Sexy Voice and Robo
By Iou Kuroda
Rated T+, for Older Teens
There’s a lot to like about Iou Kuroda’s Sexy Voice and Robo. I like the basic idea—a perceptive teenager moonlights as a paid phone friend and uses what she has learned about human nature to solve mysteries. I like the art, most of the time. I like the characters. I like the oversize format, which shows off Kuroda’s art at its best—this book would feel cramped if it were published in the standard manga size.
And yet, I feel like it could be so much better. This manga has a half-baked feeling, as if Kuroda realized what a good idea he had and started running with it before he was completely ready.
The strongest evidence of this is the structure of the book, which begins with eight self-contained stories and then, a little more than halfway through, shifts to a longer, more complex storyline. At around that point, for the first time, the characters start to develop more self-awareness, and the story gets a lot more interesting. Then, a few chapters later, the book ends, leaving some threads dangling.
Even in the earlier stories, though, Kuroda seems to get carried away with how good his ideas are at the expense of execution. The first story, for instance, is about a kidnapper whose ransom demand is a strange one: Hold off on turning on the traditional Christmas lights in a Tokyo shopping district. Working with the thinnest of clues, and with a great deal of help from coincidence, Nico finds the kidnapper and frees the young boy, but the kidnapper’s true motivation is never revealed. It’s one of the conventions of the mystery genre that bizarre elements like that must ultimately be explained. Nico does come up with a possible reason, but it is never confirmed, and the story seems unfinished as a result.
Several of the self-contained stories seem to have missing pieces like that, and as a result they seem haphazard, as if Kuroda started out with an idea but hadn’t quite mapped the whole thing out. There is a freshness and spontaneity to the book, and Kuroda’s stories are imaginative—he sets one story in a circus and another in an open-air hair salon, and one of his best characters is an amnesiac hitman whose memory only goes back three days. But somehow, each of these stories left me thinking “Wait—that’s it?” Kuroda doesn’t always wrap up all the loose ends in a satisfying way.
Another problem is a lack of depth in his characters. Admittedly, that’s hard to develop in a short story, but what I see Kuroda doing is falling back on the same pattern over and over: Cold, beautiful women who use their looks and their sexuality to manipulate men, and hapless men who get themselves into bad situations and then flounder around helplessly, making things worse. These are all basically less likeable avatars of the lead couple. Nico may be charming, clever, and cute, but she makes her money by enticing men into lengthy, expensive phone calls, and she uses what she has learned about them in their vulnerable moments to manipulate them. She really isn’t that different from the selfish lover in the second story or the suicidal prostitute in the last one.
(Actually, there is one difference: Nico is not sexy. She looks like a little kid—a smart kid, but a kid nonetheless. Her mannerisms are childlike, and she is missing the usual markers of mature sexuality—her hair is short, her chest is flat, and she wears sensible, sturdy clothing. She’s the exact opposite of what her clients want, which is why she doesn’t have to feel threatened by them.)
Robo, for his part, is a clueless guy who is led on by desires he can’t really control. That describes most of the men in this comic as well. The aquarium worker so besotted by love that he is willing to kill all the fish to get his fiancé to marry him; the young man who impulsively steals from a gambling parlor and then has no idea what to do next; the hapless motorcyclist who is led by a woman (another scheming tele-club caller, like Nico only not so nice) into an escalating series of crimes—all these men lurch forward without thinking, careening into one disaster after another, unable to formulate any sort of plan to help themselves.
Like Nico, Robo is a likeable version of this caricature: He lets himself be led around, true, but he doesn’t go on and on about his obsessions, he has a real job (until he gets fired) and he connects with people, in his own way. So neither character is an extreme; they both feel like someone you might actually know, but with a few extra twists thrown in. The other characters, with a few exceptions, are much less nuanced.
That critique extends to the old man for whom Nico works. He is really more of a plot device than a character—an aging gangster, he gives Nico her assignments, sets the story in motion, and then conveniently disappears unless he is called upon to move the plot along. Although Nico suggests that she is his lover when it’s convenient for her work, there actually seems to be very little rapport between them until fairly late in the book. He is simply a cardboard cutout who is rolled onstage when necessary.
The last part of the book shows what Kuroda is capable of once he gets going. The story starts to branch out into something larger, a framing tale that encompasses Nico’s mystery-solving. But then it ends, and much of its potential goes unrealized.
Kuroda is a good storyteller, and his art is one of the reasons to pick up this book. He works with brush and ink, which is a bold and unforgiving medium. Most of the time it works, especially when he keeps his line simple; his older characters often dissolve into a formless mass of wrinkles, and I find it hard to see any underlying form in the old man. His figures sometimes sport a stiff pose or an awkwardly foreshortened limb, which is the risk of working in this medium—you can’t really go back and fix things. (You can try, but it just ends up getting fussier and fussier.)
One of the things I really like about Kuroda’s work is the composition of pages and panels. He constantly shifts his point of view as people talk, which keeps the pages dynamic, and his backgrounds are fully realized, drawing the reader into every panel. A lot of manga artists use stock backgrounds that are so geometrically perfect that they seem flat and unreal. Kuroda’s backgrounds are more organic; every line may not be perfectly straight, but the parts all work together to build a convincing atmosphere. As the book progresses, Kuroda relies less on hatching and more on areas of pure black and white to define his scenes, and as a result, his pages become easier to read at a single glance.
Finally, a word about format. This book is an early departure from the standard manga format, and as I mentioned earlier, Kuroda’s art really demands a larger page. The problem is that the book isn’t quite big enough (or, more likely, the proportions of the original were slightly different than the U.S. version), so it looks like some of the art is chopped off by the edge of the page. At the very least, the art often seems crowded at the edges.
If I were going to republish this in a new edition, I might consider flipping it so that it could reach a broader audience—I can see fans of Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s work picking this up, when they are in the mood for a less depressing read. I would tweak the format so the art isn’t cropped. And I’d hire Kuroda to go over his earlier work, fill in the gaps, and then write another volume to wind his story up. Failing that, I’d like to see more of his manga translated into English, to see if his more mature work lives up to his earlier promise.