Saikano Volume One
By Shin Takahashi
Published by Viz; $9.95 USD

Saikano tells the story of two high school students, Chise and Shuji, whose troubled romance is further complicated by the revelation that Chise is secretly a bio-mechanic “Ultimate Weapon” created by the Japanese Self-Defense Force (SDF). This first volume does not explain how or why Chise was chosen to become the Ultimate Weapon, nor is it clear exactly what role the SDF plays in her life. We never meet any members of the SDF, so everything is explained through Chise, a frustratingly vague narrator. This volume also fails to give any sort of explanation for the world in which the characters live, which appears at first to be present day Japan, until enemy “foreigners” begin bombing a Japanese city.

This vagueness might be intriguing if the reader were presented with appealing characters. Instead, we have two rather unlikable and off-putting leads in the submissive, weepy, apologetic (I gave up counting how many times she says “I’m sorry” in this volume) Chise, and the conflicted, grouchy Shuji. It is difficult to understand why these characters are a couple, as Shuji seems to have nothing but contempt for Chise. The fact that he mentally berates himself after yelling at her for being weak and stupid does nothing to soften the edges of this thoroughly unlikable protagonist, and the author’s attempts at creating a conflicted character only serve to frustrate and alienate the reader. Indeed, these characters' emotions and behavior are at times so bizarre and unfamiliar as to make empathy nearly impossible. This volume also fails to offer any interesting supporting characters, with Chise's and Shuji’s friends functioning as a kind of Greek chorus, never developing any personalities of their own. Similarly, it would have been nice if Chise's and Shuji’s parents would have at least been given speaking parts, rather then the mute cameo appearances that merely hint at their relationships to their children.

One thing Saikano does have going for it is the artwork. The loose, sketchy style Takahashi uses is really quite lovely, and the design for Chise as the Ultimate Weapon also has a kind of horrific beauty. When danger looms, she sprouts mechanical wings, and in one particularly lovely two-page spread, Chise's arm is depicted as having morphed into a huge gun. These transformations are not of the magical girl variety found in manga and anime such as Sailor Moon, but rather consist of blood, torn flesh, and pain. Such images lend a grim weight to an otherwise flighty character.

Takahashi is also quite good at pacing, and there are a couple of effective wordless sequences in the book. I found the sequence in which Shuji and Chise prepare separately to run away together to be quite nicely executed, for example.

The conclusion of the book does suggest the possibility of more interesting stories to follow, presumably dealing with Chise's increasing power and physical transformations, but it’s difficult to muster up the energy to care about these characters enough to want to keep reading.

-- Pat Markfort

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