Prominently featured in Udagawa Takeo’s book, Manga Zombie, George Akiyama
is introduced as “the unstoppable king of trauma manga”. Ashura in particular, did incur his first scandal — when, as he had just concluded his gag-mang series Horafuki Don-Don in the pages of the Shûkan Shônen Magazine, he kicked off without missing a step in the next issue (in August 1970) with the first chapter of this story, which begins with a series of cannibal scenes.
Making a strong impression with this spectacular start, George Akiyama will keep on securing his disreputable aura the following year, by introducing his Kokuhaku series (“Confessions”) in the Shûkan Shônen Sunday (in March 1971) which will list out the most provocative affirmations (among which “I killed someone”), only to refute them the following week, but still leaving the shadow of a doubt. Finally, some of the themes evoked in Ashura will also emerge in Zeni Geba, another series published at the same time.
Indeed, Ashura comes through as a raw and no-holds-barred narrative with very little in terms of morality in the face of the necessities of survival. The story is set in medieval Japan, even if there are no indications of time or place. All that is known is that this is a time of great poverty, a time of droughts and famines.
The infamous first chapter thus opens on a landscape of corpses, where a pregnant young woman tries and survives, and will end up eating human flesh to stay alive. In this situation of life or death, things will get more complicated once she gives birth, as the issue of food (which had until then all been directed at the unborn child) remains. So much that, in a bout of madness, she’ll end up throwing her son in the fire in order to eat his flesh. Miraculously, the child will escape, and the story will follow the footsteps of this small, hunchbacked creature as it is left to its own device.
Building on this striking opening, the following will bring no redemption, preferring (as the back-cover indicates) to explore what man is capable of in his darkest moments.
Probably in order to further the dramatic situation of his characters, George Akiyama sets on systematically destroying the family cell, traditionally a cornerstone of the Japanese society. The fate of the first family Ashura encounters then takes on a symbolic value — its only survivor, Tarômaru, taking on the role of the civilized counterpart to Ashura, a rivalry that will endure until the conclusion of the book, and will see civilization bend and yield to the primitive. Family leaving the picture, only kids remain, once bearers hope, now more often bringers of death.
The rare parental figures that people this story will either be mourners of their offspring (such as Jitô-sama, Kojirô’s father whose murder will trigger the manhunt for Ashura), or indifferent actors who will only see there a possible source for profit (such as Sanjo Daiyô, Ashura’s progenitor, or to a lesser extend Wakana’s father). There is no sentimentalism here, the worst turns of fate are to be endured and accepted, while violence, privations and injustice keep on raining on the lower classes.
Among this merciless (human and otherwise) nature, Ashura shows no morale and no remorse — even if one might find within these pages the shadow of an imperceptible repentance. Even the radical methods of the mysterious beggar-monk will bear no obvious result. Bearer of his mother’s original sin, and despite having gone through the fire or cleansed by the pouring rains, Ashura will find no redemption. Quite the contrary.
Revolving around a group of kids more or less left to themselves for their survival, one could be tempted to establish a parallel between Ashura and Umezu Kazuo’s Hyôryû Kyôshitsu (The Drifting Classroom), which is posterior to this story, having been published in 1975. If both present the same interest in exploring the darkest corners of the human soul, Umezu has reason eventually overcoming the monster that could very well be dormant in each and everyone of us. For George Akiyama, there is no fear, only certainty : we are all monsters, horror is raw and visceral — but with the banality of everyday survival. Just frightening.
- Clothing may hint at a period between the Heian era (794-1185) and the Sengoku-jidai (around the 15th century), with maybe a preference for the latter, a period of almost continuous inner conflict which would eventually cause a lot of famines in the country. But I am no specialists, and there are very little hints to follow…
- Note that the name his mother will bestow him, “Ashura”, is also in Buddhism that of a subaltern deity, that could be likened to a demon. A name usually written in kanji (while the title of this manga is in katakana) and that includes shura, which means “slaughter”. Nice and foreboding, obviously…
- Which could be the source of Ashura’s near-invulnerability, in a reference to Achilles.