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Strain. Vol. 1. Written by Buronson. Illustrated by Ryoichi Ikegami. English adaptation by Yuji Oniki. San Francisco, CA: Viz Communications, 1998. 224p. (Pulp Graphic Novel). $16.95. ISBN 1-56931-319-9.

Crime fiction

Adults, older teens; violence, language, adult situations, nudity

In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, twelve-year-old Shion prostitutes herself. Attempting to steal her latest john's wallet, she is caught and thrashed in front of the innkeeper, Sai, and a young man, Mayo, who draws horses ("Mayo" means horse). Neither man lifts a finger to help her, but when Mayo later encounters the john on the arm of another hooker, he gives him a punch in the mouth. Then he proceeds to his appointment with his latest client. Mayo is an assassin who charges only $5 per job, and he is charged with the murder of a woman. However, the woman proves to be Shion's mother (who is very ill), and Mayo inexplicably takes pity on them, instead taking $10 from Shion--$5 to pay off his earlier contract and $5 to kill the man who hired him in the first place. Unfortunately for Mayo, the man is part of the "Organization," a crime syndicate, and he is now being targeted by them. He doesn't care, though; he has no real will to live. To defuse the situation, Sai attempts to complete the contract but arrives to find the mother dead of her illness.

Meanwhile, wealthy Japanese and Arabic men discuss power politics and bloodlines of horses and people. Somehow, Shion and her mother are involved, and Mayo's refusal to kill them has complicated matters. And one of their agents in Malaysia, spying Mayo, thinks he's seeing a ghost: Mayo was supposed to be dead, killed by the powerful Kusaka corporation for some unknown reason.

Mayo saves his friend Yang, a young man who loves to rescue stray cats, from thugs. In gratitude, Yang takes Mayo to a whorehouse, where they unexpectedly find Shion standing in the rain. Her mother has died of her illness, and the landlord has thrown the girl out. Mayo says nothing, but they take the girl into their car. Yang attempts to take her to his house, but his wife won't let her in. Sai insists the girl stay with Mayo, hoping that taking care of this "kitten" will restore his will to live. The mystery deepens when the girl reveals that she's half-Japanese and doesn't know who her father is, and it comes out that Mayo is Japanese as well. They both have pictures of Komagatake Mountain in Hokkaido.

Elsewhere, arrangements are being made to provide Japanese porn stars for officials as part of some Kusaka business negotiations of the powerful Kusaka corporation. Kyo, the madame arranging this "tryst," sees Mayo's face on the arranging official's computer screen and wonders why Kusaka is interested in him.

Meanwhile, the Organization men agree to let Mayo off the hook if he completes another contract: the murder of Shion. Sai conveys this news to Mayo, who holds a gun to Shion's head while she sleeps but does not pull the trigger. She wakes in terror, but Mayo still doesn't kill her. Instead, he gives her a choice: die by his hand, or kill him and escape. Neither happens, of course, and Mayo decides to take on the entire Organization. After killing two of their men (including one who recognizes him from prison), he has to hustle to get Shion to a safe place. Enraged, the Organization hires the extremely nasty Angel--brutal cop by day, brutal assassin by night, and sexually aroused by pain--to kill Mayo. But this won't be easy; Mayo is getting back his will to live.

It's hard to know what to make of this book. I like the secondary characters, the setting, and the writing, but I don't care for the plot, which telegraphs itself too much (easy enough to figure out the big secrets concerning Mayo and Shion, especially given their facial resemblance), and I really don't like Mayo. There's an inherent danger in writing about deliberately boring/lifeless/emotionless characters, and this danger is obviously exacerbated in graphic novel format. He's emotionless and static; there are so many pages with identical heads shot of him that a friend of mine who picked up the book noticed this numbing sameness after just glancing at the pages. It wasn't so much a matter of not caring whether he lived or died as it was a desire to see someone blow the jerk away so we could follow one of the more interesting characters, like Yang. As he stands, he comes off as a male model with a limited range of poses and facial expressions.

Choosing Ikegami to draw this book was probably not a great idea. Award-winning on a variety of titles for his "gritty, realistic, and erotic artwork," he seems singularly uninspired with Mayo. I know Ikegami can do emotions; they show up on the faces of the secondary characters, which is one reason why they're much more likeable. Even the horrible Angel looks more human (in a way); he's got a really chilling crazy glance. But Mayo's "scary look" is barely discernable from his everyday expression. As for the erotic aspects of the art, there are a few prostitute scenes (including a masochistic one with Angel) and one poolside orgy in which some of the "naughty bits" (notably a penis) have been somewhat clumsily erased from the artwork.

This title will be of most interest to Ikegami fans and people who like pulp-type fiction. Not a required read, though if Mayo loosens up in subsequent volumes, I'll be more inclined to view this series favorably.

Buy it directly from Viz Communications!

Copyright 2000, D. Aviva Rothschild


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