Written by Robert Frazer on 01 Oct 2015
Distributor Dark Horse • Author/Artist Hiroki Endo • Price £8.50
George R.R. Martin's languorous writing on Game of Thrones has caused it to be frequently suggested that the corpulent sexagenarian could well die before concluding his grand cycle (indeed earlier in July this year Martin gave readers worried that he is going to "pull a Robert Jordan" the finger in a television interview, an interesting comment on various fanbases' sense of entitlement), and we could well say the same for Dark Horse's release of Eden: It's an Endless World! Although it ended its eighteen-volume and ten-year run in Afternoon magazine way back in 2008, seven years later in 2014 we're still not even close to finishing the English release of a manga whose first volume was translated back in 2005... and not only that, it's been well over three full years since the Western publication of the last volume, 13 in 2011. There's been one lonely copy of volume 13 sitting on the manga shelves of my local Forbidden Planet that entire time - every so often I cast a glance over at it when browsing to see if it a second copy of anything had joined it, only to be continually disheartened at that solitary sentinel of a retreating era. In a particularly pathetic example of how moribund the English Eden series had become, the gap stretched out to such a length that on a few occasions I'd forget that volume 13 was an old copy and excitedly picked it up as the longed-for continuation only to deflate with remembrance as I approached the checkout - everything old is new again, sometimes literally, and that "It's an Endless World!" subtitle is becoming increasingly... unfortunate. Even though a new release has finally percolated down through the Dark Horse offices, it still remains the case that at this rate, the manga will not be officially concluded until I'm in my forties... when that time eventually comes around, will a volume like this allow me to look back on my time in Eden as one of ease and plenty, or is it not so much an Endless World as an interminable one?
The Endless World of Eden is a recognisable but different near-future - one where the political order has been shaken to its roots by the devastation wrought by the Closure Virus. This petrifying plague, whose global pandemic killed off a sixth of the world's population, covering their skin in unbreakable shells so that the victims suffocate from within, leaves hollow rotted-out husks standing where they froze as sterile, desolate funerary statues, a bleak reflection of civilised Athenian grace. While the old nations and blocs still exist, they are weakened and ramshackle and steadily falling under the influence and control of the Propater Federation, a New World Order whose Guardians seek to free the world from the low bodily suffering of the preceding decades by recovering and realising the ancient Gnostic principles of elevating spiritual knowledge. It's something equally being achieved not by politics and social control but by science and engineering in a time of great technological ferment, as revolutions in cybernetics and bionics are allowing humans to discard their frail fleshy forms and liberate their consciousnesses as cyborgs. However, while the superficial outward forms of the Earth have changed, it still remains an "Endless World" in that the underlying problems of war, famine, racism, addiction, hate and exploitation are not only continuing but expanding, as for all its high ideals Propater is seemingly helplessly slipping back into being about its leaders' material enrichment.
In the midst of all this tumult is Elijah Ballard, son of Ennoia, the most powerful drug lord in South America. Although you could expect Elijah to be a bratty mafia princeling (and he does rather indulge in the pleasures of the flesh) he has a quietly profound sense of self-reliance and justice found in him by his years of living rough in a Closure-devastated city before he was rediscovered by his father. It's these drives which propel him now to rescue his sister Mana, abducted and held hostage by Propater as security against the coalition of minority groups that Ennoia has assembled to lead resistance to Propater's encroaching, domineering power. Standing against the world's intercontinental masters may seem like suicide, but with the allies gathered on his travels and a knowledge of the new sciences, can he still prevail against Propater's might and show that the world can change after all?
