Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Hidden Gem: Psyren

Shonen manga was not in a Golden Age ten years ago. Manga in general wasn't so great. This is a controversial statement, but it really was in a bad place.

The Big 3 of One Piece, Naruto, and Bleach, were at their height, and every other manga in Shonen Jump was following suit copying them. You had a gang of "colorful" protagonists, you had a ridiculously strong antagonist, you had the characters train to beat said antagonist, then the arc ended. Rinse and repeat until 30 volumes are achieved and the story ends. Then the next shonen comes along to take its place. There was not much of anything for a fan that had been around during the real manga and anime Golden Age of the '80s and '90s to click with or sink their teeth into.

It's a bit hard to believe now with series like My Hero Academia, Promised Neverland, Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba, Dr. Stone, and World Trigger, offering a more rounded cast and involved story for all readers, but there were few series like this a decade ago. Manga writers were more keen to use flashy designs and art to hide the boring story and cookie cutter characters and ride the coattails of the Big 3's popularity in an era before the internet and market really blew up around the medium and many competitors arrived. For those weaned on classic manga, there wasn't much.

Loud and wild art was king, "good guys" were seen as weak and passe, and empty formula and characterization was key to not standing out from the crowd while melding into it. Series of flash and no substance like Hitman Reborn! and Soul Eater were considered top of the line despite having nothing much going on in them.

But this is what sold at the time. Had a series like My Hero Academia, or even Promised Neverland, had come out then, they would not have lasted. There was no room for classic storytelling at the time. Shonen was in a bad place though it has thankfully recovered since.

During this era of bland action and ankle deep characterization was one particular series that did manage to slip out of the pack to provide an exciting and adventure packed series that stood tall above the crowd. At least it did for a time, but I will get to that.

This series was called Psyren, an action/sci-fi/fantasy/horror/adventure tale with more going on than you would think at first. It ran for 145 chapters over 16 volumes from 2007-2010, right in the thick of a terrible time for manga and anime. As you can imagine, it had a rough run.

Psyren is a hard series to describe without getting into spoilers, but I will try my best to avoid them. Go read the first chapter for free on Viz's site to get most of the early twists and turns out of the way. You can find it here. After that, come back and continue this post. I really don't want to spoil the fun for you.

Back? Good. Let's continue.

Ageha Yoshina is a punk who does odd jobs for money. On his way home one day a payphone rings, but only his voice plays back to him. Eerie enough, but that's not where it ends. There he finds a card that says "Psyren" written on it. He goes to his Occult Club to find out the origin of this name and learns of an urban myth concerning people disappearing. This in the midst of public apathy being at an all-time high. But that's not all. One of his classmates is in trouble and might be involved in this shady business. Not to mention, all sorts of lowlifes are looking into it as whoever finds out the origin of "Psyren" could get a reward of half a billion yen.

This all happens in the first chapter. Whereas most first chapters these days (and at the time) are predictable and overly formulaic to a fault, Psyren lays mystery after mystery and ends with you stunned and wanting to read more just to know what was going on. In an age of bland shonen with stock comedy and bloodless action, this was truly an anomaly at the time. It turned out to be quite the wild ride, but the first chapter lays it all down.

In just the first chapter, Ageha deals with a missing girl, a strange phone call quiz in the middle of the night, being pursued by Yakuza, and gets himself transported to some crazy place where everything is a crater. The writer, Toshiaki Iwashiro, gives the reader a lot of questions, and parses out the answers while laying on more questions. It makes the series a bit of an addicting read.

All this made Psyren one of the best Shonen Jump series at the time of its run.

Unfortunately, it was also a bit ahead of its time as far as the zeitgeist goes.

I can't say anymore than that without spoiling all the exciting twists and turns of the series. If you are a fan of horror, 80s action, and themes of fate and destiny, then you will get a lot out of this. Psyren has everything the classics of the genre has. Characters grow, change, die, and every action and decision can alter the fate of the world itself, and does. Everything ties together and works to such a satisfying degree.

The action sequences in this series are clearly inspired from an older sort of shonen manga that was not around at the time. They are intense, weird, and highly engaging on a plot level. Whereas everything then was very bishonen, clean, and without much pathos, Psyren strove to bring the old adventure pulp spirit back to the genre.

And it succeeded. 

From a personal standpoint, I do consider this one of the best series Shonen Jump has run, and easily the most overlooked. It should have gotten an anime and much more support from Shueisha than it ultimately did. But, unfortunately, it just came out at the wrong time. Would Psyren had come out ten years earlier or later it would have been big. But as of now it's simply a cult hit.

It also narrowly missed the new wave of shonen happening now. It ended in 2010 two years short of World Trigger's start and the beginning of the change towards more pulp and classic manga inspired series. It was a victim of the uninspired era it belonged to.

This is why it ended early, which leads to the real downside of the series. It has a rushed ending.

The twists and turns and growth that happen in this series is more than anything a series like Beelzebub ever managed. The plot moves, things happen and the story advances, and yet it never feels badly paced. Which says a lot as it is only 16 volumes long.

Normally this wouldn't be a problem, but the series should have been longer. Unfortunately, the author was told to wrap it up by the editor just as the story entered the final arc. As a result, a series that should have been around 20 volumes ended up at 16 instead. It was cut off early because it just didn't match the tone of the magazine and they wanted a new series closer to their (at the time) very bland direction. Psyren was clearly a victim of its era.

No one is really sure why it was officially canceled as it had good magazine rankings and sales, had two novels and a drama CD, and was popular overseas, but it was still hobbled by the state of the industry at the time. There was, as baffling as it is to say, no anime for it, despite it still ranking on lists of manga that should have adaptions and never got one even though it ended over seven years ago.

There was little reason to cancel it. It was certainly replaced by a series no one remembers these days, especially in such a forgettable era for manga. Honestly, even though Psyren should have been around 20 volumes with a fully fleshed out finale, the rushed nature of the final arc doesn't hurt the series that much. All the events play out as they should and all the important questions are answered, and the ending is picture perfect.

It's, simply put, a great read.

My advice is that if you are a fan of genre stories and manga or anime that you go into this one blind. I can promise you that you won't read anything else like it, even now where manga is the best its been in years.

But there were some gems that still remained buried, despite the need to be uncovered. Psyren is definitely one of them. Don't pass it up.

Now that shonen manga is in another age of quality it is the perfect moment to go back and find what was missed because there is a good amount of buried treasure. Psyren is easily one of the best, and deserved better than it ultimately got, though those that read it still remain loyal to it years after its run has completed.

At the end of the day, that's what truly matters.

And if you're interested in action packed novels, I have one of my own.

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