Saturday, July 14, 2012

Ishinomori Week: Zeruda no Densetsu

And so Ishinomori Week 2012 comes to a close. For the past 7 days, we've seen tales of revenge, super-powered robots, modern-day cowboys and colorful superheroes of all shapes and sizes.

But for the final installment, I want to do something different. Something a little unexpected, a little outside my comfort zone. Something more recent, although it's now just about 20 years old!

So we have a little comic from the 1990's. It's one of Ishinomori's works that has been translated and released overseas, and uniquely, came out in the U.S. first (making the Japanese edition the actual "translation".) It's also notable for being an adaptation of other people's work, so this time, Ishinomori gets to play in somebody else's sandbox. How exactly they got him for this, I don't know, but it was a major coup for all involved.

It doesn't have an accompanying Tokusatsu series to go along with it, but I guarantee you've heard of it before...

Zeruda no Densetsu, of course, is just the Japanese name for...

Well alright, the full title in Japanese is Zeruda no Densetsu: Kamigami no Toraifoosu (The Legend of Zelda: Triforce of the Gods) but you, me and everybody else will always know this as The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past or "The Super Nintendo one". Also, when published in Japann, Ishinomori's comic dropped the subtitle (which differentiates it from the other comics based on the game, but that's another story.) Since I'm going to be reviewing from the English edition, we'll just stick with that title and take a break from all the romaji stuff.

I don't think I really need to explain what The Legend of Zelda is to anybody, but in the off chance that you don't know, it's a long-running fantasy/action-adventure video game franchise from Nintendo, and the original is up there with Super Mario Brothers as one of those groundbreaking games that people will be playing and enjoying until the end of time (I know I still do.) Over the years there have been quite a few sequels, and the comic we're looking at today is based on the story line of the 1991 Super Nintendo masterpiece, subtitled A Link to the Past (you see, because the game's hero is also named Link!) Just look for any "Top SNES Games" list, and chances are that it's on the countdown, usually within the top 3, and often the #1 pick.

And it is indeed a great game. While I personally swear by the adventures of a certain Miss Aran as my favorite Nintendo franchise, I've always enjoyed the Zelda games, although I'm most familiar with the older ones. My sister on the other hand couldn't wait for Skyward Sword to get released, but I'll admit I'm still stuck back in the days when Link was a short little fella that we looked down on from above (and he hadn't quite saved up enough rupees for some proper pants yet.) I'll give some of the later ones a play through one of these days though.

For the moment, let's go back to A Link to the Past. Ishinomori's comic version first appeared in Nintendo Power magazine, starting in January 1992 and running all year long, broken up into 12 chapters. It was subsequently collected and published in graphic novel form in 1993, and that March the Japanese edition hit shelves. I haven't yet acquired a copy of the Japanese version of the comic, though from what I've seen it's in black & white, and the sound effects (which were all drawn in English) are left the same.

Yes, notice that I said black & white. The version published in the U.S. is in glorious full color, and it's a real feast for the eyes. When they were first published, Ishinomori's comics would sometimes feature a few color pages at the beginning, as was (and I think, still is) standard in a magazine's headline manga (Kamen Rider Spirits maintains this tradition with the color inserts.) But the reprints and trades are almost always uncolored. I own a couple reproductions of Ishinomori's original work prints though, and many of those feature colors that put some scenes in a whole new perspective (for example, the first page where HongĂ´ wakes up and tears off his chains in Kamen Rider has a very different feel from the murkier reprinted version.) Here, the whole comic is in color, and it looks spectacular.

As for the plot, it sticks pretty close to that of the game, though there are differences (both stylistic and story-wise) that make Ishinomori's take on Zelda a fascinating read. Our story opens in land of Hyrule, where one dark and stormy knight, a youth named Link is woken by telepathic messages from someone named Zelda, begging for help. Zelda is the king's daughter, and believes Link is the only one that can save her and Hyrule from certain doom. Link puts on his trademark green cap and tunic, and heads out into the storm.

