Birdmen

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Birdmen (バードメン) by Tanabe Yellow (田辺イエロウ) is a manga that I have a lot of difficulty describing. I can say that it’s an excellent manga that I highly recommend for good characters, a good story, interesting themes, uniqueness, interesting action, art and designs, but being more specific, well…

Not only does it take about 6 volumes (most of its run since 2013, the latest volume as of this writing is 7) to begin to show its true colors and lay (nearly) everything out on the table, talking about it at all very easily spoils things. With every two or three of its very long chapters (usually 40-50 pages each) something is revealed that was foreshadowed, yes, but is still a surprise. The things you thought were goals subsequently fall to the wayside, since those were based on lack of knowledge or misunderstandings. New characters come in and rattle the cages, but then those new characters show off different sides to them. Old characters may not change, but your understanding of them will, re-contextualizing every action they’ve ever made. On top of all of that, this is an incredibly unique series. It is not what you think it is when it starts, and it isn’t exactly long before you come to realize that. What is it, then? I really can’t say.

At this point, I am caught up to the latest chapters (in Japan) and I have a good idea of what this manga is about. That means telling you would utterly ruin your reading of the series, because the series is slow and mysterious. Whenever I’ve seen this series recommended, it has been off the comment “It’s really good, one of the best”, but that’s it. I read this without having a premise, and ended up agreeing with that and also understanding why people say no more than that. Even in discussions I’ve seen on the series spoiler tags are rampant. I want to talk in full about this series, but I can’t. I want to highlight this series, but it’s going to be hard.

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The first volume cover of Birdmen does not feature the protagonist, instead it features this guy, who is not actually introduced in chapter 1. I’ll explain that later.

This volume, 2, features the protagonist: Karasuma Eishi. Karasuma immediately establishes that he is a Holden Caulfied-esque, angsty, middle school teen. See for yourself:

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He’s not hopeless, but for a while with this chapter (the prologue, part 1) near every page features Karasuma bitching about something. Truly, he endears himself to you immediately.

After him, we’re introduced to this guy: Kamoda Mikisaka.

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He’s a stereotypical delinquent. We find him skulking through an alleyway where some other delinquents encounter him. He makes short work of them and continues on, presumably to school.

Unsurprisingly, these two come to butt heads shortly thereafter.

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And…!

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They’re best friends.

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Turns out between the two, Karasuma is more of the delinquent, and Kamoda is essentially a delinquent by circumstance — otherwise, he’s a cute and good-natured dude who loves cats. Because of his large stature and intimidating natural expression, he’s scouted regularly by little gangs of punks. He used to even play sports (mainly basketball), but got kicked off the team because he kept getting caught up in trouble. On the other hand, Karasuma is a smart kid who showed a lot of promise in elementary school, but for some reason wound up in an utterly unremarkable middle school that won’t get him anywhere — not that he has anywhere he wants to go. His completely cynical and standoffish attitude has, of course, not earned him any friends other than Kamoda, and he is wont to suggest skipping school entirely on a whim.

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So the first impression you get from starting Birdmen, aided with the images I chose to use at the start, is that it’s a story about disgruntled youths growing up, and that there’s also some kind of science fiction or action element. Correct! Actually, that’s how Birdmen is advertised: “SF x youth juvenile story”. This is pretty much the one thing about Birdmen that never really goes away, although other themes get added over time of arguably more importance. Anyway, part 1 of the prologue half-assedly hints at what the series title is about.

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Basically, there’s an urban legend about some guy with wings who’s flying around Tokyo (“the Birdman”), and if you see him happiness will find you. Karasuma doesn’t care about this legend, but Kamoda’s all about it. He wants to be happy, especially now since he recently confessed to a girl and was rejected in a hilariously depressing fashion, so he’s hoping to have an encounter with the Birdman in the park. Nothing really happens there, though. We do learn more about Karasuma, however.

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Basically, as was hinted within the first pages of the manga, Karasuma has some real issues with his (seemingly only) parent. He was on the path to becoming a model “smart” student, but his mother’s insistence on studying without any positive reinforcement whatsoever basically broke him. Now he’s in a rut.

The chapter continues by introducing two more people: the two who will be added along with Karasuma and Kamoda to make the four main characters (no, not five — I’ll get into that later).

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She’s Umino Tsubame, I wouldn’t call her “the main heroine”. She’s from another school.

