TROPIC of the Sea (Kaikisen) is the first manga by Satoshi Kon, which is available in English. Hopefully it is not the last. The man who directed animation films like Paprika was also a great manga artist.
Manga’s original Japanese name, Kaikisen, is ”quite embarrassing in hindsight”, Satoshi Kon wrote in his Afterword for the Japanese edition of Tropic of the Sea in 1999. Parts of this text are excerpted in the end of the Vertical’s new English edition.
Kaikisen (海帰线) is a word coined by Satoshi Kon. In it, the first kanji of the Japanese word ”tropic” (kaikisen, 回帰线) is replaced by the kanji meaning ”sea” (kai/umi, 海). The words are pronounced in the same way.
Thus, the English translation of the name is a very accurate interpretation of the original name. In 2004, the French translation of the manga had the name Kaikisen: Retour vers la mer (”Kaikisen: Back to the sea”).
Kaikisen appeared in Japan in Young Magazine from March to June 1990. It was the first serialized manga by Kon, and it was a tough experience.
In his Afterword Kon described how he barely was able to produce each chapter by the deadline. After completing Kaikisen, he fell seriously ill. He himself believed it to be due to drinking. When the manga was collected as a paperback, Kon improved many panels and added a few pages.
Tropic of the Sea shows strong influence from Katsuhiro Otomo. Kon worked in his youth in the 1980’s at Young Magazine’s offices, where he ended up assisting Otomo. Otomo, who is best known for the manga and animation Akira, became an important mentor for him.
Very many images in Tropic of Sea could be from Otomo’s pen, though Kon aspired for more detailed and careful illustration than Otomo. In my opinion, particularly memorable is the way both Otomo and Kon drew human noses.
Kon’s own graphic skills are at their best when he illustrates the movement of water. Nobody does it better in black and white.
SATOSHI Kon was born in 1963 in Kushiro, Hokkaido. He wanted to be an artist or an illustrator, so he studied at Musashino University.
While studying, Kon made his manga debut. His first short story Toriko (”The Prisoner”) appeared in Young Magazine in 1984. The story was influenced by Philip K. Dick’s science fiction short story Minority Report (1956). This manga was republished in Japan in the collection of Kon’s short mangas Yume no kaseki (”Fossilized dreams”, Kodansha 2011).
Kaikisen was one of the two serialized mangas that Satoshi Kon finished during his rather short career as mangaka. The other one was World Apartment Horror in 1991. Much more ambitious projects セラフィム2亿6661万3336の翼 (Seraphim 266 613 336 no tsubasa, ”Seraphim – 266 613 336 wings” and Opus were never finished, as Kon became a full time animator.
Even in 1999 Kon still considered himself both a manga artist and an animator. At that time his animation direction debut Perfect Blue (パーフェクトブルー, 1997) had already been completed. However, Kon also wrote that, humbled by the assessment of the general public, he must think of himself as an animator who was ”a manga artist in his previous life”.
Perfect Blue already made Kon a well-known animation director. Later he became world famous with the films Millennium Actress (千年女优, 2001) , Tokyo Godfathers (東京ゴッドファーザーズ, 2003) and Paprika (パプリカ, 2006), and the television series Paranoia Agent (妄想代理人, 2004).
Satoshi Kon died in August 2010, in the middle of a brilliant career. His latest animated film Yume miru kikai (夢みる機械, ”Dreaming machine”) was never finished.
TROPIC of the Sea takes place in the small seaside town of Ade, which has always found its livelihood in the sea. Now the city is living tumultous times. A huge holiday resort which is under construction is expected to bring tourists, work and money. It should also help to prevent the exodus of young people to larger cities. The traditional fishing industry is suffering, which leads to conflicts between townspeople.
The most enthusiastic developer is the priest of the local Shinto shrine, Yozo Yashiro. Fishermen’s front man is quick-tempered Gan Koizumi. Yozo and Gan were childhood friends, but now the controversy has tightened their relationship upto fist fighting.
The big secret of the Shinto shrine is a mermaid’s egg. The centuries-old legend tells that the city residents have an agreement with the mermaids: The shrine takes care of the egg. It will be returned to the sea after sixty years, and the mermaids bring a new one to the shrine. In return, the mermaids keep the sea calm and provide fishermen with a rich catch.
The building company’s boss Mr Ozaki begins to crave the egg for himself. Yozo is willing to give it, because he actually does not believe in the legend. Yozo’s old and sick father resists.
The heroes of the story are two best pals, Yozo’s son Yosuke and Gan’s son Tetsu, who for their own different reasons are driven against Ozaki. They get the task of taking the egg back to the sea. The third hero is their friend Nami. She has been studying in Tokyo but has reccently returned to Ade.
The story turns into a tight chase. In the end the sea and the legend display their power.
TROPIC of the Sea is an environmental manga. Man is stupid if he believes he can ignore the forces of nature.
It is also a manga about a secluded little town trying to compete against the lure of Tokyo, trying to make young people to stay in their home region. Third, it is a manga that proves that man does not live by money alone. Legends are more important than we think.
As often happens with an author’s first work, Satoshi Kon may have tried to squeeze too many good ideas in one manga. Developing all the ideas fully would have required much more than the two hundred pages of Tropic of the Sea.
I definitely do not mean that Tropic of the Sea is bad manga. It’s not at the level of Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of Valley of the Wind (風の谷のナウシカ, 1982-1994), neither in the depth of fantasy nor in dramatizing the destruction of nature. Nevertheless, it is one of the best environmental mangas I have read.
The mermaids in Tropic of the Sea are gorgeous creatures. They are not the harp-playing little girls on a cliff. There is no good explanation for why the egg is given to the humans, but still the story is compelling.
Yozo and his father are rather stereotypic characters expressing development and tradition. The role of the comic sidekick is given to Yosuke’s dog Fujimaru.
The persons with strongest human characters are Mr Ozaki and Nami. Ozaki’s greed and lust are revealed gradually as the story progresses. Nami in turn struggles mentally between being a city girl and a small-town girl. After being deceived in Tokyo, she is slowly trying trust Yosuke.
Satoshi Kon’s delicately blue cover art is unnecessarily mutilated with shiny coating in Vertical’s English edition. The page size is slightly smaller than the original, causing a slight moiré effect. The high quality translation was made by Maya Rosewood.