Ryuko by Eldo Yoshimizu is a manga about espionage, crime, and war, topped off with a Japanese pulp aesthetic.
With dark and fluid artwork, you see the story of Ryuko (whose name I assume means ‘dragon child’), the daughter of Black Dragon yakuza gang. Ryuko has deep ties to the Kingdom of Forossyah, a fictional country on the Black Sea, even going so far as to raise the King’s daughter when he is deposed in a military coup d’état. Years later, Ryuko settles the score with the traitorous general who led the coup and also discovers her long-dead mother is still alive.
Ryuko returns to Japan, where she is searching for Mr. Ikeuchi, head of the Yajima Gang, a rival yakuza boss of her father – Garyu. Ikeuchi – as it turns out – might hold the key to the whereabouts of Ryuko’s presumed dead mother, but that information won’t come easy. Turns out that Ikeuchi used to serve under Garyu, but resentment and ambition got the better of him. Kidnapping Ryuko’s mother – Shoryuhi – he kicked Garyu out of Japan, where he set up shop on Forossyah. He’s been paying the Yajima Gang for years, which Ryuko thinks are mere tributary payments, are actually part of a sizeable hostage payment for Shoryuhi.
The narrative is told through several flashbacks and side characters. One of these is Tatiana, a Russian ex-pat living in Japan. A former ballerina, Tatian’s life was ruined when her father – Major Matvey Pavlov – was died in Afghanistan with “dishonor.” Her life in shambles, Tatian becomes a dancer in Japan, where she meets up with Nikolai, a member of her father’s old unit in Afghanistan. We then travel back to the 1980s during the Soviet-Afghan War, where Tatiana’s father and Nikolai are in a losing battle against the Afghan Mujahideen.
Realizing the war is lost and that the Soviet Union itself is on the brink of collapse, Major Pavlov hatches a plan to obtain Afghan opium for drugs. Complicating this is a major raid on their position by the Mujahadeen. It turns out that Garyu and a pint-sized Ryuko are in Afghanistan, supporting the Mujahadeen in their war against the Soviets.
Although it’s a modern story, Ryuko has the vibe of a 70s manga in the vein of Lady Snowblood, by the legendary artist Kazuo Koike – meaning that it’s pulpy, raw, and a little sleazy. There also seem to be traces of Japanese exploitation movies from the 1970s in the aesthetic, specifically the Female Prisoner Scorpion series starring the indomitable Meiko Kaji. So much so, that Ryuko is seen wearing Meiko Kaji’s iconic black coat and wide-brimmed hat.
Ryuko Volume 2 begins with a confrontation between some of Ryuko’s gang and a terrorist group at the docks of Yokohama. Sasori – one of Ryuko’s female lieutenants – and Nikolai – the former solider and Soviet-Afghan War vet – find themselves held up at gunpoint by an armed group called “The Militia Without Borders.” Their leader reveals himself to be Ahmad Harim, the Afghan boy that Nikoklai befriended back in the 1980s. Not only that, he had a brief relationship with a pint-sized Ryuko, whose father brought her along as he smuggled weapons from Pakistan to the Mujahadeen. Harim actually has deep ties to the American government, which are revealed in the following pages.
Showing up to save the day, Ryuko confronts Harim and discovers that a third-party might be to blame for their hostilities – the Sheqing Ban, a vicious Chinese triad. The action moves to Yokohama Chinatown, where Situ Zi – the granddaughter of the triad’s leader – is having dinner with her father. Guns blazing, Ryuko crashes the dinner and demands information from Situ Zi, namely where her mother is being held.
Much to Ryuko’s surprise, her mother – Shoryuhi – is not being held hostage by the Yajima Yakuza Gang, but has a much more active and troublesome place within international organized crime. Questing for answers, Ryuko tracks her long lost mother down in a Buddhist temple, where she’s become something akin to a nun. There, she receives information about not only her own past, but about a mysterious organization called “Black Glory.”
Meanwhile, the Yajima Gang, who’s secretly been working for the Sheqing Ban, is visited by its leader, the enigmatic Situ Long. He hires them to stage an attack on his granddaughter – Situ Zi – and blame it on her own father. The Yajima Gang’s boss isn’t quite sure what to make of this order, but after a brutal demonstration by Situ Long, he shuts up and follows orders.
After a grueling ambush, Situ Zi escapes the Yajima Gang’s clutches and inflicts some casualties of her own. She retreats to the Sheqing Ban’s lair and into the waiting arms of her conspiratorial grandfather. Meanwhile, Ryuko and her gang have steeled themselves for a final battle, which opens with a visually stunning attack on the Sheqing Ban headquarters. Old scores are settled and personal vendettas culminate in a violent fury, bringing each character’s subplot to a climatic end.
But the main act is reserved for Ryuko who rides her motorcycle throughout the Sheqing Ban’s hideout, upstairs, and out onto a rooftop. The final battle between Situ Long is a great one, involving a helicopter and Ryuko’s motorcycle, speeding toward each other for an explosive finale.
Ryuko by Eldo Yoshimizu should please fans of manga, crime fiction, war stories, and intrigue.
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