Manga creator Masashi Kishimoto is well known in the English-speaking world as the creator of "Naruto," the ninja-school story that is a best-seller not only in Japan but also in the U.S., where it has dominated the graphic novel charts for years. This week, though, readers get to see a completely different side of Kishimoto with the one-shot story "Mario," which appears in the latest issue of "Shonen Jump"; you can get just this issue for 99 cents if you don't feel like springing for a subscription, and that 40-page story alone makes it a good deal, especially compared to American comics. (You can even get it for free via the Viz Android app if you're willing to download a free game.)
Set in present-day New York (or a place that looks a lot like it), "Mario" follows the story of a young hit-man whose father was in the Mafia and mother was in the Yakuza (the Japanese organized crime syndicate) as he becomes increasingly involved with a strange, sullen female assassin. It's a story of revenge, omerta, and double-crosses, very much in the classic American gangster genre, but Kishimoto lifts it out of the ordinary with clear-lined art and interesting, quirky characters. I was never a "Naruto" fan, to be perfectly honest, but in "Mario," Kishimoto shows some real storytelling chops.
In an interview with "Shonen Jump," Kishimoto explains that he got the idea for "Mario" about 15 years ago, at a time when his shonen pitches were bombing and he was thinking about switching to seinen manga, which is aimed at an older audience. Then "Naruto" got picked up by Japanese Shonen Jump, and the rest is history—except that Kishimoto kept working on "Mario" in secret:
I wasn’t planning for it to run in Shonen Jump, so I didn’t even tell my editor at the time. I just worked on it in secret at my own pace. Since I was doing it for myself, I kept adding things in without worrying about the page count. Eventually it became ridiculously long.
Maybe it's the fact that Kishimoto was doing it for himself, rather than an editor, that makes "Mario" feel so different, but it is definitely a departure from his earlier work, and one that's well worth checking out if you like manga with a more sophisticated feel.