Let’s take a journey back to May 1987. Industry newcomer Viz Comics, backed financially by Japanese media giant Shogakukan, sent copies of Mai, the Psychic Girl to comic shops across the United States. As one of the first localized works to enter the North American market, Mai, the Psychic Girl aimed to score a lofty goal: get Western readers hooked on manga. Luckily for Viz Comics, Mai was a hit; the first two issues sold so well they required a second printing.
Mai, the Psychic Girl owes its success to two main factors. Although it featured Japanese characters, Mai’s take on the telekinetic superhero(ine) genre appealed to American readers, particularly those that read titles like The Uncanny X-Men. It was familiar yet fresh, giving its audience a palatable introduction to the new manga medium.
But more importantly, it was the beautifully crafted, “neither-Western-nor-Japanese artwork” that caught American readers’ attention. Drawn with a heavy sense of realism that mirrored Western tastes at the time, Mai, the Psychic Girl introduced American readers to an artist they’d grow to love over the next few decades, a man named Ryoichi Ikegami.
The Young Artist
On May 29, 1944, Ryoichi Ikegami (池上 遼一) was born in Fukui Prefecture, Japan. His professional artistic career began when he moved to Osaka after graduating from junior high. To support his family, Ikegami passed up a high school education and instead worked as a commercial sign painter.
Between his painting jobs, teenaged Ikegami dabbled in drawing manga shorts for Osaka’s rental comics, or kashihon, market. His early artwork mimicked the cartoonish style popularized by artists like Osamu Tezuka and Yoshihiro Tatsumi.
In 1962, he published his first work, Makenkodachi (魔剣小太刀) in Hinomaru Bunko’s Magical Image anthology. But it wasn’t until 1966 that Ikegami received his big break. After several unsuccessful submissions to the newly formed gekiga magazine, Garo, Ikegami’s short story, Tsumi no Ishiki (罪の意識) was finally published in its September issue.
This debut manga caught the eye of Shigeru Mizuki, fellow Garo author and (at the time) up-and-coming mangaka. Recognizing the young artist’s talent, Mizuki hired Ikegami as his assistant, prompting Ikegami to leave Osaka for the Tokyo comic scene. For two and a half years, Ikegami honed his technical skills as an apprentice of sorts, slowly adopting a more realistic aesthetic into his works.
Bringing Spider-Man to Japan
Having seen his popularity rising thanks to a slew of short works drawn for Garo and shonen publications Weekly Shonen Magazine and Shonen King, Kodansha approached Ikegami with a curious proposition. Rather than merely translating their titles into different languages, Marvel Comics decided to license out their characters for native adaptations. Kodansha wanted Ikegami to draw a Japanese iteration of Spider-Man, citing the mangaka’s handling of realism as a driving force in their decision.
Starting in January 1970, Ikegami’s take on the famous web-slinging hero graced the pages of Monthly Shonen Magazine. At first, things were pretty similar to the original material; junior high schooler Yu Komori, Japan’s very own Peter Parker, led readers on his winding, masked villain-fueled journey from ordinary boy to superhero.
However, after a lackluster reception, Ikegami hired writer Kazumasa Hirai (co-creator of sci-fi manga 8-Man) to pen stories for Spider-Man that would better resonate with a Japanese audience. As a result, Kodansha’s Spider-Man adopted a much darker tone than its American counterpart. Jason Thompson over at Anime News Network sums it up best:
“It’s a gekiga world, a world of rundown factories and dark skies, of auto shops and demolished buildings. Everything looks industrial, abandoned, half in ruins. In one scene, Ikegami copies hideous faces from Hieronymus Bosch’s painting Christ Carrying the Cross; in other scenes, he makes up his own faces of evil. Above this dark world, Spider-Man stands over the city on an invisible thread, as if walking on air.”
Despite Hirai’s angst-ridden script and Ikegami’s increasingly mature, at times disturbingly violent art, Spider-Man failed to rake in readers, and by September 1971, Kodansha cancelled the series.
Rising Through the 1970s
Not letting Spider-Man’s shortcomings get the best of him, Ryoichi Ikegami continued to push his creative limits. His next solo serial over at Garo, Oen no Koi (おえんの恋), debuted in the February 1972 issue. An Edo period drama inspired by the Great Fire of Meireki, Oen no Koi ran for six months, ending serialization in August 1972.
Ikegami drew more manga for Weekly Shonen Magazine under Kodansha’s watch. For his second collaboration, Ikegami paired with Tetsu Kariya (of Oishinbo fame) to create the sports manga Hitoribocchi no Rin (ひとりぼっちのリン) which ran from August to December 1972.
During this time, another team of collaborators were making waves of their own. Dubbed the “Golden Duo,” writer Kazuo Koike and illustrator Goseki Kojima quickly gained status with their 1970s ronin epic Kozure Okami (子連れ狼), or as Western readers know it, Lone Wolf and Cub. While his working partnership with Kojima would still flourish over the years, Koike was always looking to expand his network of artists.
In 1973, Koike and Ikegami combined their skills to produce the jaw-dropping action manga I Ueo Boy (I・餓男 アイウエオボーイ). Set in America, I Ueo Boy tells the story of Takeo, a man driven by revenge after the sudden death of his fiancée, Miki. Unlike any of the two’s previous works, I Ueo Boy was actually printed not in a manga magazine, but in Weekly Gendai, one of Kodansha’s general-interest publications.