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He’s Sagisawa Rei. He’s from Karasuma and Kamoda’s school, so he is skipping class, quite conspicuously. Unsurprisingly from his looks and demeanor, he is a well-liked boy. He seems to be friends with Umino.

After this, some shit goes down, and these four meet the “Birdman”.

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And that’s that for the prologue. Chapter 1 proceeds with almost nothing seeming to have changed. Nobody seems to remember anything about what actually happened. Over the course of this chapter (halfway through volume 1) we find out two things.

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Alright. Pause.

At this point, the manga basically “starts for real”. Like I said in the introduction of this article, you still won’t actually know (almost) everything until volume 6, but here, with this, I can start getting into the meat of things. I won’t actually be “spoiling” anything from this point on, although there are still surprises to be had, so if you’re like “oh man, this seems like my kind of series” — go read it. If you need more, or you’ve read it already and want to see me talk about it, continue on. Let’s go.

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Okay, so, the premise that Birdmen will seem to be running with for a long time is that a superhero (the “Birdman”) rescued four dying middle school students after they suffered through a horrible bus crash by giving them the same powers he has. He asked if they wanted to live or die, they said they wanted to live, he gave them his blood to drink, and he flew off. They are now seemingly a little bit superhuman themselves (birdmen, to be exact), the most obvious demonstration of this at first being that Karasuma no longer needs to wear glasses. The second most obvious is the wings and weird black skintight suit, coming with the ability to fly. With their powers, these kids will be heroes of Tokyo! Saving lives and fighting monsters. Right. That’s what it seems to be running with.

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So goal one is to find out why the Birdman did this, and what he’s all about. If possible, finding out who he is in the first place would be good too. Since he’s constantly covered in darkness and the main characters don’t remember anything it’s probably going to take a while to–

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O-Okay…

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Right, so, this is Takayama Sou, the guy on the first volume’s cover, and the guy I wouldn’t exactly consider a part of the main characters. He’s Karasuma’s classmate and “the Birdman”, but it’s more accurate to call him “a birdman”. He’s the birdman who has been flitting about Tokyo, and apparently the “you’ll be happy if you see him” rumor spread because he’s been saving people. Karasuma, Kamoda, Umino, and Sagisawa are the first he’s saved by turning them into birdmen, though. I think he’s a very important character, and at times he seems like he’s one of the crew, but I think there’s good reason for a number of things Yellow-sensei did with Takayama that make him very obviously “different”. Let’s go over them.

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For starters, technically the first time we see Takayama at all in the series (not counting covers) is the title color page of the prologue, with his back turned to the rest and his body covered in shadow (something extremely common with him). His presence on the cover of volume 1 despite not actually being introduced until late in the volume, and how volume 1 is mostly a prologue instead of the actual story, also indicates to me that Takayama is “separate” from the rest. Frequently, Takayama does not seem to be a part of the group of main characters, although they’ll always include him. See, Takayama’s actually been at this “birdman” thing for a long, long time, so he knows how to use his abilities better than the rest who are all just learning (and can relate to one another because of that). This also means for a long time, he has felt outright separate from people entirely. Takayama is the only character we meet from this little bird club who began the series without any friends. He keeps quiet most of the time and does not explain himself well. He doesn’t know entirely why he has his powers (only how he got them in the first place), or why things are the way they are after you get your powers, and he doesn’t carry himself like a main character would. Actually, he’s altogether weird. Yeah, come to think of it, that’s what I’m getting at: Takayama is a goddamn weirdo.

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I’ll continue with that in a moment, before that I need to say what exactly the four main characters do with their powers.

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First, gotta mention the Black Out.

Once the characters become birdmen, every week or so they feel an awful pulse, and shortly thereafter a strange monster appears from a dark hole before them. Takayama knows this as the “Black Out”. Usually it’s best to get out of the way of potential witnesses in case they feel it coming. Once the monster appears, it attacks, and it can kill them. Takayama says that all you can do is kill it before it kills you – deliver enough damage with punches or kicks or weapons formed from your wing mass (afforded by transforming into a winged birdman — you can morph your “flesh”) and eventually it will die and fade away.

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The monsters have no one shape (ranging from things that look human, to things that look like objects, to eldritch abominations or nightmarish beasts). They can sometimes transform, their powers are frequently different, and there doesn’t seem to be any immediately obvious reason for why they appear. I know why they appear, but you won’t learn the reason until volume 4. I will say it’s a pretty cool reason.

