Weekly Shonen Jump might have been on break for Obon last week, but the iconic shonen magazine still plagued my thoughts during that time. Why? Not simply because I’m a massive shonen manga nerd, but because Assassination Classroom author Yusei Matsui’s latest one-shot F-Ken chilled me to the bone and haunted my very soul.
Yusei Matsui is an enigmatic artist. He’s now created two successful manga in Weekly Shonen Jump, those being Neuro: Supernatural Detective from 2005 to 2009 and, of course, Assassination Classroom from 2012 to 2016, but I still haven’t gotten a handle on what kind of artist Matsui strives to be. Does he create for fun? For passion? For meaning?
Whatever the case may be, I certainly wasn’t expecting anything quite like F-Ken.
F-Ken follows the story of a high school kendo club, which was quite normal until, one day, the most beautiful girl in the school turned up on their doorstep and asked to become their manager. Almost immediately, this girl – who remains nameless throughout the one-shot – gets to work in transforming the members into adherents of her style of ‘f-ken’ – fetish kendo.
Essentially, by discovering and activating the various fetishes of the club members with her own body, this girl is able to transform them into savage kendo warriors that fight for just one more taste of their particular fetish. For example, one member really likes hair, and the other really likes feet. I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.
There is one member, however, who is able to avoid the dark fate of his corrupted comrades. This is a young man named Fuji, who doesn’t appear to have a fetish on which the beautiful manager can work her magic – leaving him as the only sane one in the group, questioning what on earth they have all become.
It’s from this dichotomy that the one-shot develops a surprisingly coherent and effective narrative through-line, even in such a short span of time.
At the end of F-Ken, the manager finds herself in a spot of trouble. She’s grabbed and threatened by another kendo athlete from another school for supposedly sleeping with his friends’ boyfriend, which turns out not to be true.
While Fuji was cold towards the manager throughout the one-shot, it’s during this confrontation that he begins to see her for who she really is. Out of her bag comes a children’s kendo guide, which clues Fuji into the fact that the manager has actually been working really hard to instruct them more efficiently in kendo, and only turned to fetishes so that they might actually have a chance of winning. This realization, in turn, activates Fuji’s own fetish: “protecting a lady” and “being righteous.”
All of this is, obviously, not supposed to be taken very seriously. It’s a weird and purposefully shocking concept for a story, but that doesn’t stop Yusei Matsui from delivering on it with grace. Perhaps that is the essence of Matsui as an artist – doing whatever the hell he wants, but always doing it properly.
In any case, it was through reading F-Ken that I was able to finally draw some through-lines between Matsui’s previous work as a mangaka, as it exemplifies two storytelling elements that Matsui has continuously used throughout his career to make his work so compelling.
Firstly, the theme of seeing people for who they are. This is most prominent in Assassination Classroom, the main character of which is an invincible alien who is supposed to destroy the world in a year. Seeing through this facade and to the truth of this character is, however, the whole point of the masterful story that is Assassination Classroom. Even Neuro: Supernatural Detective, while less poetic in this sense, is all about uncovering the truth behind mysteries and characters’ backstories, which also has a sort of beauty to it.
Secondly, mystery storytelling has always been a key narrative device utilized by Matsui across his career. This is obvious when looking at Neuro: Supernatural Detective, which is based around largely episodic supernatural mysteries, showcasing Matsui’s talent for more minute mystery storytelling.
Assassination Classroom, however, took this storytelling one step further by imbuing it with shonen elements, that being the premise of assassination, and enlarging the mystery much further to hang over the entire events of the series with such questions as Koro-sensei’s backstory, the fate of the world, etc.
F-Ken is no exception to these two elements. Fuji’s acceptance of the manager as who she really is, a hardworking girl with good intentions, instead of who the world sees her for, a promiscuous girl with no morals, does fit quite nicely next to Matsui’s previous two serializations.
Furthermore, there is a mystery slant to all of this. Much of the narrative is predicated on the question of the manager’s motivation and backstory, rather than the bizarre twist on kendo that will perhaps draw many to the one-shot.
But even if F-Ken might seem more typical of Matsui than at first glance, I still don’t have a firm grasp on Matsui as a creator. F-Ken seems to mark yet another paradigm shift for the creator into the perverted, which hasn’t really made much of an appearance in his earlier serializations.
After two big, long-running shonen hits in Neuro: Supernatural Detective and Assassination Classroom, you would also expect Matsui to go for something a little more, well, normal. A sports series doesn’t seem like a bad idea at first glance – Weekly Shonen Jump is constantly axing them, after all – but to imbue it with such a bizarre twist is a strange decision.
Of course, we mustn’t forget that F-Ken is just a simple one-shot. Matsui has, after all, done many of these over his career, and they rarely have much of an effect on his ‘proper’ serializations. Perhaps, sometimes, an artist just needs an outlet to have fun – and I certainly can’t blame Matsui for taking the opportunity to do so with this one-shot.
I am, however, still haunted by the future of Yusei Matsui as a creator. Will he ever be able to live up to the legacy of Assassination Classroom? Will he continue to be the hit-generating machine that Shueisha no doubt want him to be? More importantly, what on earth is he trying to do with his art? I suppose we’ll never know.
F-Ken is available to read now via VIZ Media’s English-language Shonen Jump.