Arisa, vol. 1
By Natsumi Ando
Rated T, for Teens, ages 13+
Del Rey/Kodansha, $10.99
Fourteen-year-old Tsubasa tells people exactly what she thinks, which has earned her the nickname “demon princess” in her high school. Guys find her straightforward manner appealing, but Tsubasa longs to be more girly and have more girlfriends—like her twin sister Arisa.
Arisa and Tsubasa have been apart for three years, since their parents’ divorce, but they have kept in touch. As the book opens, they get together for the first time and decide to switch places for a day. Thanks to their correspondence and some quick prep, Tsubasa pulls it off, spending the day enjoying the affection of Arisa’s girlfriends and her hunky but sweet boyfriend, none of whom suspect anything is up. It’s a perfect existence, which makes it all the more shocking when Arisa jumps out the window upon Tsubasa’s return.
The proximate cause of the jump was a note, which Tsubasa assumed was a love note but actually said “Arisa Sonoda is a traitor.” Fortunately, Arisa doesn’t die, but she does go into a coma, and Tsubasa decides to assume her identity in order to see what caused her to try to take her life—and perhaps bring her back, just in case the coma is purely emotional in nature.
The game is on! With the setup firmly in place, Tsubasa starts investigating, starting with the assumption that Arisa was bullied. Arisa’s school is almost Stepford-like; everyone is cheerful and affectionate and delighted to have their old friend back, and Tsubasa can’t figure out what’s going on—until it’s time for the school’s weekly ritual, and the story shifts into a much creepier mode, going over to the darker side of human nature.
Arisa isn’t as bloody as Battle Royale or The Drifting Classroom, but what’s going on isn’t that different: The kids are being manipulated by unseen forces, and the result is that they are turning on each other one by one. Tsubasa sees this firsthand after one of her classmates expresses momentary doubt—and the others immediately begin bullying her. The violence is psychological, not physical, but it is real nonetheless.
Natsumi Ando is the creator of Kitchen Princess, a book that embraced every cliché of the shoujo romance genre but still managed to weave interesting stories about three-dimensional characters. This book is even better. The mystery at the heart of it is not all that original, but it is an excellent metaphor for high school life. And Tsubasa is convincing as a conflicted but determined teenager. She shines through as a real person, insecure and quirky but good-hearted under it all. Her classmate, Manabe, is the wild card that keeps the story interesting, as Tsubasa tries to figure out which side he is on—sometimes he seems to support the other students, other times he rebels.
Visually, this book is a shoujo as they come. The characters are highly stylized, with eyes like saucers, and the panels float on a river of screentones. While readers unfamiliar with manga may find that off-putting, it’s not a bad thing, as shoujo manga does creepy stories very well. One of the most effective techniques for creating uneasiness is to stay close to reality but change a few details; when Tsubasa’s classmates drop their everyday cheer and shift into darker mode, their eyes are hidden and the shadows deepen.
As in Kitchen Princess, Ando gets briskly to work on telling her story. While the first volume in a series is often all setup, Ando moves the plot along and reveals a few secrets while dangling others to keep readers interested. Overall, it’s a well done mystery, a sophisticated story wrapped in sweet, sweet shoujo art.
(This review is based on a review copy supplied by the publisher.)