He goes to the castle, dodging sinister-looking soldiers as he makes his way inside. There, he witnesses a battle between his uncle and the wizard Agahnim. The evil one strikes down Link's uncle, and departs. Link receives his uncle's sword and shield, and is told to rescue Zelda and the people in the mysterious "Dark World". After which, he 'may' meet his parents.

With this last curious remark, Link's uncle dies, but our hero presses on, with Zelda telling him through his thoughts about Agahnim's plan to break the Seal of the Seven Wise Men with the life force of the Seven Maidens. As Link goes deeper into the castle dungeons, the story continues: long ago, many people went to a place called the Golden Land, seeking a great power. No one ever returned, and one day, evil began to flow from the gateway, so the king had the Seven Wise Men seal it up. Agahnim wants to pry that sucker open, and he needs Zelda (one of the Seven Maidens) to accomplish this.

Determined to stop his evil plan, Link fights his way into the dungeon, in the process destroying one of Agahnim's zombie-like, magically-augmented knights (who literally explodes into light, leaving empty armor.) Link manages to rescue Zelda, and the two head into the castle sewers, making their way to a nearby sanctuary. The old man there and Zelda fill Link in on some more history, and Zelda says she believes Link to be the Legendary Hero who appears every 100 years. Unfortunately, Agahnim shows up, seizing Zelda and destroying Link's sword with ease. Just before they teleport away, Zelda tells him he'll need the legendary Master Sword to defeat Agahnim. But there's just one problem: Link doesn't know where that is!

Alright, if you've played the game, all this should sound familiar. It's abridged of course, since in the comic Link doesn't have to repeatedly throw the boomerang at a ball-and-chain guy, and the trip through the sewers involves far less pest control. However, stuff like the battle between Link's uncle and Agahnim is pretty cool to finally see, since in the game we arrive too late and find Uncle slumped against the wall in a basement somewhere. Even though he's working with established character designs, Ishinomori still draws a good Link & Zelda. In fact, everybody in this comic has loads of character to them; even in his final years, Ishinomori was still a master at expressing emotion and movement. There's always been a slightly 'soft' feel to his characters that works particularly well with this material.

While the overall story is the same as the game, certain parts are excised or shortened to preserve the surprise for players when they're the ones having the adventure, or just to keep the narrative moving along. That's the fancy way of saying that Link's quest for the 3 pendants which he needs to wield the Master Sword goes a lot faster than in the game, where each dungeon is full of puzzles, traps and bosses that must be overcome. Hell, Link's trek across the country to the Eastern Palace is 3 panels long!

So the old guy at the sanctuary tells Link to seek out Sahasrahla (say that name three times fast) and after a short side trip into town, he meets some more characters. Mostly they're based on people from the game, but with additional characterization and dialogue, giving them a bit more to do than just tell you they're sold out of bottles. He has to avoid some of Agahnim's cronies as well. In the game, you become a wanted man after rescuing Zelda, who doesn't get re-captured until later on in the story. Thus Link gets a bad rep as a kidnapper, and half the town's ready to turn him over to the nearest evil knight. Here, the kidnapper stuff is included, but of course Agahnim's already got Zelda locked up in his dungeon again, so... I dunno! But there's currently a kingdom-wide manhunt going for Link, so Agahnim must have played the game too and knows what'll happen if our pointy-eared hero finds that sword. After getting some more information, Link heads out east to find Sassafrassa.

In the game, Link has to fight his way through the Eastern Palace and defeat a couple of dancing knights, acquiring the Bow & Arrows along the way. In the comic, he gets to bypass all that, but he has to climb up like ten million steps to reach Salsasauce at the top of the Aztec-inspired Palace. Saharasassy tells him that not just anyone can wield the Master Sword, and he needs the 3 pendants. Link receives the Pendant of Courage from Sanfranciscoshala, just in time too since some of Agahnim's knights show up looking for a fight. Link skillfully defeats them, slicing one right in half! Link then vows to find the other two and defeat Agahnim as Shamaladingdong looks on.

