Muramasa

Ironfist Chinmi

(by Takeshi Maekawa)

2005 sees the tenth anniversary of the English publication of my first manga translation, Ironfist Chinmi, by Takeshi Maekawa. It certainly seems like a long time since the day I sat on commissioning editor Barry Cunningham's floor in the Twentieth Century Fox building (Bloomsbury Children's Publishing still not having any furniture at the time), discussing his theory that "there might be some mileage in this manga thing." I was hired to translate samples of the comics deemed most interesting, and Barry eventually plumped for the obscure Tekken Chinmi, a didactic martial arts comic that had languished for several years on the foreign sales sheets of the publisher Kodansha.

The title began by courting controversy. One retailer refused to take a comic that ran "back-to-front", since Chinmi was printed right-to-left. The store's book-buyer claimed that kids would never like a comic printed "backwards", but Barry suspected that they would love it; it was their parents who would never get it, and the kids would enjoy it all the more for that reason.

I disliked, and still dislike, the printing of Japanese comics in the Japanese page order. I regard it as a pointless, self-defeating pretension, backed by accountants who see only the minor saving in initiation costs, and not the loss of sales elsewhere. But what do I know? People still bought Chinmi, and the same stores that once refused to take it now sell it alongside several hundred other manga printed right-to-left.

This year, Chinmi seems to be enjoying something of a renaissance, particularly since it was mentioned by the Reading Agency in the UK as a series that had been found to encourage "reluctant readers" to pick up books. With that in mind, I thought I would put up some Chinmi-specific FAQs on my site.

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Who is Takeshi Maekawa?

He was born on the 29th July 1960, on Japan's northernmost island of Hokkaido. Collectors of coincidences may like to know that he shares a blood type with his translator. His debut came in December 1983, with the publication of the first episode of Ironfist Chinmi in Shonen Magazine. Chinmi went on to win the 11th Kodansha Manga Prize, in 1987.

What are the available Ironfist Chinmi volumes in English?

  1. Kung Fu Boy
  2. Journey to Mount Shen
  3. Victory for the Spirit
  4. Leap of Faith
  5. Attack of the Black Flame
  6. Blind Fury
  7. Pole Stars
  8. Drunken Master
  9. Breaking Glass
  10. Boxing Clever
  11. Whirlwind Fist
  12. Cutting Edge

The next in the sequence was to be the unlucky volume 13, Crooked Cross, but by that time Barry Cunningham had left Bloomsbury and his replacement commissioned new projects of her own. Ironfist Chinmi is still in print, and my PLR royalty statement tells me that over 2000 English children discover the comic every year.

Which Chinmi sold the most?

It's not what you'd think. Volumes three and four seem to have made it into more places than all the others. I can only assume that religious bookshops thought that Leap of Faith and Victory for the Spirit referred to something else… Boxing Clever seems quite popular with film fans for its arch references to a certain film by Akira Kurosawa.

Why were there no more manga from Bloomsbury?

Chinmi was originally planned as the first of several manga properties. When it was cancelled, I had already undertaken preliminary work on a couple of other Kodansha titles, including Sailor Moon and Wahhaman. But it's important to remember that what is regarded as "success" in the manga market is not necessarily a success in the eyes of a mainstream commercial publisher. Bloomsbury can get much better returns on Harry Potter, Jonathan Strange and Princess Diana. Chinmi performed marginally well, but not so incredibly that the publisher went manga-mad.

What happens at the end?

Takeshi Maekawa tries many different storytelling tacks; one of the things that confused the Western publishers was they thought they were buying a Japanese variation on Asterix the Gaul. The first volume particularly gave this impression, with the Getafix-like figure of the Old Master quoting classical Chinese at his mystified pupils; little did I know that ten years later I would be retranslating the same passages, this time directly from the works of Confucius.

Later volumes of Chinmi changed substantially in tone. All children's writers, from Rowling to Dr. Seuss, have to make a decision; do they age with their original audience, or stick to their original style hope for a new readership. Chinmi took the former route, and began to grow up.

By the time the collected-volumes were in their early thirties, the stories bore more of a resemblance to the tournament intrigues of Streetfighter. Reader feedback is a regular component in serial manga, and Maekawa seems to have been tossed on the waves of public opinion. By the time the collected-volumes were in their early thirties, the readership consisted of console-jockeys hungry for more beat-em-up action - a far cry from the early pre-teen audience.

