Sampei the Fisherman Classic 9/20/2005

This comic apparently consists of reprints of Sampei the Fisherman, a fishing manga from the late '70s/early '80s. At 275 pages for 350 yen, it's a little pricier than other manga, but every story in here is pure gold. The five stories included in this issue are:

  • An extended 116 page story featuring the death of a major character, including tearful family reunions, a traditional Buddhist funeral, fisherman's funeral procession, a riotous wake, and some surprising discoveries about the decedent's past.
  • A short, 22 page story in which a rival fisherman (apparently an Ainu from the way he's dressed) steals Sampei's fishing hole by convincing him that he's caught a rare fish.
  • Another quick story in which a carp (?) breeder loses two prize specimens in a tragic car accident, and the story is related to Sampei years later. This 35 page installment is apparently the first part of a multi-part story — because the last panel features Sampei rushing out to catch the fish and restore the broken old man's dignity.
  • A 39 page story in which Sampei and his girlfriend catch some mysterious blind fish, and discover a local legend about a peasant woman blinded by a samurai warrior, who kills herself and is transformed into the blind fish by her dying curse.
  • A 35 page story in which Sampei's experience with large live bait inspires him to carve his own suspending lure. This one is notable for including some very useful fishing advice — namely an extended sequence showing how to hook larger fish for use as live bait.

The rest of the comic is padded out with articles about Sampei's creators and history, fan art, and the "Masuda Manga Museum." Plus ads for merchandise like Sampei live bait tins and phone cards.

Now, I want to make something very clear here — I don't read a word of Japanese. Well, maybe no but that doesn't count. So how can I tell what's going on in these stories? Because the storytelling is so clear that there's literally no doubt as to what's going on. Sure, there's some ambiguity about the specifics — is the guy in sunglasses Sampei's father? Older brother? Mentor? Is he returning home for the funeral, or is he just making a regularly scheduled trip? But the key action and emotional tone of a scene is never in doubt, because the artist has communicated everything in strong visual terms.

That's something that's very hard to accomplish. I can think of precious few comics — American, European, or Japanese — that can claim to accomplish the same thing. I certainly can't think of a mainstream American comic in the last ten years that can be understood without the words.

The following sequence might not be communicating some strong action, but it's still pretty amazing...

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Sampei the Fisherman Classic 9/20/2005, pages 72-81

(Sorry about the creases — I tried to eliminate 'em, but it's hard to press this one flat since it's saddle-stitched and quite thick).

I'm pretty sure the secrets of the universe can be found in these ten pages. Look at 'em! They've got Life! Death! People's souls turning into birds! Exploding marlins! Exploding volcanoes! All four seasons! The entire gamut of human emotion! Hyperbole aside, that's a pretty astounding sequence in the middle of a comic about fishing. This is what decompression is about, people. Not ten pages of Spider-Man having a five minute conversation with his girlfriend.

Of all the comics I brought back from Japan, this is the one that's going to stay in my personal collection and be reread over and over. And that's probably the highest praise I can give it.

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