Some say that I Ueo Boy marks a major milestone in Ikegami’s stylistic evolution, as Koike’s frenzied scripts demanded equally dynamic, almost photorealistic artwork. I Ueo Boy’s unwavering blend of heavy sexual themes and manic bursts of ultraviolence definitely set the foundation for the duo’s serials that would come later down the line.
Even with its mature content, I Ueo Boy caught the eyes of editors over at Weekly Shonen Sunday, a Shogakukan property. Curious to see if a gekiga-esque story would fit well in a shonen manga magazine, the editors recruited Ikegami to create a new series with Tetsu Kariya, his friend from Hitoribocchi no Rin. Their 1974 manga Otoko Gumi (男組), now a staple in the school delinquency subgenre, rapidly skyrocketed to popularity, in part because of Ikegami’s refreshing, alternative depictions of teenage characters that went against the cartoony feel of traditional boys’ manga.
Meanwhile, I Ueo Boy continued in Weekly Gendai, but Kodansha’s wavering interest pushed Koike to move the series to Shogakukan’s men’s magazine, GORO. As such, Shogakukan had two ongoing Ikegami projects under its wing during much of the seventies. I Ueo Boy finally wrapped up in 1977; Otoko Gumi wasn’t far behind, ceasing its run in 1979.
1980s: Going Global
In September 1980, Ryoichi Ikegami and Tetsu Kariya debuted another manga, Otoko Oozora (男大空), in Weekly Shonen Sunday. Although it was the direct sequel to Otoko Gumi, it didn’t catch on nearly as well as its predecessor, running only for two years (which is honestly still pretty impressive).
Over at seinen publication Big Comic Spirits, Ikegami drew up pages for Kazuo Koike’s Wounded Man (傷追い人) from 1982 to 1986. This series follows Yuko, an NHK journalist and judo expert, as she heads to Brazil to search for a mysterious man named Rio Baraki. Taking plenty of cues from I Ueo Boy, the plot of Wounded Man is rife with gratuitous sexual content and exploitative scenes of brutality. Nevertheless, the manga was popular enough to inspire a five-episode OVA directed by Toshio Takeuchi that premiered on July 5, 1986.
Then came the game-changer. In 1985, Weekly Shonen Sunday tapped Ikegami to work with Kazuya Kudo, a scenarist who had, along with Kazuo Koike, written for Takao Saito’s seinen hit, Golgo 13. However, Ikegami and Kudo’s new series would have none of the hypermasculine inclinations common in either of the two’s previous works.
In the world of Mai, the Psychic Girl (舞), there exist humans who possess extraordinary telekinetic abilities. Hoping to harness those powers, a secret society known as the Wisdom Alliance seeks out gifted children from all over the world. One of them is Mai Kuju, a Japanese girl under the care of her protective father. Together, they’re on the run from the Kaieda Information Service, an organization working on the Wisdom Alliance’s behalf.
Ikegami discussed the concept of having a female lead with his editor, who suggested running it past Kudo. In a 1993 interview, Ikegami revealed that the titular character was based on the Buddhist figure known as Maitreya, a Bodhisattva who is supposed to return to Earth millions of years in the future to save humanity. But by mistake, Maitreya manifests as a teenage girl during the present. While this idea didn’t quite manifest in the final project, it did provide inspiration for the main character’s name.
As Ikegami’s first English-translated work, Mai, the Psychic Girl spread in popularity among North American audiences in 1987. However, another of his projects would quickly overshadow Mai when it hit US comic stores a few years later.
From Kazuo Koike came another high-stakes crime drama: Crying Freeman (クライング フリーマン), published in Big Comic Spirits from 1986 to 1988. After working on Mai, this was another chance for Ikegami to “re-enter the world of manly romance,” as he put it. And did he ever.
Kidnapped and brainwashed by a Chinese triad named the 108 Dragons, Yo Hinomura carries out assassinations under the codename “Crying Freeman,” a moniker given to him because of his involuntary reflex to cry after every killing. During a mission to kill Emu Hino, a beautiful woman who witnessed a murder, Yo realizes he can’t do it, as he’s fallen in love with her. It’s this forbidden relationship that carries the plot of Crying Freeman forward.
Though the manga’s been criticized for its graphic sexuality and violence by both Japanese and American media, readers ate it up. As they did with Mai, the Psychic Girl, Viz Comics localized the manga as single-issue comic books in 1988, then republished the series during the 1990s as collected graphic novels. In 2006, Dark Horse Comics picked up the license, releasing five volumes under their label.
In between Mai and Crying Freeman, Ryoichi Ikegami took on another ambitious Kazuya Kudo project. The biographical manga, Nobunaga (信長), covered the life of the Sengoku era feudal lord in stunning—and historically accurate—detail. In fact, Katsuhiro Motoyama, a spokesperson for the Nippon Foundation, cited Nobunaga as an excellent, entertaining resource for learning about Japan’s Warring States period (日本史を楽しく通史するマンガ15選). Nobunaga began publication in Shogakukan’s Big Comic Original from October 1986 to June 1987, then switched to Big Comic Superior until its completion in 1990.
Part 2, which covers Ryoichi’s Ikegami’s work between 1990 and the present, is coming soon.
- Interview with Animerica, introduction by Trish Ledoux and interview by Satoru Fujii
- Tangled Notes Toward an Early Biography of Ryōichi Ikegami by Joe McCulloch
- House of 1000 Manga – Spider-man: The Manga by Jason Thompson
- On Mai, the Psychic Girl by Julian Darius