Review: Sanctuary, Vol 1

If your perception of manga is based solely on the types of titles you find on the shelves of your local chain bookstore you’re missing the whole picture. Contrary to the abundance of yaoi, shojo and shonen comics on the shelves, there’s actually a large subset of manga that tells stories of a darker, more ominous nature.

Sho Fumimura’s and Ryoichi Ikegami’s Sanctuary is just such a comic. This isn’t something for the Strawberry Marshmallow or Naruto crowd. Sanctuary is a manga made strictly for adults. Don’t expect a hentai but don’t expect Fumimura-san or Ikegami-san to pull any punches either.

The story follows the lives of a young yakuza named Akira Hojo and a young politician named Chiaki Asami. After surviving the killing fields of Cambodia the two escaped to Thailand and eventually to Japan. Their plan is to transform Japan from the ground up on two different sides of the law. Hojo works to change society through the underworld life of a mobster while Asami works his change through the established channels of the Diet.

While this may sound like a typical story of political intrigue it is anything but typical. In fact, next to Crying Freeman (also illustrated by Ryoichi Ikegami), Sanctuary is the single most explicit manga I’ve ever seen available to purchase on a bookstore shelf. No subject is taboo. Everything from rape, assassination, murder and blackmail is written and illustrated in all of their dark and uncomfortable detail.

It would be easy to assume that the comic was little more than a violent, derivative gangster story. The story is violent and it does involve organized crime but derivative is the last word one would use to describe this story. Fumimura-san’s plot is an exhilarating ride through the worst of politics and the best of the yakuza underground. The scope of the story is incredibly broad as well. Nearly every aspect of Japanese life is examined through the lens of the manga and held up for scrutiny.

The story is also something of a social criticism. Hojo and Asami are railing against the status quo and the fact that seniority is worth more than skill. When Hojo asks his lieutenant, Tashiro, what he wants for his child. Tashiro says he doesn’t want his kid “to end up like them,” referring to the businessmen on the street. He says their eyes look “like the eyes of a senile old man with one foot in the grave.” Hojo agrees and says “dreams have completely disappeared from Japan.”

Just as important as Fumimura-san’s page turning story and social critique is Ikegami-san’s hyper-realistic drawings. One of the first things you notice is the photo-realistic backgrounds, buildings and vehicles. With just this simple design choice the world of Sanctuary becomes much more alive and takes the verisimilitude to the next level. Just look at any page and you will clearly see that he is a master of line, light and texture.

This style decision carries over into the character designs as well. Instead of the minimalist, cartoony manga characters that so many are familiar with, Ikegami-san’s characters are properly proportioned and exquisitely detailed. You won’t find huge eyes or any of the other tropes common to contemporary character design in this story. Instead you’ll find the incredible attention to detail such as a technical or architectural artist would posses and an impeccable eye for human physiology and psychology that breathe life into the cast.

Sanctuary was released by Viz in nine volumes but they can be hard to find anymore. Your best bets will be or You can read more Sho Fumimura in Fist of the North Star and if you’re hungry for some Ryoichi Ikegami illustration you should pick up the recently reissued Crying Freeman. If you’re looking for something heavier and darker in your manga reading, Sanctuary will not disappoint.