‘Nippon Sangoku’ Depicts Revolutionary Who Uses Words, not Violence

The cover of the first volume of “Nippon Sangoku” by Ikka Matsuki

Nippon Sangoku (Japan’s three nations)
by Ikka Matsuki (Shogakukan)

The renowned Chinese historical novel “Romance of The Three Kingdoms” has influenced Japanese entertainment in many ways, and “Nippon Sangoku” (Japan’s three nations) is no exception.

The manga by Ikka Matsuki, which borrows the novel’s story structure to depict a dystopian future where Japan has been divided into three warring countries, is not the first of its kind. A similar general setting is found in Kaiji Kawaguchi’s “Taiyo no Mokushiroku” (“A Spirit of the Sun”), which was serialized between 2002 and 2010, for example. That is why I was a bit hesitant to read “Nippon Sangoku.” However, once I started, I found it difficult to stop.

“Nippon Sangoku” takes place in the not-so-distant future in the late Reiwa era (2019-). In the story, Japanese society was already beginning to decline due to its inability to keep up with the AI revolution. Then, a nuclear war, which does not directly affect Japan, breaks out. With a sudden influx of refugees, an epidemic and a series of natural disasters, an uprising occurs. In the end, society regresses to a state comparable to the late 19th century and the country becomes divided into three warring nations — Yamato in the west, Buo in the east and Seii in the north.

The manga opens in a rural area of Yamato, possibly in present-day Ehime Prefecture. Within the first chapter, newly married Aoteru Misumi, 15, becomes a widower after his wife, Saki, is brutally killed by a Yamato official.

Yamato is ruled by the Taira clan, headed by Denki Taira, the interior lord whose power is said to be even greater than that of the emperor. Aoteru, now motivated to change the corrupt society and unify the country, travels to Osaka — the capital of Yamato — to take an exam to become an officer under Gen. Mitsuhide Ryumon, a general known for his noble character.

The manga is a sort of heroic saga, but what sets Aoteru apart from other protagonists is that he is not a physical fighter. His only weapon is his words. Rather than going into a rage after he finds out about his wife’s murder, Aoteru makes a rational and logical appeal as to why the execution was unjust. He speaks so intensely and persuasively that even Denki is intrigued.

The scene is reminiscent of “Tenmaku no Jaadoogar” (“A Witch’s Life in Mongol”), which I wrote about in this column in April. Both manga tell stories about socially vulnerable protagonists confronting powerful enemies using only their intellect.

However, the protagonist only appears sparingly in the first four volumes. Most of the pages are devoted to describing the war between Gen. Ryumon and the Seii Army. In addition to the complicated strategies and tactics that bring the ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” to life, the characters on both sides are all strongly defined. The unpredictable storytelling impressed me no end, although I warn you that there is no shortage of blood and violence.

Matsuki was born in 1994 and is yet to turn 30. I found “Nippon Sangoku” so entertaining that I ended up reading Matsuki’s debut series, “Bukuro Kicks” (2020), which is about a blind soccer player. The story was incredibly original and Matsuki’s art style was very different compared to “Nippon Sangoku.” It is quite impressive that Matsuki has been able to transform as an artist in such a short period of time.

In another surprising turn, it seems as if the first four volumes of “Nippon Sangoku” are only a prologue, and the main story starts after that. The way Aoteru carries out his revolution will probably reflect the feeling of repression among young people today. As someone who is a part of the older generation, I intend to respectfully sit up straight and read on.