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Jonathan Clements reads a Japanese angle on AC4: Black Flag

We open on the high seas, in the 18th-century Caribbean, as shrieking seagulls race past a British ship. Another vessel pulls in close; the Royal Navy men peer curiously through spyglasses at the new arrival, and…

BOOM! A cannonade rings out, shot smashes into the ship, and the pirates (for they are pirates) cheer.

“We’ve got them, Edward!” yells one excitable, toothless, one-eyed sailor.

But Edward tells them to shut up and pile on the cannons. It will take a second shot to smash their enemy’s resolve. But they can do it.

“Yes, Edward!” says another sailor with a chuckle.

“And don’t call me Edward,” adds the shaggy-haired pirate commander. “Show some respect, and call me bloody Captain.”

A title then gives his full name: Sea Captain Edward Kenway, and we are ready to truly begin.

You can never go wrong with pirates. There’s the romance of the open sea, and the rebellion of taking what you want, and the adventure of looking for buried treasure. And in the Japanese magazine Monthly JumpX, there is the massive marketing synergy of being able to put Assassin’s Creed IV on the cover.

Based on the game by Ubisoft, Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag: Awakening is written by Takashi Yano and drawn by Kenji Oiwa. Yano is a novelist, who shot to fame aged 32 in 2008, when his Snake Herd won a New Writing competition. He followed it up with several more books, but soon accepted the shilling of licensed publishing, turning out spin-off novels tied in to the Tekken gaming franchise and Sengoku Basara: Samurai Kings. His novel Tiger of the Western Sea was published by Kodansha in 2012, but had nothing to do with pirates, being instead a samurai-era epic about civil wars down on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu. But maybe the title made someone bear him in mind when the chance came up to run a spin-off manga on Assassin’s Creed, (interview here) the sprawling franchise in which sci-fi time travellers ride piggy-back on the bodies of long-dead humans, seeing everything through their eyes.

Artist Kenji Oiwa is also something of a name, having previously drawn Welcome to the NHK, Arata-naru Sekai and Cat-eared Dad. For reasons that presumably mean something to him, he is occasionally credited as Kendi Oiwa or even as Kenzi Big Rock – the latter being a direct translation of the characters that make up his name.

The manga they produce (as yet not officially translated)  is coolly calculated to drum up interest in the game. The actions it shows largely encompass the first twenty minutes of gameplay, cut scenes and all, as Edward Kenway storms a ship, falls into the sea, and reminisces for a moment about happier days, when he told his beloved Caroline that he intended to seek his fortune by becoming a privateer for a couple of years. Then it’s back to the melee on the ship, as Kenway seizes control of the enemy vessel, slays its captain, and heads off in search of buried treasure.

The degree to which Takashi Yano “wrote” the manga is open to debate. Images and dialogue are largely derived from the original script by Darby McDevitt – as so often happens in tie-ins, the skill lies in what the adapter decides to leave out or compress. However, McDevitt himself notoriously Tweeted that people should avoid the manga if they wanted to avoid having their gaming experience spoiled – but he refused to be drawn out on exactly why. Considering that he was issuing his warning in August 2013, he may have been simply hoping to preserve the storyline that anyone can now see on Youtube.

Notably, the manga version takes place in daylight, whereas the opening shipboard battle in the game is a murky night-time. One wonders which version came first. Speaking as a writer who was once made to take night sequences out of a game because of lighting issues, I can well believe that programmers leapt on the chance to show off the more powerful data processing abilities of the new PlayStation console, moving the opening sequence to the evening for fun. I can equally believe that the manga team decided day was a far more sensible setting for their manga, in order to save an artist’s sanity, leaving more space clear to convey information without losing everything in inky shadows.

As in the game, the actions in the past world are contained within a framing device, as agents of the Abstergo corporation (a front for the Templars), poke around in the past. This is where Yano makes one of a very small number of creative decisions available to him, electing not to present the modern day scenes from the first-person viewpoint of the game, but instead introducing a new character, in place of the player of the game. This character, of course, is Japanese – a heroic-looking Japanese boy called Masato Yagyu, who we see waking up from peering in to the past (at Abstergo’s Japanese office, which kind-of cancels out the game itself, that supposedly takes place in Canada). Anyone with an interest in Japanese pop culture, and a knowledge of the way that Assassin’s Creed works, might be able to see the subtle hint of where the writer is pointing.

If someone with the surname Yagyu is able to peer in on the timeline of the genealogy of great assassins, then somewhere in their ancestry you will find the infamous Yagyu clan of shadow warriors. Subtly, the writer points to a possible spin-off or sequel, in which Assassin’s Creed gets properly Japanese. Will Assassin’s Creed 5 feature ninja? Current rumours have suggested a setting in Egypt, in India or in the Wild West, so for now it seems Yano’s choice of name is little more than a bit of in-story fan fiction. But surely it is something that the producers must have considered…?

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