One Pound Gospel Vol. 1 (VIZ Media)

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1lbgospel-header.jpgA gluttonous young boxer seeks redemption with the help of a novice nun in this classic manga from Rumiko Takahashi, the creator of Ranma ½ and InuYasha.

 

240 pgs. B&W; $9.99

(W / A: Rumiko Takahashi)

The cover to One Pound Gospel vol. 1. Click for a larger image.The word "superstar" gets appended onto the bios of so many comic creators that the word has become almost meaningless, but in the case of Rumiko Takahashi, even that level of hyperbole doesn't quite seem to cut it. Yet what words could possibly describe a career like this? Takahashi is the best-selling female comic book artist in the world, having surpassed 100 million in sales of her collected works in Japan alone by 1995, just over halfway through her 30 year career as a manga creator. All four of her major manga series—the boy-meets-alien comedy Urusei Yatsura, the slice-of-life romance Maison Ikkoku, the gender/genre-bending martial arts romantic comedy Ranma ½, and the historical action-adventure epic InuYasha—found success in both comics and animation, spawning in total over 600 TV episodes as well as dozens of movies and video specials. American audiences started paying attention to Takahashi in 1991 with the English translation of Ranma ½, one of the early successes of manga on American shores and a title that helped propel the fledgling translation house VIZ (Takahashi's exclusive publisher in America) into what is now one of the most powerful comics publishers in America. Her titles continue to be popular on both sides of the Pacific, with the InuYasha anime remaining a mainstay on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim block while the VIZ manga release has stretched now to 34 volumes.

When your most popular works stretch for 30-40 volumes, it's easy for more compact works to fall through the cracks. Such is the case with One Pound Gospel, a title which Takahashi began publishing sporadically in 1989 between chapters of Ranma ½. The series had an equally scattershot publication history in America, where it was initially serialized in the pages of the magazine Animerica: Anime and Manga Monthly before graduating (mid-story arc, mind you) into its own comic book series, which was later collected in three graphic novels in VIZ's larger, more expensive old format. VIZ is now re-releasing One Pound Gospel in their now-standard $9.99 size in anticipation of the fourth and final volume, completed by Takahashi in 2007 and seeing print in English for the very first time this December.

The star of One Pound Gospel is Kosaku Hatanaka, a young boxer who showed so much promise that he dropped out of high school and propelled himself into the professional ranks with a spectacular debut bout. Fast forward to three years later, however, and you find Kosaku at the end of a string of losses caused by his utter inability to maintain his weight. As Kosaku's weight class goes up his hopes for winning go down, leaving his poor old coach ready to throw in the towel. The only one who still has faith in the down-on-his-luck pugilist is Sister Angela, a nun-to-be at a nearby school whose confessional booth Kosaku visits nearly daily. But it's not forgiveness he seeks so much as face-time with the super-cute Sister, and Angela's own dedication to the wayward lamb astride the scale belies that the feeling may just be mutual.

Gluttonous pugilist Kosaku Hatanaka.For an author known for crafting tales of wacky aliens, horrific demons, and sex-shifting martial arts masters, Takahashi's real world setting for One Pound Gospel is remarkably down to earth, and more in line with her slice-of-life comedy Maison Ikkoku than her more popular works. Her big-eyed, deceptively simplistic artistic style ably captures every side of her creative personality, careening easily from broad slapstick and romantic tension to full force action. The action scenes fare particularly well thanks to the pummeling fury of the boxing scenes; Takahashi seems to know just when to burst the action through the panel borders for maximum effect, and the blazing jabs are captured with a flurry of sweeping speedlines. The characters spring forth fully realized from the very first chapter, and their individual voices are ably captured in Gerard Jones conversational English adaptation.

There's a rare misstep in the first chapter, when the romantic subplot (and for much of the series it is just a subplot) is pushed to the forefront far too soon. Takahashi is usually a master at weaving will-they-or-won't-they? tension into her stories, but here the Kosaku/Angela relationship builds to a head before the book is prepared to support it, resulting in an awkward scene that seems out of step with the rest of the first volume.

The virtuous Sister Angela.Luckily, One Pound Gospel isn't even close to down for the count. The first two-chapter story, which revolves around Kosaku's make-it-or-break-it comeback fight, sets up the players. But from there on out, One Pound Gospel follows a more episodic path, where each chapter serves both as a continuation of Kosaku and Angela's glacially developing relationship and as a miniature character study of the fighters Kosaku faces in the ring. The second arc, the three-part "Lamb on the Chopping Block," introduces Jiro Amakusa, a young fighter who had never been knocked down until Kosaku lays him out completely by accident. Furious, Jiro vows revenge, but Kosaku is too busy blowing his diet to notice. Angela meanwhile prays for Kosaku's luck and safety, but a series of hilariously ominous signs (her rosary breaking, a crucifix continually tumbling from her prayer table) show her efforts are likely futile. The cocky Jiro makes for a deliciously evil villain and Coach Mukaida's exasperation at Kosaku's appetite provides plenty of laughs, but it's a tense scene where Angela pleas for Kosaku's redemption that gets to the heart of what makes this book work.

The final arc, the four-part "The Remains of Dreams," is the book's most effective. Kosaku is a six-round pro, but thanks to an embarrassing loss, the only match he can get is against the four-round never-was Onimaru. Lucky for Kosaku, his new opponent is a welterweight, meaning not only can he pig out as much as he wants, but he has to in order to pack on 20 more pounds to make the weight class' minimum. Onimaru, however, has passion on his side: his wife is pregnant with their first child, and this match marks his last ditch effort to make it to the big time. This is where the personalities of the characters really shine, thanks to the interplay between Kosaku's wide-eyed optimism and Onimaru's grim-faced determination. The latter's character arc could have been played as ham-fisted and over the top but Takahashi finds just the right note, crafting a character who serves both as an antagonist for the lead and as a hero the reader can't help but root for, which is no small task.

This excellent final chapter sets the tone wonderfully for the book's future volumes, which only improve on One Pound Gospel's already considerable strengths. This book downplays the wacky hijinks that mark Takahashi's most famous works, but it doesn't need them. It's the wonderfully unique characters, and their unabashed hopefulness and optimism, that makes One Pound Gospel one of Takahashi's most well-loved buried treasures. | Jason Green

For more on One Pound Gospel, visit Furinkan.com!

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