Browsing the Shogakukan website I found many names that were vaguely familiar, even given my pidgin Japanese. Among them was Yukio Tamai. I knew I’d seen his name recently, but couldn’t think where or why. Finally I recalled finding a whole gallery of pictures of manga creators on a fan blog while hunting for background on another artist a few months ago.
A little more browsing led me back to mikimouse’s blog, and an endearing 2007 snapshot of Tamai, dreadlocked and smiling, taken at the Shogakukan Awards ceremony at Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel Hibiya. Scroll down the entry till you come to the multicoloured blocks, and you’ll see blogger and mangaka together in the bottom left-hand block. There’s a cover from his then-current series, Omega Tribe, alongside it to help identify him.
The other reason his name rang a bell is that he was one of the mangaka who protested against the recent Japanese proposal to criminalise all “visual depictions” of characters apparently under 18 in “sexually provocative” situations or images. Many Western reports listed those signing up to the protest, either on the statement presented at the press conference where a group of big names launched the protest, or later through a Twitter campaign organised by Hideki Igami, editor of Shogakukan’s Ikki magazine. Tamai was one of these – he’s a regular tweeter and social networker, as well as blogging occasionally on Omega Tribe Kingdom.
Google turned up a number of references to the protest, and even more to illicit partial scanlations of his two longest-running series, Omega Tribe and Omega Tribe Kingdom, but very little else. The only source with a little information on his other work in English appears to be Peter van Huffel’s Prisms manga guide. Googling in kanji was only slightly more revealing, though it did demonstrate the popularity of the Omega Tribe saga across Asia. But the more I dug around, the more intrigued I became. Here’s someone who can change pace, style and direction, who addresses a range of themes and ideas, whose work looks too interesting to be unknown in English.
Tamai was born in 1970, in Hyogo Prefecture. He worked briefly as an assistant film director before moving on to comics. He won a newcomers award in 1992 for Farewell to the Mountains (Saraba Sanchuu) and followed this up with Yurika-chan, an action/horror fantasy whose beautiful heroine can ‘channel’ bad guys and their fighting abilities, and uses this skill to terminate them with extreme prejudice. Yurika-chan was filmed in 1995, starring the then 15-year-old idol Kanako Enomoto, who also appears in the live-action versions of dating sim game/anime Tokimeki Memorial and manga/anime Salaryman Kintaro. Tamai wrote the script.
Both Yurika-chan and his next manga, Gokojo Niagara Musume, appear to be currently out of print. They were followed by Iwamaru Dobutsu Shinryotan (Animal Medical Notes.) It’s the quirky tale of veterinary genius Iwamaru, who hates pets and travels the world treating wild animals to avoid having to deal with the despised patients at his own animal clinic. His long-suffering assistant Watabuki joins him straight from college, on her professor’s recommendation, and does her best to keep the clinic going while her boss wanders the world. In many respects this sounds like a veterinary version of Osamu Tezuka’s Black Jack. It won acclaim for its detailed focus on living with animals and the reasons and remedies for animal abuse, and ran for several years, finally collected into nine volumes.
Tamai’s next series was a complete change of pace: epic action fantasy Omega Tribe. The story of a group of superhumans and their impact on contemporary society ran for three years and 14 volumes, before blossoming into a plan for a coup d’etat in Japan in the 2005 sequel Omega Tribe Kingdom, which ran to another 11 volumes.
Then, once again, Tamai did something completely different. His 2008 work Kamome Chance, still running in Shogakukan’s Big Comic Spirits, is about the challenges facing a man who lives an ordinary, quiet life, working for a credit union and caring for his family, until he is unexpectedly forced by circumstance to become a racing cyclist. Tamai has an obvious interest in cycling, to judge from the passion and precision with which he renders bikes and racing, and the cycling fraternity seems to have taken Kamome Chance to its heart: here’s a blogger’s 2009 snap of Tamai, minus dreads, signing copies at a bike meet. (Scroll down to the third and fourth picture.)
Tamai is another of those mangaka who, despite having a solidly successful career, is almost unknown in English. Now that his recent works have been picked up by the pirates, he may stay that way. Shueisha’s mid-April appeal to stop illegal scanlations has been met with derision and even outrage from a substantial number of ‘fans’. In this situation, licensing a manga for translation and printing is a sure-fire way to lose money. Until the publishing companies and manga creators can work out a way to get their material online fast and downloadable cheaply, they can’t compete.