Although it’s only half the name of the series, “heart” is literally at the center of the long-running manga Angel Heart by Tsukasa Hojo. (Literally-literally, not figuratively-literally.) It’s both a story of a transplanted heart and the code name of a young assassin aptly named Glass Heart. After a particularly gut-wrenching kill, Glass Heart decides to end her career by ending her life. The Taiwanese mafia, keen to keep its valuable asset, steals a heart from an organ donor–the heart of a recently killed woman named Kaori Makimura. (For those who have read City Hunter: yes, that Kaori Makimura.) The memories remaining in that heart prompt Glass Heart to wake from a coma and travel to Shinjuku, Japan in search of the heart’s original owner.
In Shinjuku, Kaori’s fiance, Ryo Saeba (yes, that Ryo Saeba), retired from the quasi-legal “sweeper” business he ran with Kaori, struggles with dealing with both her death and the literal stealing of her heart. Glass Heart’s appearance into his life thrusts both his past and future together, prompting him to restart his business of protecting the peace of Shinjuku. He also adopts her, the girl with Kaori’s heart, as his daughter and gives her the name Xiang Ying. From there, the series alternates between episodes of Ryo and Xiang Ying taking jobs from the shadows of Shinjuku to help people with smarts and guns, and longer arcs exploring the pasts and presents of its cast and their relationships.
English readers may recognize the name Tsukasa Hojo from the release of his most well-known manga City Hunter. Although Angel Heart uses the same characters, it is not a direct sequel, but an alternate universe story. You don’t have to have read that series to enjoy Angel Heart as backstory and details are provided (and often contradict City Hunter’s canon anyway.) But like any good AU fanfic, seeing what’s different and what’s the same is an extra layer of fun. And for those that read City Hunter, but didn’t enjoy certain elements, like Ryo’s immaturity or the running erection jokes, the Ryo of Angel Heart is portrayed more maturely, tempered by tragedy and the passing of time. He still has moments of immaturity and mokkori, but not nearly as relenting–less the horny rovings of a young man and more the acting out of an older man who falls into old habits to avoid confronting his feelings. It also reflects his change from the main character of City Hunter to a mentor and father to the main character of Xiang Ying. Even the art of Angel Heart is more mature compared to that of City Hunter. City Hunter’s art is sometimes messy, and leans toward the cartoonish during its comedic moments, which does fit its status as a comedy and action manga. Angel Heart, conversely, maintains the more realistic proportions and the beautiful art, especially in the faces. Even the cartoony comedy isn’t as cartoony as his older works. To me, that also reflects the maturing of Tsukasa Hojo as an artist and storyteller.
Angel Heart is a series known for its action. And to be sure, it has plenty of that. It’s kind of hard not to when you’re talking about a former assassin and a sharpshooter encountering every type of violent unsavory in Shinjuku. Like Tsukasa Hojo’s other works, it also has a deft hand with the comedy, not only from the previously-established oddball cast of City Hunter, but with the new .47 Colt in the works, Xiang Ying. Xiang Ying is very good at sniping, gunfighting, and other military maneuvers, making her well-suited to the sweeper job Ryo runs. She is not very good at being an ordinary girl, which creates hilarious fish out of water moments. (“What do you mean, I shouldn’t stop a car by shooting out its engine?”) But more than those elements, Angel Heart is a story about heart (figuratively this time).
Rather than romance, Tsukasa Hojo centers family in the story, primarily through the father-daughter relationship of Ryo and Xiang Ying. It’s not a typical father-daughter story, because Ryo and Xiang Ying are not your typical father and daughter. (It’s difficult to ground your kid when she can shoot her way out of any confinement.) But putting their relationship against a background of violence, trauma, and crime highlights the normality and the strength of their bonds against an abnormal world.
Family is also in the stories of the blind cafe owner who adopts an orphan, the police chief who loved Kaori’s brother and watches out for Kaori’s widower Ryo, the daughter of one of Glass Heart’s victims, and the leader of the Taiwanese mafia who has his own reasons for keeping Xiang Ying alive. Angel Heart may lure readers in with a seinen-like promise of danger and dick jokes, brutality and banter. But the thing that kept readers invested in a series for sixteen years were the shining examples of humanity among the turbulence of Shinjuku. The simple, unto-death loyalty of a childhood friend, the reflections of a fellow heart transplant, the ruminations on being able to change a deadly future…
Manga licensing and release is often tricky. There’s any number of reasons a Japanese manga might not see an English release. (Too old, content too mature, licensing rights complications, not drawn by Hiro Mashima, etc.) It often takes me by surprise to find something I’d been reading in Japanese made it to our shores. So, uh, there may have been excited flailing and squealing when I found out that Angel Heart has actually had an (albeit very limited) official English release. In 2015, the first thirteen chapters were released online in English by the Silent Manga Audition Community, of which Hojo Tsukasa is an honorary judge. The Silent Manga Audition challenges amateur manga artists and writers to write a short manga without dialogue, both as a focus on artistry and silent storytelling and also making the contest itself accessible internationally to both readers and authors.
While Angel Heart itself is not a silent manga, seeing it released in English fits in with their goal of seeing good manga more internationally accessible. Sadly, there aren’t any releases planned beyond those thirteen chapters, and there’s no print version. But there’s clearly interest in getting Angel Heart translated and commercially released, so I hope the English-language manga publishers are paying attention. With its popularity, beauty, and heart, the only reason Angel Heart shouldn’t be on bookshelves is because it keeps flying off them.