by Akihisa Ikeda; adapted by Gerard Jones
published by Viz; $7.99 US
Review by Ed Sizemore
In volume three, things get deadly serious for the newspaper club, whose only members are Tsukune and his friends. Humans are forbidden from knowing that Yokai Academy exists, let alone being a student there. The punishment for finding out about the high school is death. Kuyo, the leader of the Security Enforcement Committee, takes great joy in enforcing all the rules to the letter. Now the newspaper club must figure out a way to prevent Tsukune’s execution. But if they live through this, there are finals coming up, and all of Tsukune’s extracurricular activities have caused him to fall so behind in math he might fail and have to attend summer school.
Volume four opens with summer vacation. The newspaper club is going on a field trip to the human world to sharpen their investigate journalism skills. They’re dropped off at Witch’s Knoll. It’s a beautiful field of sunflowers that is slated to be leveled so the city can put up a new building. (It’s unclear what exactly is going to be built.) However, Witch’s Knoll isn’t simply a clever name. This field use to be a refuge for persecuted witches. As the last remaining witch, The Lady at Witch’s Knoll is ready to wage a war to keep her land. Tsukune and friends must find a way to stop her army of deadly plants before they attack the nearby city.
I previously reviewed the first two volumes of this series. As mentioned above, the manga takes a more serious direction with volume three. There’s still a sense of humor retained in the series. However, it’s not the driving force of the books, but rather a way to break up the tension.
In volume three, Tsukune and the reader are confronted with the yokais’ fear and hatred of humanity. This theme has been hinted at in the previous volumes but never explored. It becomes evident during this volume that Kuyo’s desire to kill Tsukune is more than just enforcing the school rules. He wants to exact revenge for the way monsters have been treated by humans. Furthermore, the newspaper club leader, Gin, doesn’t want to rescue a human. Gin finally consents to help only because the other club members are going to save Tsukune with or without him.
For the first time the enmity between monsters and humans begins to sink in for Tsukune. However, it’s still hard for him, and us the readers, to really understand all this animosity when Tsukune is the only human in a school full of monsters, all of whom are significantly stronger than him. In the food chain, Tsukune isn’t simply the weakest link. He’s the link made out of tissue paper, while all the other links are composed of various metals. Also, it’s hard to feel like a member of the oppressor species when the guy denouncing you is a member of a species once worshipped as a god by your ancestors and has the power to turn you into a human flambe’.
It’s in volume four when Tsukune really understands how maliciously humans have acted toward yokai. The Lady of Witch’s Knoll tells Tsukune how witches were hunted and murdered by his ancestors. Back in the human world, Tsukune can see the true extent of human evil toward the yokai. He can’t ignore humanity’s bloody legacy. Now Tsukune understands why everyone back at the school hates and fears humans. It’s a powerful moment of enlightenment for both Tsukune and the reader.
One thing that impressed me about the series is how Tsukune and Moka have begun to establish a community of a co-existence for monsters and humans. They’ve done this organically from their own friendship and germinating romance and not organizationally. That is, their friendship isn’t based on some ideology but mutual affection. Moka is a very cute and nice girl that Tsukune wanted to be with. She initially liked him for his tasty blood, but she quickly developed genuine fondness for him as a person. It’s this emotional connection that forms the core of their growing circle of friends. They’ve unwittingly become a counterculture community at Yokai Academy. I’m sympathetic to this model of changing the world.
Another impressive facet of this series is Tsukune himself. Physically and intellectually, he may be your average teen male, but spiritually, he’s exceptional. He has a sense of personal honor only seen among samurais in Kurosawa’s films. He also possesses a remarkable sense of empathy for other persons. It’s these characteristics that have drawn Moka and the others to him. Ikeda does a great job of making these traits come across as natural. Tsukune isn’t a monk or high-minded idealist. Instead, he’s an ordinary guy with a deep seated conviction to do the right thing. Were that I was as noble.
The depths of Tsukune’s character shine through in these two volumes, but most powerfully in volume four. The scene that floored me and made me stop to take a breath is when Tsukune asks forgiveness from The Lady at Witch’s Knoll. He confesses to be ignorant of what his ancestors have done, but now that he knows, he wants to atone for their evil deeds. Wow. Tsukune isn’t talking about holding a press conference, forming a political action committee, staging a protest, or anything else either political or structural in nature. We wants to know what he can personally do, right here, right now, to help balance the scales of justice. He literally offers to do anything to make reconciliation. Unfortunately, The Lady is too consumed by pain and loss for consolation. She wants an eye for eye and nothing less. Tsukune’s humility and profound sense of justice are admirable and thought-provoking.
I generally don’t believe in politicizing my reviews. But having reflected on these two volumes for the past week, I couldn’t help wondering if Ikeda wasn’t criticizing the slowness and reluctance that governments have shown in acknowledging and apologizing for atrocities like war crimes, slavery, genocide, etc. Tsukune doesn’t seek to explain away, justify, or even distance himself from the past massacres of witches. Instead, he immediately seeks reconciliation. Ikeda’s point is simple: people and governments of good conscience should have the courage to own up for their sins and do what is necessary to make atonement. It’s a profound message that speaks to people through the world. It certainly spoke to me a white southern American. It’s also a powerful reminder of how fiction can sneak behind our self defenses and deliver a word of truth unexpectedly.
I have to confess I was a little harsh with my previous assessment of the artwork. Ikeda is more dexterous an artist than I gave him credit for. He has a clean straight forward style that I mistook for simplistic. I finally realized Ikeda’s skill when I saw Tsukune’s transformation upon being given temporary vampiric powers. He goes from being a plain looking guy to a very attractive fellow. It’s done by subtle changes. Tsukune’s face is less round, the eyes are smaller and more almond shaped, and the lips are fuller and given detail. This demonstrates Ikeda’s understanding of facial anatomy and our standards of beauty.
The second aspect of the art that struck me was how dynamic the fight scenes are, not just in way they’re rendered, but even in how the pages are laid out. In normal narrative, Ikeda sticks to conventional panel structure using squares and rectangles. During battle scenes, Ikeda uses triangle shaped panels and parallelograms. This really conveys the energy and chaos of a fight. There’s no wasted space either; even the smallest panel on the page communicates important information about what’s going on. It’s easy to read through the books and on a conscious level miss the details that make the artwork so effective.
I’ve also fallen in love with Ikeda’s character designs. It’s evident that he’s put a lot of thought into each new monster we meet. They’re all visually interesting and horrifically beautiful. He does some great original interpretations of the old classical western monsters, too. His love for the horror genre shines in the art.
This is a must-read manga. Ikeda is infusing the horror manga with a depth not just rare for that particular genre, but comics in general. He’s not doing it with ham-fisted plot lines or long preachy speeches by the characters. Instead, he’s carefully crafting likeable characters and solid story lines and letting his message flow naturally from the narrative. In the first two volumes, he hooked me with the monsters and the laughs. In these two volumes, he landed me on the boat with an exceptional lead character. The only drawback to this series is having to wait three months between the publication of each volume. (A complimentary copy of volume four was provided by the publisher for this review.)