REVIEW: Gun Frontier – Vol.1(1972)

A Manga by Leiji Matsumoto

I have never read Gun Frontier, one of the first mangas that the Legendary comic artist, Leiji Matsumoto (Captain Harlock, Galaxy Express 999, Yamato/Star Blazers), ever did. Being such a big fan of his, I knew it was a travesty, and I wanted to rectify it – unfortunately the comic has never been officially released in English as far as I know, and I assumed many “scanlation” groups would ignore it for newer properties. Thankfully, I was wrong, and there is a way to read it! I am a BIG fan of the anime based on this comic, and wanted to see what difference 30 years would make on the story, and see if it actually had an ending seeing as the anime did not.

“Gun Frontier…It is a harsh and barren wasteland, where the weak aren’t allowed to dream. It is also a sacred land for true men, for there is no place a man can feel more alive. This is the Gun Frontier. Sea Pirate Captain Harlock and the errant samurai, Tochirou arrive in the United States on the Western Frontier. Along with a mysterious woman they meet along the way, the two friends challenge sex rings, bandits, and corrupt sheriff. They are searching for a lost clan of Japanese immigrants, and they will tear Gun Frontier from end to end until they find it.”

One of the first things I definitely noticed when comparing this to the anime from 2002 was the erotic nature of it. Most may not know this, but Leiji Matsumoto got his start drawing comics leaning more on the sexy side. For example, his very first major manga, Sexaroid, told the story of a sex robot turned spy. While this manga isn’t necessarily graphic, there is a LOT of implied or obscured sex scenes, usually involving the gang’s only female protagonist Sinunora. It seems that in every situation, there is a reason (no matter how ridiculous) where she ends up using her body to extract information or some such. She also, sadly, gets sexually assaulted a lot in doing so, which is somewhat rough to see in 2021, but this was written almost 50 years ago and different things flew back then. I’m actually pretty glad Matsumoto veered away from this style of comic soon after this was written. The character is using the cover of being a liberated prostitute, until you realize she is much more than that. If anyone reading this has any experience with Lupin III, she’s somewhat similar to Fujiko or even a “Bond girl” from the James Bond franchise. For this reason, be careful if you let a younger person read this.

Another contentious thing, and one that was also present in the anime, is that is that this manga is fairly notorious of is portrayal of racism during the nineteenth century. I recall people reacting to the show with confusion when this was watched during an anime club meeting, mostly due to the script’s occasional references to people suspecting that Tochiro and Harlock were homosexual (“are you two queer?”) because they hung out too much, and everyone’s overt hostility to Tochiro due to being Asian. Many can tell that he isn’t a Native American or Chinese, but have no idea where he’s from, so it causes confusion or derision. It’s interesting that there are no Black people portrayed in this volume, but otherwise, its a fairly realistic portrayal of how some would have acted back then. The historical accuracies honestly stop there, but it’s obviously based more on what I suspect are Matsumoto’s memories of Spaghetti Westerns vs any actual research on the time period.

This book follows the same sort of format that later Matsumoto’s works follow – a group travels from one place to another running into odd things each chapter eventually going towards a goal in the end. For example, In Galaxy Express 999, Tetsuro and Maetel were trying to make it to andromeda to get a robot body for Tetsuro. Every planet they stopped at was some sort of ethical or philosophical conundrum to deal with – usually resulting in a depressing solution. Most of Matsumoto’s works are somewhat episodic like this. Here Harlock is helping Tochiro find members of his lost tribe, Japanese immigrants that died in the Yellow River Massacre. Rumor has it some are still alive, and it seems like somebody wants them all dead.

The melodramatic plot is replaced with one that is more of a comedy than usual, which is interesting for the author. For example, the gang is always trying to find towns that have these notorious reputations of being full of the best saloons, and easiest women this side of Dodge City, only to find the town was taken over entirely by churches, or booze has been outlawed etc. In one particularly funny moment, they come across a town wherein the Mayor has declared people can literally do whatever they want, so one man is seen sitting on a toilet in the middle of the street, as if that’s his chief desire in life.

My favorite recurring joke is that no matter what the trio do, their horses seem to constantly die on them, and being the opportunists they are, Harlock can be seen attempting to use their wagon as a traveling horse meat truck at various times. Of course nobody, save for an outlaw that robs them, wants a taste of festering horse meat, so it never seems to really pan out.

If you can get past the questionable sex parts of the book, or at least keep in mind the book’s age, this is a decent read and is pretty entertaining throughout. This volume contains chapters 1-13, and doesn’t quite put all of it’s cards on the table by the end. I have access to volume two, from the same site, that I also plan to read – I am hoping that it goes past the colossal cliffhanger that ended the anime, if it stops there as well, I will be pretty bummed out! So pull up your horse cart and grab a roasted leg, and read this tale of a PLACE WHERE REAL MEN ARE MEN, WHERE THE INNOCENT WILL SURELY PERISH……IN……GUN FRONTIER. Yes that’s how each chapter ends, if you are wondering.

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