HOKUTO NO KEN & THE “E-ONE” BOOK: The future of digital manga?

 

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A little while back in an article entitled “Old School Anime/Manga stuff I’m looking forward to in 2018” I talked about the E-one book, a potentially revolutionary electronic reading device for manga created with the help of fans on the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter.
Unlike most E-readers which can download and display a variety of content the E-one book was designed to be a single dedicated device which can hold an entire manga series in its memory. The first of these is the iconic 80’s manga by Buronson and Tetsuo Hara: Hokuto No Ken.

Last month Kickstarter backers in Japan started to receive their devices. While they weren’t available to customers in Europe they were made available to the United States so I used a proxy service to ship mine from America to the UK. US customers had to wait until April and so it’s taken a little while longer for me to get hold of mine via the proxy service but now….. FINALLY I hold the Hokuto No Ken E-One book in my hands.
Although this article will focus primarily on the quality of the E-one book as a device and its possible implications for manga collectors in the future, let’s start with a bit of background on Hokuto No Ken and why this would have been a special release to me even if it was a traditional physical book.

A brief trip down memory lane

Hokuto No Ken (or Fist Of The North Star as it’s known in the west) was my very first experience with anime and manga. In 1993 I saw the 1986 Fist Of The North Star movie on VHS for the first time when it was released by Manga Video. Its spectacular animation, larger than life characters, ultra violence and psychedelic visual style blew my mind. I was suddenly catapulted into the world of animation for adults (something my 13 year old brain was not even aware existed).
Soon after I discovered the magazine Manga Mania in the newsagent near my school and learned about the media known as “anime” and “manga” and that Japanese animation and comics were very much my jam.
The pages of this magazine, as well as another publication I discovered later called Anime UK taught me so much about so many iconic franchises and Fist was just one of them. Through the magazines I learned that the movie had compressed a much bigger story from the manga into a very short running time and that the movie was missing most of Kenshiro’s tale. Of course that meant I instantly wanted to read the full saga, unfortunately it was not an easy road.

VIZ were publishing the series in the early 90’s, however only about a year after I started to collect it the series stopped publication. Then in around 2004 a company called Raijin released a deluxe softcover edition in colour called the “master edition” using the source materials from a Japanese re-release. I was elated! Finally! The full series in English. Or so I thought. However those dreams were short lived. Raijin went bust after 9 volumes leaving Kenshiro’s story unfinished for me once more.

I finally read the complete series thanks to the efforts of fan translators on the internet. However due to this being before tablets were used as E-readers I had to read it on my PC and constantly scroll through pages using my mouse until my wrist hurt like hell. Not ideal. I finished the series though and yes, it was certainly worth the wait. Unfortunately around thirteen years later there’s still no rumblings of a physical western release to add to my shelves. When this Kickstarter was announced in Japan I found out about it on Twitter and realised though they didn’t ship to the UK I could use a proxy service to get it from the USA.

Finally it was my chance to own the series without the risk of wasting my money on a release that would turn out to be incomplete once again.
Progress Technologies the fine folks behind the E-one book set out to create something that could display manga in a new and exciting way. The device is capable of showing detail in comic art that E-readers can’t and also giving the look and feel of a book (even going so far as to add a cool dust jacket and actual paper around the screens).
So without further ado here are my opinions on the E-one book.

 

The Review

As soon as you unbox the Hokuto No Ken E-one book you get the feeling from the beginning that this is a very “premium” product. Upon opening the DHL shipping box I was greeted with this rather decorative black cardboard box with a silver typeface showing the Progress Technologies logo. This part slides off revealing a rectangular black box that can be opened without any cutting or mutilation.

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Inside is the device itself with a bit of silky smooth padding and some basic instructions on battery installation and operation. A note on the Kickstarter: there were two dust jacket design choices made available to backers. A Kickstarter exclusive cover featuring Kenshiro, Raoh, Toki, Yuria and Kokuoh and a “regular” cover featuring pretty much every important character from the Hokuto No Ken mythology. Honestly I thought the regular cover was far cooler due to it having so many of the cast on it. Perhaps some might find it cluttered and prefer a simpler, more minimal design. I think it’s beautiful though and so I went with that one. Here’s what the full dust jacket looks like. Below are the actual front and back of the device.

