Ryu Fujisaki is penning a new manga adaptation of Legend of The Galactic Heroes, which I’ve talked about recently, so it feels apt to cast the spotlight on his most prominent previous work: the quirky, epic, and rather underappreciated Hoshin Engi.
A funky re-imagining of classic Chinese novel Fengshen Yanyi, the 23-volume manga (also partially adapted into anime) immediately stands out among the same-y shounen action series in its era, thanks to the Chinese-inspired setting, heavy doses of political intrigue, and a humongous cast that’s well-utilized for the most part. That cast does have a few important human characters in it, but it’s the sennin and doushi (aboveland residents and superior human, other living beings, and even physical objects who have ascended to higher plane of existence) who make up the composition by far. The crux of the narrative itself is the Hoshin Project: a master plan to stop evil temptress Dakki, a youkai sennin, who have ruined the ruling In dynasty through sexual enslavement of its emperor.
Taikoubou, the main character and the man tasked to carry out the Hoshin Project, might be the most interesting element of the series. ‘Bou is much more of a tactician instead of a fighter, one that relies on stratagem and cunning maneuvers instead of punch-the-enemies-harder-than-they-punch-you brute force. His lazy and oftentimes shameless mannerism is a far departure from your typical noble and hot-blooded shounen action leads, but that’s also what makes him uniquely appealing. It’s still very easy to like Taikoubou for his remarkable tactical nous, genuine moral compass beneath the deceptively uncaring facade, and the fact that he always plays underdog (even his own allies constantly doubt his capacity!).
Put it another way, there’s a definitely a shade of Galactic Heroes’ Yang Wenli in Taikoubou, and it’s a protagonist type that we don’t get to see often enough.
As a byproduct of Taikoubou’s nature, many battles and confrontations in Hoshin Engi are comparatively more cerebral than your typical Shounen Jump series. There’s still a high amount of SJ-esque flashy weapons and abilities, power-ups, and gauntlet of battles, but in the big scheme of things, it’s about outwitting rather than overpowering the opposition. I especially enjoy the ones where Taikoubou gets incapacitated early (this happens pretty often…) but still manage to pull off a victory by pulling the strings through his allies. Once in a while, we also get re-enactment of classic army tactic as pictured above.
Besides Chinese history and mythology, Fujisaki’s also a fan of Yoshiki Tanaka novels, and it shows in the nature of conflict and world-building in Hoshin Engi. The first four volumes of Hoshin Engi might be the most dense opening of a shounen manga that I’ve ever read; dozens of characters are introduced, factions are established right and left, and the scale of the conflict as well as the sheer monstrosity of the main villainess are underlined right away. There are shades of grey, a whole gamut of alignment in terms of characters’ motivation and philosophy, and no simple solution to the problem—as Taikoubou discovers quickly and very painfully by the end of second volume.
Another thing that stands out from Fujisaki’s writing is his sense of humor, which oftentimes get aggressively zany. Characters constantly flip out, taking the piss out of each other, and pull wacky faces, in a story with body count on the vicinity of millions (as well as sizable amount of named characters, naturally), no less. One of my favorite gags is when a Mid-Boss type character, convinced that he had vanquished the main character, literally pulls out the credit screen and introduces the new comic that’d replace Hoshin Engi’s Shounen Jump slot—followed by Fujisaki drawing several pages of this intentionally horrible ‘new series’ .
The comedic sensibility also extends to the artwork, particularly the character design. While most of the major male characters are drawn in bishounen style, there’s also a bunch of oddball design in the cast, as well as extremely questionable fashion sense in general. Oversized gloves, boots, and headwear are the norms, as the characters prance around looking like literal clowns and sporting the kind of outfit that’d make Russell Westbrook blushes.
I mean, look at this guy, who’s supposed to be one of the scariest and most powerful characters in the series:
It’s not to say that the manga doesn’t take itself seriously when it needs to, it’s just that the tonal shift could come fast and hard. A character may spend entire chapter goofing around only to be snuffed quickly by the end of it, or you may have a zany cooking show that later reveals its use of a certain character in the recipe and whose meat is then served as hamburger to the poor dude’s incarcerated father. It could get a bit jarring, but it’s a good thing that Fujisaki generally pulls the gut punches as well as he does his gags. There’s something to be said when most of your cast are natural dorks and goof-offs; it humanizes them a lot, and makes it even more painful when they meet their end.
Hoshin Engi makes it clear pretty fast that it’s heading to a more complex direction than just ‘defeat the evil fox lady’. It becomes a full-blown war eventually, where alliances and power dynamics shift, sacrifices are made, and twists and turns happen. I think it doesn’t end as strongly as it begins, mainly because the later volumes’ shift toward big twists and big fights over geopolitical intrigue and build-up, but it’s still a solid series with many distinct elements. Definitely one shounen series that I’d always remember with a fond note.