I find it surprising and not so surprising that there aren't any scanlation groups that have picked up this manga. Gaku is a pretty popular manga that got made into a movie just last year with Oguri Shun and Nagasawa Masami in the leading roles. Plot wise, the manga has everything. There's drama, danger, sadness, character development, real life issues, and rememberable characters. I understand that most American or English readers of manga are not all that interested in a plot that revolves around mountain climbers and rescuers in the Northern Japanese Alps, but they really should. Ishizuka has opened the door to a part of Japan that I feel everybody, Japanese or Foreigner, gets to see or appreciate; which is why I think it's so popular here. There really aren't that many manga out right now with this type of storyline.
Umizara, or Sea Monkeys, came out in the late 90s and early 2000s and was successful. It revolved around the Japanese Coast Guard and their numerous rescues and private lives. 3 movies and 2 seasons of the drama later it has proved that its a marketable and popular plot. Gaku follows this type of story and should be as successful.
Yet, I was unable to find scanlations for either of these mangas. I know that there isn't any moe or crazy cute girls in there, but that should not be the most important point in reading manga. There are so many more and interesting levels to manga, not just Shounen Jump and Margaret Comics. Please manga readers and scanlators, pick up more some seinen manga!
The Sometimes Brutal Reality of Gaku
One of the best things about Japanese manga is that there are so many genres that are aimed at all age groups and reading levels. Unlike comic books in the US, Japanese manga is not seen as something childish or even “geeky”. Almost everybody reads manga in Japan which opens the doors for mangaka to develop more complex or inspired plot lines and characters. Genres range from the famous Shounen Jump comics aimed at young boys all the way up to psychological and horror lines of Monster and they range in depth accordingly. Over the last couple months I have read all the released tankoban, which is around 15 and still going, and I have loved every chapter and development. Ishizuka Shinichi has created a story that emphasizes they beauty and brutality of nature in his manga Gaku: Minna no Yama. This juxtaposition is seen clearly through the numerous episodes when the reader is brought face to face with death, life, and love in the Japanese Northern Alps.
Viewing the world through the eyes of Shimazaki Sanpo and Shiina Kumi brings the reader into the world of the rescue volunteers and professionals that work save lives on the mountains every year. Through these and other characters we see not only different levels of extreme, but also some interesting contemporary concepts and trends coming through the story. These trends are only slightly used in the manga and are usually details that bring a deeper understanding to the characters instead of making the a large impact on the plot.
Seinen manga are actually meant to be read by adults, but more companies don't want to be associated with the actually qualities that most think about when they hear the word “adult”. That being said, “Seinen”, which actually means “young men” really means “adult” and that means manga that, while not exactly geared toward the “young men” audience, but they still read the genre too. Seinen manga deals with a much larger range of development and plot lines than say “shounen”, or young boys, manga.
With shounen manga, it is usually the charaters that they are attracted to first. Lets use Naruto as an example for this point. When boys are first reading, they are drawn not only to a fantasy world, they are also drawn to the characters Naruto, Sasuke, Sakura, Kakashi, and down the line till they find a character that they can connect with and, of course, see as “cool” with the cool attacks. Readers are also drawn into the strength development of the main characters. All shounen manga, Naruto, Bleach, One Piece and so on, have main characters that have to get stronger physically and sometimes mentally though the course of the plot. This gets the readers to keep reading because they want to see the development and see the final result when the main character takes on the bad guy and turns out to be the only person who can save the world they live in. Shounen manga draws in and exploits these characteristics to get readers and to hopefully start a new cultural phenomena. While more than just shounen boys read these manga, they are not exactly what most adults are looking for to read. Seinen manga bridges this gap by its content, themes, and characters. When readers have a more mature understanding of the world and people they are able to further appreciate more thought provoking and graphic themes. Gaku delivers on all of these points.
Setting, plot, and characters have to work together for a good story to prosper and receive attention from readers. This triangle balances out the 3 essential parts that draw in the reader and as long as the balance is kept throughout, will make sure that the reader is kept interested. Manga has one advantage on this triangle and that is the art style of the mangaka. Instead of the author opening the door to the readers imagination, the mangaka brings the reader into their imagination and the story that they created. Mangaka can use this power to completely immerse the reader and, while it does take away the use of imagination from the reader, it allows the reader to enjoy the plot on a whole new level. Much the same with books that become movies. When a director creates the setting and brings the audience into his view of a story, the audiences vision of the story or characters is crystalized. While readers will also state how they love how much deeper books go in details, what they really love is the fact that they can create and personalize the books that they read in their own imagination. With manga, the reader has already released the power of imagination to the mangaka and has voluntarily decided to follow where the mangaka plans to lead them. This power relationship between mangaka and reader sets up not just a leader and follower relationship, it also creates a sense of trust. The reader trusts that the mangaka will prove that the time and money put into reading the story was worth it. Of course, there is the fact that that trust can be broken and the reader left disappointed, but this happens in the movie theaters all the time. When the movie audience, or reader, does not respond to the plot, than the audience again holds the power to chose what is going be popular. This is where I believe that the Frankfurt School of culture is wrong. Power between creator and consumer, or director and movie audience or mangaka and reader, is more to the ratio of 40:60 where the consumer holds the power over the success of a product.
