Manga ‘Manchuria Opium Squad’ Depicts Unconventional Hero in War-Torn Manchuria

The cover of the first volume of “Manshu Ahensquad” (“Manchuria Opium Squad”) with manga by Shikako and story by Tsukasa Monma, published by Kodansha

Manshu Ahensquad (Manchuria Opium Squad)
Manga by Shikako, story by Tsukasa Monma (Kodansha)

Germany recently approved a plan to legalize the possession and cultivation of recreational marijuana. This is a major shift in the country’s policy. As the crackdown on illegal marijuana cannot keep pace with the expansion of the underground market, the German government is trying to eradicate the market by legalizing and controlling cannabis. In Japan, the use of marijuana and stimulants by young people is now a social problem, as evidenced by Nihon University’s American football team’s recently exposed drug scandal.

“Manchuria Opium Squad” is a solid reminder of the horrors of addictive drugs, although it is opium, not marijuana, that takes center stage in the manga.

The start of the story is set in 1937 in Manchukuo, which was a puppet state Japan created in northeastern China. Isamu Higata is a soldier of the Kanto-gun, also known as the Kwantung Army. He gains a keen sense of smell after losing sight in his right eye as a result of being shot by a Chinese child. Isamu then discovers a hidden farm of opium poppies. He turns to illegally producing opium to save his ailing mother. When his life is in danger after trying to sell opium to a secret society called Qing Bang, he is saved by Lihua, the daughter of the society’s boss. She offers him a business opportunity. Lihua’s ambition is to establish an “opium kingdom” in Manchuria that would bring even both the Qing Bang and the Kwantung Army under its control.

Manchuria was home to major opium poppy growing areas. Not only was opium the main source of revenue for the puppet state, but part of the profits also went to the Kwantung Army. Trafficking by private dealers was also rampant. It was a historical fact that “He who controls opium controls Manchuria.” The most horrifying part of this manga is that the highly refined “true opium” produced by Isamu drives people crazy with just one puff of it. Isamu hates violence and has a kindhearted personality but is a genius at refining opium.

The way Isamu and Lihua gather buddies and fight against the huge enemy is reminiscent of “ONE PIECE,” and is along the lines of mainstream storytelling in manga for boys. It is also delightful that their team is multinational, with members coming from Japan, China, Mongolia and Russia. What they are doing, however, is opium trafficking, unquestionably a crime. And so, their exciting scenes of camaraderie confused me, and I wondered, “Is it really OK for me to feel excited by this scene?” The manga also ruthlessly depicts how opium refined by Isamu ruins innocent people. It’s simply that Isamu’s team looks like a group of heroes in comparison to their hideously evil enemies, the Qing Bang, the Kwantung Army and the Russian mafia. You could say that the work’s picaresque romance of immorality, as it were, adds a complex flavor of originality.

The drawings are sometimes grotesque but overall realistic and beautiful, and the atmosphere of Manchuria in bygone days is admirably depicted in detail. In the 13th volume, Isamu and his buddies’ opium business expands to Shanghai. The puppet state is destined to collapse sooner or later, and a happy ending is inconceivable in their future. It is extremely interesting to imagine how the creators — Tsukasa Monma and Shikako — will tie up this tightrope story that perilously balances various elements together.

While reading this manga, I kept wondering whether any state can really and “properly” control opium or cannabis. I am also intrigued by the future of Germany’s legalization of marijuana.