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A character in Naoki Urasawa’s Mujirushi Image: Naoki Urasawa/N Wood Studio

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Manga legend Naoki Urasawa: ‘A victory through violence is not a victory’

The writer and illustrator reflects on his transportive heist story, Mujirushi

Naoki Urasawa, juggernaut of the manga world, understands far-flung places. The appeal of distant nooks and crannies. Of hidden locales. Perhaps his most revered body of work, Monster, is a sprawling, frightening foray into the world of a malign, charming serial killer and those desperately trying to stop him. But Monster also does something truly distinct as it unfolds — it transports you.

It flings you all across Germany, then ping-pongs you from the Czech Republic to Japan, before bouncing you between France, Turkey, Burma and Vietnam. It revels in its ability to let you steep in faraway places. It sends you somewhere else, which is precisely what we all need right now. Reading the works of Urasawa is, to quote Frank Herbert, like traveling without moving.

“I’ve been influenced by countries all over the world,” Urasawa says. “I tend to read foreign novels and watch foreign films, rather than Japanese contents. And when I watch international news or foreign films, I often find people whose looks I might like to use in my manga.”

Part of what makes Urasawa’s work so effortlessly able to transport the reader are faces. It’s been said that hell is other people. And whilst that might be true, the streets of unreachable places are filled with the faces of strangers. Urasawa has a truly unique art style; more than most others in the world of manga, he’s willing to make people look truly ugly. Everyone in an Urasawa work is slightly misshapen, a little lumpy, asymmetrical.

If someone in his books is beautiful, there’s probably something wrong with them; the villain in Monster is an almost seraphic young man, and his beauty is evidence of his rottenness on the inside. His emptiness. Beauty, Urasawa seems to assert, is cold. Experiences shape you, and if you’re a character in his stories who is smoothed, flawless, you’re probably nursing some serious baggage.

There’s also an intense idealism inherent in Urasawa’s works. The events of Monster kick off because the hero, a young surgeon named Tenma, saves a child. This act of compassion is what triggers a cascade of unimaginable tragedy. In 20th Century Boys, Urasawa’s magnificent, time-hopping, meditative (kind of), sci-fi epic, a clutch of hodgepodge heroes trigger a disaster by befriending the future villain when they’re children. Pity, compassion, kindness; Urasawa champions these traits, even as he acknowledges they can come at a cost. I asked Urasawa to expand on this a little.

A collage of images from Naoki Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys.
Characters from Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys.
Image: Naoki Urasawa/Studio Nuts

“In the real world, pessimism is such the norm. But as creators, our job is not to be caught up in this pessimism, but rather to create something where characters — even in adversity — can find the courage to find the sliver of hope. And for me [the job of a creator is], to deliver this message to the readers,” he said.

Not to labour the point, but 2020 has been a hard year for optimists. It’s a dark future we live in. Manga is regularly preoccupied with what-ifs, with speculative futures; worlds awash with giant mechs, or radioactive psychic warriors. But all of these potential outcomes seem far flung, abstract. It’s easy to deny the possibility of a Gundam future; it’s much harder to deny the prospect of an Urasawa future. One where the villains are mundane, and the foibles being exploited are eminently relatable.

At the peak of the lockdown, as my brain was beginning to turn into a kind of useless, sallow protein slurry, I was sent Urasawa’s ambitious and punchy new project: Mujirushi, a heist story set in Paris. And just as I was missing the Louvre more than ever, I was suddenly leafing through an iteration of the iconic French museum as rendered in Urasawa’s delicate, dense strokes. But is the union of Manga and the iconic Parisian gallery a good fit?

“Well,” Urasawa said, “the Louvre designated Manga as the ‘9th art.’ And due to this distinction, the Louvre reached out to see if I would be interested in a collaboration, so this is where the whole concept started. The Louvre really is a symbol of the French attitude towards art, and it is something us Japanese have a lot to learn from.”