A different kind of power struggle takes center stage in Ishizuka's manga, Gaku: Minna No Yama. This struggle comes between human nature and mother nature herself. Last year, this manga was made into a movie with such famous actors as Oguri Shun and Nagasawa Masami as the leading characters of Shimazaki Sanpo and Shiina Kumi. While the movie focuses a lot on the drama of the lives of these main characters and the people they resuce, the manga focuses more on the human aspect of mountain climbing. We are introduced to Kumi, a female police officer in Matsumoto, Nagano who is about to start training for her shifts in mountain rescues in the Northern Japanese Alps. From there we meet Noda Masato, the chief of the nothern police branch which leads us to meeting Shimazaki Sanpo. Sanpo is what the other characters call “a mountain man”. He lives on the mountain and spends his time training and being a volunteer rescue team member. Ishizuka leads the reader through the biggest highs and the rather heartbreakingly low lows of being a rescue worker. The unforgiving nature of climbing brings a stark reality to this manga that makes it much more meaningful and leaves the reader satisfied at the end of the reading. Not everybody can be saved; which makes a successful rescue that much more satisfying. The flow of real life for these characters gives the reader I true sense of understanding how deeply rescuing affects them.
Sanpo is a very good example of not just a Japanese hero, but a true hero. He is introduced to the reader as bring different, special really. Sanpo is faster, stronger, and more knowledgeable on the mountain than anybody else and is looked upon for leadership and orders from the other rescue workers. Ishizuka also portrays Sanpo as the kind of man who wide open as well as guarded with aspects of his own life. Sanpo is very open with how he views and understands nature and climbing. Ishizuka is a climber himself and has climbed numerous mountains, so we understands what is always at stake when you are mountain climbing. It is human nature to conquer, yet mountain climbing is a strange mix of this urge to conquer and respect that classifies mountain climbers and it also represents Sanpo as a character. Sanpo is also very honest with his views and feelings, each is written all over his face at any given point in the manga. The reader never has to try and guess what Sanpo is feeling or thinking about, it is a very strong part of his charm as a hero. He commands respect and trust through his actions rather than having to demand it. Respect and trust are two of the biggest aspects of mountain climbing. Being vigilante is another strong quality for a hero, and Sanpo knows how to read the subtle signs of nature. Climbers understand that being vigilante is the difference between making it to the summit or losing your life. Being in tune with the mountain and your surroundings is how people come back to conquer the mountain another day. This connection that Sanpo with mountains and climbing makes him perfect hero material. Yet the reader is also reminded throughout the manga that he is just a man, and men have no control over life or death.
The character that I believe develops the most in this manga is Kumi and not just because she is the only own surrounded by men. Through Kumi, the reader can grasp a very honest and true portrayal of the struggle to accept this harsh environment. While readers may find Kumi a little annoying in the fact that it takes her so long to reach a stage of acceptance of what is going on around her, she is one of the truest characters in the manga. It takes a strong person to take on rescuing mountain climbers, but it takes an even stronger person to stick with it. Most people who think they can handle it would end up being unable to come to grasps with the amount of death that these rescuers face. On top of that, she is a women. In Japan, women are an untapped workforce and Kumi is a good representation of working women in Japan. She is single, living on her own, and surrounded by men in the work place. Granted, she is also working at a male dominated job, but she still represents a reality in contemporary Japan. Many of the chapters that center around her show her development into a truly independent woman. The reader follows Kumi through the process of becoming a rescue worker from training, first death, her struggle with understanding how some climbers react, and how she learns to move past all of this and become a true rescue worker.
Grief is an emotion and a process that every person in the world faces differently. It festers like an unclean wound until something happens and it can start the slow healing process. As showcased numerous times through the manga, grief is one of the strongest emotions that a person can feel and it must be respected by observers. Grief also has many faces and stages. As stated before, rescue workers cannot rescue everybody. Climbers sometimes forget that they could be risking their lives if they are not vigilante. A day hike could turn into hours or even days stranded on a mountain or could end up with death. Reality is heartbreaking and Ishizuka shows how grief effects friends and family of climbers who did not make it back. One such instance comes at the beginning of the manga. Sanpo was unable to keep a fallen climber alive during the decent. Nature is an unforgiving force and so is life for those who live and work in the mountains. It is common procedure to drop a body of a dead climber if they are at high elevations. After making it down the mountain, the climbers parents come for their son. Both mother and father are consumed with grief. The mother is wailing and sobbing and blaming the rescue workers for not saving him. The father is so consumed with grief that he not only punches Sanpo for dropping his sons body, but also makes him prostrate before him to receive forgiveness for not being able to save his son. It is also important to remember that it is not only the families of those who die that go through the process of grief.
No character portrays this development more than Kumi. Kumi, being new to rescue work and a women, has the hardest time accepting this side of rescue work. Rescue workers are the ones who are constantly exposed to the grief of others and from themselves. Yet they internalize this grief differently, it makes them push on and remember what they are trying to stop. They do not become desensitized completely to grief and death, but they are able to process it differently. As I have stated above, every person goes through grief and its stages very differently and Ishizuka shows this throughout this manga. Through the 15 books, characters are introduced and families of lost climbers come in and out of the story. The reader meets relatives of climbers who died on the mountain that come in search of their own closure and acceptance of what has happened. Sons and fathers make pilgrimages to where their loved ones died, or some come to find climbers that never returned. These different layers of grief that are displayed throughout the manga build a story of human nature as well as create a respect for the environment and the characters.
In the end, everything comes back to the mountains. Every climber, rescuer, or loved one returns to the mountain and starts the cycle over again. New climbers take on the challenge of reaching the peak and old loved ones always return to the mountain to remember a loved one. Using the mountain as a connecter, Ishizuka is able to convey the true connection between human nature and mother nature. It is a connection that, while often a struggle, is a bond that is inseverable.