With some help from the ancient Book of Mudora, Link's next destination is the Desert Ruins, where he finds the Pendant of Power. He gets there with a nifty pair of "Miracle Wings" which were said to have once belonged to a great bird, though is soon grounded by a sudden sandstorm twister. With the book, he's able to decipher the ancient language on the Ruins and locate the pendant, though not without fighting the boss er, a monster! The Lanmola, a giant sand-centipede creature, which looks pretty fearsome. One thing I'll say about the Ishinomori comic: he takes the simple if cool designs of the bosses from the games and really pumps them up. In the game, the Lanmola(s) are mostly a long row of of spheres, but you get the idea they were going for. Ishinomori uses that as a starting point and creates a cycloptic, armored monstrosity that could easily fit into a Tokusatsu series.

Link defeats the beast, but he's stuck wandering in the desert. Exhausted and thirsty, he begins to pass out, but Sasashahsahshahslasha appears before him, telling him to go to the Dagob-er, uh, I mean, to Death Mountain, where he'll find the last pendant. Now if you've played the game, you know that Death Mountain is at the other end of the map from the desert, and one does not simply walk into Death Mountain from there... but this is another of those "shortened for dramatic reasons" moments, so it's understandable. Link approaches the Tower of Hera, but finds a mysterious circle on the ground. When he comes close, a pillar of light shines from the ground, and Link sees his parents and uncle. He tries to reach out for them, but burns his hand. Sarsaparilla shows up, and tells him that he penetrated the Dark World, where once you enter, you become a reflection of whatever's in your heart. Link's hand isn't burnt, but instead hairy and clawed. Due to the negative emotions in his heart, he nearly became a Teenage Werewolf!

This is one aspect where Ishinomori departed greatly from the source material, but I really dig it. In the game, when approaching the tower on Death Mountain, you have to briefly go into the Dark World. As Link does not yet possess the Tower's treasure (the Moon Pearl, which allows you to keep your original form in the Dark World) he gets transformed into... a Pink Bunny That Walks Like A Man. While this fits with Link's in-game character (a mute protagonist who is basically acts as a stand-in for the player, and thus is as pure-hearted as you) it makes sense that in the comic, with his upbeat, brash and somewhat neurotic personality, Link would turn into something a little darker. He's going through some pretty tough stuff, with his world turned upside down in one night. The most interesting aspect though is that his hand is now stuck like this, even when not exposed to the Dark World's power. I like how this makes the Dark World even more sinister of a concept. It's not just something you can hop in and out of, as we'll see.

After a daydream about Zelda (because, you know) Link enters the Tower of Hera, which contains even more stairs! In the game, the boss at the top was a really annoying worm guy calls Moldorm, who knocked me off the platform and made me restart the fight with him more times than I care to admit. Here, it's a giant spider. Link retrieves the final pendant (in the creature's eye), healing his hand in the process, and defeats the guardian, hitching a ride down as it falls to the floor.

With all three pendants, Link heads into the woods, retrieves the Master Sword, and puts it to good use on some hapless knights. Exhausted from his journeying, Link tries to catch some shut-eye, but time is growing short, as Agahnim plans to perform that evil ceremony thingy soon.

Once again, in the game, you just storm your way into the castle, hurling lightning bolts with your new sword (though only when at full health.) In the comic, security's tighter, so Link has to sneak in via hot-air balloon. Hey, it worked for Goranger! Meanwhile, Agahnim talks with his own shadow, and... I probably need to explain that with a little aside.

I LOVE Agahnim. Love the guy. He's one of the most enjoyable bosses in the game to fight, in part because he's not too tough but still requires a bit of clever thinking as you deflect his own energy blasts back at him (the only way to defeat him.) The other part I like is that you can actually defeat him with the Bug-Catching Net you are given early on in the game, so all that stuff with the Master Sword was really just to get in the door!

But beyond that, he also just looks cool. In the game, he's this weird green & yellow guy with what look like angel wings on his back. I don't what the story is there, but it's one of those designs that just sticks with me. His comic look, based on the official art for the game seen in the instruction book, is still pretty good, though not quite as unique, just being a grouchy blue dude in almost Arabian-looking robes. Ishinomori does a good job with it, though I would have loved to have seen his take on the in-game sprite.

