Viz Media has a long history of localizing Taiyo Matsumoto’s works. The company serialized his series Tekkonkinkreet under the title Black & White in their late ’90s magazine Pulp, then published the first few volumes of No. 5 but never finished the series out. They’ve since published several more of his works to completion, however, and are now giving No. 5 a second chance. A shiny new No. 5 Vol. 1 is out this week, and it’s time to address the age-old question: is it good?
This being a Matsumoto manga, the artwork is worth the price of purchase by itself. The volume kicks off with some lovely color pages, including an excellent spread of three characters ascending a snowy mountain. Here Matsumoto immediately displays two of his greatest skills: lovely rendering of environments for the characters to inhabit, and figures who express a lot of emotion and other information regardless of how little dialogue is on-panel. The muted tones selected (whites and tans interrupted only by fairly neutral blues and greens) are a great fit for the manga tonally. Though fantastical elements abound, there’s always a sense that the events take place in a world grounded by military struggles and what might simply be called the sheer cruelty of life.
Matsumoto’s work throughout the rest of the standard black and white art is similar in tone but also widely varied within itself. The amount of lines on the page is frequently enormous, with cross-hatching adding considerable depth to characters’ faces and various textures of clothing and scenery. This is especially the case in moments which heighten impending drama or a sense of nature as being bold and imposing.
With that said there are also pages that take an almost inverse approach. Here Matsumoto leans into the use of negative space and thin, delicate lines. Generally the effect is one of two: either the whiteness envelops the characters (as is the case early on when they are surrounded by snow and morning light) or they seem to become entirely untethered from their physical surroundings. It’s an effective means of shifting the reader’s understanding of power via the visuals: in one scene the characters seem at the mercy of natural forces, in others the impression is given that little could ever weigh them down, literally or figuratively. Matsumoto’s visuals are of the sort that only look more impressive the closer one examines them.
With that said, by far the most pleasing visual details to look at are also those that are the most creative to the point of being silly. My favorite sequence of panels in the entire book might be one of a wolf looking out a window, poised almost fully bipedal like a human. While the physical action itself isn’t theoretically impossible, the mood evoked by the wolf’s posture and expression is nonetheless fantastical.
My other two most notable moments in the volume both occur in the back half centered around No. 6. In the first he jumps out of a helicopter…atop his horse, fully saddled like its the most natural thing in the world. The second is admittedly not a plot moment but simply the reveal of a mushroom’s design: the rest of the fungus beneath its normal cap simply looks like a seahorse. It’s weird and not commented upon, but simply delightful. Before moving on from art discussion I also need to mention how excellent the the animal imagery is throughout, from expressive hippos and hogs to a charmingly detailed lobster. Birds and various creatures’ blank black eyes are also recurring visual motifs.
From a story standpoint the most enjoyable part of this volume is the aforementioned section revolving around No. 6. The basic premise is nothing particularly inventive; a man of questionable moral history passes through a town and decides to help the poor downtrodden people he meets there. It doesn’t take a lot of background context to tell who the hero (anti or not) is and who the villains are, and there’s just a nice sense of community being briefly forged between the characters before they all go their separate ways. It feels like just a snapshot in the fuller history of the characters’ individual lives, but also just the right snapshot to show the reader.
Unfortunately the rest of the story can frankly get a bit boring. Plot-wise the core conceit is that the titular No. 5 of the Rainbow Brigade has gone rogue and is now on the run with a woman named Matryoshka. His former teammates (all referred to by their respective numbers) now mostly take turns trying to take him down. This constant shift back and forth between characters isn’t handled very eloquently, however. While the most basic facets of the plot are mostly easy to understand, the events themselves aren’t grounded enough in touching character work or interesting social commentary to make for enjoyable reading. There is some occasional sense of how the Rainbow Bridade’s members relate to one another, but these dynamics are seldom fleshed out enough to avoid feeling flat. Many scenes, like those focused on No. 6, feel like snapshots. Unfortunately most of these snapshots don’t stand meaningfully on their own, but instead are more akin to movie scenes missing the important setup and payoff of what comes before and after them.
This is perhaps nowhere moreso the case than with Matryoshka and No. 5. Matryoshka frankly doesn’t feel like a character but instead a plot device who is present solely to be perceived and reacted to by No. 5. No. 5 himself, meanwhile, is the titular star and driving force of the action but very little is known of his past, motivations, or even current attitudes. There are ways to withhold information as a means of successfully building up suspense of course, so this ambiguity isn’t necessarily a problem. The issue is with the lack of engrossing content present to fill the void. Even if we just got one stellar scene, one peel back of the onion’s layers, that would go a long way. Unfortunately we don’t get that, and the trappings of the Rainbow Brigade’s vaguely bureaucracy-hampered drama isn’t compelling enough to fill the void.
All in all, No. 5 Vol. 1 is a book that I would recommend but not enthusiastically. Matsumoto’s artwork is simply stunning, and stunning in a way that feels truly unique to an extent that few other comic artists can match. To look through these pages is to provoke thoughts about the potential of this medium and the varied, creative techniques used within it. Unfortunately, with the exception of a sizable segment devoted to a supporting character, the actual plot just isn’t much to write home about. I’ll be interested to see where the series goes from here, but I’m not yet invested in the core story itself.
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