Something’s wrong here.
In Keijo!!!!!!!! there is a character named Kawai Hanabi who is one of the best keijo newcomers in the series. In fact, she’s great at everything related to sports. She’s an immensely talented person and she can’t turn that talent off. Thus, she’s distressed. She couldn’t ever play with others because she easily trounced everyone else, ruining people’s fun. She couldn’t experience the struggle and joy of achieving victory, so she was never satisfied. She was bored, always, with sports despite being so good at them. Kawai is a lighthearted girl, though, so she can still find happiness in life. Plus, she makes some strong and skilled friends that alleviate her boredom, allowing her to finally struggle in sport. Now, let’s take that concept of an immensely talented individual and remove almost everything that could be called “pleasant” from their life. Now we have a villain. Now we have Teppu.
Teppu (鉄風, lit. Iron Wind) is a manga by Ohta Moare (太田モアレ) about women’s MMA (mixed martial arts). It is a tour de force of manga. Intense, beautiful action; deep, twisted and complicated characters; a unique storyline that avoids tropes of the genre; and laughs: Teppu has it all. It is Ohta Moare’s only major work, to my knowledge, and it is excellent. This is one of my favorite series of all time, and though it’s over, I still want more of it. But, well, I’ll get more into that later.
Ishidou Natsuo is talented. She is an exceptional, amazing, first-year high schooler (16). Looks, smarts, and athleticism: she has it all and she has it without effort. Because of this, she has a pretty bad personality. Her philosophy on life is messed up, and her tastes are queer at best, malicious at worst. The manga starts with her on her school’s volleyball team, on which she is a starting player. This is one of the first things she says:
Most of Natsuo’s teammates don’t like her. She exudes arrogance and clearly looks down on everyone around her. But contrary to what others might think, she actually considers herself lonely rather than bored. There is no one else around similar to her, and so she feels alienated. She has all this talent, but absolutely no motivation. This begins to change when she meets the youthful MMA fighter, Mawatari Yuzuko.
Yuzuko is a Japanese returnee who transferred into Natsuo’s school recently from Brazil. Natsuo finds her passing out flyers for a school MMA club she’s starting. Three things catch Natsuo’s attention with this girl. First, look at those eyebrows! Second, Yuzuko declares “it’s said that MMA is the place where the strong can actually fight”. Third, she says it’s a lot of fun.
Natsuo decides to check out the MMA club.
Her intention with coming to the club is to fight Yuzuko and beat the Hell out of her to wipe the smile from her face. She expects an easy time. She doesn’t get one.
Mawatari Yuzuko is very good. Natsuo can’t take her down, and is shocked by her skill. Before they can continue the fight seriously, however, their little match is prematurely ended.
Sawamura Sanae and Ganeko Mai are ghosts of Natsuo’s past. We don’t know what happened between them at this point, but there’s clearly a lot of bad blood here. Sanae is one of the top practitioners of karate in the nation, and as captain of the school’s karate club she came to see who it was that was brawling on school grounds. She breaks up this little fight, and Natsuo decides to leave. Before she’s gone, though, Yuzuko mentions that she “might be a match for Ringi”. When Natsuo is alone, she suddenly tastes blood in her mouth. Her nose is bleeding — a result of Yuzuko’s kick. Her nose is bleeding even though the person who delivered that kick said she wasn’t a good striker (a person who focuses on blows rather than grappling). Rather than reacting with thrilled glee at having found someone potentially similar to her, Natsuo reacts with fury. She strikes a nearby tree and scoffs at the idea of the “fun” of all this that Yuzuko had excitedly been talking about.
“People who have everything”? What the Hell does that mean? Well, I have an explanation, but that’s the end of chapter 1 so let’s move on first.
Not a lot happens in chapter 2, but what does happen is important. We’re introduced to Ringi Cordeiro and her father Mario Cordeiro, Brazilians who have come to Japan. Mario is a living legend of MMA with a record of over 500 wins, no losses. His daughter, Ringi, is indeed the “Ringi” Yuzuko referred to in the first chapter. An MMA fighter herself, the reader should already be thinking she’s skillful after seeing the brief display from Yuzuko in chapter 1. She proves to be absurdly good, actually. Her father brings her onto a small television program to fight with one of Japan’s top retired male MMA fighters as an announcement for her entering an upcoming Japanese MMA tournament. Natsuo catches this show, and sees as Ringi lifts this 80 kg (176 lbs.) man with a kick, then knocks him out with a knee to his face.