Anyway, the character is a strange one, namely since he's just sort of a stand-in bad guy for the true villain of the game, longtime Zelda antagonist Ganon. Agahnim's true nature is something of a mystery; he's very much a separate character, acting as a subordinate to the big G, yet in the Japanese version of the game Ganon refers to him as "my other half" and first appears rising from Agahnim's corpse later on. And yet, Ganon's stuck in the Dark World the whole time, with Agahnim acting as his proxy in the Light World, hence the whole "we gotta bust open that seal!" plot.

I like what Ishinomori does by making Ganon his literal shadow, showing that the characters are simultaneously one and the same, and yet also unique from each other. It makes for an interesting idea, anyway. So Link balloons into the castle, but arrives seconds too late: Zelda is sent into the Dark World, thereby breaking the seal. Also, the incantations Agahnim recites sound like something H.P. Lovecraft would've come up with. Link tries to strike Agahnim, but even the Master Sword can't damage him directly. Sashasha...that old guy telepathically tells Link that the Master Sword was also forged to repel evil magic, so just link the game, Link deflects Agahnim's beams back at him, taking him down for the count.

However, with his dying breath, Agahnim pulls Link into the Dark World with him. In the game, he spun around really fast and the whole screen went crazy. Here, it's a little more understated, with Agahnim dissolving into smoke, which forms a skull-like face on the moon (Skull Man!) while the castle crumbles around them and Link soon finds himself atop a dark pyramid.

Link begins to transform into a beast once more, but fights to stay in control. He sets out to find Zelda and find a way out of the eternally-nocturnal Dark World, stopping at a nearby shrine. There, he is told a story by a talking tree (hey, it's in the game too) about the people who came to the Golden Land looking for the Golden Power, of which he was one. We get to see Ganon back when he wasn't a walking pig-man, but rather the legendary thief Ganondorf. This is before Orcarina of Time made Ganondorf into the iconic big-nosed tall dude that subsequent designs have looked to for inspiration, so he's this bearded barbarian guy instead. I always thought it was kind of funny how Ganon drops some letters from his name when he becomes a big evil monster, but Zemus in Final Fantasy IV adds some... er, anyway, the so-called Golden Power is in fact the Triforce, the all-important artifact (and logo) of the Zelda series. Ganondorf claimed the Triforce for himself, which is what corrupted the Golden Land into the Dark World. The only way to restore the Golden Land, recover the Triforce and save the day is to defeat Ganon.

Link wakes up and saves a fairy from some monsters, including a grenade-chucking cyclops that he defeats by throwing the grenade back into his mouth. Hardcore! The fairy, Epheremelda, takes Link to meet the gillman Zora. Fans of the game know that Zora is the big guy you have to fork a ton of money over to in order to get the flippers, allowing Link to swim. Here, he helps Link out by having Epheremelda heal him and restore his strength, then gives him a mask so he can sneak back into the dark pyramid, which is in fact the Palace of Darkness. In the game, the pyramid is actually where the final battle takes place, and otherwise serves as a spot for obtaining an essential item, as well as one of the starting points when you load up a saved game. Here, it's the place that is actually a storehouse for those grenades (called "Firecorn") and one of the maidens is being held there in a Crystal cocoon.

Link and Epheremelda sneak in, though another kind of big cycloptic guy can see right through the mask. I'm not sure if this is supposed to be Ishinomori's take on those laser-firing cyclops statues or the cyclops guys that only move when you get near them, but you know, that game has an awful lot of cycloptic enemies in it...

Geeky Interjection: Epheremelda identifies this guy as "Rocklops #1". I looked that up, and Rocklops is another name for Eyegore, which are the motion-sensitive guys and not the laser-firing ones as previously thought. Although the red Rockclops do fire blasts at you when you're facing them head-on... oh, you know what I mean.

