TENKEN is a graphic novel manga that blends sci-fi with Japanese mythology. Divided into nine chapters, the story is set sometime in the future after a "dirty war" has tainted much of the planet. The story begins with the introduction of Manaka, a construction crew supervisor. One of his hardest workers is a young girl named Saki. Manaka met Saki one night at a bar. She pleaded to let her work for him and he agreed. She claimed she had fled from the mountains to escape an arranged marriage. Manka and his team are in the midst of preparing for the annual Tenken celebration, a festival that reenacts the myth of Susanoo and Orochi and the marriage of Susanoo to Princess Kushinada.
According to the myth, Susanoo was walking along the Earth when he came across an old man and old woman weeping bitterly over a young girl between them. The old man explains to Susanoo that the reason they are weeping is that they had eight daughters, but for the past seven years a multi-headed serpent has come and devoured one of the daughter. Kushinada is the last of the sisters and the serpent is due to arrive and eat her, too. Susanoo asks that if he kills the serpent, will they give him Kushinada's hand in marriage. The couple agrees. Susanoo turns the girl into a hair comb and places it in his hair. He then has the couple brew eight barrels of sake and helps them build eight stalls to place the sake. He places a barrel of sake inside each stall. When the serpent, named Orochi, comes he places each of his heads in the barrels and drinks and falls asleep. While the beast sleeps, Susanoo takes his sword and cuts each of the heads off and then cuts the great snake to pieces. He returns Kushinada to her human form and they are married.
In the novel, Tenken is the annual celebration that memorializes the event. However, each fifty years the special is particularly significant celebration, larger and more ambitious than in other years. In the mountains it is rumored that every fifty years a "hidden festival" takes place where the girl playing Kushinada in their festival is actually sacrificed to Orochi. Manaka soon learns that Saki is actually the girl who has been chosen as this year's Princess Kushinada in the mountains and that she has been running not from an arranged marriage, but from an arranged sacrifice. The people of the village believe that a female must be offered to Orochi every fifty years otherwise terrible things happen. Soon Saki believes the story, too, which leaves Manaka to decide if he can be like Susanoo and save the girl from the dragon.
Unlike a lot of books that are marketed as graphic novels, TENKEN is a true graphic novel. It's not a collection of comic books, nor is it a visual adaptation of a literary work. Instead, it is a novel that was conceived as being read in story-board format. For that, I give Yumiko Shirai credit. Not everyone can write a book and there are even fewer who not only write a book, but storyboard the entire thing out.
It should also be noted that TENKEN isn't just a graphic novel, but it's a manga. What that means is that the story is read from right to left instead of left to right.
The illustrations are done in black and white and, like the overall plot of the story, combine a dystopian sci-fi style with fantastical dreamlike images. Shirai does a good job of balancing and meshing the two, but there were several moments that I became confused and wasn't able to decipher what was happening until a few panels later. This didn't happen very much in the first third of the story, but happened more in the middle section, and happened during the last third.
My biggest problem with TENKEN is that I really didn't like the story, particularly towards the end. I realize that part of it is because of my ignorance of Japanese culture. Perhaps, if I had known about the Susanoo story before I started reading TENKEN, I might have appreciated it better. But, even though I'm college educated and like learning new things and trying new experiences, I ‘m just a poor white American and the last part of TENKEN didn't make much sense to me. I think it has to do with the spirit of Orochi, a giant eight-headed snake, possessing the soul of a man so that he can use that soul to lead a woman to him every fifty years so that he can merge with her soul and then let her body rot. Orochi is apparently real, but he only exits in the spirit world, but even though no one can see him (except those who are the modern embodiments of gods who once walked the Earth), he does come out and cause death, mayhem, and destruction, especially every fifty years if someone tries to get in the way of his new "princess" every fifty years. Of course, I'm not even sure if that's even right because the last part of the story was confusing for me and I had a difficult time figuring out what was happening.
I can see TENKEN being extremely popular with those who enjoy magna and/or Japanese culture. I also believe it's a book that those who have a serious interest in graphic novels will at least appreciate. I can also see someone who has an interest in studying myths, legends, fables, etc. from different parts of the world might like TENKEN. Personally, I appreciated reading it and think it's an excellent graphic novel, but was really confused by parts of the story which hampered my enjoyment.