Chikyu Misaki, vols. 1-3
By Iwahara Yuji
Rated T for teen
There’s something very comforting and old-fashioned about Chikyu Misaki. It reminds me a lot of the classic books and movies I enjoyed as a child, and it certainly manages to hit every cliché of the genre, but with great characters and perfect pacing. And like the best children’s books, it has a lot to offer for adult readers as well.
The story starts with Cliché Number One, a motherless child moving to an unfamiliar place. Makashima Misaki has just arrived in the country village where her late mother grew up. Misaki is on the cusp of teenagerhood, childlike but just old enough to be independent and exert her own will. Right off the bat, for instance, she is suspicious of Aoi, the cute lawyer who is making eyes at her father.
Misaki quickly makes friends with Sanae, a local girl, and as they go exploring, they stumble across the next essential element in a great children’s story: a supernatural creature. Here it’s the Hohopo, which lives in the local lake and looks like a longer-necked cousin of the Loch Ness monster. He seems to be drawn to Misaki, and when he kisses her, he turns into a little boy. Totally tickled by this, the girls nickname him Neo and bring him home.
Humorous complications ensue, not the least of them the fact that Neo, despite appearances, is still a wild animal. He runs around naked and wets the bed, and the girls have to make a concerted effort to toilet-train him. (Cue lots of giggles from the audience.) They are also smart enough to realize that they have to keep his existence a secret, because publicity could only be disastrous.
Yuji is a sharp observer of the ways of children. When Sanae’s brothers try to make friends with Neo and wind up in a stranger’s yard, the older brother’s attempts to freak out the younger will touch a chord with siblings everywhere. Misaki’s father, Koichi, is a typical clueless dad who is easily shooed out of the way. Aoi is a sharp cookie who suspects something is up, but she’s also pretty cool, and she needs to win Misaki over, so she goes along as well.
With the characters well established, it’s time to bring in the Danger From Outside. In this case it’s a bumbling group of kidnappers who lose their ransom, suitcases full of gold ingots, in the depths of Lake Hohopo.
The caper part of this book is clever and well constructed, and it’s also nicely integrated with the main plot. The biggest stretch of credulity is when the kidnappers’ plane crashes right in front of Misaki’s house, and that’s so deftly handled that it just seems to fit right in. After that, the plot moves briskly along, with lots of surprises and interesting side trips. The story takes a hard twist in the middle of the final volume that will probably give the grownups a bit of pause, although kids will just read it as science fiction.
Many of the characters are recognizable archetypes: There’s the Scary Guy Who’s Really Not So Bad (and this one has chainsaws!), the Poor Little Rich Girl, and the Villain. Yuji keeps htem from being stock characters by revealing a little of their personalities at a time and giving them some interesting quirks.
The art is appealing and dynamic at the same time. Every character is well defined with a distinct look—even the minor characters are brimming with personality. The backgrounds are detailed and evocative, whether they are snowy country landscapes or the interiors of rustic houses. It’s Japanese country pastoral: utensils hang on rough-hewn walls, a kettle steams on a stove in the corner, the children snuggle under a pile of quilts. Despite the incursions of the outside world, be it a lawyer who wants to marry your dad or villains who want to kill you for money, there is a feeling of safety, even coziness about these books.
It’s obvious from the better production values that the CMX people were fond of this series. The covers and paper are better quality than their usual stock, and each book begins with four color pages. Sound effects are translated and rendered in appropriate, cartoony lettering, sometimes overlaid over the original. I had just one complaint, and I realize it’s probably unavoidable: the profusion of long, narrow speech balloons in which the lettering is formatted vertically, making it hard to read.
The only thing that keeps me from wholeheartedly recommending this book as a great graphic novel for children is the fanservice, which is mild (you never see a nipple) but a bit icky at times, since it’s all kids. Does it really advance the plot to watch a woman get dressed, or to illustrate Misaki taking a fall with a close-up of her teddy-bear panties? And when Neo wriggles his head under her skirt and takes off her panties with his teeth—eeew! Taken in context, it’s an allusion to a standard manga cliché, but it would be a bit jarring for a first-time reader. Still, most kids will skip over (or giggle at) that sort of thing anyway—it’s their parents who will shriek with horror.
While the different pieces of Chikyu Misaki may seem familiar, Yuji combines them into a really different story that has a familar pace and plotting but some intriguing twists. Best of all, Chikyu Misaki has the most important quality of a great children’s book: It evokes that hidden world of childhood fantasies, in which the kids are running the show and the adults are either sympathetic and helpful or totally hapless. And that’s what makes it so much fun.
This review is based on complimentary copies supplied by the publisher.