The link between Paris and Japan is a surprisingly complex one. Ever heard of Paris Syndrome? It is known in Japan as Pari Shōkōgun. Over one million tourists from japan visit Paris annually, and Paris syndrome is a kind of severe emotional break which occurs when a Japanese tourist builds up an idea of Paris in their heads to a manic degree, then when they finally see the real thing, they snap. Delusional states, hallucinations, depression, vomiting, feelings of persecution. It’s a real mess. But the idea that something you expected to be magical, wondrous, and idyllic is actually a great deal worse — if that’s not a neat summary of the last few years, what is? The future has been a lot more violent, and a lot less kind, then many of us thought it would be. No mechs. No superpowers. Just grimness.

If you’ve been fortunate enough to walk through the Louvre, you’ll know that much of your wandering will see you pass painting after painting of death. Brazen, unsubtle, almost pompous tableaus. Delacroix’s corpse-strewn “La Liberté guidant le peuple.” Bezard’s “Scene of the 1830 Revolution.” “The Raft” of the Medusa by Gericault. All violent, all rife with trauma, and all residing in a space which, from the outside at least, presents itself as a kind of avatar of artistic perfection. Walking those floors was calming, but the horrors visited upon the denizens of the paintings looming above us? A complex experience. Because violence is complex.

A bare-chested woman with a Phrygian cap leads a varied group of people forward over a barricade and the bodies of the fallen, holding the flag of the French Revolution in one hand and brandishing a bayonetted musket with the other in Eugène Delacroix’s painting “Liberty Leading the People.”
Eugène Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People.”
Image: Erich Lessing Culture and Fine Arts Archives

Urasawa’s work satiates wanderlust on a genuine, almost visceral level. After all, heading into the cafes, bier halls and kitchens of his creations is a vivid enough experience at times to make you feel like you’ve been there, eating the food, talking to the locals. But I also found myself recommending his books in 2020 because his heroes eschew violence at almost every turn. And if they do dip their toe in, it costs them. Dearly.

It’s a very deliberate choice by Urasawa to imbue his stories with this kind of weaponized pacifism. “A victory through violence is not a victory, in my mind,” he says. “The moment violence is enlisted, that individual will need to pay a price. I think my stories are about this. What are the costs of violence?”

I’ve just finished my umpteenth re-read of Monster, a complete revisit of 20th Century Boys, and am finally looking at his early work, Master Keaton. And I’ve just inhaled Mujirushi. And whilst the lockdown has wrapped up here in my home of Victoria, Australia, leaving us with over a month of zero cases, it’s going to be a long, long time before I can return to Europe.

This time last year, I was wandering around the Louvre itself. I was pacing across the creaking parquet floors with my wife, and we were considering the logistics of stealing the Mona Lisa. Could we cause a distraction? Set off a fire alarm? Claim we’d seen Dan Brown in the East Wing, and snatch the painting while Parisians justifiably mobbed him for crimes against literature?

I asked Urasawa what role travel plays in his storytelling, and whether travel, and the Louvre are, as I suspect, as important to him as they are to me. He nods.

“For Monster, it was a week of research starting in Munich, to Dresden, and then to Prague. While traveling, I expanded on the story. For Mujirushi, though, the Louvre invited me to visit, and I was given access to areas usually unavailable to visitors, such as the basement, attic and the museum at night!” He paused. “In any case, the important thing is how far the wings of my imagination can take me from these experiences. How far can I fly with my ideas.”

Characters in Naoki Urasawa’s Mujirushi discuss stealing a painting from the Louvre. Image: Naoki Urasawa/N Wood Studio

How appropriate, then, that Urasawa’s works possess such a singular ability to transport readers halfway across the world almost effortlessly. And that Mujirushi’s plot doesn’t just revolve around the intricacies of the Louvre, a gallery into which Urasawa was allowed to fossick after hours. Mujirushi is about two people given an impossible task.

To rob the Louvre. The exact same harebrained, unfeasible endeavor my wife and I were fantasizing about and scheming over last time we were there in person. A manga was flinging me out of my COVID nest and into the heart of Paris, where suddenly, I was in the passenger seat for a theft I could only have dreamt of carrying out.

If you’re itching for adventure, and are craving something to instill your waning faith in humanity, I implore you. Let these works transport you. Fly Urasawa Air.

It’ll get you where you need to go.