The previous two installments of this series (1, 2) discussed manga in which the action is largely in service of plot and characterization. Tetsuya Saruwatari’s Tough adds focus to an equally important part of what makes MMA exciting: witnessing men with different styles of fighting destroy one another.
Tetsuya Saruwatari has been plugging away at Tough since 1994, but he was an established manga artist long before then, already possessing a combined output of well over fifty volumes on titles like Riki-Oh, a blood-soaked occult tale which spawned the cult Hong Kong action movie of the same name. In his stories, Saruwatari combines the outlandish insanity possessed by manga luminary Kazuo Koike with an intense affection for strength, musculature, and explicit bone-crunching violence. And much like Fist of the North Star writer (and fellow Kazuo Koike student) Sho Fumimura, I usually find Saruwatari’s results more enjoyable than that of his paternal influence.
Tough is actually made up of two different series. The first, High School Exciting Story: Tough, ran for 42 volumes until 2003. In 2004 it resumed publication under the shortened title. To make matters confusing, VIZ began releasing the original series in English under the second series’ abbreviated name in 2005, though they eventually canned it after six volumes.
I could puzzle together a list of reasons why the manga didn’t do well during it’s American debut, but of all the reasons none are so inescapable as this: the beginning of High School Exciting Story: Tough is not particularly good. In these early chapters Saruwatari is still trying to figure out what he wants the manga to be. The look of his protagonist changes from page to page, and the thrust of the story jumps around willy-nilly, as if Sarutarawi is throwing in everything to see what sticks.
In the first six volumes we’re introduced to smartass high school student Kiibo, the heir to the martial art of Nadashinkage. In between grueling training sessions with his father, who I can only assume was originally modeled after Michael Douglas in Falling Down, Kiibo finds himself getting into all sorts of trouble which is always resolved by fighting. What we never get to see in these early volumes is the main thrust of the entire story: a family conflict between Kiibo’s father and his twin brother. That emerges about twenty volumes later, and carries into the sequel series Tough, where things start to get really good.
Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to read all of High School Exciting Story: Tough, it’s just what was published in English and the progress on scanlations have yet to arrive at the best parts, while the sequel series Tough utterly mainlines its appeal from the very beginning.
Tough begins two years later, a time in which Kiibo has grown into a capable adult and teams up with a Yakuza to compete in anything-goes fights where he raises money to heal his father’s brain damage. Here the manga becomes a sharpened focused thing: an MMA comic. Silly jokes are left behind in favor of a more serious tone. And Kiibo no longer looks like a Japanese drawing of Bart Simpson.
As an artist who’s had such a long and varied career, it’s awesome to see Saruwatari find subject matter that interests him and watch him dwell on it so dutifully. With every panel he’s fully invested in rendering every character’s muscle as they’re contorted into a variety of combat moves. At the same time imagination fuels these fights far more than a clinical understanding of MMA: while what we see speaks the basic language of martial arts, Saruwatari incorporates unrealistic martial arts techniques which heighten the bodily damage these characters receive to gory levels.
I began this MMA Manga Top Contenders series intending to reveal the title best suited for an American UFC audience at the very end. Let me spoil it now: I was going to pick Tough. Tough is grisly, violent, and (if you skip the first series) expertly dives headfirst into what a lot of young UFC fans are looking for: brawny dudes beating the crap out of each other. Not only is Tough designed to be read even if you haven’t read the original series, but it retcons some of the events from it, so there’s no reason someone can’t start their reading from there.