Part romance part sci-fi, Tenken is the sophomore effort for One Peace books venture into the manga market. Written and drawn by Yumiko Shirai, Tenken is the culmination of ten years of work blending post apocalyptic elements with intimate moments that exemplifies the conviction of the human spirit. Having won the Japanese Governmental Agency for Cultural Affairs’ 2007 Japan Media Arts Festival Encouragement Prize, Tenken presents a more mature and artistic take on the sequential medium than the standard conventions of today’s manga.
Set after a war that left most of Japan ruined, Tenken returns humanity to a more rural setting deprived of the advanced technology it has come to rely on over the years, focusing instead on reconstruction and agriculture. Manaka is a construction worker whose daily routine is to prepare for the upcoming Tenken Festival, a festivity whose origins derive from the Japanese creation myth of Susano. Unfortunately, the myth has taken on a life of its own with people being chosen for ritual sacrifice including Manaka’s friend and employee Saki. The two are conflicted over the decision, unsure of whether they should carry on with the hand fate has dealt them or fight against tradition and risk everything.
The story features an interesting merger of sci-fi and Japanese folk lore as well as the familiar tropes of a hero’s journey however unlike past works, Shirai infuses enough subtle differences to allow for a more fresh and unique story, free of the usual slam bang action pervading most shonen stories or the idealized romances of the shojo genre. Much like Watchmen, Tenken tears down the normal conventions of the medium, traversing the path so few series dare to tread on its way to genuine greatness.
Yumiko Shirai’s art is a blend of the traditional manga stylings and Japanese inking. The character designs are reminiscent of Hayao Miyazaki painted over with gentle brush strokes allowing for a more visually provocative work. The art is detailed and expressive enough to warrant studying individual pages for minutes on end.
Tenken is a rarity in manga, telling a complete story in just over 300 pages but doing so without sacrificing character growth and story. The volume is beautiful to look at and fascinatingly unique in its merging of post apocalyptic science fiction and Japanese myth. Even more amazing is Shirai’s ability to keep the story grounded, resisting the urge to devolve into one long action sequence, opting instead to allow the indomitable nature of the human spirit to remain the driving force of the tale. Fans of manga or just excellent literature owe it to themselves to make Tenken a part of their bookshelf.