One of Naoki Urasawa’s biggest strengths as a comics creator is that he gives his stories time to unfold. Take, for example, my favourite title from him: Monster (1994-2001). In Monster, a doctor named Tenma hunts down an ex-patient-turned-serial killer in newly unified Germany. Tenma’s hunt takes place over several in-universe years and eighteen volumes of manga, and features a plethora of side characters and digressions that don’t always have a huge impact on the plot but enrich it thematically. Urasawa’s other big series, 20th Century Boys (1999-2006) likewise has an expansive scope. It focuses on a group of friends, switching between their childhood in 1960s Japan, their lives in present-day Tokyo, and their fight for survival in a dystopic future. It’s impossible to tell from its first volume alone what the overall arc of Asadora! will be, but it creates a solid foundation for things to come.
The manga’s opening is actually very much like the first few pages of 20th Century Boys, which also features a ginormous being attacking Tokyo. In the case of Asadora!, we don’t get to see exactly what is destroying the city, but we do get a panel featuring a giant, reptilian foot. This kaiju-tease is super enticing, but don’t pick up this volume expecting page after page of rampaging monsters. Because Urasawa is so deliberate with his storytelling, while his series may have sci-fi elements, many chapters will go by with hardly any speculative allusions at all. Instead, Urasawa uses his pages to dive deep into his characters and their world.
In this case, the principle character is Asa and her world is the port of Nagoya, in the year 1959. A storm is brewing, and young Asa has been sent to fetch the doctor since her mother is in labour. As Asa runs around her village, we quickly learn that she’s one of many children in her family and often feels neglected at home. It’s also clear that, while Asa is certainly intelligent, she is headstrong and has a child’s black-and-white view of things. She’s an incredibly well-drawn character, and the story manages to make you feel protective of her while still giving her agency.
After fetching the doctor, Asa is kidnapped by a burglar in a case of mistaken identity. He thinks she’s the doctor’s daughter and plans to ask for a ransom. Asa quickly tells him that’s not the case, that her family probably hasn’t even noticed that she’s missing. As they talk, we discover why this man felt the need to turn to robbery and kidnapping. Urasawa has a Dickensian touch with characters like this, ones who have fallen on hard times and seem unsympathetic at first; they quickly become full human beings once you spend more time with them. The typhoon continues to pick up strength, to the point where Asa and the thief must take refuge in an empty cargo container. When they emerge hours later, the world around them has changed dramatically. Everything around them is submerged in water, roofs peeking out amid the debris floating on the surface. The typhoon has wiped Asa’s village off the map.
A common read on Godzilla is that the radioactive monster’s rampage mirrors the destruction of the atomic bomb—that by putting the destruction into the knowable form of a man in a rubber suit, people who lived through the bombings can make sense of their trauma. I don’t know if Urasawa is trying to do something similar with his kaiju story, but it’s hard not to see parallels between the destroyed villages in Asadora! Vol. 1 and the destruction of certain areas of Japan in the wake of the 2011 earthquake/tsunami. There are other real-life parallels, such as the Tokyo Olympics: the opening scene of the rampaging creature is set in 2020, and as people flee a TV announcer wonders what will happen regarding the Games. It is a little unsettling in 2021 to read about the 2020 Olympics being threatened by global catastrophe; but when this first chapter was published back in 2019, I doubt Urasawa guessed that a Tokyo Olympics would be in for such a rough time of it in real life.
One way this Olympics subplot manifests is through Shota, a boy in Asa’s village. Shota is training hard to become an Olympic runner. His brothers had been training to represent Japan at the 1940 Tokyo Olympics; but when World War II broke out and Tokyo was stripped of the role of host, the boys lost their chance. Asa’s brothers, along with their father, are now pressuring little Shota to take home the gold. Shota’s story currently feels disconnected from the main plot, but I’m intrigued to see where Urasawa goes with it. Will there be a plotline in 1964, the year when Tokyo eventually got to host the Olympics for the first time?
Urasawa’s art is always a feast, and seems especially detailed here. His characters are expressive and distinct. There’s one moment in this book that feels like an Urasawa trademark: a character says something with their back to the reader and yet you still get the tone and nuance of what they’re saying. His touch is just so delicate that even the back of someone’s head can convey meaning. Urasawa’s orthographic “sound effects” are similarly pieces of art in themselves, entwining with the images on the page to create atmosphere and understanding. But for their English release of this series, which is otherwise well done, and features informative translation notes at the back of the volume, Viz nevertheless decided not to translate these SFX for English readers.
OK, that’s disingenuous—John Werry does translate the SFX, but in a glossary at the back of the book. In fairness, too, different manga publishers have different approaches to Japanese SFX: sometimes they are replaced completely with English SFX; more often, however, they have an English SFX in a similar style alongside it. I wish Viz had used the latter approach. The note in the glossary says that they went with their particular route in order to avoid cluttering up the panels, and while that can be an issue, there are lots of talented letterers working in the English-language manga market who could have created English SFX that complemented the Japanese SFX without diminishing the original work. I’m not going to consult a glossary at the back of the book whenever a sound effect shows up. I think that by presenting the SFX this way, Viz have risked making the book feel less like a living thing to be enjoyed and more like something preserved in amber, kept distant from the reader.
Nevertheless, as the characters raced against time, I got swept up in their story. Asa and her kidnapper quickly become partners as Asa devises a plan to not only search for her family, but to help others who have been stranded by the typhoon; I almost forgot that there might be something supernatural going on. It’s not until the volume is almost over that the monster metaphorically rears its ugly head: the volume ends on a similar note that it began on, only instead of seeing a kaiju foot, we see a giant, lizard-like foot print. But at that point, I almost didn’t care about giant monsters. Was Asa’s family all right? Would her plan to help her fellow villagers pan out? I came for the Godzilla pastiche, but it’s the humans I’m sticking around for.