Publisher: Digital Manga
Rating: Older Teen (16+)
Released: March 2009
Synopsis: “For centuries, a far-off kingdom has been protected by the nightly singing of the Utahime. This powerful voice is passed down from one female songstress to another within the Utahime‘s bloodline. Then the impossible happens…a male songstress has been born.”
In a country where songstresses protect the citizens through the power of their song, a pair of twins are born to an ailing songstress trapped within a tower. Utahime is a condensed chronicle of their lives in a society where trandition of the duty-bound has never before broken and the life of a boy born to a songstress is thus burdened by the resulting prejudice, loss and decision.
I’ll get it out of the way now that the beginning of Utahime was a bit of a rocky road for me, beginning in the present-day before the majority of the story which goes back to fill in past events. Whether it was the manga-ka waiting to hit a stride or some awkwardly translated dialogue, something in the first few pages really didn’t click, including a second read through. The writing feels choppy and the panels don’t have much of a natural flow to them, which sadly doesn’t make for a great catch. But, that said however, once this initial bump was passed, it was smooth sailing.
The three lead characters of Utahime are twin siblings, Kain, and Maria, and the village chief’s son, Thomas. Kain and Maria are children of their village’s songstress, one of only a handful around the country born with vocal abilities that are a traditional part of the country’s peace and security. Because of her duty to sing each night, and give birth to the next songstress, their Mother is kept locked away in a tower under the protection, and imprisonment, of the villagers. Bitter and fearful towards the villagers, their Mother warns her children never to trust them, even when young Thomas wishes to befriend the lonely siblings.
Not a book for the thrill seeking, Utahime is a generally low-key, tragic story that is slight on the action but big on the character. The drama is high and the suspense surprisingly potent as Maria and Kain tend to their ailing Mother and slowly begin accepting the earnest Thomas as a part of their lives. When emotions running high see Kain leave the village, Maria is left to take care of her Mother alone, as well as uphold the role of songstress, even when things begin to take a horrible turn for the worse. Her initial reactions to searching for Kain when he leaves were one of the most memorable moments of the book from an emotional level, when a self-favouring consideration serves to make Maria feel more human (“So this is what it’s like… to not have Kain around.”).
I really enjoyed the character interaction and the well-executed impending sense of doom that the bulk of the book had. In contrast to the darker events occurring with Maria, Kain is seen living a much freer life traveling from place to place and there are welcomed opportunities for some lighthearted humour to balance out the story. It’s during one of his inner town travels that he meets another songstress, someone who reveals to him the true nature of his birth, and it leads him running back to Maria’s side after many years. Though happy with the tragic though enthralling road Utahime took, I was a little disappointed that there was so little time given to the ramifications of Kain being the first male songstress, especially when it seems so relevant to another surprise birth that had recently occurred within the country. There was however a clearly represented difference in the way he was treated compared to his sister, which painted a distinct picture for Kain’s often bitter disposition.
Following the title story is a short, unrelated chapter. It follows a young man who’s charged with the task of watching over an imitation ‘child of God’, created by humans. When they begin to exhibit certain signs, they are to be eliminated, labeled as failures, and leave way another duplicate to take their place. Admittedly I didn’t fully understand what was going on for a portion of this story, particularly in relation to gender of the ‘child of God’, which was either miswritten between girl or boy, or I got myself all tangled up in the flashbacks and present day scenarios. Either way though, as testament to the manga-ka’s skills, I still enjoyed every page of this short tale. It proved a nice addition to the book that has much the same tone as Utahime.
Aki’s artwork is as enjoyable and atmospheric as her story, with a style that’s brimming with subtle emotions and attractive character designs. The quality of the artwork is consistent from start to finish and works in perfect tandem with the story telling to deliver a combined experience that’s nearly impossible not to get swept away in. Suffice to say, I really liked this book on a visual level, and though at risk of making a needless comparison, Aki’s art style reminded me a great deal of a looser version of NaRae Lee’s, whose Maximum Ride manhwa was recently released by Yen Press.
Digital Manga has published this book under its title imprint, Digital Manga Publishing, and the quality of the book is easily one of the most praise-worthy parts of this one-shot release. The book retains the larger cut size of its original Japanese release, which is the same size Digital Manga utilizes in all their imprints, with the exception of 801Media. The book comes in at a little under 250 pages but is remarkably lightweight. The book’s binding is strong though I loved how lithe and easy to turn every page was. The whole book just feels really good in my hands.
A first for this book is Digital Manga’s new signature cover design which uses a full wrap-around border. I shared my thoughts on this briefly when this new look was first announced by the company but my initial thoughts are the same after having a physical copy in my hand. While it’s not an unattractive look, it is an unnecessary one. The wrap-around border doesn’t offer anything substantially eye-catching to the book and only really serves to crop the space in which artwork is printed. While I like the gradient colours, I think leaving a strip of colour (and the present logo placement) along the spine would’ve sufficed as far as design goes. Perhaps they thought it’d look too similar to Tokyopop? For whatever reason, though the front cover design of this doesn’t get any real kudos from me, I did really love the simple but elegant work on the book’s back which has easily readable text (something DMP often gets bumpy on) and a graphical addition that compliments both the story and art.
Overall I thought Aki’s Utahime was a treat to read. Though the beginning had me on the fence, the rest of the book easily made up for it with a plot so ethereal in its character development and tension that I couldn’t put it down. As a tidy one-volume story, despite my wish that there could be a little more to it, Utahime makes for a low-risk purchase for readers and one that I’d recommend for those looking for something attractive and dramatic that knows how to tug on the heartstrings.