Naoki Urasawa’s Master Keaton is fascinating to read alongside his later series Monster. If Monster is an HBO prestige television series, Master Keaton feels much more like a syndicated TV series. Both are mysteries, but Monster pushes forward on a tightly plotted course toward its conclusion. At the same time, Master Keaton is willing to tell a collection of more episodic stories, often moving back to a particular status quo at the end of each episode. That’s not bad, it’s just a different approach.
The structure of most Master Keaton stories follows Taichii Keaton, an insurance investigator from Lloyds of London, who also has a Ph.D. in archeology (and would prefer teaching), and who also was a member of the S.A.S. who fought in the Falklands. Often the story will involve some sort of murder, theft, or kidnapping, that Keaton is called to investigate related to some Insurance policy with Lloyds. The case is usually resolved if not within one chapter, then within two or three. Occasionally there will be a stand-alone side chapter that will get into Keaton’s relationship with his daughter and his ex-wife, or his father, and handling some of the issues he faced growing up as someone of mixed White-British and Japanese ethnicity.
That said, what I think makes the series stand out is less the structure – but not only the kinds of mysteries that are written, but the larger world elements that Urasawa fits in. In my review of Monster, I got into the thought of how Master Keaton walked so Monster could run – that particularly comes up with the ways that historical events come up in the stories.
For example, multiple stories have plot elements related to the move from dictatorship to democracy (or oligarchy) and communism to capitalism in numerous former Warsaw Pact countries, and the lingering issues in the wake of that change, whether it’s former Communist spies in NATO countries who now no longer have a country to serve. There are other stories about the lingering scars from the Second World War, particularly getting into the atrocities of the Axis powers – with stories involving Holocaust survivors (particularly focusing on non-Jewish victims, such as the Roma, as well), and even frank discussion of Japanese war crimes during the Second World War as well – though the series general focus on Europe and the Mediterranian means that there isn’t any discussion of war crimes committed by the Japanese army in China. All of these, to varying degrees (to a lesser extent Japanese war crimes), ended up feeding into Monster.
It all made for a really great read and made me wish that the manga and anime had caught on more – though, on the other hand, I absolutely understand why. Much of the anime and manga that grabs audiences in the US tend to be works that are more serialized. If an episodic work does succeed, it’s a work of comedy. Master Keaton isn’t a comedy, though there are funny moments. It has the level of bite to it as something like Monk, or Burn Notice, but with no real serialized throughline to it driving the plot forward. From a life standpoint, Taiichi Keaton ends the series in the same place he started it, and you could pick up absolutely any volume of Master Keaton and, with some casual familiarity with the premise, read it without any issues.
To put it another way, Master Keaton is, from a manga standpoint, the best kind of Airport Novel. It’s the kind where you could pick up any volume in the series in the airport, and have a good time on the plane. Once you’ve finished the volume, if you forgot it, your reaction might be a “darn”, rather than a “shrug”, but with an added sense that when the time comes for the return trip, you’ll probably keep an eye out for another volume in the series to read on the flight back.
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