Needless to say all hell breaks loose, and Rocklops has the great nonsensical line of "WHIRRRRY!!!" Some nasty Gleeok show up if you're keeping score, Link saves the maiden, and Epheremelda blows the place sky-high in a spectacular double-page spread. Although the princess is in another castle (BOOM!) Link saves at least one of the maidens, who leaves him with something called a Comm-Fork. And then 002 shows up!

Well okay, it's not really Jet, but a character called Roam, who's original to the comic version. Ishinomori stuck him in to make things a little interesting, and easily provide for an important MacGuffin later on. So Roam challenges Link for the right to wield the Master Sword (well, 002's name is Jet Link) and turns into a cool-looking birdman.

Link is able to fend him off, and we learn that Roam, like Link, received the telepathic call to action, as he too is a descendant of one of the Knights of Hyrule (who also played a part in that whole big sealing shindig long ago.) Link suggests a team-up, but Roam brushes him off as an amateur, saying he needs the Enchanted Arrow to defeat Ganon. However, he feels their paths will cross again, so he tells Link to "try to stay alive". Good thing for Link this isn't Zelda II: The Adventure of Link.

Anyway, the Comm-Fork allows Link to speak with S...S...S...Sahasrahla (got it!) and the people in the village (including a librarian that's original to the comic) and they guide him along as he travels across the Dark World in search of Zelda. For you see, the Dark World is actually a corrupted version of the Light World, mirroring it in different ways.

This is made more obvious in the game since you have a world map to look at, but the same holds true in the comic. Stuff that happens in one world can affect the other, as there was an earthquake at the Eastern Palace when the Palace of Darkness was destroyed (despite that earlier stuff with the pyramid being where Hyrule Castle would be and... oh, who cares, right?)

So with some guidance, Link starts making tracks to various palaces and dungeons. First up is the Swamp Palace, where Link nearly drowns (due to a fountain in the Light World filling with more water, which in turn affects the Dark World version of the same place) and fights a giant jellyfish blobby thing (without needing the Hookshot though!) He saves another maiden, but it's still not the princess we're looking for. From there he crosses another desert, ending up in Misery Mire. If you played the game, you know what that means: annoying wizards and a giant eyeball monster! Fortunately Zora shows up to literally flush the place down a whirlpool. I don't know how a giant pile of eyeballs gets knighted, but "Sir" Vitreous makes for one of the comic's best creep-out moments.

I should mention here that some of the dungeons from the game aren't shown in the comic, namely the forest one with THOSE DAMN HANDS and the one in the village that I like to refer to as "the rough part of the Neeeeeigh-borhood" since it's crawling with Horseheads. Probably for the best, those places are like the equivalent of Link getting lost in between important stuff.

After that it's on to the oddly-horizontal Tower of Ice, where Link seeks a map of the Dark World so he can find the location of Turtle Rock, which one of the earlier maidens stated is where Zelda actually is. Unfortunately the guardian of the Tower, another cyclops (this one encased in ice) sics the skeletal Stalfos Knights on our hero. These guys are tricky because if you knock 'em down, they just reassemble and get right back up, and comics Link is short on bombs. Although he defeats them by rocking out with the Master Sword, the attack causes the entire tower to break up. Link sees that the map is actually on the floor, and finds Turtle Rock just as the place collapses around him.

One trip to Turtle Rock later, Link makes an entrance by calling down the thunder, literally! Inside the lava-filled cave, Link finds Zelda sealed in a Crystal, but he also finds the three-headed Trinexx. In the game, it's a pretty cool snake-looking thing, but Ishinomori really gave it a serious makeover, turning it into a trio of eastern-style dragons that looks really badass. It also turns out Roam has been following Link this whole time, and saves Link with his trusty crossbow. The ice-breathing head of the Trinexx is knocked into the lava, which somehow sets off a chain reaction. Don't ask me how that works, I think Ishinomori just likes blowing stuff up by this point in the comic.

