Satoshi Kon is best known for his animation work, with Millennium Actress and Paranoia Agent probably his most well known projects. Not many (myself included, horrible fan that I am) may know that he also wrote several manga, likely hindered by the fact that this is his first English translated manga. Fortunately, Vertical Inc. has finally blessed us with a Satoshi Kon manga, and it doesn’t disappoint.
In the afterword, Kon laments his inexperience when writing Tropic of the Sea, and is embarrassed by how much of an amateur he was at the time. With the exception of a strange panel here or there, and some awkward pacing at times, it’s difficult to tell this was written so early in his career. The story here is honest and moving, easy to follow and easy to associate with. Yosuke Yashiro is studying for college entrance exams while his small sea side town is exploding with controversy. His father Yozo, the town’s shrine priest, has been orchestrating the reconstruction and revitalization of the town in conjunction with a fast moving and rather pushy construction company hoping to turn the town into a tourist resort. There are a few problems with this, most notably the fishermen who are angry about their fishing grounds being destroyed. Ade and Hiratsu Shrine have a special secret, however. The shrine is host to a mermaid egg. This egg is a secret held by the Yashiro family – or was until Yosuke’s father announced it to the world to drum up interest in the town. Generations ago, a priest of Hiratsu Shrine made a pact with a mermaid to protect the town and provide a bountiful sea harvest. In exchange, every sixty years the shrine would return and then accept another mermaid egg to keep for sixty more years. Yosuke’s father doesn’t believe in this legend, though his elderly grandfather does. Yosuke himself is fairly skeptical, at least outwardly, constantly attempting to deny the legend while still feeling somewhat responsible for the egg. Keeping the egg safe becomes more troublesome when it catches the eye of Ozaki Group department head Kenji Ozaki, who is in charge of the town’s development. The egg appears to have mystical properties that he wants to investigate. Things go from bad to worse when Grandpa Yashiro attempts to return the egg and nearly drowns getting to a hidden shrine; a shrine which is then destroyed by the Ozaki Group as they push on with renovations despite protests from townspeople. When the egg is confiscated by Ozaki, and event that coincides with the sudden absence of life in the bay, panic sets in, and Yosuke, along with friends Nami and Tetsu, rush to bring the egg back home mere hours before it’s supposed to be returned to the sea.
Part coming of age, part social commentary, part mystical fantasy, Tropic of the Sea hits a lot of buttons, and hits them well. Yosuke goes from apathetic teen to savior of Abe over the span of the volume, and from skeptic to believer. His father Yozo takes on an important role in the transformation of Abe, with surprising good intentions. Although Yozo doesn’t particularly care for the town’s mermaid legends, he does care very much for the town itself. It’s a bit misguided, but his efforts to transform the town along side Ozaki are done for the betterment of all the citizens. To revitalize the town and bring money in so the people can live fuller, richer lives. Unfortunately, the Ozaki Group only cares about about the bottom line – how much money they’ll make by turning Abe into a resort and exploiting the town’s legends. It’s fairly typical for a company like the Ozaki Group to tromp all over a city for their own gain. It happens in small and large towns alike. (It was also an important theme in Maoh Juvenile Remix, which hit home with me for similar reasons.) Greed takes a back seat in the end, but it takes three near deaths and the destructive force of nature to put it there. The artwork is incredibly solid, though funnily enough, it is the mer-people who are drawn with highly rendered realism, as if they are more real than the humans. Everything is wonderfully drawn, though, with expressive faces, detailed backgrounds, and the deep, dark sea. This is one that will suck you in and make you lose all track of time until you’re finished.