This was supposed to just be a show, a play, but it’s pretty much clear as day that while the male fighter might have thought that, Ringi was being plenty serious. Aside from breaking his nose here, she also broke his ribs. This was all done with Ringi apparently demonstrating some “constraint”.
Natsuo is really riled up by this display, and with this the series is basically ready to properly start. This isn’t the end of the second chapter, but it is the start in earnest of Teppu. From here on, Natsuo decides to pick up MMA with the goal of eventually beating down Mawatari Yuzuko…or, that is her claimed goal.
Natsuo is the protagonist of this series, but she is not a nice person. In any other series, she would be the main rival/antagonist to the bubbly hero (here, Mawatari Yuzuko). Yuzuko trains very hard and displays incredible zeal for fighting, while Natsuo is mostly apathetic when it comes to sports due to her overwhelming talent. After seeing Ringi’s easy thrashing of a strong, grown man, Natsuo is convinced that Yuzuko, who should be Ringi’s peer in strength, will be able to challenge her. Disgust at Yuzuko’s happiness, excitement over the prospect of a real fight, and a violent desire all wrap up inside her and push her toward an abhorrent goal of pushing in Yuzuko’s face. Or, she may be pleased to be beaten down herself. Really, she displays a kind of perverted glee with the prospect of either: blushing and quivering when she thinks about it. Regardless, she thinks Yuzuko — who seems to be a talented girl who is still satisfied with life — is an eyesore because this makes it seem like “she has it all”. She’s technically what Natsuo would be if Natsuo could be happy. She doesn’t necessarily want to be happy herself, she’s just pissed off that someone else is. It’s…complicated.
There are many odd and terrible reasons for Natsuo’s attitude, although it doesn’t excuse any of her actions (and she commits some really messed up, villainous actions, like slowly breaking the spirit of someone else for practice). For instance, there seems to be something going on between her and her hikkikomori (shut-in) brother. Ordinarily incredibly confident to the point of it being overbearing, before her brother she is reduced to meekness, like that of a pathetic little girl. It’s such a sharp contrast from her usual self that it’s very intriguing, and discovering the truth of matters between her and her brother becomes a big appeal of the manga.
But, before we get that, Natsuo joins a gym dedicated to MMA.
And I believe that is all I will summarize.
Teppu is a short series, although near every one of its 33 chapters is quite long. In every chapter, even if not a lot happens objectively speaking, you usually get a lot out of it. Characterization, plot progression, developments, and information are all healthily doled out in each chapter such that every one of them feels very full. This makes it a bit hard to summarize. For instance, there is a fight between Sanae and Natsuo before Natsuo joins a gym, and it is a very big deal with events that led up to it and events resulting from it bearing vast importance, but I’d be jabbering on and on if I discussed that. That’s only by chapter 6, too — this series is jam packed.
I must mention the gym, though, and at least touch on aspects of it because a lot of the series revolves around it. While half or more of Teppu is about Natsuo’s story, the remaining content is concerned with women’s MMA as a whole. Natsuo’s trainer, Kontani Karin (pictured above at Natsuo’s right), is “the strongest woman in Japan” and is a major character of the series that is essential to Natsuo’s development. She’s a woman who has similarities to Natsuo in terms of bad personalities, but unlike Natsuo she isn’t in MMA for a grudge. She has a lot to say about the state of woman’s MMA, although she’s not in love with the sport, and it’s really very interesting. MMA is not a popular sport, and most that are into it even if they’re professionals still have day jobs. Among MMA circles, women’s MMA is the least popular. Not many participate in it and not many spectate. Women’s MMA is in dire straits in Japan, and the upcoming tournament that Ringi will enter (G-Girl) is probably its last hope for survival as an actual sport. We get a lot of sports politics going on and we see Kontani trying to shape Natsuo into a proper fighter who may end up liking MMA throughout the manga. I guess the simplest way to describe Teppu is to say that it’s “unique”. Instead of just the players, the sport itself is focused on. I believe Shamo at a time, at least, had a focus on the sport it was concerned with (and it’s a manga about a villain protagonist learning martial arts, coincidentally), but it’s not quite like Teppu. There’s like this build over time with the series where, although Natsuo’s problems are the primary concern, the worry over where women’s MMA will go becomes a massive concern too.
