Jun 6, 2012
"For fifteen years, we've chased one man... or rather, one boy. All over Japan... no, from one end of the world to the other...!"
Ishinomori Shotaro's Skull Man (or Skullman, or The Skull Man, depending on your preferred romanization) is a 100 page oneshot that ran in Weekly Shounen Magazine in January of 1970 as the third entry in a string of one shots from various popular authors celebrating the New Year. Its biggest cultural achievement is likely its role as the predecessor of Kamen Rider, but Skull Man itself has enjoyed a decent amount of popularity both at the time of its release and up
into the present. Although the story is not without flaws and does date itself in a handful of ways, a quick read through is all it takes to show even a modern reader just why Skull Man is so persistently popular and compelling.
The plot of Skull Man is a bit tricky to talk about because it can come off as a bit predictable but was almost certainly much fresher and comparatively innovative at the time. (Remember that Skull Man had a significant influence on Ishinomori's later series Kamen Rider, which completely changed the face of science fiction and super hero media in Japan and is still incredibly popular to this day.) Given a bit of leeway in light of the temporal dissonance, Skull Man's use of a vengeful antihero as a "masked hero" protagonist in a mainstream shounen magazine reveals itself to be rather innovative and speaks well of Ishinomori's preference for good stories over just going with popular trends. Skull Man also does a good job of creating tension in regards to its title character's motivation and backstory, with various events leading up to the revelation finally clicking into place in the final pages. One unfortunate glaring flaw in the story is how rushed the ending seems. Kagura's backstory is dumped into blocks of text surrounded by related images over two pages instead of being told in story form -- even compressed -- to match the pages leading up to it. The denouement that follows is rushed and confusing, giving the unfortunate impression that Ishinomori was sloppy with his storyboarding, ran out of pages, and had to cram as much as he could into the last dozen pages or so.
Similar to the plot, the art of Skull Man benefits from keeping the temporal context in mind. Like a number of other shounen series from the '60s and '70s, Skull Man demonstrates Ishinomori's artistic skill with its beautifully detailed backgrounds but by contrast has rather disappointingly simplistic character designs. This sorts itself out quickly and characters like Kagura and the police have designs that fit the overall tone of the series well enough, but it's hard to deny that the scientist characters that appear during Skull Man's first appearance are unfittingly cartoonish, looking more like something from one of Tezuka Osamu's more kid-friendly works or even early Disney. This makes some sense, as Ishinomori got his start as an assistant to Tezuka, but it still gives a poor impression of the work's overall tone to have such cartoonish characters appear so early in a work intended to come across as thematically dark and even horror-oriented. Sandwiched between a dark and violent opening and later more fitting character designs it seems to not be a significant problem, but considering both the relatively brief length of the story and the scene's importance as the first appearance of Skull Man, it at the very least merits a mention.
On the topic of the limited page count, an area where it really has an impact is character development and characterization. Skull Man's primary content focus is on action and intrigue, developing the plot rather than revealing much about the characters until the infodump at the end. Much of what is known about characters, particularly Kagura Tatsuo, is gleaned from offhand remarks and vague implication. While this subtle and thought-provoking method meshes well with the overall dark and serious tone of the manga, its lack of clarity leaves something to be desired. Nonetheless the characters are interesting enough and consistent in their actions even when they might seem a little less than well-rounded, so for a work more focused on action and intrigue it's certainly not the disaster it could be in other genres.
Although stilted character development, occasional quirky character designs, and a mildly predictable storyline might make Skull Man sound unappealing, in reality each is an issue that pops up only in isolated incidents that provide brief hiccups in a reading experience rather than ruining it outright. Above and beyond its significance as an influential early sci-fi super hero manga and a work by a prolific and highly regarded creator, Skull Man does in fact still provide an entertaining and compelling read that I would comfortably recommend unconditionally to any fan of '70s shounen manga, short sci-fi works, Japanese masked heroes, or the works of Ishinomori Shotaro in general.
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