Author: Izo Hashimoto
Illustrator: Akio Tanaka
Length: 25+ Volumes (Ongoing)
Publisher: Futabasha, Kodansha
Preview Series Here
+ Moody art serves story well
+/ Gory and violent
Relentlessly grim story
3.5 out of 5
Shamo Manga Review
Written by: Frank Chavez on 2/5/2010
Once a person has committed a violent act is that person destined to a life of crime and violence or is it possible to find redemption? Created by author Izo Hashimoto and illustrator Akio Tanaka, Shamo ("gamecock") examines that question through the story of Ryo Narushima, a teenager on a downward spiral towards becoming an irredeemable, brutal killer. Set in the present day, the story follows Narushima from his murder of his parents through his time in a so-called reformatory, allowing the reader to look in on a world of crime, violence, and depravity.
Shamo is a hard book to read. It gives the impression that the series' creators have never heard the word entertainment before or if they have, it has a different meaning than what most of us are used to. While it is a compelling story, it is dark, humorless, and bordering on the nihilistic. It thrusts the reader into the violent and depraved world of Japan's youth reformatory system and criminal underbelly and is an unrelenting slog through the dark side of human existence.
The story is structured like a Greek tragedy. It follows Narushima's fall from acceptable society to the depths of criminal depravity as a remorseless. It is nearly unbearably brutal from nearly its very first page. It begins as Narushima and other recently convicted youthful criminals are brought by van to the Ajigasaki Reformatory. Even before the first act of brutality is depicted, we know that we are in for a harsh time as illustrator Akio Tanaka fills the panels leading to the reformatory with menacing crows. The crow is almost universally considered a symbol of evil, misfortune and death.
The boys' stay in the reformatory begins with a loss of identity as their heads are shaved and they are given drab, identical uniforms. The prisoners take on a bland sameness and the reader is forced to depend on tiny visual clues by Tanaka such the shape of a character's eyes or mouth or his tattoos in order to tell them apart. Tanaka subtly builds on this sense of isolation and loss of identity through his heavy use of black and grey shading, his use of melodramatic, almost cinematic lighting, and details such as the increasingly small windows until an overwhelming sense of dread permeates the book and reader feels as if they are in prison with Narushima. The reader becomes not only a witness to the depravity but also a vicarious participant.
It is not long after Narushima's arrival that the first act of violence is depicted. The new arrivals are given private cells for the first night. Narushima and some of his fellow new arrivals are taken to another prisoner's cell where they are gang raped. Soon they are transferred to the dorms. And although he pleas for a new assignment, in one of Izo Hashimoto's examples of society failing these young lawbreakers, his pleas fall on deaf ears and Narushima ends up in the same dorm as the boys who raped him. During one of the rapes, Narushima retaliates the only way he can by biting off his rapist's penis while being forced to perform fellatio. Tanaka depicts this in gory detail with extreme close-ups of Narushima's teeth, plenty of black ink representing blood, and even a few shots of the antagonist's severed penis dangling from Narushima's mouth.
Narushima is sent to the warden and in a flashback we learn the true horror of Narushima's crime. Once upon a time, Narushima was a successful teenager from a respectable middle class family. An intelligent and hardworking student at a prestigious high school, Naurushima was on the verge of acceptance at Tokyo University, his stepping stone to a bright, promising future, when something inside suddenly snapped and he stabbed his parents to death with the kind of fury experts tell us we reserve for close friends and relatives. The case became a media sensation as an example of the failure of the school system to preventive bullying and delinquency and many news outlets took the unprecedented step of publishing Narushima's picture. Narushima became infamous for the crime and shows no remorse for his vile act. In the reformatory the other prisoners see him as the lowest of the low. They are wannabe Yakuza, thieves, killers, and rapists but even they have their standards. Even the warden and other employees look down upon Narushima and seem to feel that the abuse Narushima suffers at the hands of his fellow inmates is somehow justified -- the warden goes so far as to tell Narushima that he will not tolerate any more violence from him.
Eventually Narushima is included in a special martial arts class and through the programs intensive training becomes a powerful and deadly martial artist. He disfigures one of the boys who tormented him in a fight and begins his transformation from mentally unstable victim to hardened, mentally unstable killer. During this time he is visited by his younger sister. She informs Narushima that she understands the feelings that led him to kill their parents, she hated them too, however, she now hates him as well. All her money has been taken away by their relatives and she has been forced to support herself as a prostitute. Strangely, this encounter gives Narushima a chance for redemption, as his sister leaves the reformatory, Narushima swears that once his two year sentence is up, he'll find her and protect her.
Upon his release from the reformatory, Narushima discovers that the urban world is as oppressive as the world behind bars. He struggles to make a life for himself. With no real skills he is forced to become a gigolo, providing companionship and sex to desperate but wealthy women willing to pay. At the same time he daydreams about becoming a professional fighter on the Lethal Fight circuit and obsesses over finding his sister and rescuing her from her life on the street. What he finds instead is more pain and misery in the form of drug addicted prostitutes and gangsters who want to exploit him or kill him.
A story isn't tragic because the hero loses but rather because he almost wins. The tragedy of Shamo is that Narushima is presented with several chances at redemption; however, because of his actions these chances at redemption slip through his fingers. Perhaps the most poignant example is his relationship with his sister. After he is released from the reformatory, Narushima searches the red light district for her. Instead he finds another prostitute working under the same name who turns out to be an intravenous drug user. Narushima and the prostitute, whose real name turns out be Megumi, develop a relationship, perhaps the first relationship for both of them not based on exchange of money but on actual human feelings. Soon, however, the pimp Narushima works for as a gigolo tracks discovers the connection between Narushima and Megumi. He kidnaps her in an attempt to force Narushima to return to work. The confrontation between Narushima and the gangster ends with violence, Narushima kills the gangster's thugs but not before they've repeatedly raped Megumi and disfigured her face and body. While protecting Megumi could have gone a long way towards repairing the emotional scars left by not being able to protect his sister, Nagushima's failure to do so pushes him further along the path of crime and violence.
Shamo is a grueling slog through crime, violence, and despair. It is so bleak that it may not be what most people think of when they hear the word "entertainment". However, because it is structured similar to a Greek tragedy it is immensely compelling. As Narishuma loses one chance after another for some kind of redemption and slides further into a life of unrepentant violence, the reader is dragged along with him, confronting his violence as if it were their own.
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