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Operation of the device is extremely simple. Opening it fully at the front turns it on. There is no power switch. Closing it again shuts it off to save battery life. Opening it at the back reveals a small indentation in the right hand side which is a battery cover.
The E-one book requires 4 AAA batteries for power. Progress Technologies were kind enough to include the batteries and install them so that I could start reading right away.
When you first open the device it displays a message for a split second that says ” Please wait a moment” and then the first thing you see is the contents page. After the contents and index there is a brief operation guide detailing all the different buttons, there is also a handy guide printed in the back- see second photograph below).

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The text is difficult to read in this photo but there are buttons for turning both pages forwards and backwards, advancing to the next/previous chapter and volume and a button to change the language from Japanese to English.

Switching between the two is somewhat of a novel experience. I found myself pressing the language button quite a bit on certain pages just to see what the kanji looked like or simply just for the novelty value of an instant translation appearing before my eyes. Amazing.

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The first thing you notice when you actually start reading the manga and get to the art itself is the rather impressive screen resolution. The black and white line art looks as intricately detailed as you’d expect to see on a high quality printed copy. The device uses technology called “E-ink” which strives to emulate ink in its look as closely as possible and it definitely achieves that. If you read comic scans on a regular basis on an E-reader or tablet you’ll more than likely be aware that the file sizes of an entire volume of comics are often as small as 50 megabytes. This is because the file is compressed pretty severely and a lot of detail is lost. Compare any physical manga or any comic you own with a digital scanned version of the same title and you will definitely see a difference. Progress Technologies website shows a few good examples of this including images where a lot of shading and line detail is lost at regular resolution.

The device is as light as a small hardback book and makes for a very comfortable reading experience. I particularly like the fact there’s no scrolling involved, the pages are sized exactly right so that you don’t need to move anything around to see the whole page. A minor caveat however is that some smaller panels have quite small text but it’s not unreadable.

Something I really like about the translation is the way the creators took feedback from fans as to how to translate the technique names. Hokuto No Ken is synonymous with its dynamic and imaginative special moves. In a poll they asked whether fans wanted literal translations or the technique names in English, the Japanese names or both. The majority of fans (myself included) went for both and that’s what made it into the final version. I’m pretty sure this is the first time any official English version of the manga has taken that approach. In my opinion all shonen titles in English should do this. As someone who wants to learn more about the Japanese language and enjoys the sound of the technique names in their native Japanese it’s really cool to see.

I also really like the language used in the translation in general in the volumes I’ve read so far. While I don’t speak Japanese I can recognise awkward phrasing and weird dialogue and It’s the sort of thing I’d pick up on instantly with how familiar I am with the manga (particularly these early volumes I’ve been re-reading which have been released multiple times in English).

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This image is to give an idea of the size of the device and enable you to see the buttons. This isn’t the best picture to show screen resolution as I didn’t seem to be able to snap a good pic of these two particular panels. I don’t have the steadiest hand when it comes to taking photographs. For a better idea of screen resolution check out the next two screenshots.

 

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Bonus content

The book has the same content as a Japanese re-release from a few years ago dubbed the “ultimate edition”. Artist Tetsuo Hara wasn’t completely happy with certain drawings he did at the time of the series publication. As most readers of this blog are likely to know, manga artists are often under an immense amount of pressure to produce quality artwork quickly. It seems during the final years of publication Hara’s health suffered quite a bit and he considers some of the drawings he produced in this time to not be his best work and in his words “off model”. He has since re-drawn the ones that he feels aren’t up to the same standard and there is also a bonus chapter that was produced for the anniversary of the series specifically for the ultimate edition that covers a period of time skipped in the original manga. There are also a few interviews with Hara and Buronson which are fascinating and well worth a read. I was particularly interested to learn that Buronson spent time in Cambodia during Pol Pot’s regime shortly before he began writing Hokuto No Ken and the real life horrors he witnessed there were what led to the creation of the series post-apocalyptic wasteland.

