July 21, 2021

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The Fever Dream of Taiyo Matsumoto’s No.5

VIZ Media

NUMBER FIVE FUKYUBAN © 2006 Taiyou MATSUMOTO/SHOGAKUKAN


This week Viz is bringing back Matsumoto’s No.5 in omnibus format. It’s kind of a big deal, because even though it was available as a 4 volume series for iPad back in 2011, No.5 has never had a complete print run. Viz originally planned to publish all 8 volumes of Matsumoto’s work back in 2002. However, after dismal sales [rumour has it they only sold 1000 copies between volumes one and two] they stopped publication. Perhaps with the successful reception of a number of Matsumoto’s other works including Sunny, PingPong, GoGo Monster and Tekkonkinkreet [which won an Eisner] Viz feels the time is right to give this series another chance.

I was first introduced to Taiyo Matsumoto through his semi-autobiographical work Sunny. It is a meditative and melancholic work that looks at the lives of children living in foster care. Matsumoto lived in the same foster home depicted in Sunny until he was a young teen, and the story draws heavily on his memories from that time. I loved Sunny. I loved the art, I loved the storytelling and after finishing it, I wanted to read more of Matsumoto’s work.

The next series I picked up was Tekkonkinkreet. I was really shocked, the art style was totally different, as were the pace and the tenor of the story. Sunny was slow and felt grounded in real life, Tekkonkinkreet was fast paced, and violent and I had trouble connecting with children who spent most of the time beating the crap out of people.

In my defence Matsumoto has said that Tekkonkinkreet wasn’t initially popular in Japan. In fact his editors encouraged him to wrap up the series quickly as the publisher planned to cancel serialization. It was only with the support of die-hard-fans, who recommended the series to others, that audiences were slowly won over. It was even eventually made into a feature length film. I never finished Tekkonkinkreet and Taiyo Matsumoto fell off the radar for me as a creator until I stumbled upon the first volume of No.5.

So what is No.5 about? Well, it is difficult to say exactly. The reader is dropped into the middle of the story, landing in a dystopian landscape, reminiscent of something out of Mad Max or early Star Wars. The events appear to take place on a post-apocalyptic earth, where the majority of the land has degraded into desert. Broken cities lie scattered throughout the barren wastelands and the hunt is on for a rogue member of an elite military force, a man called Yuri, aka No.5. Yuri has kidnapped a woman and betrayed his team members, and is now on the run. As the main story opens, he’s just killed a fellow member of his military team, No.9.

I read somewhere that reading No.5 is like being in a fever dream. That is a fair comparison. After all, Matsumoto has created a world where the sun cries, literally. It’s a world where men sport bunny suits and talking heads materialize atop what looks like record players. It’s a world where dwarf dinosaurs roam, where godlike creatures stalk the landscape and sheep dream of rain.

The non-linear way in which Matsumoto tells the story of No.5 also contributes to the dream like quality of the book. Reading No.5 is very much like riding a wave. It dips, it crests and then it kind of crashes down on you. It’s a visual stream of consciousness. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone told me Matsumoto was tripping when he worked on No.5, it is that weird.

By the end of book one, which bundles volumes one and two of the Japanese edition, we know very little about the story. Like why has Yuri kidnapped Matryoshka? It is kind of hinted at that Matryoshka is no ordinary women. Does she hold some secret power? She spends most of volume one eating a ridiculous amount of food. Her appetite is insatiable. It’s also kind of hinted at that Yuri might have a thing for her. What we do know is that Yuri has pissed off No.1 the leader of his militia. No.1 is hell-bent on hunting down and killing No.5.
The Viz Signature edition of No.5 varies slightly from the Japanese edition. There is an extra part, a Chapter 0, that has been inserted before the story starts proper. This chapter focuses on Yuri’s life before he became No.5 and although it is part of the story it doesn’t appear in the opening pages of the Japanese edition.

If I were to hazard a guess, I’d say that this chapter is the carrot that Viz intends to dangle in front of the readers. It says hey, there is more to this story than a bunch of oddly dressed super humans who duke it out over a woman. Perhaps having learnt from the experience of publishing the previous edition, the editors thought it would be helpful to have a primer?

Chapter 0 helps to setup the world of No.5, and offers the first hints of conflict between the civilian population and the military corps that Yuri is part of. It also establishes that Yuri is different from the other members of his team. In chapter 0 he’s only nine years old, yet he is already a brooding, chain smoking curmudgeon. He is also connected to Ashiro, a god like creature that is part of the landscape. It is almost as if he can hear Ashiro calling at the edge of his consciousness.

Matsumoto is not only an innovative storyteller, he is also an innovative artist. He really pushes at the boundaries of what is considered typical manga style. His work is more illustrative, messier; more free. There is a lot of energetic mark-marking, contour lines, crosshatching and stippling. Screentone, a cornerstone of the more traditional manga style, is used sparingly.

In the opening scenes of No.5 Matsumoto uses line to great effect to depict the snow laden landscape, with its towering mountain peaks and unforgiving vastness. There is a lovely panel where an elk is striding across a barren snowy vista. The elk is godlike, vast in its stature, and we are looking up at it from far below. The movement in the frame is amazing. All the pen lines pull the eye in a way that makes it feel as if though the elk is dragging the reader along with it as it walks across the landscape.

Every page is tense with Matsumoto’s energetic lines and his unique panel composition. At times some of his drawings look like blind contour and I love it. It is like looking at the beautiful unlimited mind of a child realizing that they can draw whatever they want, however they want. Don’t let his sometimes whimsical panels deceive you. Matsumoto is an artist who understands the fundamentals of composition, this is true even when he reduces his drawings to squiggly contours.

No.5 was serialized in the now defunct Monthly IKKI, alongside work from other artist such as Q Hayashida [Dorohedoro], Daisuke Igarashi [Children of the Sea] and Natsume Ono [House of the Five Leaves, Gente]. Monthly Ikki was known to fostered artists who were working outside the norms of the manga industry whether it was through their art or subject matter. If you look at the work of the aforementioned artists, you will feel a similarity between their style of storytelling and drawing and the work of Matsumoto. Actually, it is less of a similarity between the artists, as much as it is a collective flipping of the middle finger to the established norms of conventional manga. Monthly IKKI gave Matsumoto and other artists who were working on the frontiers of manga, space to be experimental, avant-garde bad asses.

I look forward to seeing where Matsumoto decides to go with No.5. The first volume laid the groundwork for the possibility of a multilayered story, one that explores the role of the military and religion in society.

There is the possibility that Matsumoto has bitten off more than he can chew. Yuri, Matryoshka, and the other main characters lack emotional complexity. The world Matsumoto has created is interesting, the characters sadly are not. Which is kind of a bummer, because the personalities of the people in Sunny [and Ping Pong which I’m currently reading] are so realistic and vibrant.

I have faith in Matsumoto, though. He has won numerous awards for his work and has influenced a generation of artists both in and outside Japan. Just take a look at the work of artists like Freddy Carrasco [GLEEM] and Masumura Jūshichi [Children of Mu-Town] to see what I mean. Also, volume one of four is still early days, especially for manga. It did take a while to get to know the kids in Sunny, and it could be the same with No.5. More than that though, I just love his art in all its iterations; in all its beautiful madness, and for that reason alone I would keep reading No.5.