Benkei in New York
Story by Jinpachi Mori
Art by Jiro Taniguchi
Originally published by Shogukukan (1995)
Length: 1 Volume (7 chapters)
I often find there is a correlation between how I discover manga and the type of experiences I have with them. There are manga that are recommended to me first-hand by friends, and usually these pieces resonate with me on a more personal level. There are some manga that are recommended to me based on previous manga I’ve read, and they are usually good too, sometimes a bit too close with what I’ve just been reading. The manga that are usually the most intriguing to me are ones I stumble across completely by accident. Without any preconceived notions, I find some small element of interest, and with that I take a leap. That is how I found ‘Benkei in New York’, and I’m so glad I did. It wasn’t the most original piece, and it’s far from the most inventive, but it was such a pleasure to read. I would lie if I said I didn’t read sometime for reading’s sake, or that I push through smaller, undeveloped series just to finish them. But this piece was surprisingly immersive at times, and reminded me the value of reading for enjoyment.
The story of Benkei was never bad, but it was never ‘its own’ per say. To use the term ‘classic’ in describing this noire-mystery series would be extremely accurate. It takes all the best parts of the genre and meshes it into seven clean, episodic chapters. It was an interesting concept to explore, as I feel noire comics aren’t very prolific in Japan, or at least they’re buried under the dominant shonen-battle manga series. But this manga… It’s so noir that it makes readers realise what noir actually is. It’s not necessarily about solving mysteries or overly dark aesthetics like the name might suggest. It’s about this looming, sombre atmosphere. Things feel like they’re being done out of necessity for survival, and even when there is some form of success, there is no happiness, but an air of sadness. This is only emphasised by our protagonist, Benkei, a Japanese artist/hitman living in New York. Not only does he live in a place shrouded in grey, his daily actions are situated between the black and white of morality.
The storylines were often formulaic, but smooth nonetheless. I really got invested in the last couple of chapters, but it had nothing to do with the characters. Our protagonist, Benkei, was outstandingly bland. There was no backstory, no reactions and no real emotion that made us empathise with the character. During the first few chapters, I did feel a sense of mystery with him. But over the course of the manga, there never felt like there were stakes because he was so overpowered. And not only that, the way that he reacted to other events around him – e.g. deaths, kidnappings – made me feel slightly indifferent to my surroundings too. Nothing useful was revealed about him in any sense, and I can’t confidently tell you the protagonist in this manga is not a robot.
Despite some disappointment character wise, the manga did have many redeeming qualities. As soon as I saw his name on the front cover, I knew what to expect quality-wise from the art. Jiro Taniguchi’s masterful artwork shows not only his skill, but diversity. A recurring critique of Taniguchi’s art in this series was its underwhelming nature, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. An important aspect of the ‘noir’ genre is not only the atmosphere that shrouds its readers, but how its physically displayed. The sombre elements that protrude from this series are emphasised by the greying and darkening cities that our morally ambiguous characters reside in. Obviously grey, black and white are the primary colours of all manga series, but the existential indifference that resonates with particular shades of grey in this manga make each moment… melancholy. There is never a feeling of happiness or achievement. After each chapter, the reader isn’t ecstatic, filled with inspirational energy. If anything, we sigh. We’re exhausted by the events that have transpired, and we’re ready to end the day. And while the writing almost forces the reader to feel like they are in a noir-epic, the artistry really creates the feeling on an authentic level.
Aside from its noir-elements, Taniguchi’s art never shies away from what the story is telling, whether that involves blood, guts or other graphic scenes. The characters were good at subtly conveying time and place, and sometimes they were so accurate it allowed the authors to create more shocking storytelling (e.g. characters doing things they don’t look like they’d do). My only gripe with the art is that sometimes characters looked a little too similar, and it made it hard to form connections with characters I thought I was familiar with, then to realise I’ve jumbled up a bunch of them.
While I didn’t have a profound awakening when reading “Benkei in New York”, it was a really enjoyable read and reminded me of how rewarding reading manga can be. Some smart writing combined with exceptional artwork made for a really sombre read, something that was no doubt intended. If you overlook some of its intricacies, this manga can look like a “safe”, or underwhelming read. But for me, it encapsulated a particular way of making readers feel. It isn’t potent, and it definitely isn’t overwhelming. But it does linger.
Art – 9
Story – 7
Writing – 7
Overall – 8/10