It’s hard being an older fan of manga and anime. Think about the most popular titles: Naruto, Attack on Titan, and Noragami. Do you notice a pattern? About their protagonists maybe? That’s right. They’re teenagers. Even up-and-coming Tokyo Ghoul features young college students.
That’s nice and all, but what about those of us who are older? The ones who are long done with higher education and preoccupied with so-called adult concerns like holding down a job, paying a mortgage and making ends meet? Are we going to have to resign ourselves to reading about high school drama and energetic teenagers? I don’t know about you, but that gets tiresome after a while.
So let me tell you about a manga called Gangsta. by Kohske.
The Quick and Dirty Version
Like Tokyo Ghoul, Gangsta. is a seinen manga. That means it’s geared for an older audience than, say, shounen manga’s young teenage target demographic. Unlike Tokyo Ghoul, the protagonists of Gangsta. are not in college. In fact, not only did none of them go to college, two of them are in their mid-30s.
Gangsta. is an urban crime drama that tells the story of two Handymen-for-hire. They do all sorts of jobs around the city, ranging from fixing up storefronts like legitimate handymen to less savory tasks like drug-running and taking out gangs that don’t know their place. It’s during an example of the last one that they meet our third, and final protagonist, a sex worker who solicits clients in the alleyways of the city’s restricted zones and ends up offering us an accessible window into the lives of the Handymen, and the unspoken politics that govern the city.
The Characters and Representation
There are many things to like about Gangsta. The artwork. The story. The action. The way it’s unexpectedly influenced by Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot.
For me, it’s the characters. More importantly, it’s the representation.
Let’s start with the three protagonists. Two of them aren’t white. This may not seem like a big deal in a manga. Most series are about non-white characters, after all. What we need to consider, however, is that those titles are typically set in fictional visions of Japan with ethnically homogenous populations. Gangsta. takes place in a fictional city in a fictional European country, most likely somewhere near the Mediterranean. Many of the characters are some flavor of white. Not all but many. Enough to paint them as the majority.
There’s a difference between a narrative about non-white characters in a majority, fairly homogenous non-white country, and one about non-white characters in a majority white country. As a POC living in the U.S., this manga became important to me, not just because I enjoy the story and art, but because it prominently features two POC in leading roles doing things, being active in the story of their lives, influencing the direction of the plot, and not being relegated to sidekicks of the third, white character. And believe me, it would have been very easy to do exactly that.
So who are these three main characters?
Worick Arcangelo is the illegitimate second son of a rich, powerful family. When he was a young teenager, he lost his left eye and his family during a massacre. Orphaned, he fled to the city of Ergastulum. Now, imagine this. Even though Worick was illegitimate and ensured never to forget it, he still grew up relatively privileged. He lived in a huge mansion with servants and had access to private tutors and lots of money. Take that boy and dump him into the rough streets of Ergastulum. How is a pretty boy like him supposed to survive?
Gangsta. doesn’t flinch from hard truths. It’s very frank in its portrayal with no gloss and minimal sensationalism. I believe it’s because the mangaka, Kohske, has a serious chronic disease that results in her being hospitalized every now and again–she has no time to beat around the bush. Worick started performing sex acts professionally at the age of 13 in order to earn food money. Now, over 20 years later and as an adult fully able to consent as an equal participant, he still works in the field, albeit no longer on the streets or in a brothel. He’s the example of a sex worker who embraced the job, made it work for him, and earned his way to a better place where he’s able to pick and choose his clients.
Nicolas Brown is Worick’s business partner. They first met when he was a child mercenary assigned to protect Worick. After the family massacre, he also fled to Ergastulum because for reasons that will later become apparent, the city is the perfect place to hide. Nic is one of the aforementioned POC protagonists: he’s a non-passing biracial (half-white/half Thai-Chinese) character.
He’s also deaf. In another manga, the narrative would make light of his disability. That doesn’t happen here. People use sign language. If they don’t know it, they learn. Even without it, he can read lips and in fact, his other senses are notoriously good. He does speak, and that is one of the best things about the series. Since Nic was born deaf, his pronunciation is not precise or correct. You’d expect someone make jokes about the way he talks, because that’s what we’ve come to expect from our all-too-often ableist media. No one does. When he talks, everyone listens. Nic is a man of few words so when he speaks, you know you need to listen.
