No. 5 exists in media res (Latin for “in the midst of things”), demanding that readers navigate a series of interpersonal relationships and backstories from a perpetual step behind. Whether this is an exciting or bewildering perspective (or both!) is up to the reader. The basic premise is that a Rainbow Council of numbered, super-powered beings is hunting down a rogue member named No. 5. The prelude is about one of the Council hunting a supposed deity elk with a pair of children. The first proper chapter has No. 9 chase down No. 5 in a desert (the Earth, in this tale of the future, is mostly desert), with other Rainbow Council members making appearances. The second chapter gives a somewhat more formal introduction to the numbered members, while chapter four provides a “summary in brief” page that may lead to more questions than answers. Chapter five opens in the style of a retro 60s anime that portrays the Rainbow Council like the heroes of Shotaro Ishinomori’s Cyborg 009. These descriptions should give you some idea of the density of the plot, which is tied in knots that become rewarding the more thought is put into understanding how they came to be. Lines of exposition such as “One is as feared by the Rainbow Brigade as Snerferu was in the royal palace of Memphis” pass like puzzle pieces spaced miles apart.
No. 5 has absconded with a woman named Matryoshka, who is often shown eating or relaxing. This is not unique to her character: the richness of No. 5 as a manga largely comes from how these larger-than-life characters exist in their own bubbles. A few are devoted to fighting and destruction, but others wish to lead peaceful or caring lives. A map of the world shown early on helps ground each chapter in a geographic region, but each Rainbow member’s bizarre citadel fortress, combined with Taiyo Matsumoto’s unique art style, makes this manga’s Earth a world unlike any other.
Truly, Matsumoto’s art is the biggest draw here. Any dozen shonen artists could take the premise and make a decent fight manga out of it; Matsumoto is too observant and inquisitive to settle. His use of shading, paneling, juxtaposition, and dimension is endlessly playful. A panel of a battle-livened No. 6 leaping from an aircraft on horseback and declaring, “A view only the gods have!!” is immediately followed by a view of a cup being poured out in another scene. In several cases, if a character shouts or yawns or makes a personal observation, you can bet the paneling will tighten on that mouth or face. If a panel here or there looks sketchy by comparison, the reader must forgive Matsumoto, because another jaw-dropper is right around the corner. There are dozens of wide panels in which a character stands against a landscape or building among multiple happy animals. No. 7, who has dark skin and an afro large enough to support a resting cat, resists orders to fight No. 5, preferring to fish in peace among some islanders. For Matsumoto and the more empathetic characters, superpowers are no excuse for losing sight of the natural world.
Why is so much of this future Earth composed of desert, anyway? The Rainbow Council seems to be in the employ of a global military force, who spend a significant portion of their budget maintaining the Council’s presence. A public television show host says, “It seems clear that most of the laws governing our world exist only to please the military.” In another scene, among the wreckage of an old city, a character declares, “Those old-timers broke their backs building all this. It’s all ruins now. That’s a pattern that will repeat over and over again, forever.” The Rainbow Council’s presence is meant to inspire, but they seem more like puppets of an established order. A brilliant scientist who goes by Papa invents hybrid creatures for fun while dressed in a full-body rabbit suit.
This all sounds wacky, right? It totally is! Through the first volume, readers only get glimpses of No. 5 as a character. Matsumoto has a design for it all, though. Readers expecting a straightforward jaunt through a tournament arc of power creep will be sorely disappointed. Patient readers who pick up the separate vibes of each character and chapter will piece together the bigger picture and savor what is a truly unique comic. Starting with one of Matsumoto’s more accessible but no less stylized works, like Ping Pong, Sunny, or Cats of the Louvre, will help readers calibrate their expectations. I predict teens with an appreciation for the strange will pick up No. 5’s frequencies quicker than most. Some gun violence is the only content consideration, plus a panel of a smoking child. The first few pages plus a fold-out poster are in color, otherwise the other pages originally published in color are in black and white.
No. 5, Vol. 01
By Taiyo Matsumoto
VIZ Signature, 2021
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation: Japanese