This is a work of unbelievable quality: a proper confessionary bildungsroman in plot, a masterpiece in art, blossoming with loving depiction of Japanese motorcycles – in motion, no less, at night, in city lights, running, growling, flowing. Personally, I think Tsutomu Takahashi usually bites more than he can chew with his concepts, but in Bakuon Rettou he truly overdelivers. It’s a mature work of a mature mangaka, who draws from years lived and pages drawn – and emerges in unimaginable power.
The story is autobiographic. The author himself was a part of a biker gang, of bosozoku – a subculture drawing its last breaths in 80-s when the events of the manga take place, and outlived it. In the ending notes he says that he wanted to write this story before he hit 44, after which he thought he would lack the energy to write about teenage experience, he even discarded another promising concept for it. But you start to suspect the personal nature of the story much earlier. It has the qualities of best childhood novels – it’s raw, painful and doesn’t pull punches, it lends them all in fact. The early mushy and embarrassing foundations of life are mercilessly examined.
The main character, Takashi, at that point of his life is a lowlife shitty kid, who may or may not grow. Reared in a broken home, an early school dropout, he protests and seeks and fails as he can through his boyhood. And at the very precipice of it, he encounters his biker gang, drawn in by the idea of comradery and purpose. He meets other similar boys and girls, mostly boys. They gather at evenings and ride together.
I would have never imagined it is possible to draw a mass of moving motorcycles so well. The light beams, the shapes, the machine details – you practically feel the warm wind of Tokyo night blowing in your face, you hear the roar, feel the exhilaration. Takashi starts the engine of his bike, leans in and smiles tenderly, and you understand why. Bakuon Rettou revels in these moments of freedom. After all, according to the author, it’s also a manga about young boys feeling invincible.
The gang connects several generations of young men. Their life trajectories are very different. Not everyone has the luck to survive, not all choices are good choices. The manga starts as a historical piece with a heavy dose of psychology – Takashi is directionless, alienated as forming brains usually feel, we observe the epoch, the last stands of bosuzoku, the people of this gap in the society. But as their time to be reckless runs out, it’s a race of who survives, who graduates into adulthood. The stakes are high, it’s genuinely gripping. The ending is a bit didactic – but why exactly not?
Bakuon Rettou roughly translates as Detonation Islands, and you can’t build on light, sound or emotion. It’s about transient, but also formative time, a beautiful, but costly freedom, available only once. It has this sense of duality, of good and bad forming a unique life. The comments of the author are positive – he speaks about fun times and the surviving friends, but it often reads rather heavy, to be honest. Contrary to his notes, I think he should’ve been at 40+ to be able to analyze that messy age with such a mature balance.
He is and he can tho. Bakuon Rettou is so overly, excitingly good it’s almost scary. The usual overambitiousness of the author is finally replaced with something warm and living, true to psychology and the time period, thanks to the autobiographical roots.
The art is majestic too, displaying expressionism and plasticity rarely seen in manga, with a wealth of detail, of human types, of places. With the addition of the incredible motorcycle drawings, neither simplified nor overly technical. These drawn motorcycles would alone have gotten my recommendation for this manga on the worst of my days. The two pages spreads depicting bosozoku night rides are what comics has been invented for, it’s a loss not to see them.
The same can be said about Bakuon Rettou as a whole. If you wanted a strong psychological manga – here you go. A bildungs-manga – even better, for its depiction of the growing pains puts Bakuon Rettou on the level of Punpun. You like Tsutomu Takahashi as an author? The thing in front of you may be his masterpiece. And if you are interested in motorcycles and biker subcultures – go no further. Bakuon Rettou is honestly major. Big manga, big heart, big drawings, big skill, a big chunk of life gifted to a reader. It breathes and it beats and it roars like a powerful engine. It's a loss for a manga fan not to read it. It was a fantastic ride.