MMF: Likeability

Note: This is the first thing I wrote about Wild Adapter from way back when I was doing Flipped columns for Comic World News. Usually I look at these old things and am visited with an urge to rewrite them from top to bottom, but I stand by every word of this one.

When storytellers devote a lot of narrative space to supporting characters extolling the virtues of their protagonists, it’s reasonable to suspect there isn’t a lot there. That kind of cheerleading can come across an unconvincing hard sell by a creator who suspects on some level that they haven’t provided enough reasons for the audience to reach a favorable opinion on their own.

Most of the cast of Kazuya Minekura’s Wild Adapter pause to muse on the intriguing qualities of Makoto Kubota, the mahjong-loving weirdo at the story’s center. In this case, they have reason, because he’s fascinating. But, then, fictional sociopaths generally are.

Kubota isn’t an especially malevolent sociopath; he’s not a Hannibal Lecter. But he views humankind with blithe, self-serving curiosity rather than empathy. He seems susceptible to neither anger nor warmth, and his interactions are driven by either self-preservation or their potential for amusement. He neatly sums up his worldview in an early chapter after he’s won a leadership position with the yakuza equivalent of Junior Achievement: “It was him or me, and I always choose me.”

So why is he engrossing rather than loathsome? It’s partly due to his imperviousness to opinion, which comes across as genuine as opposed to a constructed posture to win approval. It’s indifference without malice or ulterior motive; he has his interests and his needs, and they really don’t involve other people.

He’s also funny. Even surrounded by a central-casting crowd of mobsters and whores, he doesn’t modulate his behavior in the slightest. He’s quirky, blunt and unpredictable. With the macho posturing and calculating seduction that are part and parcel of the yakuza milieu, it’s not surprising that Kubota makes an impression. He’s refreshing.

I know I’m going on and on about Kubota, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a creator pull off this kind of character as well as Minekura has here. I’ve seen plenty of storytellers try to invest an essentially unsympathetic character with charisma, and some even succeed, but Minekura absolutely nails it.

And liking Kubota, or at least being drawn to him, is absolutely central to liking Wild Adapter. As Minekura says in her closing notes, the first volume is essentially a prologue, allowing the reader to get to know Kubota and his world. There are hints of a plot (something involving a mysterious drug with the kind of side effects that don’t lend themselves to repeated use, so you know it isn’t a product of organized crime), but the volume’s primary function is introductory.

For me, it’s entirely successful. I’m sufficiently engrossed in Kubota to be fairly relaxed about where the plot might go. In a lot of manga I really like, I’ve noticed a high level of symbiosis between characters and the series they inhabit. Carefully crafting protagonists and taking pains to introduce them properly gives a narrative more weight than clever plot construction or instant momentum. (Look at Emma and Nana.) I get the sense that Wild Adapter is going to fit into that mold.

Attractive art never hurts, and Minekura provides. Unsurprisingly, I’m particularly taken with her character designs. There are strong shônen-ai elements to the story, but a cast of ridiculously beautiful boys isn’t one of them.

Minekura’s work is stylized, but her characters still look like people. Kubota’s coolness is more internal than aesthetic; he actually bears more than a passing resemblance to Madarame from Genshiken. Komiya, Kubota’s second-in-command, looks like a kid trying to appear tough, achieving an effect that’s an odd mixture of creepy and vulnerable. The supporting cast is delineated with similar care, even characters that are only around for a handful of pages.

Tokyopop seems to have spared less expense than usual with production. The book opens with some elegant plates with spot-color, and the paper quality is nice. Even better, the translation by Alexis Kirsch and adaptation by Christine Boylan make for very fluid reading. The attention to individual character voices is particularly welcome; it gives the world of the story extra layers.

I admit that when I first heard Wild Adapter described as a teen gangster drama with shônen-ai and science fiction overtones, I wasn’t particularly intrigued. Having read it repeatedly, with no diminishing returns in terms of enjoyment, I’m eager for more. Minekura has brought potentially outlandish story elements into service of a surprisingly nuanced, character-driven drama.