For a man that built his reputation on a six-volume sci-fi epic, Katsuhiro Otomo wrote and illustrated a lot of short stories. Published in the November 16th, 1981 issue of Young Magazine, Farewell to Weapons isn’t an obvious candidate for a lasting legacy among Otomo’s work, especially considering the dominating status of AKIRA among both his film and comic achievements. Farewell has managed to endure both as one of the few Otomo short stories translated into English, and the most recent of his comics to be adapted for animation.
Otomo’s best known series, Domu and AKIRA also appeared in the pages of Young Magazine, a few months and a year after the publication of Farewell, respectively. While not comparable in terms of length or depth, Farewell‘s brevity doesn’t obscure the fact that it contains many of the hallmarks that would define Otomo’s work: intricate artwork, a post-apocalyptic setting, obsessively-detailed rubble, and man fighting against an unstoppable weapon.
The story is straight forward: a squad of soldiers in powered suits patrolling a ruined city encounter a powerful robot called a “GONK.” Cue lots of detailed panels full of crumbling buildings, explosions, and power suits and a four-legged robot battling it out among the detritus. Despite the comic seeing print just a few years into the sci-fi boom kicked off by Star Wars and Space Battleship Yamato, Otomo’s inspiration for the futile atmosphere of Farewell came from an unlikely source: Robert Aldrich’s tense 1956 World War II film, Attack!
Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers novel also influenced Otomo, unsurprising considering that Farewell‘s gritty, grounded aesthetic is in stark contrast with the high-flying space opera of Japanese sci-fi of the late 1970s. There’s a distinct lack of heroics or charisma from the characters in Farewell, as much of the comic sees them terrified and eventually killed by the seemingly unstoppable GONK. It’s only when one soldier ditches his armor that he’s able to save himself because the GONK no longer views him as a threat.
Prior to 2013, if fans in the U.S. were familiar with Farewell, it was likely thanks to an English-language version release by Epic Comics in 1992. At the time, the Marvel imprint was in the middle of releasing AKIRA as individual issues with colored artwork. Like AKIRA, Farewell also featured coloring by the talented Steve Oliff. While only comprising 21 pages, Farewell originally featured a mixture of black and white, three-tone and full color pages, including rudimentary video effects to simulate the GONK’s camera vision. The copyright notices on the inside cover also mention an English release by Kodansha in 1989, although I’ve had difficulty turning up any confirmation of such a version online. That said, in the 1980s it wasn’t uncommon for Japanese publishers to release English versions of manga targeted at students studying English.
Epic Comics also released another Otomo short story as a one-shot floppy comic with coloring by Oliff: Memories (billed as “SCI-FI Drama in the AKIRA TRADITION”). Best known for its animated adaption by Koji Morimoto (The Animatrix, Mind Game, cofounder of Studio 4°C) in the 1995 omnibus film of the same name, Memories was originally published almost exactly a year prior to Farewell in the November 17, 1980 issue of Young Magazine.
The Epic Comics’ release of Farewell is special for a quite a few reasons. Aside from Domu and AKIRA, it’s one of the few Otomo comics released officially in English. That in itself is surprising considering Otomo’s reputation abroad and AKIRA‘s one-time status as the “gateway” anime during the Blockbuster era of the ’90s. Not to mention the current status of the U.S. manga market and its willingness to support older titles, making the lack of Otomo’s comic work (bar AKIRA) rather odd. Rumors suggest Otomo himself has been refusing to approve licensing efforts for his older comics, but true or not, Farewell is one of the few opportunities to check out Otomo’s short story chops in English.
Unlike the squarebound issues of AKIRA, Farewell was published as a regular “floppy” comic. The short length of Farewell must not have been enough to fill an entire issue, because it’s padded out with four pages of scratch-built models and dioramas that originally appeared in Bandai’s B-Club Magazine. While the dioramas are great, the muddied, blurry color reproduction on newsprint doesn’t do them justice. Almost more interesting than the photos are the notes detailing how much work went into the dioramas’ production, including the large-format camera used to shoot them.
