Manga-ka: Jun Mochizuki
Publisher: Yen Press
Rating: Older Teen (16+)
Release Date: December 2009
Synopsis: “The air of celebration surrounding fifteen-year-old Oz Vessalius’s coming-of-age ceremony quickly turns to horror when he is condemned for a sin about which he knows nothing. He is thrown into an eternal, inescapable prison known as the Abyss from which there is no escape. There, he meets a young girl named Alice, who is not what she seems. Now that the relentless cogs of fate have begun to turn, do they lead only to crushing despair for Oz, or is there some shred of hope for him to grasp on to?”
After taking in Mochizuki’s Crimson Shell in a previous review, this ongoing series offers similar flavors with it’s gothic British setting, endless mansions and frilly outfits. However, it manages to avoid being a retread of the previous series, just another tale offered in complimentary window dressing. Mochizuki presents us with yet more pseudo-Victorian gothic wonderment, and ups the ante a bit with some cleverly chosen ties to a literary classic, and a fairly involving plot centering on intentions most sinister for all concerned.
Character introductions feel a bit more spaced out than in Crimson Shell due to the ongoing nature of the material. It takes time to more-so establish the setting before adding any unusual twists. Oz takes the mischievous shonen-archetype and adds in a few darker bits of dialogue that foreshadow the subsequent events of the opening chapter. We get a sense of the normalcy of his family life, centered around his uncle, little sister and friendly servants. His life is a sheltered existence soon to come to an end with his introduction into adult society. The introduction of the abyss and his imprisonment within it adds another layer that calls into question everything he has believed, and make for a fairly involving introduction to the story.
This startling introduction is quickly reinforced with references to the works of Lewis Carroll. The elements of Alice in Wonderland used in this series aren’t added in for gimmicky reasons, rather take minor elements of that classic and expand and subvert them. Alice herself has a sinister alter ego, functioning as both the inquisitive Alice searching for answers in seeking out Oz, and the cat in the way she never answers ours or Oz’s questions entirely. Rather than being yet another wimpy girl in an outfit ready made to sell model kits, Alice is a force of nature, and a particular element of her powers makes for a sinister twist on things traditionally associated with sweetness. The Abyss has more in common with the dark, dangerous Wonderland of the books populated with Jabberwockys than the softened whimsical elements of the books, a deadly realm where choices must be made delicately.
For all the mystery I’ve related about Alice, the rest of the cast simply provides more conundrums, leading us to suspect that Oz accompanying Alice might be among his better choices of companionship. The world of Oz’s childhood is apparently some sort of charade, and different sides emerge in the study of the Abyss. Family and acquaintances are no longer what they appeared, and the reader will find themselves seeking out truths as much as Oz, paying particular attention to the small revelations we’re given. It’s possible someone is working behind the scenes to manipulate Oz, and his past-tense narration often foreshadows upcoming events, dropping bits of plot suggestions that create more questions than they answer. Many of the characters remain enigmas with enough details offered to provide interest while still leaving an air of uncertainty concerning their plans with Oz, particularly Alice.
The artwork is a bit stronger then Mochizuki’s previous work, benefiting from shifts in setting as Oz travels to the Abyss. The monsters in this volume are not generic zombies but bizarre visual monstrosities like something out of Wonderland – outright inhuman and unnatural looking, some disgustingly organic, others clockwork combinations. Black is used with more efficiency as well, highlighting moments of unrelenting terror like monstrous expressions, unending catacombs and moments of shock. The characters are expressive, with moments of mild to intense insanity emerging among all, along with Alice’s deft shifts between innocence, bravado and curmudgeonly annoyance.
Yen Press’s translation and presentation are emerging to be fairly standard. Colour plates are included at the start of the volume, and the paper is slightly better then what one might normally expect from digest sized manga. The translators made the same choice they did in Crimson Shell, making me feel as if yet again I’m witnessing another post-apocalyptic England occupied by Otaku. -chan and -san get dropped into the conversations alongside elements originally added to give it a British flavour, like the use of “Mrs.Kate” for one character. Yen Press notes that particular example in the liner notes as being in the original, though it seems a bit redundant given this is an English translation. While I would of preferred a less literal adaptation , this is a fairly minor element and the manga’s translation is otherwise enjoyable.
I’d recommend Pandora Hearts to fans of Crimson Shell, as it shows great improvement – something that will reward those who enjoyed the previous work. Those who enjoy mysteries and suspense in their manga, or those looking for some strange visuals, will appreciate it as well. It might not be quite as cohesive as some might like, but a straightforward story is never really what one looks for where mysteries are concerned.