The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

The Legend of Zelda A Link to the Past

Title: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
Japanese Title: ゼルダの伝説 (Zeruda no densetsu)
Artist: Ishinomori Shōtaro (石ノ森 章太郎)
Translator: Dan Owsen
Publication Year: 2015 (America, new edition); 1993 (America and Japan, original edition)
Publisher: Viz Media
Pages: 196

Full disclosure: I read this manga countless times as a kid, and the game it’s based on is one of the greatest loves of my life. This review is biased, because of course it is.

My own adoration aside, Viz Media’s new publication of manga giant Ishinomori Shintarō‘s adaptation of the 1991 Super Nintendo game The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past has been selling extremely well since it was released a month ago.

A Link to the Past on the NYT Bestseller List

This success makes perfect sense. Not only is The Legend of Zelda a major video game franchise with its own culture cachet, but Viz has also managed to put out a handsome publication, and manga’s story is easy to follow and immediately accessible to readers not familiar with the games.

The teenage orphan Link lives peacefully in a quiet village in “the pristine land of Hyrule” when, one stormy night, his uncle is summoned to the castle. Link is awoken by a voice claiming to be the princess Zelda, who telepathically tells him that she is being held prisoner in her own dungeons. Link, fearing shenanigans, rushes to the castle in the rain only to see his uncle put to death by a powerful wizard named Agahnim (whose dark skin and Orientalist stylings are how you know he’s a bad guy, yikes). Link manages to infiltrate the castle and rescue Zelda, only to have her immediately kidnapped once more by the wizard, who intends to use her to break the seal on an even greater evil. Before she’s spirited off to wherever princesses are stashed away in such situations, Zelda manages to tell Link that it’s his destiny to save Hyrule and that he must locate the legendary Master Sword, which is the only blade capable of defeating the powerful force controlling Agahnim. Off he goes, and adventure ensues.

Video game adaptations into other media tend to be hit or miss, but Ishinomori, genius that he is, pulls off his manga rendering of A Link to the Past flawlessly. Although Link is never really alone in the game (as he is always accompanied by you, the player), his quest is a lonely one, as he bears the sole responsibility for delivering the land from a terrible fate. Ishinomori especially excels at portraying Link’s smallness in a vast world filled with hostile creatures. The action sequences – and there are a lot of them – are nicely choreographed, with a smooth flow facilitated by expert paneling. This flow is so dependable that, when it’s interrupted, the reader is instantly made aware that Link has encountered a true threat, as he does in his final battle with Ganon, the story’s ultimate villain.

A Link to the Past Link vs Ganon

The manga is also populated by friendly characters who aid Link along his journey. The most striking of these fellow wayfarers is a bird-like “mystery knight” named Roam (a classic Ishinomori archetype in both personality and visual characterization). The inhabitants of Ganon’s dark world, a mirror reflection of Hyrule that changes the shape of people based on the truest form of their hearts, are also given small roles that help raise the stakes of Link’s battle. For example, immediately after Link is exiled to the dark world by Agahnim, he encounters a talking tree who explains to him that there are many other people who, for whatever reason, followed Ganon into the dark world only to become trapped there, doomed to wander as beasts or serve an evil master until a hero can purify the land. Such accounts add layers of depth to the story that aren’t to be found in the original game, in which the player progresses from objective to objective simply to experience the next challenge.

Despite the assistance of friends he encounters, Link is still one boy caught up in a legend much larger than his own life, a theme Ishinomori emphasizes with splash panels depicting Link as a faceless dot at one corner of a daunting landscape. In the game on which the manga is based, the enemy the player must engage most frequently is the environment itself, and the artist’s translation of this element into menacing backgrounds and elaborate framing devices is beautiful to behold. Ishinomori’s interpretation of Ganon’s castle, the revelation of which is a climactic moment, is especially awe-inspiring.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that there are also some fun Easter eggs for Zelda fans scattered throughout the manga. I don’t want to spoil all of them; but, to give an example, Link flies to the Desert Ruins in a winged hang glider. As the villager who provides him with this contraption recounts, “They say these miracle wings belonged to a powerful bird that carried the knights of Hyrule into battle!” In retrospect, this statement seems to refer to the events alluded to in Skyward Sword. And yet, considering that this was written more than ten years ago, one can’t help but wonder how much of the lore explored in more recent games was already in place as the earliest titles were being developed. Or, conversely, was this manga perhaps a guiding influence for subsequent world building?