Those pages also include a footnote that claim Farewell was the first appearance of power suits in Japanese comics and implies that it kicked off the “power suit craze” of the 1980s. I’m not sure if the first claim is true, although given the breadth of manga it seems hard to believe. Furthermore, the Japanese-language edition of Starship Troopers released by Hayakawa Publishing in 1977 featured an iconic power suit design by Studio Nue artists Naoyuki Kato and Kazutaka Miyatake. The Studio Nue design was hugely influential, as evidenced by it showing up in both Daicon videos, numerous model kits and toys over the last three decades, and, well, all those power suits of the 1980s. Not to mention the Starship Troopers OVA released in 1988, which used a slightly modified version of that classic design.
That said, it’s easy to believe that Farewell was still influential on mecha design of the decade. Otomo’s timeless designs still look remarkably fresh today–far more so than the Studio Nue’s design–and looking at it, it’s difficult to believe that Farewell was released the same year as the second Mobile Suit Gundam film. Less than six months after Farewell‘s publication, in May of 1982, Kow Yokoyama’s S.F.3.d series premiered in the pages of Hobby Japan. The most iconic design from that series of scratch-built kits was the S.A.F.S., which bore more than a passing similarity to Otomo’s design, right down to the arm-mounted gun.
With that, Farewell to Weapons probably would have slipped into obscurity, were it not for a film called Short Peace.
Released in 2013, Short Peace consisted four segments. The adaption of Farewell wasn’t directed by Otomo, but instead by Hajime Katoki, best known for his mechanical design work on the Gundam franchise and Virtual On. He made a name for himself designing mobile suits for the serialized Model Graphix novel Gundam Sentinel, but would break into major Gundam productions with design work for Victory Gundam in 1993 and Gundam Wing in 1994. Nearly two decades after reinventing the Gundam mecha game, Farewell was his directorial debut.
Otomo’s original story, like its iconic power suits, make the transition to film largely intact but boasting some significant additions. The short, which clocks in at around 20 minutes, manages to fit in extra characterization and an entirely new third act, featuring a shoot-out in an abandoned subway station. The power suits look largely the same, but Katoki’s touch can be seen in the extra detail and the expanded and modernized armament, including missile-launching drones.
Katoki’s design work can be divisive, and I’m far from his biggest fan, but his adaption of Farewell is nothing short of fantastic. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to be drawing from an Otomo comic, but Katoki nails it by adding just enough personality and characterization to make the 20 minutes compelling, without getting bogged down in an over-reaching plot. He doesn’t shy away from using copious amounts of 3D CG, but unlike most anime productions, it actually looks good.
The colorized English-language versions of Farewell and Memories were released in the U.K. by Reed Publishing along with a few other Otomo short stories, not seen in English anywhere else. Out of print since 1995, copies aren’t hard to find online, but they’re not cheap.
Anthology films, by their very design, are always a mixed bag, and Farewell has the unfortunate honor of outshining the rest of Short Peace. It’s a shame that it got buried at the end of an otherwise unexceptional film, but it’ll leave you wanting to see more of what Katoki can do as a director. His narrow focus as a mechanical designer seemingly makes him an odd candidate for a competent director, but his work speaks to Otomo’s eye for talent. Consider that the late Satoshi Kon was an assistant on AKIRA and broke into animation on the Otomo-produced Ryoujin Z, while the aforementioned Koji Morimoto and his animation studio, Studio 4°C, broke out thanks to their work on Memories.
It may be a long time before we ever see more of Otomo’s early manga in English, but Farewell is a reminder that Otomo’s talents extend far beyond AKIRA and his recent, lackluster, film projects. It also reminds us that his reputation, despite some recent missteps, is deserved. Regardless of the reasons, that so much of his work remains unseen and largely unknown for English-speaking readers is nearly criminal. Farewell is at least accessible (sort of) and should, ideally, inspire curious fans to seek out more of his work. If nothing else, it’s a better use of your time than watching Steamboy.