From the stack: BENKEI IN NEW YORK

September 8, 2006

In my experience, manga assassins either look exactly like what they are (Golgo 13) or the exact opposite (Anne Freaks, Bambi and Her Pink Gun). The title character of Benkei in New York (Viz) looks like your uncle, or the guy who files your insurance claim. He could be the manager of your bank or someone who sells suits.

He isn’t, obviously, but the pleasure of the book is the disconnection between how things look and how they are.

Written by Jinpachi Mori and drawn by Jiro Taniguchi, Benkei in New York follows a Japanese artist living in Manhattan through a series of stand-alone stories about revenge. Benkei isn’t one of those crassly commercial hit men who’ll kill anyone for a price. He needs certainty that his client’s desire for retribution is just, at least by his standards.

It’s never even entirely clear if murder is Benkei’s main gig. He’s an accomplished artist and an even more gifted forger. After glancing at a masterpiece a couple of times, he can reproduce it perfectly. Mori finds clever ways for art and death to intersect.

For readers who only know Taniguchi through work published by Fanfare/Ponent Mon (The Walking Man, Times of Botchan), Benkei might come as something of a surprise. Taniguchi’s detailed precision translates perfectly into noir, and his bland, everyman design for Benkei is brilliant. Unlike Anna or Bambi, whose visual innocence functions as a kind of tip-off, you really wouldn’t know what Benkei is capable of to look at him. He’s kind of dumpy, and he has a blandly amiable expression.

Taniguchi can’t seem to resist the impulse to make any moment, either everyday or violent, beautiful. The action sequences can be faintly ludicrous (a swordfight in a museum, improvisational weaponry made from seafood), but Taniguchi’s painstaking detail and meticulous composition sell them.

I’m generally suspect when creators try and sell a criminal as a good guy, but Mori and Taniguchi don’t sell the idea too hard. Benkei has a specific morality, and it’s intriguing, but there’s no explicit endorsement of what he does or why. They’re content to present it, and it’s an effective foundation for the pulpy stories collected here.

(Yes, I’m on something of a “books I bought for cheap directly from Viz” kick. Like Rumic Theater, Benkei in New York is still in the bargain bin.)