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

Now at the midpoint of our five-essay series on Master Keaton, it’s time to talk about what Hokusei Katsushika, Naoki Urasawa, and Takashi Nagasaki leave out of their story. A recurring element within the first three volumes of Master Keaton is the idea how moments of resolution and climax – which would otherwise be depicted – are often simply not shown in this series.

For example, in volume 2, a case involving rabies infection ended with the perpetrator cutting the leashes of his rabies-infected dogs in the yard, and his aging mother looking up at the moon, in serene silence. The reader is left to draw their own conclusions about how exactly the case ended, without Keaton or anyone else to witness it. Moving forward to chapters 2 and 3 of this third volume, we have a story where Keaton is called in as an employee of Lloyd’s to help negotiate a hostage situation involving a Japanese company employee working in Wales. 

When he succeeds, the victim calls his family from a payphone and, as the victim’s father bursts into tears of gratitude, he turns to thank Keaton. Except… all he sees is an empty chair. The next page shows Keaton simply walking away as the narration explains that kidnapping negotiators typically avoid revealing their identities, and thus “never meet those they help free…” 

As a result, Keaton never gets to see the happy reunion, and neither does the reader. He does his job without getting the emotional reward; he never sees the fruits of his labor. It’s an act of excision on the part of the creative team, and I’m fascinated by that creative choice.

Cutting away from these moments is a key creative choice which, in visual media, often leaves more of an impact than showing the moment itself. Scott McCloud shows this effect in Understanding Comics to demonstrate the idea of “closure,” where a character is approached by a monster in one panel and the next panel is a wide shot of the city at night with only a scream echoing overhead, leaving the reader to imagine the violence that takes place. Famously in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, the camera cuts away from the torture scene – but coming out the theater, viewers would swear they saw the act happen with their own eyes. Allowing the audience to imagine what happens in a moment lets the reader fill in the gap with what they believe would be most impactful in that moment. The most violent torture, the most brutal murder, the happiest reunion.

Moments of victory, like moments of rejection, are frequently omitted from the page. When Keaton successfully defuses a bomb about to go off in a crowded shopping center in chapter 6, the only people who know how close the building was to exploding are Keaton and the I.R.A members who set the bomb in the first place. There is no applause when Keaton shoves chocolate in to chemically neutralize the sulfuric acid, only Connelly remarking that Keaton stopped the bomb from exploding… and then taking a bite of the remaining chocolate. As a reader, this feels anticlimactic, this massive disaster averted with barely a whisper or a splash panel for the victory to really land. But maybe that was the point. The emotional arc of the chapter was about Connelly’s relationship to his late grandfather, so the last page of the chapter cuts to his grandfather’s funeral and Connelly musing about his peaceful death – with a chocolate bar in hand.

Another one of the themes emerging out of Master Keaton across my reread is the perception of Japanese industry and culture in the West at the height of the late 80s and early 90s. Three separate stories in this volume focus on Japanese characters in Western Europe. There’s the aforementioned kidnapping; a flashback to Taichi Hiiraga-Keaton’s childhood in Cornwall; and the final one-off story about a Japanese businessman alone in London for Christmas with his European colleagues. Keaton himself is in a unique position as a half-Japanese man mostly raised in England, but fluent in both Japanese and English and being subject to racist bullying growing up. 

The flashback to his childhood serves to set up a second encounter with his childhood frenemy, Charlie, and show that Keaton is still smarter and more perceptive than the guy who made fun of him when they were kids. As children, they play chicken on a railway track, and Charlie loses, but has enough integrity to admit defeat to his other friends. Keaton teases him, saying he’ll keep it a secret that Charlie yelled “mommy” in fear when the train passed by. This flashback establishes Keaton and Charlie’s dynamic so that when they get together as adults we see how little each of them changed: Charlie still prideful and overconfident, Keaton still thoughtful and attentive to his surroundings. 

What all three of these stories share is an element of loneliness, the isolation of being the only Japanese person or family in town. And often in Master Keaton, loneliness, sadness and isolation are shown through omission, by absence, by things not being where the audience expects them to be. 

In the colored pages at the beginning of Chapter 10, Keaton is the only child depicted with straight black hair while the four boys ganging up on him have varying shades of blond and light brown. The scene of Charlie jumping across to avoid the train is not shown, the panel of him screaming in fear being followed by a panel of the other kids covering their ears to muffle the sound of the train and then looking up to see their friend gone. The omission allows the readers to assume like the characters that Keaton pulled Charlie across, until Charlie owns up to the fact that he was the one who panicked first.

The kidnapping victim’s wife shares how “as the other Japanese families returned home, a gaping hole opened up in [her] heart.” The businessman Yamamoto’s wife and daughter returned to Japan for the holidays, leaving him alone in London to socialize with Europeans who laugh about how hardworking and polite all Japanese people are. What they don’t realize is that Yamamoto is working so hard so he can eventually go home. Just as the creative team frequently omit details from the reader, Yamamoto does the same in-story for his colleagues.

The constant struggle is something which really resonated for me. In particular, there’s a section in chapter 8 of this volume where Keaton is visiting his family in Japan while waiting to hear back about a position at Kotozawa University. His daughter is excited at the possibility that her dad might stay close to home but, when the phone call comes in, we don’t see the call. Instead the art shows the phone ringing, Keaton reaching towards the phone, and then an abrupt cut to a wordless, dark panel of the moon in the sky, followed by Keaton’s family sitting around a low table in silence. His daughter says, “too bad it didn’t work out.” 

The moment of rejection itself happens offscreen, the somber quiet of the moon and the high-angle view of Keaton’s family from above creating a sense of detachment from the event.

For me as the reader, Keaton’s rejection felt… expected. Not just because this is an ongoing episodic series where the status quo can’t change so drastically as to give him a permanent job, but because, like Keaton, I have been getting rejected from every job in my industry I’ve applied to for the past… while. Rejection is quiet. It comes in the form of generic emails which arrive in my inbox without fanfare. For Keaton, in 1989, it’s a phone call that happens in between panels, in the wide horizontal gutter between the second and third tiers of the page. Keaton feels as though he’s wasting his life as an insurance investigator, but his family reassures him and the chapter closes on closeups of each of their faces as they listen to the chirping cicadas on a summer night in Japan.


Master Keaton Vol 3
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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