The art which depicts that world is actually well-expressed on the cover, which is more than just an unconnected eye-catch. Dark Horse gives all of Eden's releases the same style of spine to make it look neat when arranged on a shelf-row, but whereas pretty much every manga ever published has a consistent title logo to stamp down brand recognition, the front covers of each volume of Eden: It's an Endless World! instead have a unique logo drawn for them each time, integrated into the artwork rather than just being a sticker pasted over the top. It's strongly indicative of a sense of care and detail in the artwork, and it certainly applies to the manga proper. Endo is more than up to the task of depicting the mechanical elements of futuristic technologies as wires snake and socket, bionic limbs seam and split unfolding new appendages, screens hum with reams of glowing data, and the skin peels back on steel skulls while servos whir on the focusing lenses of camera-eyes. The vision designing these technologies will be immediately familiar to anyone who's read or watched Ghost in the Shell and more recently played Deus Ex: Human Revolution -and that's no bad thing. The clear effort shown in the detail stops it from being dismissed as lazily derivative - not just a Xeroxed imitation hoping the shadow of another will blot out its lack of quality, but an independently equal member of a stylistic tradition - while the style itself grants the story a contemporary, believable image that supports the manga's desire to make real-world commentary. The human figures in this environment are very clean, close to photographic with some concessions to large expressive eyes for younger characters, and even scenes of some pretty savage limb-lopping violence are treated very dispassionately. It may not be the most evocative approach but you could equally say that a documentarian style again helps Endo's objectives with the story, and you can't fault his anatomy and other technical aspects of the body. The strictly-scrubbed cleanness can have an after-effect though in that Endo's backgrounds are very... boxy, with strictly geometric architecture exactly scored by the edge of a steel rule, but this does not mean that it's undeveloped - he more than ably compensates with a high level of detail in the features and depth of these buildings to keep the environments interesting. Action sequences can also seem quite static, more posed than mobile, but whickering strings of blood around in the arc of sword-swipes and the path of exiting bullets is a simple but efficient way to show movement rather than just blinding the page in speed-lines. There is a great deal of variety of the incidents in this action as well, with tactics and strategy employed as much as combat money-shots, so I'm happy to report that the "jaw-dropping battle sequences" in the blurb are justified.
So much for the position of the players in the endless world, but how does Endo decree that they move within it? It's evident that Endo wants to say something, and get us to swallow it by hiding a dose of undergrad PPE in the pill of an exciting action-adventure. Just as the visual style of Eden resembles Ghost in the Shell, so also does its ambitions (I think it unfairly arch and condescending to call them pretensions) of commentary, leavened from pondering immanent philosophy into applied particular politics with a sense not unlike Metal Gear Solid's melodramatic techno-fantasy... and its prolonged talky cutscenes too. Each scene of Elijah's dramatic, explosion-filled and action-packed rescue of Maya is book-ended with a few quiet pages of his father Ennoia sitting in a comfortable stately home discussing the problems of the world with the captured chairman of the Propater Federation... who, in a rather alarming coincidence which gives Eden perhaps a bit too much raw real-world immediacy, was caught when his passenger jet was intercepted over the Ukraine...! While these alternating scenes could be complimented for settling out the action plot into clear digestible beats so that the reader gets to breathe and doesn't get lost in an unrelenting mesmer of fighting, you could equally criticise it for crude tell-don't-show essaying - stapling ripped-out sheets of The Republic inside the cover of a McNabb paperback makes for an ugly and creased-up book. That said, Endo does have a point when a character says, "whenever I think about my right-wing father, I fall asleep" - trying to shoehorn in politics to the action would equally be disastrous, and no-one in real life would talk this way. If the essaying matters the most though, why not just write an actual essay instead?
