Yoshitaka Amano is a fantastically skilled artist. To fans of Japanese comic art and animation, he is legendary. The designer and driver behind the Final Fantasy video game series and the dark, gothic vampire epic Vampire Hunter D, Yoshitaka has a visual style that is unique. He blends traditional Japanese Buddhist artwork and themes with a futuristic world that mixes ecology and technology. You can just stare at one of his pictures for hours—the way the lines appear so casually sketched, so roughly and thoughtlessly placed, yet the complete image is a confident and crafted image. He flows easily from moody black and white washes to garish, color-saturated visual blasts.
In his career, Yoshitaka Amano has illustrated literally hundreds of books. Some of these are wonderful, and some are downright dismal (Shinjuku, I am looking at you), but no matter the quality of the writing Yoshitaka’s art is always above reproach. Now, finally, with Deva Zan Yoshitaka illustrates his own writing, building story and image together on something that springs fully from his imagination.
And it turns out, Yoshitaka Amano is not a fantastically skilled writer.
The story of Deva Zan is disjointed, almost to the point of being unreadable. I confess I had to slog through it and might not even have read it if it weren’t for the fact that I was doing a review. Otherwise I would have just given up and checked out the pretty pictures.
The story is similar to some of the concepts of Final Fantasy. It mixes real Buddhist places and iconography, like the Twelve Heavenly Generals and the Buddhist holy site Mount Koya with ideas and concepts that spring fully from Yoshitaka’s imagination. This melange is somewhat “high concept”—Yoshitaka favors the esoteric over the concrete, and many of his ideas stay just that; ideas. The disparate elements never really congeal into a solid story, with believable characters or any emotional attachment. Even after having read the book, I would have a hard time telling you what happened.
I don’t know how much, if anything, is “lost in translation” on the story. I am something of an expert on Japanese mythology, and I could understand the concepts Yoshitaka was trying to get across, the parables and the allusions. I haven’t seen the original, but the translation flows well, and the translator did a commendable job finding English words to match what must have been obscure Japanese. I think it is just Yoshitaka’s style.
This sort of “fuzzy” storyline works great for video games, where the background story is decoration and the true action takes place in a player moving the characters forward. But as a book it doesn’t work so well. With Deva Zan, Yoshitaka reveals himself as a wonderful World Builder, but not adept at plot and character. He’s kind of like George Lucas in that respect—the high concepts, the poetry of imagination and spectacle, all of that is handled perfectly. But he needs someone else to take those high concepts and forge them into a relatable story.
If you want to judge Deva Zan on its art alone, this is a 5-star beauty. Every other page has an illustration, usually full page and full color. It can be seen as much as an art book as a story. Dark Horse showcases this beautiful art in an equally beautiful edition, oversized and printed on quality paper that captures the nuance and strength of Yoshitaka’s art. For Yoshitaka fans, this is a must buy, and I am sure that many people will be much more forgiving than I am about the story, contenting themselves to flip through the pretty pictures.
But this is not just an art book; there is a story here as well. And that, ultimately, is where Deva Zan fails.