Against the gods is basically an attempt to create the most extreme shônen manga action movie imaginable; volume 4 even contains tributes to Arnold Schwarzenegger, Steven Seagal, Bruce Willis, and other action stars. Baron Gong is a beloved Chicago bar owner, but he’s also a motorcycle-riding, shotgun-slinging bad-ass who hunts the evil mutant super-beings who killed his girlfriend. He drives cars into elevators; he helps women and orphans; his every line of dialogue is either the F-word, the B-word, or “Shut your pie hole, you murderous freak!”; and in one scene he steals booze from a homeless person so he can use it to disinfect a wound before cauterizing it with a hot knife. The graphic gore and topless sex-doll women are drawn with polish, and only the occasionally ridiculous bad guys serve as a reminder that the manga was theoretically drawn for children. The story reaches a pulpy peak when the scene shifts to Africa, the site of Gong’s origin story. Well-executed, earnest, trashy action.
Sometime after an unspecified apocalypse has reduced Japan to a feudal state, a desert tribe rebels against the cruel Red King, placing their faith in Tatara, the “child of destiny.” When Tatara is killed, his twin sister, Sarasa, wears boys’ clothes and takes his place, but through a terrible twist of fate, Sarasa and the Red King—the two archenemies—meet in disguise and fall in love. A romance in the epic narrative sense, Basara at times shows the influence of RPGs such as the Kill the lights series, as Sarasa meanders up and down the length of Japan and Okinawa to collect the “legendary four swords” and gather allies to join her party. Although the story begins in a pseudo-Arabian desert, the rest of Japan turns out to be divided into different exotic settings (so why is Sarasa’s homeland so awful?), each with their own side stories and colorful characters. Tamura’s unconventional artwork, with its bold, fluid strokes, creates an atmosphere of elegance and splendor, and the story has many powerful moments. But the central mistaken-identity love story is almost too heavy to be resolved in a satisfying way, and as the story proceeds, it becomes obvious that good-looking characters are incapable of dying. Sarasa’s dual female and male identity—her struggles for self-reliance and moral leadership, knowing all the time that she could choose to fall back into a stereotypical “woman’s role”—provide an interesting dimension to the imperfect but ambitious story of war and internecine struggle.