Still, should the manner of the delivery invalidate the actual content itself? Even though the Propater Federation's vision of dissolving borders via global empire, and the problems therein, is not nearly a new theme and one that's been tackled many times before, it's still a worthy subject and you can't fault Endo for his earnestness. While hurling child soldiers, rape camps and casual racism at the wall and hoping the globs will stick together into a consistent system is the classic fallacious misconception of "maturity" that's as luridly basic as Elfen Lied, it is reasonable enough to admit that they are real problems in the world today. I remain unconvinced though that there's an overarching policy here beyond unfocused bemoaning that there's problems in the world - a problem is shown in society, Propater is accused as being the source of it, but there's no real link to establish why that's the case. That's another issue - the promotion of Eden makes a lot out of its "shades of grey, no one answer" sophistication - perhaps best exemplified in Ennoia Ballard, a drug-dealer whose trade is human misery but here seen as a heroic freedom-fighter - but this isn't quite true because the Propater Federation are quite clearly The Baddies. This is not only through dint of their antagonistic position to the point-of-view characters but their corporate behaviour - say what you like about Objectivism, but Ayn Rand had it dead on the money with her wry observation in Atlas Shrugged that "no-one wants to be a friend of big business" in people's embarrassed search for whipping-boys - and that their decent members don't fit into the system, and whatever motivations they do have tend to stem from personal revenge for individual grievances rather than overall justice.
You can jump up from the mud and blood of these worldly matters into the clean electric dream, though - Eden definitely is a treat for all fans of cyberpunk, replete in all the good stuff like nanomachines, computer viruses, electromagnetic pulses, network hacking, brain-frying feedback attacks, and murderous bio-roids. The behaviour of the devices implanted in Maya are gripping and credible, and there are a couple of short but engaging 'detection' scenes where analytical technologies are used to work out the enemy's movements. Amidst all of this science though the manga does get down'n'dirty with plenty of bloody action as mentioned earlier, and also a fair amount of nudity - I'm still finding it hard to process that Hiroki Endo moved from the sex'n'philosophy'n'violence of Eden: It's an Endless World! to drawing the entirely conventional martial-arts sports manga All-Rounder Meguru!
These mature elements though, as much as they may put some readers off, are actually one of this volume of Eden's greatest strengths. Again, it's been three years since the last volume was released, and the previous versions are long out of print - how many previous fans have drifted off in that time, and how few new readers will be willing to jump in at such a late point? It's actually the case though that this volume turns out to be very accessible precisely because of its strong action focus. Most of the wider elements of Eden's overarching storyline, such as the mysterious growth of the enigmatic "colloids" in ruins still abandoned after the Closure plague, are only mentioned in passing just to mark time and they don't preoccupy much of the book. The rescue operation which does takes centre stage provides a clear plot and an unambiguous objective to be enjoyed independently as its own thrill-ride irrespective of who the factions are beyond Us and Them, so new readers can quite happily just take this one copy as a shot-glass jolt of adventure. If there was one volume to start off again with after such a long gap, Volume 14 is the best one that Dark Horse could settle on.
As for attracting new readers, if any of you are fans of Kaoru Mori's period dramas, you may find a strange sense of interest in Eden: It's an Endless World! as well. While this futuristic cyberpunk thriller is a world away in both content and character from Mori's gentle historical romances Emma and A Bride's Story, Endo does share Mori's love of a good gossipy gas of an afterword. Endo's pure text is not so immediately beguiling as Mori's cartoons, but his lamenting the suburbanisation of his home town is still delivered in a colloquial, conversational style that easily involves you in his dilemmas, and the survival of that spirit is also a compliment to the translator. That's even as it still reminds you just how badly Black Horse is lagging with the manga's releases, with this afterword date-stamped February 2006...
...so then, was it worth the wait? Yes, I think so. In my account profile I do list Eden: It's an Endless World! as one of my favourite manga and that's because, while I can't buy into its overblown opinions and overcooked sexuality (particularly in earlier volumes when Elijah was working as a waiter in a brothel), they are at least more credibly presented than the cartoony villainy of so much other anime; and its action makes good use of both physical responses and technological dodges, a charged cocktail of computers and combat that combines into continually-captivating challenges for the characters. Volume 14 nods to the former and brings forward the latter, making it a neatly contained and clearly-presented Lonely Planet guide to the Endless World.
Robert's life is one regularly on the move, but be it up hill or down dale giant robots and cute girls are a constant comfort - limited only by how many manga you can stuff into a bursting rucksack.
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