First time I talked about manga artist Shizuya Wazarai it was to promote his criminally shortlived Blaster Knuckle, a western manga where an ex-slave boxer punches Klu Klux Klan monsters in the face until they explode. Despite the conceptual and stylistic heights of this story, Blaster Knuckle was abruptly done in after three volumes.
Five years later Wazarai returned to the manga game perhaps a little more cynical or strategic, depending on your interpretation. He began a pugilistic comic about Roman gladiators called Cestvs – The Legend of Boxing in the Dark Ages. The hero, Cestvs, is a svelte, sparkly eyed bishonen. For better or worse, the broader appeal of his protagonist is no doubt part of the reason why this manga has endured for over fifteen volumes.
Cestvs is a teenager slave recruited into the world of gladiatorial pugilism. Despite his small frame he fights respectably, thanks to quick footwork and solid boxing training, though his kind-hearted disposition frequently puts him at risk. When he is brought to fight before Emperor Nero, Cestvs encounters a friend and rival in Demetrio Lusca, an expert at pankration, the Ancient Greek style of combat where anything goes. Lusca is a respected warrior who learned combat techniques from all over the world, so when he enters the ring it’s a flurry of blocks, knees, judo throws, and arm locks. As Lusca and Cestvs gain wider recognition for their abilities, a number of tragic incidents involving the damning results of institutionalized slavery strains their friendship. The tone of the story acquires an optimistic but tragic quality, though the simplistic melodrama in the early volumes may turn people off.
The pretty boy overload is almost too much at first, but Wazarai keeps the grim realities of being a gladiator at the forefront, even if he paints an overly simplistic picture of ancient Rome which at first blurs the class divides to almost unacceptable levels. A number of adult characters factor heavily into the plot, also enhancing it. For example, Lusca’s father, Supreme Commander of the Imperial Guard, seeks to combine the superior elements of all fighting styles to form the best unarmed warriors Rome has ever seen.
Over the course of the series Wazarai’s technique improves to the point where the resemblance in style to Kentaro Miura’s Berserk is downright astonishing. And it’s no coincidence. Cestus is published in Young Animal, the same seinen manga anthology that’s been home to Berserk since 1989, and Wazarai was a former assistant of Miura’s.
There’s no reason to think a historical fighting manga like this would ever do particularly well in the US, which is a shame considering how well-produced it is. I’d recommend the manga to anyone who is interested in fighting comics with an unapologetically inaccurate historical bend.