The guys rescue Zelda, Epheremelda gets jealous (she's gotten attached to Link) and faster than you can say "I am error", they're hightailing out before the whole place explodes in another two-page spread. I told you! Roam's still being moody though, and stakes it out on his own, declaring he will kill Ganon with or without that magical arrow thing. Link and Zelda make their way towards Ganon's Tower, which in the game was the Dark World version of the Tower of Hera. Here?

It's the flippin' Death Star! Fortunately, it's not as hard to infiltrate, though there's still the problem of getting in. Roam has second thoughts, stating that he knows he can defeat Ganon even without the Enchanted Arrow. There's been this ongoing thing where Link is still fighting to keep himself from becoming a beast, yet Roam embraces it with his birdman powers. Link fears that if he keeps changing, he'll remain that way forever. Roam flies up into the Tower, while the Maiden's Power airlifts Link and Zelda up into it.

Inside, they encounter Spoiler Warning! This is where I talk about the end of the comic (and the game) so if you don't want to know... stop reading!

Inside, they encounter ghosts of Link's past (i.e. previously defeated bosses) including Agahnim. Roam attacks and defeats him, but at the cost of his own life. Too bad, I rather grew to like Roam, and I was really hoping when this dungeon blows up, he'd grab onto Link and ask him where he wants to fall.

But when Agahnim snuffs it a second time, Ganon rises from his body. So begins the final showdown between Link and Ganon, Master Sword against bigass pitchfork. Man against pig. And none of that teleportin' stuff! Ganon spears Link, but our hero cuts his way out, slashing through Ganon in the process and stunning him. Zelda takes up Roam's crossbow, and lets loose an arrow that doesn't just hit Ganon, it blows him away! It turns out Roam "had" the Enchanted Arrow all this time, but it took Zelda to make it into THE arrow. Ganon dies as the Triforce is released from his body, and it speaks to Link, granting its power to him with but a touch. As Epheremelda bids him goodbye, Link and Zelda are transported as the Dark World vanishes around them.

So Link saves Zelda, saves Hyrule, gets to speak to his parents and uncle one more time, and then gets a spiffy new costume as the Guardian of the Triforce. The ending is pitch-perfect, with our hero having saved the day but now having to part ways with Zelda as each takes up their new role in life. The Master Sword is returned to its resting place in the forest, where it waits for the day it will once again be wielded by a hero... and knowing how Zelda continuity works, I don't even want to guess when that'll be!

Ishinomori's Legend of Zelda comic is pure awesome. I'm pretty sure it's actually my first-ever exposure to his work; I didn't get to read the original Kamen Rider comic until a few years later, and it all just snowballed from there. Truth be told, I didn't even realize this was by him until several years into collecting his comics; it was a pretty cool revelation to have though. Along with the Super Mario World comic that ran alongside this (and knocked the socks off every other Mario comic I'd seen up to that point) I must've re-read it countless times.

While it does deviate from the game at times, that's pretty normal for an adaptation, which is ultimately what this is. It's fascinating to see Ishinomori tackle a story and characters that aren't his own, because while he does stay true to the spirit of the source material and make allowances, he also finds ways to make it his own. This feels like an Ishinomori comic, from the characterization to the design and even the bittersweet finale. As a fan of the game and a fan of Ishinomori, it's a joy to read, and I make a point of doing so every once in a while.

The U.S. release of the graphic novel's been out of print for some years and is pricey on ebay, but if you can get it for a decent amount, it's worth it. I'm still searching for the Japanese version, but it's on the to-get list.

So that wraps it up for Ishinomori Week 2012. We actually managed 7 days this time! I've already got a few series lined up for the next one, and who knows what else— I'm still reading and discovering new comics by Ishinomori every year, so there's plenty more to pick from. Some day I'll get to Cyborg 009, though that's probably going to get a whole week for itself since it's that big of a deal. And of course, there's always the Riders, and speaking of them, I plan to cover something of his (which isn't quite a comic, but close) in the near future. Should be fun, but that's all for now.

Thanks for reading!

Of course, while Zelda doesn't have a Tokusatsu series, it does have this.

1 comment:

  1. that bit about you wishing roam not dying and saves a falling link, is it a reference to OOO?