When most people think of Naoki Urasawa works available in English, three obvious ones come to mind: Monster, Pluto, and 20th Century Boys. While those comprise what I like to think of as Urasawa’s “trinity” I was surprised to find another overlooked contribution of his in English: Pineapple Army.
Pineapple Army is an mid-80s manga by Kazuya Kudo, with art by Naoki Urasawa. The series focuses on Goshi, a Vietnam war vet who “turn[s] people into combat-ready soldiers” — whether they be children, women, and everything in between. The series ran from 1986 to 1989 in Shogakukan’s Big Comic Original, and was eventually released in eight volumes. Viz released ten standalone chapters of this series as individual floppies back in the late 90s, followed later by a single graphic novel containing all of the released chapters. The American floppies also have oddly interesting covers, though not done by Urasawa.
The stories themselves are interesting. The first of the bunch stands out as Goshi finds himself making “combat ready soldiers” out of children. Having just lost their father, four siblings are desperate to hire Goshi in order to protect their lives and inheritance from the men that murdered their father. Goshi first tells them that he’s no “bodyguard”; this becomes a running thread through most of the stories, with Goshi stressing that’s an instructor — not a bodyguard, mercenary or assassin. At times it seems that Goshi’s past blurred those lines a little bit more. When Goshi trains a group of young men who are obviously not ready for battle, he never forgets watching them die on the battlefield. Some of Goshi’s enemies are his old war buddies, some so forever changed by war that they have no idea how to live a life without it. Through all ten stories, the constant that remains is Goshi’s heart, no matter how begrudgingly he takes on a job. One could argue that Goshi simply gives people the tools to defend themselves, and what becomes of them has nothing to do with Goshi. Somewhat true, but in the end Goshi cares. Even with the seemingly heavy topics in some of the stories, there are comedic moments. Goshi goes on date that quickly goes sour when he can’t shake the feeling that they’re being followed. Moments like that keep things from going too dark, but the reader always has the sense that Goshi’s seen and done more in his life than he lets on.
Although the story may not be his, and the covers certainly don’t scream “manga!” or “Naoki Urasawa!” the actual story art has bits and pieces of Urasawa as we know him now, though it isn’t instantly recognizable. The characters have a more cartoonish and rounded feeling to them, much like his later Yawara series. I also was reminded a bit of Akira Toriyama’s style, and less of the cinematic and realistically drawn character designs of the current Urasawa. There’s still a grittiness to the backgrounds though, given some of the violent nature of the stories. Overall the art works for the series, even if it’s not Urasawa’s best.
For a completist like me, stumbling across Pineapple Army a few years ago — on the manga trading site Mangatude of all places — was a real find. The floppies can easily be had on Ebay; I plan on snagging my one missing #5 soon enough. The graphic novel seems to be a bit harder to come by, though. If you’re interesting in reading more about the series, Jason Thompson of ANN did a piece on the series in his House of 1000 Manga column. Manga Bookshelf wrote an interesting piece also, and an older blog notes some nifty tidbits about the different formats Pineapple Army was released in. And for J-Pop fans, one can’t help but wonder if this song by the TM Revolution fronted boy band Abingdon Boys School wasn’t at least partially inspired by its namesake. All in all though, while not the best Urasawa, Pineapple Army is a neat little manga window into where he started — worth snagging if you stumble across a copy.