I get squirrelly whenever the word “novel” gets brought up in relation to an anime or manga, because anime based on visual and light novels is often the crappiest crap to ever crap.
Nevertheless here I am talking about Garouden, a seinen MMA manga drawn by Keisuke Itagaki and based on a series of martial arts novels by award-winning author Baku Yumemakura. I know next to nothing about the novels themselves, but I can say the manga straddles a middle ground in terms of realism: it’s more realistic than a series like Tough, which is a lot about non-existent martial arts techniques that can rip people apart, but Garouden still features characters capable of impossible over-the-top feats of strength, such as the ability to cleanly slice off the top of a wine bottle with a single finger.
The great things about Keisuke Itagaki’s drawing style all serve to enhance the series: his ability to depict a variety of interesting faces and body types, stylish attention to detail when it comes to clothing, and his completely unique way of drawing human anatomy, which will either be an acquired taste or an instant revelatory delight to the average reader.
In a lot of ways me writing about Garouden is a warmup to the inevitable writeup on Keisuke Itagaki’s magnum opus: Grappler Baki. Garouden is something of a side project, published erratically when Itagaki has the time to work on it. Grappler Baki, however, is the de facto MMA manga gorilla in the room, a reigning titan that is both revered and utterly mocked. And my affection for it is so disproportionately high it’s going to take a lot of effort on my part to not simply post panel after panel with captions like: “Check that out.” “And that.” “And that…”
Garouden is about Bunshichi Tanba, a street brawler who beats up martial arts celebrities and breaks gyms (to “break” a gym/dojo/school is to arrive unannounced and defeat its most powerful representatives). Tanba visits a gym owned by the Federation of Amateur Wrestling, and after suffering a humiliating defeat, retreats from the public eye for three years in order to reach his next plateau of ability. He comes back better than ever and sets the world of martial arts on fire, finding himself in the middle of a karate tournament that’s opened its doors to all fighting styles for the first time ever.
Similar to Tough, the majority of the appeal of Garouden is the spectacle of strong men engaged in often-mortal combat. Bunshichi Tanba is a refreshing protagonist, having no pathos or motivation outside of the pure desire to win fights. Still, the manga acquires the familiar pacing of any using the tournament as a narrative structure: fighters are introduced, battle each other outside of the ring, reveal their psychological histories and motivations inside the ring, and end their fights on either amicable terms or with a greater sense of respect for one another.
The most recent volume of Garouden came out in 2010, and there hasn’t been word on when to expect more. I can’t imagine any licensing company chomping at the bit to release a MMA manga both twenty-five volumes long and on indefinite hiatus, but wouldn’t it be rad if they did?