Holyland Review — Existential Gang Violence

Manga Info:

  • Genre: Action, Martial Arts, Seinen
  • Author: Kouji Mori
  • Publisher: Young Animal
  • Volumes: 18
  • Chapters: 182
  • Original Run: October 13, 2000 to May 23, 2008

Fighting anime and manga have played a big part in supplementing my fascination in martial arts over the years. While most shonen has some element of physical combat, I gravitate to realistic fighting with detailed explanations of techniques and tactics like in Hajime no Ippo, Kenichi: The Mightiest Disciple, Baki the Grappler, All-Rounder Meguru, and so on. This one in particular is no different, and it hits the spot for me with its level of detail.

Holyland is a manga with a kind of story that I would write—deep in exposition and technical detail while also having some emotional undertone shoehorned in. It’s like Girls of the Wild’s without the chicks, the out-of-place shenanigans, and the romcom ending.

This was recommended to me by a friend and colleague in Manila Wrestling Federation, who is as much of a nerd in these things as I am, if not more.

NOTE: This is a full review, so here be spoilers. You’ve been warned.

Story

The premise is fairly simple. A hikkikomori finds a boxing instructional in a bookstore and learns the jab and right straight from it. He practices them in his room, then uses that 1-2 combination the next time he got bullied. Since most lowlife thugs don’t know how to properly fight in the first place, that straight punching combination proves to be very effective.

As he keeps encountering more street toughs, he adds more techniques to his arsenal. Soon, his infamy grows and becomes known as the Thug Hunter, even if he only acts in self-defense. It’s a snowball effect that sees a kid only looking to not get bullied and want to find a place in the world outside his own room inadvertently become an urban legend.

Holyland: Yuu Kamishiro vs. Kickboxer

It’s like a shonen version of the movie Falling Down. Instead of an unemployed and divorced middle-aged man, it’s a bullied high school kid. Instead of weapons, it’s fighting techniques. Instead of being angry at the world, it’s about finding one’s place in a hostile environment.

(Take note that Holyland is technically seinen—not shonen—due to featuring more adult themes. Seinen is for young adults, shonen is for young boys. I use the word ‘shonen’ as reference to its archetypes.)

The pattern is as follows—Yuu gets beat up, learns from that loss, gets a rematch, and destroys his opponent. Everything else that happens in between is basically villains conspiring against him and supporting characters worrying about him. It has enough tension to make for an engaging read and a fairly bittersweet ending.

Characters

The protagonist Yuu Kamishiro is like Shinji Ikari from Neon Genesis Evangelion, but without an estranged father forcing him to fight. Actually, Yuu is not forced to do anything at all other than curling up into a ball and taking a beating. But he then comes across a book about boxing and somehow finds the drive to put its most basic offensive technique—the 1-2 combination—into practice. As weak as he seems throughout the manga, his strength is like that of many shonen protagonists—the drive to exceed one’s own limits. He would still be a soggy wad of cookie dough emotionally, but he learns how to defend himself.

Holyland: Yuu Kamishiro vs. Shogo Midorikawa

Yuu embodies the adage “You attract what you fear.” He learned how to fight back, but was still visibly anxious about being accosted by thugs. Therefore, he keeps getting accosted by thugs because he’d always stand out as juicy prey whenever he’s out in the street. Due to his vehement refusal to go back to his hikkikomori existence and desire to find a place in the world, he has to live with it like how Shinji Ikari had to be an EVA pilot. Having knocked out enough violent thugs uneducated in the fighting arts with his rudimentary boxing, he would develop a (false) reputation as a “Thug Hunter,” thus attracting more thugs. Misery does love company.

He is pushed further upon meeting Masaki Izawa, nicknamed “Charisma”. He has the looks, the moves, and the calmness that befits his station as a feared and respected street fighter. Later in the story, he’s revealed to be like Yuu once, and the beating he took in the past that motivated him to get stronger still haunts him. Isawa is the man Yuu wishes to be, but the boy could never imagine his idol as a weakling like himself.

Not everyone in this story needs to be a fighter, but they all need to have a reason why they would ever interact with a non-entity like Yuu. Maybe Shinichi Kaneda (Shin) got dragged along in Yuu’s affairs in the street against his own will, but he does end up becoming his friend and sidekick. His presence, while seemingly needless at first due to his lack of fighting ability, underlines Yuu’s need for emotional support.

Many fighting manga and anime have their protagonists powered mostly by ambition and only when the chips are down does love and friendship become like a panic button they press to suddenly power up, even when their bodies are broken beyond repair. There’s a lot less of that in Holyland, wherein most of Yuu’s support comes before and after fights, especially from Shin. But when he’s in a fight, Shin would actually discourage him from going further when he gets hurt, and everyone else refrain from providing direct assistance.

Holyland creates a plot force field around Yuu at times that prevents multiple people from ganging up on him during those showdowns. It’s like Mortal Kombat meets Rival School in a heady mix of technical martial arts violence and Westside Story pubescence.

No fighting manga can be without a rival. But what makes Shougo Midorikawa different is he ends up suffering from the rivalry instead of being helped. He actually gets weaker and even falls into drug addiction, all because he kept refusing Yuu’s offer of friendship. He’s like Katsuki Bakugo from My Hero Academia, but way more stubborn and even less willing to accept his rival’s growth.

