolf and Cub, Samurai Executioner, and Path of the Assassin—not a bad thing, given Kojima’s superb draftsmanship and penchant for drawing memorable mugs. Seisaku Kano’s character designs are fine, but his fight scenes are poorly composed, a riot of swords, guts, and bodies in motion that fail to give the reader a clear picture of what’s happening. That might be an OK artistic choice once in a while, perhaps to suggest the chaos of hand-to-hand combat, but as the dominant mode of depicting action it soon grows tiresome, leaving the reader feeling more pummeled than entertained.

Though some of these criticisms could be leveled at Koike’s other work—Lady Snowblood, Crying Freeman and, yes, Lone Wolf and Cub—Color of Rage lacks something common to the aforementioned manga: a sense of play. Koike never takes himself too seriously in these other works, even when the plot takes a dark turn or two. In Color of Rage, however, his sincerity proves his undoing, as he tries to insert a noble black character into a world of vicious overlords and amoral samurai. King’s high-minded speeches and interventions clash violently with the story’s “pulpy sexiness” (for want of a better term), producing something that’s neither dramatically compelling nor fun to read. Die-hard Koike fans may feel the completist’s urge to buy Color of Rage—especially since Dark Horse has given it such a deluxe treatment—but casual readers will find much less here to love.

Volume one of Color of Rage is available now.

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5 Responses to "Manga Review: Color of Rage, Vol. 1"

1 | bad reviewer

August 13th, 2008 at 10:51 am


wrong, but a good try I suppose. maybe one day you’ll know what you’re talking about.

2 | Katherine Dacey

August 13th, 2008 at 11:13 pm


Bad Reviewer:

I respect other readers’ opinions, even when they diverge considerably from my own. I have more respect for readers who actually use their own names and offer concrete counter-arguments, however. Snarky posturing is easy; offering a substantive rebuttal takes time and thought.


PS: I am aware of the fact that the book was originally published in the 1970s, something I learned after I posted this review. That fact doesn’t change my opinion of Color of Rage, which seems like third-rate Koike at best.

3 | Shola A

August 25th, 2008 at 9:35 pm


I just read the volume and applaud the reviewer for being spot on, and the review extremely well-written. This isn’t Koike’s best work, although it does employ many of Koike’s regular literary tools, ie, Samurai setting, outsider’s perspective into the Edo-era culture, loose moral tales sprinkled with sex/violence, etc…

Those familiar elements pull you in. The art DOES feel like a Goseki Kojima homage, but it’s serviceable and plays into my nostalgia such that it made those confusing fights entertaining.

The black character King WAS full of cliches. And yes, the characters do feel like they were made from 70′s era television. It’s impossible not to cringe when the big bestial black man full of simple honor and world view refers to the sharper “George” character for guidance. The Of Mice and Men characters are inevitable.

At the end of the day, however, the story was clumsy, but honest – at least from the misinformed and misguided perspective of a Japanese genre novelist. It’s fascinating to see how a Japanese man on the other side of the world made his awkward attempt at distilling what he knew about black men. It’s obvious that the breadth of his knowledge came from 2nd hand sources, and the movie ROOTS.

To be honest, the story is illuminating. Rather, be more disturbed by the fact that if the story were made today, that black folks PR hasn’t evolved in over 30 years, such is the choke hold on African American international communication and representation.

Would the same story told about a black man today, by another Japanese author, show more texture and depth?

That’s the real question. This awkward story, for what it is (historical inaccuracies all told), is sadly entertaining.

4 | Shola A

August 25th, 2008 at 9:40 pm


oops… one of my sentences meant to read:

The “Of Mice and Men” comparisons are inevitable.

Dammit! Where’s the edit function, Jon! ;)

5 | Katherine Dacey

August 26th, 2008 at 4:51 pm



Thanks for the two cents! I hadn’t thought of the Steinbeck connection, but yes, there were a few scenes that verged on “Tell me about the rabbits, George.” I won’t be able to read volume two with a straight face!


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