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This alone is enough to make the crew feel like heroes — fighting off monsters of the week, but on top of that once they become birdmen they begin hearing a “call”. Takayama basically describes it as a voice of life that can “shout” at various volume levels.

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This is apparently the will of the dying, manifested as a cry. It’s what what Takayama heard when the main characters wound up in a car crash. When this voice is heard, birdmen are compelled to seek it out and assist whoever is in trouble.

The obvious conclusion is that being a birdman means being a superhero, so naturally after getting together and bonding over their new black-marked backs and wing-powers they give each other super sentai codenames!

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Let’s return to Takayama.

Sagisawa (who’s announcing) brings up a really essential point here. Throughout the entire manga, it’s difficult to understand whether Takayama is a force of good or evil, or if such things even apply to him in the first place. As I’ve said before, he’s regularly seen covered in shadows. He often looks intimidating or intense when in his winged form, and when fighting the Black Out monsters he is particularly fierce, even beastly. At first, he seems like he’ll be taking a mother hen role to the four others, but…

Well, before that, he does regularly say and with confidence that he will always come to save the others if they’re in trouble, and after saving them at the start of the series Takayama is the person who saves the most lives, period. While the four actually try to keep things on the down low, Takayama doesn’t give a fuck. Just how much he doesn’t give a fuck is something you figure out over time. The protagonist, Karasuma, is often struggling with what to think of him, and to date he still doesn’t have a concrete answer. Neither do I.

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Some interesting facts about Takayama:

  1. He’s featured on the cover of volume 1, the spot usually reserved for a series protagonist.
  2. His seat in class is the seat usually reserved for a series protagonist (by the window, at the back).
  3. His “origin story” sets him up like a series protagonist, having been saved by a mysterious person in childhood.
  4. The color he bears and the color he’s named after is “red”, the color of traditional Japanese leading heroes, most notably in super sentai.
  5. He’s truly selfless, for all that that means. Heroic?
  6. People usually assume he’s the leader.
  7. He’s not.

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Something really important about Takayama is that he is “connected” to the four main characters. This is in a physical and mental sense. They share his blood, for one, but they can also reach out to him via what amounts to telepathy. Most of them aren’t very good at using telepathy, so they usually talk to Takayama alone. That said, Karasuma is also proficient with this skill.

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In fact, Karasuma is even better with it. Takayama states several times that, basically, Karasuma has a “loud voice” (a powerful will to live/voice of life). He also makes several indications that he feels from Karasuma what one might expect to feel from Takayama — Karasuma is a leader. Karasuma is a hero.

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Takayama may be confounding and mysterious, knowing little or keeping what little else he knows to himself, but the same can’t be said at all for Karasuma. All this way into the review, let’s really talk about Birdmen‘s protagonist, and start wrapping things up.

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He doesn’t sit in the main character’s seat in class. He’s not on volume 1 and is not the strongest birdman.

His color is black.

This is Karasuma Eishi, the protagonist of Birdmen, and man do I love his character.

When I started this series, I figured two things: one, “Karasuma is going to be extremely annoying” and two, “nah, the author knows what she’s doing, this cynicism of his is friggin’ comical”. Karasuma is so absurdly pessimistic that it becomes clear he’s pretty much mostly being a pessimist because he thinks that’s his “character”. He is very much like Holden Caulfield in this respect (though he doesn’t have the same issues), shittalking literally everyone else, thinking himself better, then belittling himself all the same and getting depressed. He is incredibly happy with friendships and is easily excitable around girls, though he tries not to be. He’s the only one among the four characters who firmly denies wanting to help others or be a hero (in this, he doesn’t actually seem to be lying) — instead, he’d like to figure out how to lose the wings first off. He definitely has reasons to be bitter and mad about things (and because of that, he’s capable of saying and doing some really cruel things), but with his newfound friends and some proper social interaction, it becomes clear that he has an innocent heart. He’s quite funny, really, on his own and floundering or with others and being quick-witted (or floundering, if that other is a girl). Over time, he also starts demonstrating outright heroic qualities, slowly accepting more responsibility as the care he feels for his new “family” increases. He isn’t a typical shounen hero who is all about fighting for his friends. He isn’t a typical shounen hero all about fighting for himself. He’s his own dude, and that dude is awesome.

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Watching his slow growth into becoming a hero is incredible.