I find Tsuchiya to be the most interesting supporting character in the bunch. He’s like a roguish Buddha with a slickback who could wrestle. Meanwhile, Izawa’s younger sister Mai serves both catalyst and buffer for Yuu, who goes off the deep end several times and would’ve never snapped out of it without her opportune presence. The psychological parts of this story is Yuu’s twisted coming-of-age, somewhat contrasting that of many other characters who seemed to get worse in this violent setting.

Holyland: Head KickThe characters that do take away from this manga are Yuu’s parents. They’re shown a couple of times during the earlier parts, but they become non-factors later on like they never existed. Perhaps this represents how neglectful and/or disconnected a lot of mothers and fathers can be to their children, but this case is like a violation of Chekhov’s parents—if you show them, they should matter in the story later on. They were as good as not being there, like the parents in Ed, Edd n Eddy.

But it does raise the question of “What if they actually cared about Yuu?”  If you’ve read read enough of the manga, you’ll be able to answer that easily. Yuu would’ve been prevented from going out into the streets after a certain point and he wouldn’t have learned how to fight as well as he did. Any loving parent would impose such restrictions for obvious reasons, but their absence is what adds to Yuu’s unusual situation.

Most of the villains here are fairly effective, although they tend to have single notes. They’re in the story to serve one purpose—providing seemingly insurmountable challenge for Yuu to overcome. At the very least, each does provide a different note each time, as shonen antagonists in every story arc should.

But that then divides them into two categories after being defeated—those who become friendly and those who become afterthoughts. Midorikawa, the judo guy, and the kendo guy are examples of the former, while the crazy guy Yoshii is more of the latter.

Most shonen stories tend to have the latter while having sprinklings of the former becoming more like allies. In this manga, there’s only one of the former who really becomes an ally, namely Midorikawa. But even with that, he later becomes estranged and a troubled figure who becomes like a hostage of sorts of the final antagonist.

Speaking of which, the least effective villain for me had to be the last one. The final boss who supposedly creates a swath of destruction with his drug dealing and terrorizes the main characters with both his goons and his expertise in kenpo, the one who is supposed to be the strongest, is the weakest in characterization. It’s alright that his motivation for what he does is pretty much “I just want to have fun,” but him being that as a final antagonist is a letdown.

This alien world has boogeymen in the form of adults, most of whom are only mentioned in hushed whispers. Only a couple of them are shown in the whole manga, and they’re there to grind things to a halt for the time being. However, they also help make weird sense of the hyperreal world of Holyland, wherein these supposedly realistic street fights take place in bubbles that are out in the open, yet also devoid of long-term consequences.

On the other hand, there are Yuu’s parents. They’re shown a couple of times during the earlier parts, but they become non-factors later on like they never existed. Perhaps this represents how neglectful and/or disconnected a lot of mothers and fathers can be to their children, but this case is like a violation of Chekhov’s parents—if you show them, they should matter in the story later on. They were as good as not being there, like the parents in Ed, Edd n Eddy.

But it does raise the question of “What if they actually cared about Yuu?”  If you’ve read read enough of the manga, you’ll be able to answer that easily. Yuu would’ve been prevented from going out into the streets after a certain point and he wouldn’t have learned how to fight as well as he did. Any loving parent would impose such restrictions for obvious reasons, but their absence is what adds to Yuu’s unusual situation.

Art

The most important thing when it comes to art in a “realistic” martial arts manga is how well the fight scenes are depicted. The action must be comprehensible, with every movement flowing from one to the next in a manner that makes sense. In other words, it can’t be drawn lazily, like blurs and speed lines like in most shonen manga. While fights are merely for progressing the plot in those, the fighting itself is the story in a title like Holyland.

Holyland: Spinning Back Kick

This comprehensive style extends to how the characters are drawn. Yuu looks as meek as his personality, Midorikawa is as brash as his demeanor, Misaki is as calm as he’s written as, and so on. The setting also gets a similar treatment, giving off a grittiness that doesn’t obscure this Japanese city’s urban refinement.

Most of that aura of danger is due to most of the story taking place at night. Whenever the sun is up, it mostly dissipates. Daytime is seen as respite in the manga, wherein the major characters get to relax for a bit and think of what they may do next. Whenever something major does happen during the day, it’s to develop a major character, especially Yuu.

Final Score

Holyland
8 / 10 out of 10
Pros
  • Engaging premise for martial arts fans
  • Gritty hyperreal setting
  • Protagonist is like Shinji Ikari with a bit more balls
  • Most supporting characters matter
  • Fairly believable character motivations
  • Well-drawn and properly-built fight scenes
  • Technique explanations with diagrams
  • 4th wall-breaking narration
  • Bittersweet ending
Cons
  • Setting not totally fleshed out
  • Yuu’s parents don’t give a shit
  • Somewhat vague ending
Summary

Between the street violence, the detailed descriptions of said violence, and relationships between broken people looking for their place in the world, Holyland hits a fascinating balance between all its elements that’s both strange and fairly well-executed.

It hits a lot of the same notes as something like Hajime no Ippo, but then takes a turn for the more melodramatic with a sense of nihilism. There are bright spots in between, but they’re only there to signal the coming of something worse.

The only way for Holyland to end is in tears, even if it’s for the better.

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