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
Where volume 1 introduces Taichi Hiraga-Keaton and his family, volume 2 of Master Keaton develops Keaton further as a character, both through the insurance investigations he conducts and the chapters where he doesn’t actually investigate… anything. Throughout the short, self-contained adventures in this volume, Keaton successfully handles a hostage situation, solves multiple crimes, and gets laid off from his job as a professor at a closing university in Paris – while back in Japan his retired zoologist father helps a woman find her lost dog. Despite his near-fantastical competency at dealing with the many weird situations life throws at him, Keaton’s struggles to find employment in academia are just as relatable to audiences today as they were in 1989.
Master Keaton is an unusually episodic manga, and volume 2 even more so than volume 1 with only one story which takes two chapters to resolve instead of one. Keaton’s personal life takes a backseat to the problems he’s tasked to solve as an insurance investigator whose job has him traveling all over Western Europe. Even when he isn’t traveling for work, Keaton still tries to help other people out of the goodness of his heart, chasing down an ice cream truck in London because his daughter read about it in a magazine. Despite it all, Keaton’s approach to his various assignments is entirely informed by his background as an archaeologist and academic, and his frustration at not being able to find a stable job as a professor at a university.
I’ve been drawing comics for most of my life, but while I dream of being a professional cartoonist, I haven’t had much luck with actually getting my work out there, even after I went to school for it. I’ve been getting rejected from the comics-related jobs I’m applying for, but people are reading my essays about comics, and praising them, and giving me opportunities to write and edit more. For example, I’m reading Master Keaton now for the first time because I was commissioned to write this essay series. Seeing Keaton wait by the phone for a call he already knows isn’t going to be what he wants to hear while his client tells him how great he is at the job that isn’t his true passion felt a bit like looking at a mirror and seeing myself, a 23-year-old recent cartoon school grad in 2022, reflecting out of this divorced fictional archaeologist dad from 1988.
In the second chapter of volume 2 (chapter 14 overall), Keaton finds himself in Basel, Switzerland. At the same time, he’s calling his daughter on a payphone asking if she’d heard from the university he’d been teaching at in Japan about his contract getting renewed. His job at the university didn’t pay much, but it granted him entrance to the world of archaeology and academia.
Keaton’s dream is to excavate a site on the Danube river and find evidence of civilization predating the Greeks and Romans, but his work as an insurance agent pays much better and is more consistent. Right when Keaton learns his contract isn’t being renewed, however, the librarian who’d been refusing him access to the medieval German texts Keaton was interested in recognizes Keaton’s name as the author of the thesis that inspired the librarian to become a researcher. Despite the institutions of his field failing to recognize Keaton’s abilities as an archaeology professor, and his clients insisting his work as an agent is what he was born to do, Keaton is shown that the work he’s passionate about also makes a difference to people.
I tabled at a convention this past weekend, and someone picked up a comic I drew a few years ago and said, “Yes, this is exactly how it feels. I’ve never seen anyone capture this feeling before.” As I smiled and said thank you, I thought of Keaton and the random Swiss librarian moved to tears by his thesis, and wondered if that was how he felt then, too.
If Keaton can continue to pursue his passions despite a lack of institutional support for him, if he can believe his dreams are worth chasing even while his other job demands so much from him, maybe I can do the same. Even if I have to do things that are not comics to make a stable living, I can still continue to pursue comics on my own time, because that is what I feel like I am meant to do. Keaton isn’t always satisfied with how his life is balanced, but he enjoys the work he does even if it’s not his true passion, and finds it meaningful. So maybe I can find a job I can enjoy outside of comics.
Urasawa, Nagasaki and Katsushika also emphasize the importance of following your dreams and the pursuit of happiness indirectly in chapter 23, when Keaton runs into an old friend from college and they end up chasing down an ice cream truck together. Unbeknownst to Keaton but revealed to the reader through flashbacks, his friend Milton had just been encouraged to quit his job as a senior employee at an international bank for a risky deal that went wrong. His wife also just left, accusing him of being a child who’s lost his dreams. But after talking to Keaton and eating the world-famous ice cream they spent so much energy chasing, Milton is ready to throw his briefcase in a nearby trash can. He asks Keaton how his divorce was, and Keaton says, “it felt like I’d grown up a little bit.”
While Urasawa originally pitched the concept of Master Keaton himself, additional writers were brought on as he was also drawing the series Yawara! at the same time, and the editorial team was concerned he wouldn’t be able to write and draw two stories simultaneously. It’s hard to determine how much of a given chapter’s story was conceived by which creator, given Urasawa’s influence on the writing despite being the designated artist of the trio. But as a visual storyteller, the moments Urasawa chooses to depict help convey the whimsical energy and fun of the ice cream truck sequence.
As Keaton and Milton whizz pass a group of pedestrians on a bicycle, parallel action lines accentuate their motion along the road, while a girl yells out, “if you catch them, get us some ice cream too!” Urasawa depicts Milton’s decision to toss his briefcase in a sequence of wordless panels, only allowing the character to say “Oh, well…” in a close-up before cutting to the briefcase rattling against the metal container. These choices of framing create a sense of forward motion for the story, emphasizing the idea that people can only continue to move forward in life.
The creative team behind Master Keaton is saying that mistakes and disappointments out of a person’s control are what help them grow. I might not have the power to keep a university from closing or my boss from firing me, but I can spend an afternoon getting delicious ice cream. And when something bad happens to me, I can learn from that experience for the future, and thus, grow up, just a little bit.
Another rejection email lands in my inbox, and I wonder if I have, even a little bit, grown up.
Master Keaton Vol 2
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!
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