Manga-ka: You Higuri
Rating: Mature (18+)
Release Date: June 2009
Synopsis: “Ludwig II, the King of Bavaria, has unthinkable wealth and legions of retainers at his disposal… but he’s the victim of a madness that is capable of turning reality into a mere shadow! Has passionate fantasies and hunger for life’s most unreachable beauties seize control of his every waking thought and transport him away from the dire day-to-day problems of conflict-riddled Europe and into a hypnotic dreamscape of his own design. But when the shy and handsome footman Hornig suddenly appears, the King finds himself irresistibly drawn to the sweet boy’s innocence and pure heart. Will Ludwig’s spell of isolation finally be broken… by love?”
A loose retelling of the days of true-life historical figure, Ludwig II, the book opens with a brief, event-to-event summary of Ludwig’s life up until his death, foreshadowing the apparent end result of the story as a whole. Ludwig II himself is set up by this opening chapter as an introverted dreamer with his own unique take on the world, a seductively torn character who is introduced to readers in more detail as the story progresses.
First impression: ‘whoa, this book is huge’. Rarely does a book’s page count mean anything to me until I hold the book in my own two hands, and at 300 pages, Ludwig II doesn’t fail to deliver on quantity. Thankfully Digital Manga continues a tradition of nicely bound books and decent paper that’s easy on the eyes and just as easy on the hands. So without breaking my wrists to enjoy, I sat down to read through this first volume of one of You Higuri’s older historical romances.
The first couple of linear chapters concentre heavily on Hornig, a now stable boy who quickly moves up to position of personal manservant to Ludwig after he catches the King’s eye. Hornig’s twin brother, a thief who looks to capitalize on his brother’s position, proves a momentary thorn in the characters’ side until he is swiftly written out of the story, this after a botched attempt to take his brother’s place and steal Ludwig’s wealth. The haphazard set-up and following dropout of Hornig’s brother from the story feels a little sloppy, but I’ve little doubt that he’s being held on the sidelines for a return visit when things need stirring up. Either way, this portion of the book does a decent job setting up the quick relationship between Hornig and Ludwig, a stepping-stone for the continued romance between the couple that sees many a dramatic situation arise from it. From vague political intrigue, to an attempted marriage, the stories vary from emotional to dangerous in their climaxes but play well off the time period for a story that reads notably different from more modern-based works.
One repeating element in the book that I had trouble wrapping my head around was the use of the word pure to describe Ludwig II. His ‘purity’ was numerously mentioned during the book’s first half, and despite some of his steadfast ideals covered in a seemingly ignorant haze (which I’m assuming is what they must be referring to), I had trouble finding much about him to be considered pure. With a lacking attentiveness to the throne and a rape scene to jumpstart a relationship, I found the use of the word a far stretch at best.
Still, though he may not be pure, Ludwig was interesting enough of a character. Because readers rarely know exactly what he’s thinking, at many times in the story he feels more like an enigma than a human being when compared to the more relatable, Hornig. Whenever something happens, I’m always most interested in seeing how Ludwig will react to it, even when his generally psychotic reaction to most negative occurrences proved predictable after a time. And yet despite this, I was continually surprised at the lacking severity in his actions. Perhaps I’ve just gotten used to similar characters in other series, but I keep expecting more harshness from Ludwig than is actually delivered. Far from being a complaint however, I find this part of him intriguing, with his supposed-mindset painting what I keep interpreting as a darker portrait than may in fact exist. There are also many facets to his life I look forward to having explored further, such as his brother who was deemed insane and Ludwig’s inability to cope with the physical body of a woman.
Less layered than the personalities it portrays is You Higuri’s artwork, still pretty despite its lack of polish (drawn over a decade ago) but the character designs are a little shallow in terms of character features. The artist’s love for pretty boys is evident in the designs of the leads, such as Ludwig and Hornig, and it’s generally easy to deduce a person’s character by their physical attributes. A vague, but usually safe, rule of thumb for You Higuri’s work is the less intentionally attractive the character, the more of a threat to the main characters they are. Still, as a big fan of her work, I can deny the charm of seeing how far along her work as come, and despite this story’s rougher visual edges compared to You Higuri’s sharper work of today, the androgynous men, gorgeous time period details and some great expression work continue to make it a treat for the eyes all the same.
The cover of the book sports a more recent drawing from You Higuri, and though it reflects her sharpened skills with colour, the fairly dramatic change in art style-itself, as compared to the original interior work, is a bit of a take away from its appeal. Digital Manga’s new June manga cover design is at least more complementing to the book with the use of rich browns and gold, and though here this look works fairly well on an aesthetic level, I still think the ‘yaoi manga’ side bar is larger and more overbearing than it needs to be, especially with covers that do fine at making their genre pretty evident at first look anyway.
As a whole I found Ludwig II to be a good read and a solid release from Digital Manga. It wasn’t especially amazing but I enjoyed the characters and the way that You Higuri played off historical context with each event. The end result is a surprisingly engaging book that serves up a pleasantly romanticized retelling of the life of Ludwig II, along with some retro though appealingly sensual interactions. Despite knowing where the story will ultimately end, I’m all the more compelled to read volume two and see how points A and B combine from here on out as the tale of Ludwig, and his lover Hornig, continues down the road of daring dreams belonging to a man possessed by his passion for them.