There is just so much I can talk about with this series, and that’s great. The series never feels like too much, just so much. It’s good stuff, and there’s a lot of it, and that’s friggin’ awesome. I kind of want to talk about the cast, but doing so with most of them kind of opens the field for spoilers. I can talk so much about Natsuo because so much about her comes through in just the first five chapters, but Yuzuko? Karin? Mario? Kiri (who I haven’t actually mentioned before)? All of those characters have quite a bit to them you learn over time, and part of the enjoyment of the series is that learning. Like, learning what Yuzuko’s deal is? Seeing how a bullheaded, eager “shounen protagonist”-type might actually be treated if they were real? That stuff is fascinating.
I will say this: I quite love the cast. Even though I’ve thrown around the terms of “villains” and “heroines”, there really isn’t any such thing here — things are not black and white. Natsuo holds a grudge and Yuzuko doesn’t. There isn’t anything grand on the line between them. There isn’t really any right and wrong within the MMA politics, either, although there are some characters who operate in it that can be pretty huge jerks. All this heavy stuff aside, the cast is quite fun! Much of a bitch as she is, Natsuo has an actual friend, so she’s not 100% foul-mood mode all the time. The side characters are amusing and their conversations are nice. Nearly everyone has some kind of motivation as to why they’re in MMA, and if they don’t they’re just in this stuff as a hobby which is fine too. It’s all around nice seeing these characters interact, whether they’re at each other’s throats or not.
Now let’s wrap things up.
I hope I’ve been convincing. I’m really being dodgy about what actually happens in this series since it’s a joy to see it all for yourself. Some things I can be explicit on are that Ohta Moare’s sense of humor is really good, and when he wants me to laugh he’ll make it happen. The art is unique and nice to look at, both in simple style (there are some really funny-looking basic expressions in this series) or in the full detail of an MMA fight. Action is clear and easy to understand, aided by the streaks of motion and plentiful notes that make me (who knows nothing about MMA) not confused one bit when things happen. The series can be more than a little gay, which tickles my yuri fancy, but this isn’t actually a yuri series so if that bugs you you can still read it. And finally, the ending is quite good, all things considered. And really, we have to take all things into consideration.
Teppu ended prematurely, but it was not canceled. Around the twentieth chapter, Ohta-sensei’s health worsened and the series was put on a long hiatus. A really, really, really long hiatus. I had been reading Teppu since it started, and during its two year hiatus, I was fairly certain that Ohta-sensei would die and the series would be finished without a proper conclusion. This has happened to me before and it’s sadly not the rarest sight in manga. Manga drawing is a very demanding profession and many mangaka get physically ill doing it, on top of already having weak constitutions from being predisposed to arts rather than athletic professions. I don’t know what Ohta-sensei was, or still is, sick from, but it put him out of commission regularly before the hiatus. Furthermore, when Teppu returned, presumably partly because of his condition the series switched to a bi-monthly release rather than a monthly one, and it still had breaks. I haven’t read anything concrete about how and why Teppu ended, but I think it’s safe to assume Ohta Moare wanted it to be over before he was possibly over. Therefore, Teppu has a very satisfactory ending that ties up quite a bit, but also leaves a whole lot open. It could continue one day, but as it stands start to finish this is a good story.
And that’s gonna do it for this review. I suppose I can drop a little more praise before the end, as I like to do that. I really like how this series treats women’s MMA seriously, not shouting “GIRL POWER!!” (it’s not about to lie and say on average a woman could actually fight with and beat a man) but also demonstrates that girls can be powerful. Seeing girls who claim to be strong actually possessing athletic bodies (pretty unusual in anime/manga) is also great. Finally, it’s splendid that this series has no fanservice even though it totally could, if we consider the subject matter. Then again, I like muscular girls and tomboys, so maybe I’m actually wrong because as a fan of those I most definitely felt serviced by seeing all these tough-looking women. Ringi in particular is great — what a nice design! But, uh, that’s enough with examining my tastes.
If you’d like, read this. I very much encourage it. This series has my high recommendation because it’s incredible. If Teppu continued on as the author had clearly originally planned, there is no doubt in my mind that it could be considered a masterpiece of the genre. It is that damn good. As it is, it is merely almost a masterpiece. You can import volumes of Teppu from Bookwalker (guide), CDJapan, honto (guide), or ebookjapan and I do recommend this action. I’m sure if Ohta Moare ever returns in earnest to manga, he could use the dosh.
Thank you for reading! If I don’t screw up, next time I’ll be reviewing the yuri manga that truly got me into yuri.