Gangsta. treats its protagonists with dignity, affording them nuanced portrayals you don’t even see elsewhere. Which brings us to the third, and final, main character: Alex Benedetto. Alex is the other side of sex work. She’s the young woman who wanted to get a straight job to help her struggling family, but thanks to the unscrupulous actions of an aspiring gang leader, got trapped into being a sex worker. Unlike Worick, who works in comfort, she turns tricks in alleys with anyone willing to pay because she has a quota to meet. Choice has been taken away from her by a pimp that threatens and beats her when she shows any sign of fighting back. To add further insult to injury, she’s forcibly addicted to a drug intended keep prostitutes docile, which also induces amnesia. Not only is Alex dying a slow death from being coerced into continuing this job, she also has no memories of the life she lived before and of the family she adored.
When Nicolas and Worick dispatch of the gang she worked for, they take her in and she becomes their secretary. It’s a turn of luck that saved her, because Alex was literally on the verge of giving up once and for all. In addition to providing the access point for readers into the world of Gangsta., hers is the ultimate recovery story. More than a hooker with a heart of gold or a rescued damsel in distress, Alex is a survivor who struggles with PTSD, anxiety, and withdrawal from the drugs used to keep her compliant. There are no quick fixes here. She doesn’t become either guy’s love interest. She’s not healed with sex, which is the route Kohske could have taken. Sure, Worick flirts with her but it’s not done with serious intent and she’s just not interested. She’s not a fighter like Nicolas. She doesn’t have a photographic memory like Worick. But she’s resilient, brave, and compassionate—which in the city of Ergastulum is a rare combination.
And what makes her even more striking is that, like Nicolas, she is biracial. More importantly, she’s a dark-skinned half-black, half-Chinese woman. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a protagonist like Alex Benedetto before. This type of leading lady, with her particular combination of traits and affectionate portrayal, is uncommon not just in manga, but across all media forms.
The Politics of Ergastulum
Let’s get down to what makes this city so special.
At some point prior to the start of the manga, the country in which Ergastulum is located fought a reunification war. During this war, countries made use of drug-enhanced soldiers to fight. Unfortunately, in addition to being extremely addictive, the drugs had some bad side effects like psychosis and mental instability. And similar to Gulf War syndrome, the drugs’ effects passed on to the soldiers’ children. They were often born with a wide range of physical ailments and disabilities. And worst of all, those children were also born dependent on the drug. Like their parents, they needed it to survive.
The general public didn’t want the drug-enhanced soldiers and their offspring anywhere near them, so the government created Ergastulum. And they shipped off all those soldiers and their children to the city. If you know what Ergastulum means in Latin, you’ll realize how fitting the name actually is.
Those soldiers and their descendants are called Twilights. They’re treated like second-class citizens. They’re assigned dog tags—but there’s more to these than the ones soldiers wear, although there are superficial resemblances. They’re like the tags you give an animal: to identify them, to warn normal humans away from them, and to track them. All Twilights must live in Ergastulum. Ones who are found outside of its city limits are sent there, often in chains. Because of its origins, the city is rife with crime, and ruled by three mafia gangs and one guild of mercenary Twilights.
Oh and by the way, Nicolas is Twilight, too.
A Crime Drama Brought to Life
The mangaka, Kohske, readily admits she doesn’t read much manga and that much of her influences come from Hollywood movies, especially noir and crime films. In many ways, Gangsta glorifies the mafia: the city is controlled by three families and no one takes issue with their presence and influence. In other manga, yakuza and characters who bear the stereotypical markers of a gang connection–such as tattoos, dyed hair, or flashy white suits–are feared and to be avoided. Make no mistake: no one’s out to become the Families’ new best friend. But when things fall apart, it’s telling that people go to the Families for help, not the police.
The way Kohske arranges her panels are cinematic. No cluttered panels here. No fight scenes that are impossible to follow. She’s a master of conveying emotions with few words. In fact, some of her most powerful scenes have no words at all and expect the reader to pick up on what remains unsaid.
Gangsta. is not a series for the faint of heart. It’s bloody. It’s violent. The characters are not written in black and white but rather rendered in shades of grey. There’s implied rape. There’s on-panel abuse. There’s a whole lot of emotional pain caused by the things these characters go through. This series is a walking trigger warning.
But for readers who love crime dramas, who are not negatively triggered by this kind of content, or who want to see fully fleshed out characters from typically marginalized backgrounds move through a story with agency, this manga delivers.