But in this series, what does it really mean to be a hero?

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Birdmen is an incredible series. It explores a lot of heavy issues and brings up some interesting questions. As a series, it evolves from the start where it seems like it’ll be a usual fair coming of age “growing up while beating up monsters” story into something we can spot the roots of as early as volume 2, but only see the resulting, fascinating branches much, much later. This series gives me chills. It challenges my way of thinking frequently and doesn’t pull any punches. As an action series, it’s damnably cool with stylish visual flair and a strong sense of scope (excellent environment shots of scapes or skies, great sweeping looks at monsters). As a character piece, it explores some very enjoyable characters (their interactions are realistic and refreshing) that don’t fit in the usual boxes where you can find many other manga or anime characters. As a manga, too, it doesn’t fit. It’s a different comic about different things, and it never really feels heavy-handed in the story it sets out to tell. It’s a stunner. Could go on about it for hours, will stop here.

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Hey, want to know what the Black Out really is? [Click this]. Want it to stay a mystery? Don’t.

I do hope that this review got some people interested in this series. People who read it like it, but at the least on the Western side of the world, not many have even bothered. Selling a series this hard to sell (since you can’t be very explicit)… Well, it’s no wonder.

You can purchase Birdmen from CDJapan, honto (guide), or ebookjapan. If you’d like, and you can translate, the scan group doing Birdmen is looking for help: [recruitment page].

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Thank you for reading. See you in a while.

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9 thoughts on “Birdmen

  1. Juno says:

    I’m a big fan of Yellow. She’s done some great manga in her career. Her last title was able to mix action, comedy, and romance. It was great. However with this one, on MangaUpdates, it has a category that simply says “Main Pairing Doesn’t Include Protagonist” Does that mean there is no romance between the TRUE main character?

    • UH…

      I suppose I can say that the main character, Karasuma, likes girls and is capable of feeling attracted to girls.

      But he’s a short nerd who, while decent-looking (he has a nice face), is mostly just weak and meek should he ever encounter girls. To date, no girl is interested in him, and that shouldn’t come as a surprise.

  2. Oh my, this is an amazing review. I can’t for the life of me conceptualize what it is about this series that is so impressive and captivating. That’s probably why I created a Birdmen review series on tumblr ^_^. You’ve done an amazing job putting to words its complexity and maturity. I love your take on Takayama especially. I read in an interview that Karasuma and Takayama serve each other in a sort of paradigm. They both lack vital elements to assume the role of protagonist (Takayama is like the empty hero in action and appearance while Karasuma has the drive and emotional capacity), but together they create the proper image that we’re at a loss to discover from volume one. It’s intriguing, it’s eerie, it’s a blast to read. Thank you for doing the service of providing such an incredible insight.

    • Ahh, thank you very much! I’m glad you can approve!

      Honestly, I wish I could go on about the series, and I may even some day, but…DANG is it easy to completely give away so much about it. It’s a fascinating series, so I’m hoping more can get into it and understand why.

      • Well a grand thank you for the effort here. When you want to talk about it any more (I’d love to see you break down Sagisawa something fierce) just know that there is a small corner on this ‘net that would love to start a dialogue with you.

  3. Jon Oscar says:

    Oh my how wonderful it is to read someone’s thought on this underrated gem that flies under everybody’s radars. I love how Birdmen doesn’t try to be your usual epic shonen slugfest and stays true to itself: a slow-paced down-to-earth character piece. The cast is diverse (I’m thinking of foreign characters), lots of interactions and character depth, the humor great, and god the visual design of blackouts reminds me of Eva’s angels and Persona’s shadows, which is awesome. I love this kind of mysterious, creepy creatures that hold dark meanings.
    I’d love to write an in-depth review like yours but I have too little time these days. Gotta spread the word about Birdmen somehow though. It’s the least I can do for this brilliant work that doesn’t try to meet some entertainment quota with loud action and forced melodrama.

  4. gantifandor says:

    Awesome recommendation, thanks a lot.

    This story was similar to Parasyte (and Toky Ghoul Part 1). It definitely feels like it’s “its own thing” though, I also enjoyed it a lot more than both of these.

    Despite the story, setting and characters being so very multi-faceted, I feel like I could follow along just fine. I think the mangakka has a great way of structuring and pacing everything and keeping readers both interested and entertained despite exploring so many different things.
    Definitely optimistic that this series will have a satisfying conclusion.

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