In the final story (volume 35), Chinmi is no longer a boy, but a man, fighting in a nationwide contest to determine China's greatest martial artist. Chinmi is the representative of the Dailin temple and is forced to fight his friend Xifang [introduced in 7: Pole Stars]. However, Xifang is under the influence of Shinsai, an evil acupuncturist who attempts to use the young man as a tool to assassinate his old enemy, the Emperor. The final fight between Xifang and Chinmi nearly kills both of them, but Chinmi prevails. A disguised Shinsai administers aid to a badly injured Xifang in the centre of the arena. As the Emperor comes to congratulate the winner, Shinsai sees an opportunity to finish off the ruler with an assassin's needle. Chinmi, barely standing, is still alert enough to deflect the attack, and takes the flung needle in the neck. Desperately, Shinsai tries to make a second attack, but at the last is stopped by Xifang, who finally gathers the wherewithal to throw off the killer's mind control and clasp him so firmly that he cannot attack or escape. Saved from harm, the Emperor has the rogue acupuncturist hauled away to a cell, where in shame the man kills himself. However, Xifang and Chinmi are still in mortal danger from their wounds. Both friends have a lot of healing to do, and must be reconciled for having once tried to kill each other. Both Xifang and Chinmi eventually effect a full recovery and are able to receive the personal thanks of the Emperor for saving his life. As a reward, both for his service and for winning the martial arts contest, the Emperor presents Chinmi with a staff carved with a dragon symbolising "ruler" and "hero."

Is that it?

Not at all. Takeshi Maekawa makes a personal appearance in the strip and urges his cast of characters to take a bow. He then announces that although Chinmi has finished, he will now commence a new Monthly Shonen Magazine series called (wait for it...) New Chinmi. Maekawa implies that he wishes to strike out in a new direction, stating that New Chinmi is more of an action-adventure than the original comic, which followed the traditional form of martial arts story with its emphasis on the fighters' journey toward knowledge and skill. However, as a 14-year-old continuing series it may have proven harder for the original comic to pick up new readers, put off by the sheer weight of the back story. The repackaging could be seen as a way to gain a whole new readership, as well as making Chinmi attractive as an animation project. New Chinmi itself now counts its volumes in double figures. There were also a handful of "side stories", which were flashbacks to the days of Chinmi's use, included as bonus extras in some volumes.

A Chinmi anime? That would be fab!

Actually, there has already been one once before. in 1988, featuring Chika Sakamoto (who also voiced Mei in My Neighbor Totoro) as the lead. Directed by Toshitaro Oba and featuring art direction from Princess Minerva's Katsuyoshi Kanemura, the series was broadcast in the plum Saturday evening 7:30 slot, but still lasted for barely a season. The problem was different - the television series followed the manga story very closely, and writer Junji Takegami simply ran out of raw material after less than 20 episodes.

So what's in this New Chinmi, then?

The New Chinmi manga is certainly different in tone to the old strip. It begins with Chinmi as a Dailin training master at the main temple, but before long, he is given a mission to travel to the distant Guanglin temple, where he ends up leading the resistance against an oppressive overlord.

What other manga has Takeshi Maekawa written?

In 1992, he published one of his best works, a gritty saga of samurai revenge called Starsword. Although it is set in medieval Japan, Starsword takes a leaf from Chinmi's book and eschews historical accuracy. In Maekawa's preface he compares the samurai with American gunslingers, and makes the point that both genres rely more on myth than on actual events.

The Starsword is a blade forged by two of Japan's greatest smiths, Kenza and Izumi. While they are still working on it, they are attacked by a mountain dog, which Kenza beheads with the still-glowing steel. Tempered in the blood of a wild animal, the sword becomes possessed by an evil spirit, and brings a curse upon them. It kills Izumi's wife, but General Soma hears of its power, and decides to steal the sword to help him in his ongoing war. He kills Kenza and his wife, and their daughter commits suicide to preserve the family honour.

The story picks up seven years later, with Kenza's son Nakahisa searching for the wielder of the blade. Nakahisa is forced to turn renegade when he kills three of his fellow soldiers to save a young girl on the battlefield. The young girl is princess Mizuki, whose father has been murdered and usurped by Soma. Realising that Soma is the thief who stole the cursed sword, Nakahisa teams up with Izumi to make a blade that can defeat Hoshinoken. They forge a sword out of a meteorite, a true 'star-sword', and use it to defeat Soma and his minions. Starsword is a lot darker and violent than the cartoonish antics Maekawa was producing in the early eighties. Criminals are sliced in two, horses are relieved of their legs (an ongoing Maekawa fetish), and the action becomes far more "adult." However, at the time, it fell by the wayside in favour of Ironfist Chinmi.

A 1993 series called Break Shot, similarly never really took off to the extent that Chinmi did, and was completed in nine volumes. Break Shot was a billiards comic in which Shinsuke Oda, a high school student with a billiards 'super technique', attempts to work himself up through the billiards circuit and take on the best player in Japan, in an effort to win funds for his impoverished school club.

The Guanglin Temple of New Chinmi previously featured in a short-lived 1995 Maekawa strip called Kung Fu Tao. Featuring very similar plot characters and story to Ironfist, the story came to a natural close after less than 400 pages. Another attempt to expand Maekawa's repertoire was a Thai Boxing strip, 3000 Baht Sam, scripted by sports writer Seiichi Tanaka. But this never went any further than a Kodansha Monthly Special one-shot.

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