To most Western anime and manga fans, Urasawa’s name brings to mind only three titles: Pluto, Monster, and 20th Century Boys. With his latest manga, Billy Bat, it’s no surprise to know that Urasawa’s other works have gone unnoticed. It seems impossible that he’s written anything other than conspiracy-fueled mysteries, but when you look back far enough it’s amazing to find out that he’s written sweet slice of life stories.
Yawara! is the antithesis of what most of us experience with his work, from having a female lead to being about a rather mundane thing: becoming a judo champion. There’s schoolyard rivalries, childhood crushes, and dreams of winning the Olympics and Japan’s National Merit Award. Where in the Big 3 do you see those happening? Well…for all the disparity between these titles, Urasawa’s works have the most surprising connection: The characters. I’m not talking about his recycled designs that he’s rather infamous for, I’m talking about the actual gosh-darned characters. How they react to everyday life, their emotions and motivations, and even the roles they have in the stories all seem to distantly echo each other in his works.
From the few episodes I’ve seen (I’ve barely scratched the surface of the anime – 14 episodes out of 124) 20th Century Boys is in tune the most with Yawara!. Kenji and Yawara both remind me a lot of each other – both start out wanting nothing more than to be normal people with normal lives and jobs, dealing with family that can be frustrating, annoying, but also very loveable, and being pressured into things that are bigger than themselves. They are incredibly likeable characters, to boot. Yawara might be a judo prodigy, but everything else about her screams absolute normalcy – I will swear up and down I knew girls like her in high school! Kenji also acts as an Everyman in his story, perfectly average in every way. The idea of someone normal being thrust into extraordinary circumstances is the constant in Urasawa’s manga.
Top that off with his skill at showing everyday life, and you have something pretty special. The flashbacks in 20th Century Boys are always memorable. Not because they give information and fill in the gaps in the story, but because they act like any roving gang of kids during the summer – they build forts, read comics, and face down the neighborhood bullies. Yawara! is what would happen if you made an entire manga out of those childhood flashbacks: full of awkward moments, funny coincidences, and nostalgia for childhood.
In short, it’s funny, it’s sweet, and it’s something special. Urasawa has always had a special skill for depicting life with all its quirks and hilarity, and Yawara! is where it really gets to shine. Romance is beginning to blossom between Yawara and a sports photographer (who’s dealing with his own issues – his boss only wants scandals and gossip instead of real news), a rivalry has been born (one-sidedly, with a spoiled pampered princess trying to one-up Yawara), and a first crush has been frightened off (the coward!). All in all, it’s a solid story that really has the groundwork to be even better later on.
The thing that I have trouble believing is that it isn’t more popular in the U.S. It has all the makings to be comparable to other contemporary titles like Ranma 1/2. Heck, Yawara! was more popular in Japan! Do hot springs and fanservice really make that much difference in how popular a show is overseas? (possibly, if you look at DVD sales, but that’s a different story altogether). I’m hoping that his fans will be willing to branch out and try something different, because if it’s by Urasawa, it’s guaranteed to be good.