September 3, 2010

Yumiko Shirai – One Peace Books – 2010 – 1 volume

I had not heard of this book until about a week ago. I was quite thrilled to hear that a new publisher was dipping their toes into English-language manga, and even happier when I got the book itself. It’s a Drawn & Quarterly or Ponent Mon-style license (arty and adult, sort of “underground”), and with the weird and wonderful books those publishers release, I’m curious to see what else One Peace might license in the future.

Tenken is a wonderful first book, and part of the reason I’m curious about the future. I hadn’t heard of Tenken before, but apparently it won a Japan Media Arts Festival award. Other award-winners include Ooku, Monster, Yotsuba&!, Dissappearance Diary, Children of the Sea, Vinland Saga, Emma, Pluto, Sexy Voice and Robo, Town of Evening Calm Country of Cherry Blossoms, Blade of the Immortal, and With the Light. Lots of good company there.

Based on the Japanese legend of Susano-o and Yamata-no-Orochi, the story follows Manaka, a construction worker, as he watches out for Saki, a country girl he hires onto his team.

In the original folk tale, Susano-o saves a girl by slaying the serpent demon Yamata-no-Orochi, who has taken all but one of the daughters from a poor old man as “brides.”

The setting for Tenken is in the near-future, after a major war contaminated the planet. Humanity has returned to simpler times, and bamboo is what most buildings appear to be built out of. The “tenken” of the title is a festival/ceremony where a local girl is chosen to be Yamata-no-Orochi’s “bride.” It is an empty festival, of sorts, since nobody remembers the legend and many of the meaningful Shint traditions tied to it are lost, but in one part of the country, the festival is taken very seriously. Yamata-no-Orochi is real, and chooses a real bride every 50 years. Saki is that bride, and try as she might to flee, she can’t escape the serpent demon. Heroic and subtly smitten Manaka plays the part of her Susano-o as he tries to save her from the shrine that insists on sacrificing her.

The full legend is told on the first page of the story, but it’s some time before the link between the festival in the story and the legend is revealed. The parallel isn’t so straightforward, and I thought it was a wonderful twist. I also liked the way that the supernatural was dealt with, in real but very ambiguous terms. Yamata-no-Orochi is always shown either as a snake face or part of a scaled snake body, and usually only peripherally when one of the characters is having a dream or daydream. He never really shows himself in reality, and while his actions do carry over (his “mark”, the way he affects bamboo, the bad things that happen when his brides aren’t sacrificed), he himself isn’t really part of “reality,” and the characters don’t address him as a real person, which would be a little strange in a story as down-to-earth as this one is. Tenken has a lot of supernatural elements, but it’s mostly ghosts and spirits, and there’s no secret powers or demon showdowns or anything ridiculous like that.

Similarly, I like how the alternate reality setting is dealt with. It’s not explained at all, but we pick up bits and pieces of relevant history as they come up in the plot. I liked that, as opposed to a big block of explanatory text, since we learn about different contamination zones and special kinds of clean and purifying bamboo as the characters run across them, and there is only a brief section about the “war” that contaminated everything. The war is treated mostly as description, since it has no bearing on the plot. It’s not too different from reality, but it adds just a little bit more danger when dealing with Yamata-no-Orochi since it’s implied that it’s his displeasure that fueled the war and contamination as a result of not getting a bride.

The way the story goes about introducing plot points is mildly annoying, since they become important before they are explained, but I preferred that method to tedious exposition, and usually when the explanations did come, they were worth waiting for (the reasons behind the Tenken festival in particular are hard to wait for, but well worth it in the end). Sometimes the lack of explanation can be problematic, since it sometimes takes some figuring out when setting-specific events happen, but the ambiguity lends something to the story, too.

A big part of what made this ethereal tale so enjoyable was the wonderful, fitting art. The art style is a little divisive, and one of those things you will either love or hate. Shirai illustrates in what looks like a cross between watercolors and digital tones, neither my roommate nor I could quite figure out which (perhaps it was a mix, but I’m leaning more towards the digital side, it’s very clean). Along with the watercolor grayscale value, there is a loose inking style, and the overall effect is a very loose ukiyo-e inspired illustration style. Many standard manga illustration quirks and shorthand styles are missing, which is why this feels more like an “art” manga. The downside is that it can sometimes be hard to tell what’s happening, since the loose lines and watercolors sometimes make for indistinct (but lovely) backgrounds. The character designs are also not terribly diverse, which isn’t a problem most of the time since there are only a few people total, but it becomes troublesome during the climax. The backgrounds and settings vary between lush vegetation/architecture illustration and watercolor fill-in. I liked both, and there are rarely panels with no backgrounds at all, a sure sign that a lot of time went into the art.

The climax was a little problematic, since it was almost impossible to tell what was going on. Reading it over and over again didn’t yield much clarification aside from a struggle between spiritual enemies that may go on forever. I thought at one point that both the main characters had died, but they lived through the epilogue. There’s a disconnect, likely intentional, between what is a dream and what is reality, which also makes it confusing. Ultimately, it’s easy to figure out what’s going on, but it’s difficult to parse as it’s happening.

But there’s plenty of good reasons to pick this up. The romance between the two characters is more assumed than it is overt, and Manaka’s insistence on getting Saki is the only indication that he’s fallen for her. I liked his devotion, and I liked the ugly threat that Yamata-no-Orochi posed throughout the story, especially in the beginning. The beautiful illustrations and peaceful lives of the characters make an idyllic setting to start things off in. This peace is never really shattered, even as we find out there are large contaminated swatches of land and temples going to scary lengths to keep traditions alive, but Yamata-no-Orochi is always there, coasting darkly through the background, literally nightmarish. The way it straddles reality and the spiritual is very impressive, and I liked the variety of challenges posed to Manaka in order to save Saki. Nothing is straightforward, and it makes for an utterly fascinating read.

If you like manga that run off the beaten path, and especially stories that weave mythology into modern settings, this is worth checking out. As I said, it reads a lot like the arty, adult releases from Ikki and Ponent Mon, which is pretty high praise. The myth itself is one that I don’t see often in manga, and the story’s interpretation of it, and the real meaning behind the Tenken festival, is a great reveal when it finally comes. The ending is a little confusing, and the way the story goes about revealing facts means that you may feel lost at points, and I’m sure there will be some that aren’t fans of the lovely watercolor art, but the overall effect is offbeat, ethereal, and very different than the usual manga narrative. This is a wonderful first foray into manga from One Peace Books. I can’t comment too much on the presentation, since I was given an ARC for review, but it looks very promising.

Highly recommended, especially for being different, but also because I love mythology and strange spiritual plots like this. It has a lot going for it.

This was a review copy provided by One Peace Books.