This manga was originally serialized in the American gaming magazine Nintendo Power from January to December 1992. The following year, it was published as a full-color collected volume by Nintendo of America and in a black-and-white tankōbon by Shōgakukan in Japan. As such, it’s an interesting slice of both manga and video game history. Manga was still relatively unknown in the United States in 1992, and Viz Media only started publishing its groundbreaking Animerica magazine the following year. Meanwhile, Gail Tilden (the marketing manager at Nintendo of America) and the editors of Nintendo Power, the first publication of its kind, were responding to the sudden appearance of a rabid gaming public in the wake of U.S. release of Super Mario Bros. 3 in 1991. (More information about the early years of the magazine can be found in Jon Irwin‘s excellent Super Mario Bros. 2.) It’s extremely interesting that Nintendo was already attempting a manga/game media mix marketing strategy through the burgeoning medium of English-language video game journalism. It’s also interesting that Viz seems to be using a similar strategy – using the popularity of a gaming franchise to promote manga – with this new release.

Even if you don’t usually care for video games or manga, Ishinomori Shōtaro is a force of nature and a credit to the human race. Since it’s difficult to find his work in English translation, Viz’s new edition of A Link to the Past is a fantastic opportunity to see a master artist and storyteller at the top of his game.

A Link to the Past Link's Battle Against Trinexx

Anime Explosion!

anime-explosion

Title: Anime Explosion! The What? Why? & Wow! of Japanese Animation
Author: Patrick Drazen
Publication Year: 2003
Publisher: Stone Bridge Press
Pages: 369

When I got Anime Explosion! in the mail from Amazon, I was so excited. I had seen it on a friend’s bookshelf, and, silly cover illustration aside, it seemed like a fairly serious reference source on anime. Instead of merely listing one anime series after another, its chapters are structured around broad themes (portrayals of nature, anti-war messages, etc.), with chapters devoted to single works or directors at the end of the book. The chapters are filled with well-selected and well-formatted illustrations accompanied by captions that do not merely repeat what is in the text, and there are numerous footnotes, which are also well-formatted and easy to read. The bibliography at the end of the book references such serious scholarly works as Professor William LaFleur’s Liquid Life: Abortion and Buddhism in Japan as well as numerous creator interviews from the pages of the long defunct but still fondly remembered anime magazine Animerica. The book hits all the big bases, like Japanese folklore in anime, nudity in anime, the Pokémon phenomenon, Studio Ghibli, and even one of my personal favorite series, Revolutionary Girl Utena. What’s not to like?

The fact that Anime Explosion! is one of the more boring books I’ve ever read is not to like, actually. And you’ll have to believe me when I say that, during my six years in higher education, I have read some pretty boring books. During my two years in higher higher education, I have also read some pretty terrible student papers, and so I think I can put my finger on what I dislike about Anime Explosion! – it’s the plot summary. Pages and pages of it. All written in singularly uncreative and unevocative prose. Judging from the level of the language, I would say that, despite the occasional frank discussions of sex and sexuality, the target audience for this book is currently enrolled in middle school. The book also assumes that the reader knows nothing about Japan, which I suppose is fair; but, to those of us who have studied the country, the cultural clichés referenced over and over again come off as a little stale. There also isn’t much interpretation involved, and the little that does exist is tepid and sophomoric.

I hesitate to say this, as Drazen acknowledges this problem in both his introduction and his conclusion, but Anime Explosion! is also a bit dated. The individual works covered in the book are, for the most part, classics, and no amount of time is going to change that. In that sense, Drazen has done an excellent job of creating a reference work that will transcend the whims of an extremely capricious field. On the other hand, for having been published in 2003, this book feels like a relic from the mid-nineties. The internet? What is this strange thing? The Japanese bubble economy collapsed? Oh my god! Also, to me, a presumably serious scholar, many of the seventies and eighties era texts Drazen references (like Kitteridge Cherry’s Womansword: What Japanese Words Say About Women) can no longer be taken seriously. Also, for those fans curious about such recent phenomena as moe and hikikomori, there is nothing to be found.

All that being said, this is a solid book and may prove interesting to younger or more hard-core anime fans. And, to be fair, Drazen’s chapter on “Gay and Pseudo-Gay Themes in Anime” (which Drazen aptly titles “A Very Pure Thing”) is bold, insightful, and well ahead of its time. For those of us interested in how anime stereotypes came to be, chapters like “Shojodo: The Way of the Teenage Girl” are also useful. For older readers looking for thrills and entertainment, however, I would recommend an anime magazine like Otaku USA, which tends to function at a much higher level than Drazen’s well-meaning but regrettably prosaic reference work.