Master Keaton is a manga series by Hokusei Katsushika, Naoki Urasawa, and Takashi Nagasaki that first ran from 1988 to 1994. Though popular enough in its time to spawn an anime adaptation and a sequel series from 2012 to 2014, Master Keaton is rarely discussed in the West except as part of manga legend Naoki Urasawa’s early career. But is this story being unfairly overlooked?

By Masha Zhdanova

Master Keaton follows the life and work of half-Japanese, half-British Taichi Hiraga-Keaton: struggling archeology professor by day, hypercompetent insurance investigator for the (real) British insurance agency Lloyd’s by night. And if you read the words “insurance investigator” and thought, “how could this possibly be interesting enough to be a whole manga?” the first panel of the very first chapter of this comic – depicting a man falling off a cliff – reassures you that by “life insurance” they do in fact mean “murder investigating.” 

In Keaton’s personal life, his daughter Yuriko is getting into trouble at school; his ex-wife he still has feelings for apparently started dating again; and his zoologist father is having women problems — as he usually does. Though a few chapters do focus on problems involving Keaton’s family members, they mostly act as background subplots to the more exciting international investigations. Keaton is concerned about his ex-wife and tries to get in contact with her during the case of David’s Stone and the Taklamakan Desert situation, but the business at hand prevents him from calling her, and they never do get in touch before the end of the volume. Keaton’s mother, who also lives in England where the majority of the story takes place, is too busy for Keaton to meet up with when he’s in town. By the end of the volume, the status quo in Keaton’s life is largely unchanged.

As is Keaton himself — slightly ditzy, fond of food and art, highly knowledgeable about everything under the sun, kind to strangers, and always ready to lend a helping hand. Keaton’s personality is very common for detective characters, reminiscent of Columbo or a less arrogant Hercule Poirot. Most of the other characters he encounters immediately interpret him as out of place, always inaccurately: a civilian in a military situation (he was in the military), a businessman in a desert (his suit material dispels the heat more effectively than his compatriots’ clothes).

And Keaton always proves them wrong, creatively getting out of impossible situations and solving impossible problems. Always clever, and always kind. Keaton’s unique background in history and archaeology as well as his time in the British Special Air Service (SAS) means he’s called in to help out on a lot of Lloyds’s trickier cases. In the first volume alone, Keaton deals with murders, suicide attempts, art forgery, drug smuggling, surviving in the Taklamakan Desert, and more.

This manga is one that benefits greatly from chapter-by-chapter serialization, as each chapter is densely packed with events and information, often taking place in a completely different country from the chapter before it. Each mystery Keaton tackles takes no more than three chapters to solve, and no big overall story arc unfolds besides Keaton and his family members continuing to live their lives. It’s a comic that feels almost cinematic at times in its visual storytelling, with wordless sequences conveying significant parts of the narrative.

What stands out about the mysteries the characters face is how meticulously researched they are. Manga often has vague approximations of Western names – who could forget “British” Quillsh Whammy from Death Note? – which look odd to English-speaking readers, but all of the names of European characters that appear in Master Keaton are perfectly believable names that people have in real life. The historical information and survivalist advice that appears is also legitimately factual – or at least, factually accurate as of 1988, as long as it suits the narrative (the Saxon Blue gemstone mentioned in “Journey With a Noblewoman”, for example, does not exist – Saxon Blue is a kind of fabric dye). The backgrounds and characters are rendered with equal specificity by Urasawa’s skillful hand.

Though the focus is mostly on situations in western and central Europe and Japan, the two-chapter-long artifact appraisal case in the Taklamakan Desert depicts the Uyghur people of Xinjiang with respect and nuance. Keaton learned the Uyghur language and customs and respects their authority over their land, saying “there are places on this planet that outsiders are not meant to ever go,” while the other archaeologist Takakura is rude and dismissive, going as far as to destroy their sacred wall to dig for artifacts. Though the internment camps against the Uyghur people in China began operating in 2014, even in 1988 Urasawa, Katsushika and Nagasaki recognized the Uyghur people as repressed under the Chinese regime.

While much of Keaton’s work deals with private matters between family members, just as much of it is deeply political and tied to the time it was written. The noblewoman he journeys with by train in chapter 9, for example, is traveling under an alias because her family was torn apart by the division of Germany into East and West, causing her to become an activist organizing protests. She lies shamelessly to Keaton about her life story as he helps her cross the border into Switzerland without a passport, but reveals her true origins by singing a song from her beloved homeland of Saxony. 

The lady is rude and haughty to Keaton from the moment she steps into their shared second-class carriage, behaving just like an aging noblewoman would. It isn’t until after they part ways that Keaton learns from a jeweler appraising the ring she gave Keaton to thank him for his help that the old lady he met was “the last lady of the Welfs”.

Her son was stranded on the East German side when he was just ten years old, and her husband disappeared trying to save him. From her grief and desire to carry on the legacy of her husband, she uses the family’s Swiss bank account to fund protests against the East German government. And though she had been hurt by the world many times over, she repays Keaton’s kindness to her by giving him an incredibly rare and precious ring that represents the successor of her house.

Keaton himself is no stranger to activism, as his teenage daughter Yuriko skips school to protest construction at an archaeological site near her school. After the construction workers refuse to listen to him, he sabotages the bulldozers using some chemicals he had on hand from the class he taught earlier that day. Keaton, quiet and unassuming, is a firm believer in doing what’s right. Even today, in our time of rampant social, political and economic injustices, seeing this kind of direct action in fiction is encouraging and motivating.

The relevance of Master Keaton today, then, is obvious: it’s a good comic in which the protagonists try their best to do the right thing no matter the circumstance. And good comics are universal, even if it’s a period piece capturing a very specific time in history. 

Master Keaton Vol 1
Written by Hokusei Katsushika
Illustrated by Naoki Urasawa
Edited by Takashi Nagasaki

Masha Zhdanova is a cartoonist, illustrator and writer whose work has been featured for sites including WomenWriteAboutComics. To find more of her work, you can find her website here – or follow her on Twitter here!

Thank you also to David Brothers for his assistance and to Colin Bell, Master of Titles!

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