My reviews of earlier volumes of Master Keaton go against the critical consensus that Keaton is an anthology series and take the iconoclastic point of view that Hokusai Katsushika and Naoki Urasawa’s Master Keaton is, instead, a serial novel, with the kind of internal consistency that you get in long form fiction. While I still feel volumes one and two are so rich with continuity as to read like the HBO version of seinen manga and sustain my earlier interpretation, later volumes are indeed more like a box of chocolates, an assorted collection of goodies that are lovely to look at and sweetened with a moral.
Which isn’t to say that Master Keaton isn’t my favorite Viz Signature series. While the earlier stories took more risks and were more exciting, the current volumes are still enjoyable. I still like it a little more than Goodnight, Punpun, if mainly due to preferring upbeat stories and having kindled my Master Keaton fandom through the series. But if I wasn’t already a Master Keaton fanboy, I might find the artificial sweetness of the stories in volume 11 not satisfying, but saccharine, and the morality no longer human and warm, but stilted.
That Master Keaton found its formula is a wonderful thing, in that it produced so many Master Keaton stories, with one more volume to come after this one, and totaling around 3700 pages of Taichi’s adventures when all is said and done. That Master Keaton was lost in its formula is less than wonderful. To date, volume 11 has possibly the best example of Master Keaton losing its way, when in “Made in Japan,” we get three chapters of Yuriko, Keaton’s daughter and a fantastically expressive character in previous stories, and find that Yuriko’s light is gone. The creators must have realized that she lost her liveliness while waiting in the wings, as her contributions to this story are meager, amounting to a charmed existence as the McGuffin that drives both the hero and the villain toward the story’s resolution. Ironically, the best feature of “Made in Japan” is its characterization of another character, the villain Nakamura, a pitiable but nonetheless deadly poisoner. That Nakamura has a visceral characterization, and Yuriko has become a ghost of her prior self, may simply be due to the fact that the former fits the profile of a Master Keaton story, while the latter has become incongruous.
The strongest story in Volume 11 is “Lost Beyond the Wall,” a bittersweet tale set after the fall of the Berlin Wall, in which love conquers all after despair has its day. Second is “Return of the Super-Sleuth?!”, in which Barnum returns to bully Keaton through a light-hearted murder comedy, and third is “The Lost Genius Director,” a satisfying tale despite its conclusion, which is solved through an appeal to deus ex machina, or should I say deus ex videotape. It would only be fair to point out that a crime solved by security footage was probably more original when this was written, before the last twenty-five years of crime procedural television made it trite. Moreover, a crime that’s rooted in film reels and revealed by a videotape is a very poetic premise. That said, “The Lost Genius Director” succeeds mostly due to the strength of the characterization and the backdrop: a visionary but sleazy Tinseltown trapped in its reels and tapes.
The weakest story in Volume 11 is “Love from the Otherworld,” in which a trusted servant is revealed to be the ghost, and Katherine Dacey of The Manga Critic has already compared to classic Scooby-Doo. This is an apt comparison that I could only outdo by flexing my pedantry. As all of Scooby-Doo takes its form from Carl Barks’ “The Old Castle’s Secret”–and as that story has a criminal masquerading as a trusted servant masquerading as a ghost—it would be truer to say that “Love from the Otherworld” owes a huge debt to Carl Barks, and unfortunately is not enriched as a result of this infusion. I realize that this is a slap in the face to all you Scooby-Doo fans, but—well, there it is.
Despite my criticism that the later Keaton stories keep returning to formula rather than take the risks of the character-establishing first and second volumes, Volume 11 is nonetheless an entertaining anthology, and it’s highly recommended for Master Keaton fans. If you’re looking for something to share with your non-manga reading friends and family, give them Volume One to read instead.
Viz Media sent the review copy.