Potential and value for money

When Hokuto No Ken was first released it was serialised between 1984 and 1988 in the pages of Weekly Shonen Jump. When released in collected volumes the original number of books was 27. The recent “ultimate edition” release that this book is based on keeps all of the content but puts more chapters in per book shortening the volume count to 18. When you consider that every page of the manga plus bonuses are all included here and that the device cost me less than the physical books would it’s a pretty good deal. Also the E-one book takes up a fraction of the space the physical books would and still looks great on your shelf since it resembles a high quality softcover book with a very glossy dust jacket. Here’s mine, right at home alongside other titles in my collection.

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Now I understand this device won’t be for everyone and I totally get that, however it does have a lot of potential for bringing manga more easily to our shores. When a US or European company wants to translate a manga into English (or any language) there are a lot of legal hoops to jump through in order to get the owner to sign a deal and of course a ton of money. Some licences cost hundreds of thousands or even millions to acquire and then that company makes a loss if the books don’t sell well. However because the E-one book is created in Japan and translated in-house in conjunction with English staff there’s a lot less financial risk involved. Of course there is still licencing between Progress Technologies and the publishing company but that’s a lot more easily arranged than an international deal. Think of the myriad of classic titles that remain untranslated and unreleased or unfinished in the west. The E-one book could be a great alternative to getting traditional physical releases of some of these classics!

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This was one of the best examples of screen resolution I was able to take with my digital camera. While this shows the screen quality a bit better than the above shots seeing it in person is quite different. The image looks sharper and more dynamic.

For those interested in what is currently the only way to enjoy the Hokuto No Ken manga in English there may be plans announced in the future to bring the E-one book edition to certain retailers though it’s unsure whether it will be Japanese online retailers or whether any US distributors will be involved. A US owned internet retailer called Tokyo Otaku Mode were involved with the production of the E-one book (probably handling publicity as they tend to do that quite often for Japanese products). However at one point they sold some copies on their website once the Kickstarter was done. I’m not sure if they have any sort of deal to distribute the Hokuto No Ken E-one book exclusively in the future but be on the look out for news. I imagine any partnerships with distributors will likely be announced at Progress Technologies website which you can access at http://progresstech.jp/tsumikii/zenkan/index_en.html

Regarding battery life, the batteries the E-one book shipped with apparently give you approximately 3000 pages worth of reading. The entire manga including the bonus chapter and materials is around 5400 pages however Progress Technologies have a list of recommended batteries on their website that will enable you to read the entire collection of volumes. The included Panasonic batteries were simply so that backers would be able to start reading right away without a trip to the shops. It’s pretty cool that they were included considering it wasn’t stipulated in the Kickstarter campaign. Also the memory function that keeps your place in the book works even if you insert brand new batteries apparently.

Final Thoughts

I’ve had the device for less than a week but every time I look at it honestly it brings a smile to my face. Not only do I now have an extremely definitive edition of one of my all time favourite manga titles in a really compact version but I’m finding the actual reading experience to be really enjoyable and the performance of the device to be quite impressive.

I’m quite excited about the potential the format has and I’m eager to see what will be the next title Progress Technologies reveals for its next foray into digital manga. Looking at the huge number of positive comments on the Kickstarter page I’m not the only one either.

I’ve been toying with the idea of dipping my toe into the murky waters of Youtube and making a video on the E-one book. If that’s something people would be interested in let me know in the comments. Whatever you have to say on this subject I always enjoy hearing from people so don’t be shy.

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Jagi. One of the most entertaining bad guys in anime/manga history.

 

If you find my articles interesting feel free to follow me on twitter @animeheadsretro

I also co-host a brand new podcast about Mecha anime: the Retro Mecha Podcast!

 

 

 

 

 

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