Ten-Tenna Toori no Kaidanji (hereafter referred to as Ten) is a manga that ran in Monthly Kindai Mahjong for a 14-year period from 1989 to 2002, and the work that catapulted the award-winning mangaka Nobuyuki Fukumoto into the Japanese spotlight. Though it is less well-known in western circles than the author’s other works (Gambling Apocalypse Kaiji, Akagi), it is by no means an inferior product. Indeed, it is in many ways his best work, a sublime combination of the author’s trademark gritty, greasy yakuza storylines with dynamic storyboarding and a quasi-religious journey through the author’s philosophy on life.
Ten as a manga very neatly breaks down into two parts. The series begins an intricate buildup phase that is, in large part thanks to the author’s artisan touch at storyboarding, extremely entertaining in its own right. It ends with a payoff that blows that buildup out of the water, emptying its entire arsenal of character development in a series of five conversations.
The first 15 volumes contain stories of battles fought in underworld of mahjong, centering around a showdown between the Eastern school led by the titular Ten Takeshi and the Western school led by yakuza boss Harada Katsumi. This part of Ten is presented as a mahjong battle series, and it is that. The main focus of those first 15 are characters sitting around tables playing variations on an Asian tile game. However, that’s not to say it’s slow or boring. You see, Ten uses that mahjong and how it’s played to delve deep down into the thoughts of the players. The author presents their thoughts as they worry over each decision with cinematic flair in near stream-of-consciousness detail, such that the viewers get a feel for their personalities while barely ever seeing them outside of a mahjong table.
Camerawork contributes volumes to great manga
The personalities of these six main cast members become very defined as the mahjong portion of the manga goes on. The eponymous Ten is a man with a kind heart and few attachments, a seemingly lackadaisical cheater who is actually quite skilled at the game. The old man he spends ample time recruiting, Asai Ginji, is a frail pile of bones relying on a fragile system of marking tiles who knows that his current match is probably one of his last. The manga’s most reader-friendly character is college student named Hiroyuki Ogawa, whose sharp mind and desire for thrills and profit have lead him deeper into the world of underground mahjong, where he realizes his own crushing inferiority to those around him. The series’ cheif villain, Harada, is a calculating Yakuza boss not afraid to take risks when it suits his needs. He’s joined on the West side by the geriatric legend Soga Mitsui, coming out for battle again to reclaim his reputation from a younger expert who stole his fame. Said theif of his fame, charismatic genius Akagi Shigeru, is the most skilled player of the cast, with an unconventional playstyle and unconventional ideals to match.
The final 3 volumes make use of all the above characterization in a series of five dialogues on the nature of life and death, while retaining the fluid narrative style which pervades the first 15. The fact that Fukumoto was able to get what was effectively a 3-year period of no mahjong being played in a manga published in a magazine devoted to mahjong past editors speaks to the popularity he was able to generate for the series. These dialogues present themes that are on their face very basic; fear of death, fear of aging, what it means to life a good life, etc. The unique angle here is that the readers get to watch them argued by characters who, at this point in the manga, practically jump off the page with authenticity. And the opinions they come out with are anything but cliched. If you think you’ve seen manga deal with the subject of death before, and you haven’t read The Embalmer, you’d be well-served to attempt to give both manga a shot, as each of those two open radical and radically different cans of worms on the issue of character death. The analogy there may be flawed, as Ten’s finale is an engrossing gourmet spread of food for thought.
The point to be made about Ten’s art style is the same point to be made about the art style in every other Fukumoto series. That point is as follows; the characters are ugly, but that’s not because the author can’t draw. The characters are ugly because they’re all scum inside, to some degree; Ten is a series featuring the ignoble lives of gamblers, and the character designs make it impossible to forget that. Also, the specific style of character design Fukumoto uses is actually very expressive, and complements the narration in giving an excellent feel for the emotions a given character is feeling.
Expressing lethargy this well is actually kind of hard
Ten is a manga which is very much worth reading cover-to-cover. I wouldn’t necessary recommend it to anyone, but I absolutely vouch for the level of quality the manga consistently delivers. Full disclosure: it’s one of my personal top 5.
Art Style – 5/5
Characterization – 5/5
Micropacing – 5/5
Macropacing – 2/5
Story – 5/5
Overall: 22 points, 10/10