In theory I should give Eldo Yoshimizu's Ryuko a recommendation on style alone. It mines one of my favorite veins of Japanese popular culture: the gokudo (yakuza) / "pinky violence/sukeban" (tough criminal girls) / exotic-underworld axis of storytelling that surged to popularity in the 1970s. This starts with everything from Female Prisoner Scorpion to Battles Without Honor And Humanity and expands to include the likes of Crying Freeman and Black Lagoon, and Ryuko borrows freely from all of them. It's gorgeous to behold, and anyone who's a fan of the above-named titles will enjoy this as a blind-buy, but it's got too much plot and not enough story — and not enough of the right kind of story, either.
Lady wiseguy vs. the world
One glance at the cover art for both volumes of the series and perhaps also a glimpse of the endpapers, gives you some idea of what the Ryuko of the title is all about. Gun-toting, cigar-chomping, chopper-driving, dragon-tattooed Ryuko has a piece of the Japanese underworld to call her own, with henchmen gathered from all corners of the globe, including an unruly adoptive daughter she "liberated" from a Middle Eastern nation, an ex-Afghanistan Russian soldier, and so on. But all of this is incomplete for Ryuko without her mother, whom she was separated from in childhood after she took her own father's life, and for whom she searches ceaselessly to this day.
In fits and starts, and in between flashbacks across her life and her cronies' lives, Ryuko pieces together some idea of where her mother has gone and why. A powerful Asian crime syndicate has taken her hostage, for purposes both murky and sinister, and so Ryuko strikes recklessly at their heart to learn what she can. She learns a lot, not least of which being that the syndicate that holds her mother is actually theirs for the keeping, and that the power and responsibility available to Ryuko because of that is something most everyone else would kill her for.
If the story influences are straight out of 1970s crime-and-gangster films, Yoshimizu's art feels like a deliberate throwback to what was going on in gekiga, comics for adults, in around the same era. It doesn't have the slick, digitally processed look of modern manga; every line has a pleasing analog roughness, with great swaths of brushed-on black across many of the frames. A great part of why the story works at all is because it gives itself over so completely to the aesthetic it's modeled after; it feels like some lost project of that time, restored lovingly for modern readers.
And if Ryuko herself is modeled after anyone, it's an actress who embodies many of the influences drawn on for this project: Meiko Kaji, the Japanese actress who graced so many yakuza/crime/underworld pictures with her enigmatic smile and her whipcord physique. Ryuko also shows in time the same undercurrent of humanity and warmth that made Kaji doubly charismatic when she played antiheroines, but any lingering doubts about who Ryuko is homage to are dispelled when she shows up at one point in the wide-brimmed hat Kaji sported in the Female Prisoner films.
Master of her fate or not?
What's frustrating about Ryuko is how such sensational art and impeccable taste in influences have not added up to a more satisfying story. I've read the whole thing twice now, and I suspect most people will need at least two reads, or one very slow and careful one, to make sense of everything that's thrown at you. It has about fifty to sixty percent too much plot for its own good — all that to-do about international terrorism and Asian crime syndicates, much of which isn't nearly edifying enough to take up the running time that it does. The meat of the goings-on — about Ryuko, her mother, and the real nature of their lineage — is good stuff, but it feels at sea in the middle of everything (and everyone) else going on to have any weight.
The biggest consequence of the story being so Byzantine is it makes Ryuko seem less like the driving force of the story and more like a hapless victim of it. Ryuko does eventually get to step up and show what she's made of — and it is worth seeing her drive a motorcycle through a window and shoot a pistol out of someone's hand, etc. — but the rest of everything else going on didn't felt like it was enriching or deepening the story, just getting in the way. Stylized stories like this aren't really about the plot anyway; they're about the people at the center of it, about their charisma and their character.
Another possible interpretation of the story is that this sense of Ryuko not being the driving force of things is precisely the idea. Give us someone we're primed to think of as a mover and shaker, by way of all the cultural tropes they invoke, then make her out instead to be a pawn of history instead of one of its chessmasters. The problem is, while the ingredients of the story support that, it's construction doesn't; the emotional payload delivered feels far removed from such intentions. With all that's happening, not enough fo it feels like it's actually about her — because it needs to feel like it's about her, even if she's not the one actually in charge. A story about such ideas (see: Berserk) instead of just having them as one ingredient among too many others, would have been really something.
My big criticism of Quentin Tarantino is he has forever confused having good tastes in things with having good judgment about them. Yoshimizu knows what to draw from, and how to make things look good — and do they ever look good — but it's got too much of what you can get anywhere else, and not enough of what it alone could have done.