U19 001 – Review
Reviewed by: Tom
Synopsis: In an effort to combat Japan’s growing social problems, the Grown Up Party, a political group, took control of Japan’s government and introduced new laws to help guide their society towards prosperity. This meant instituting a new class system designed around an individual’s merits and potential, forcing those with great potential into higher and higher positions of power and wealth, and allowing the dregs of society to scrape by.
Eiji Kudo was born into this world, but doesn’t agree with the system at all. However as Japan social restrictions continue to evolve and choke the very happiness out of life that keeps him content he awakens to new powers that just might give him the ability to push back.
Warning: Spoilers to Follow:
U19 opens as a teacher, Mr. Tani, prepares to shave a poor high school girl’s head for failing to keep her hair at the proper length. From there we learn that in 2036 Japan went down a dark path and kids are suppressed by the grown ups. Not only does U19 open in the most heavy handed way possible, but it’s opening is also misleading. There’s a much more interesting narrative here than just kids suppressed by adults. There’s a dystopian society that’s potentially interesting, if laid on thick, but U19 chooses to mislead the audience with events that don’t really sell how compelling this story could really be.
Snapping to Mr. Tani’s Toyama High School class we learn that a political group called the “Grown Up Party” managed to take control of Japan, producing a world where students are essentially given a life grade that determines everything about their position in society. It’s not only based upon their academic performance, but their ability to follow rules, ambition, activeness in society, skills, etc. This aspect I’m completely on board with and intrigued by. The trouble is U19’s ability to realize this world and provide clear, understandable and upsetting examples of it in action.
The strictness of the system is demonstrated for us as Mr. Tani confiscates kid’s pencil cases that have been personalized, or even chastises a boy for being left handed, which I think takes the narrative from potentially poignant to hokey territory, just as the head shave opener.
Eiji Kudo, our unassuming lead, gets called out for sewing in school, and is made fun of for how unmanly sewing is. He’s also called a herbivore male (a increasingly common insult/problem in Japan when it comes to the dating scenario), giving away the greater social commentary the author is playing with here. It’s not just about a society that’s gone wrong by focusing on grades and ability, but one that shuns an individuals interest in finding a comfortable, low rung position in life and being content with that.
Eiji tries to fight back against the system, talking about how stupid it is, but Mr. Tani just punches him in the face, explaining that corporal punishment is back so Eiji just has to take it. The corporal punishment component feels like a way to justify the, potentially impending, physical conflict between adults and students. I think it’s how we’re going to justify turning this scenario into a fighting manga. Despite Eiji’s defiance, no one seems to be on his side and the students just laugh at him as Mr. Tani reminds Eiji that his parents are just lowly D rank citizens.
Later even Eiji’s friends don’t seem to support him. In fact even when Eiji kindly offers the girl, who’s hair had been shaved off, a wig he’d made she’s decidedly unthankful.
We learn that ultimately everyone has their own kind of escape from the reality of the world. Eiji’s friend uses baseball, and another makes use of occult online talk of students with secret super powers opposing the government to distract herself. Based on the double page art it’s clear that this occult, libido (really?) power talk is ultimately where this manga is going. U19 teases it just enough that I think it manages, barely, to get away without including any of that in the first chapter.
Eiji keeps himself distracted from this horrid world by way of another student, his childhood friend and sweetheart Akari Tsukino. She’s a hard worker, although a bit too honest and forward. In fact, she and Eiji get along so well near everyone sees them as a married couple. In fact on the way home Akari even admits that her escape from the world is centered on her interactions with Eiji. It’s near as heavy handed as the manga’s opening pages, but the writing here between the two actually still manages to sell me on Akari and Eiji matual interest and budding relationship. It’s here that I went from mild dislike to gradually coming on board to U19’s story.
Just as Eiji is about to take the opportunity to ask Akari out his Dad spoils the mood. From there we’re treated to Eiji’s home life and his mental mindset: That, like his parents get happiness from being together, he can stand this screwed up world as long as he’s got Akari.
Later that night he talks with Akari, who lives next door and we learn where Eiji got the scar on his forehead, from a run in with a teacher when he was a kid. Again, like many of the teacher to student interactions, it feels full on over the top and not in the self aware way. Akari reiterates Eiji’s own feelings, about being able to be happy with just the two of them together, before she becomes flustered and bids him goodnight.
We’re then treated to a flashback to when Eiji learned sewing, and how he and Akari had a childhood crush on each other, even with an adorable little kid marriage proposal. Eiji decides that he needs to work up the guts to tell Akari how he feels.
Unfortunately the next day government officials arrive to reveal they’ve found a new way to test for societal aptitude: Genetics. This is where U19 started to lose me again.Everyone is brought in to have a sample of their blood taken and get their new rankings: Class President is a B, Eiji’s baseball loving friend a D, and Eiji doesn’t even care what his score is, it doesn’t matter. Not to him. As long as he’s got Akari, everything is fine.
But this isn’t to be. Eiji hears how one of his classmates got Rank E, even though there’s only supposed to be four ranks. It’s about here that the genetics angle started to feel like an odd tangent away from the methodology of this new society. I can generally understand demoting someone to E rank for potentially being prone to illness. But Rank E is just a precursor to introducing what’ll ultimately rip Eiji and Akari apart.
Eiji finds out that Akari is ranked SSS, which apparently means physically she has incredible immunity and longevity. To me this seems out of the blue. We’d known that society was rebuilt on academic and social potential, but Akari possibly having good genes confuses me on what that has to do with society. The examples given in the chapter is that she has great resistance to illness and potentially can live a long life. I can understand utilizing her as a guinea pig in order to make use of her genetics to feed the rest of the A ranks in society, but to offer her a place above them? That seems… at odds with what we’ve already learned. (Unless of course that’s the reveal?) If anything it mostly feels like a quick way to keep Eiji and Akari apart and give him a reason to finally fight back.
Indeed Eiji tries to downplay it, but when waiting after school for Akari he learns that because of her new rank her parents are transferring her to a new school. It’s then that Eiji awakens to his ‘Libido’ powers.
Overall I think I feel about U19 the same way I felt about We Never Learn: there’s things to like, even some potential, but I struggle to see where this manga will end up. U19 isn’t quite as bad, I know it’s going to turn into a fighting manga based on the teases alone, but what’s here doesn’t convince me that the writing will improve beyond a heavy-handed, on the nose criticism of Japan’s current focus on grades and aptitude which is then muddied by a bizarre shift to focus on genetics. I guess I’m also curious how much all this set up surrounding this dystopian society will actually factor into U19’s ongoing narrative involving super powers.
Let me know what you thought of U19 in the comments below!
U19 can be found in Shonen Jump and is available to read for free at Viz.com.