The ‘Eagle’ Has Landed: Cartoon Swoops Down on U.S. Politics

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Handsome, athletic and Ivy League-educated, the senator challenges the sitting vice president for the Democratic presidential nomination. He speaks to reporters minutes before the vice president’s scheduled news conference, undercutting his opponent’s stance on immigration by declaring, “The real border to America cannot be seen, because our true country is not a place but a hope. We Americans need to rediscover our immigrant hearts! . . . We must emigrate together to the 21st century!”

The speaker is not Bill Bradley, but Kenneth Yamaoka, the fictional Japanese American senator from New York and hero of “Eagle,” a graphic novel, or manga, by Kaiji Kawaguchi that is being serialized in Japan during the U.S. presidential campaign.

A uniquely Japanese form of popular literature, the manga resembles Western comic books, with subject matter ranging from didactic historical dramas to sci-fi adventures, slushy romances to pornography. About 2 billion manga are sold annually in Japan--almost 40% of total book and magazine sales. “Eagle” runs in the biweekly Big Comic magazine, which has a circulation of about 700,000. San Francisco-based publisher Viz has published serialized story in seven volumes, with respectable sales of about 10,000 copies to date.


“Eagle” opened with Yamaoka declaring his candidacy and will continue through Inauguration Day. Through an interpreter, Kawaguchi explained in an e-mail interview that he was inspired by watching the 1993 documentary “The War Room,” which followed the activities of Clinton campaign consultant James Carville. “I recall being amazed and feeling sweaty-palmed excitement at that depiction of a comprehensive and high-quality media strategy, which is unheard of in Japanese politics. . . I thought about how the president of the United States is selected, the world’s most involved political contest. Now that’s an interesting setting for a story!”

Kawaguchi uses his behind-the-scenes drama to explore questions of Japanese versus Japanese American identity; much of the story is told through the eyes of Takashi Jo, a young Japanese newspaper reporter. “I am very interested in the history of Japanese Americans,” Kawaguchi says. “My hometown is in Hiroshima Prefecture, where the ancestors of many Japanese Americans, including Yamaoka’s, emigrated from. I am interested in these family histories, in the transitions from Issei to Nisei to Sansei (first generation to second generation to third generation) and in the complications that arose between the generation that chose to be ‘American’ and the generation that was born American. I plan to make them a key element in how the story ends.”

“I think Kawaguchi hopes to portray a clear distinction between Japanese like Takashi and Yamaoka, whose grandparents came from Japan, but who has tried to make himself as American as Nathan Hale,” added Carl Gustave Horn, the editor-adapter of the English edition of “Eagle.”

Kawaguchi, 52, is known in Japan for manga aimed at adult readers that depict realistic political dramas. “Medusa,” which ran from 1991 to 1995, centered on two student radicals during the late 1960s: The woman becomes a revolutionary terrorist; the man ends up a conservative politician, but their love/hate relationship transcends politics.

Horn said, “The average Japanese reader approaches ‘Eagle’ the way an American reader approaches a novel by Tom Clancy. Each author has a reputation for researching his stories, and the audiences expect the details of military or espionage matters to sound authentic. At the same time, they know Kawaguchi, like Clancy, creates narrative fiction set against a realistic backdrop.”


Kawaguchi’s story is firmly grounded in reality: Vice President Al Noah is obviously modeled on Al Gore; wily media strategist George Tuck is a caricature of longtime political prankster Dick Tuck. Yamaoka recalls Washington Gov. Gary Locke, the state’s first Asian American governor--they’re the same age and both attended Yale. But Locke built a political base in his native state and married an Asian American, while Yamaoka moved to New York and married a Caucasian woman from an old New England banking family. Takashi watches the candidate and his spin doctors, alternately fascinated and appalled.


“In Japan, political positions are decided behind closed doors by ideological factions within the government,” Kawaguchi continued. “Multiple parties form coalitions for or against each other, and it’s difficult to tell just who is going up against whom. The American two-party system makes the opposing sides extremely clear. Candidates regularly meet face-to-face with voters. This constant engagement and flood of information provides thoughtful voters with a strong sense of participation. But it also carries the danger of the mass of voters being manipulated by sophisticated media strategies.”

Jim Borgman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist for the Cincinnati Enquirer and co-creator of the comic strip “Zits,” which appears in The Times, commented, “I am struck by a paradox: ‘Eagle’ is both magnificently wrought and utterly oblivious to the unique powers of cartooning. The drawing is really jaw-droppingly handsome. It carries me through page after page. I’m struck by the diversity of rendering, the textures, the atmospherics--all masterful. At the same time, I feel I’m reading a highly developed storyboard for a live-action film. The camera angles, pacing, sequence of shots could all be translated directly to film.”


The outsider’s view of American politics in “Eagle” is not a flattering one. Yamaoka is an icily ambitious man who charms voters at public appearances but strikes ruthless bargains behind closed doors. In Volumes 6 (“The King of New York”) and 7 (“Pandora’s Box”), he wins the key endorsement of King Blackburn, the crusty African American mayor of New York City, with thinly veiled threats and promises of assistance. Borgman noted, “There is a melodrama to the storytelling that is a bit tough on Western sensibilities. We are presented a world of fierce looks, startled realizations, stiff mannerisms, deliberate evil and un-nuanced agendas.”

The artist balances these political intrigues against a more personal story: Yamaoka is actually Takashi’s father. He met Takashi’s mother as a Marine en route to Vietnam but never acknowledged their child. Takashi befriends Yamaoka’s troubled son, interviews the candidate’s wife and falls in love with his adopted daughter, all of whom remain unaware of the reporter’s true identity.

“Takashi is a secret that Yamaoka carries around in plain sight, like the bayonet wound under his Versace suit,” Horn said. “Both scars will have to been shown for the story to resolve itself, and I see ‘Eagle’ as a reminder that, in a democracy, the only ‘secrets’ are the ones we choose to hide from ourselves.”