By Dale Carothers
Sakurakoji, Kanoko (writing and art). Black Bird Vol. 1. VIZ Media (October 2009). USD $8.99. ISBN-13: 978-1-4215-2764-2.
Shōjo manga has always been hit-or-miss with me. I loved Fushigi Yugi by Yuu Watase, but she’s such a powerful storyteller that it’s impossible not to like her work. And it’s not that I don’t like stories about girls. Anybody who likes The Gilmore Girls as much as I do isn’t afraid of girl-centered stories. It’s just that I’d hoped to find something new and engaging, but Black Bird by Kanoko Sakurakoji is little more than a collection of clichés.
Everyone is drawn with delicate, pointy chins and huge eyes. The girls are all perfect and the boys are all beautiful. Misao Harada is a typical shōjo protagonist. She’s cute, shy, awkward, boy crazy, and she can see into the world of spirits/demons. A world of tiny phantoms that trip her, crowd heavily onto her back and cling to her in despair. Anything to make her life more difficult.
She’s had “the sight” since birth. She used to share her visions of the spirit world with her neighbour, Kyo, but he moved away when she was still a child and now she avoids talking about it so she doesn’t sound crazy in front of her friends.
Misao is overjoyed when fellow student, Isayama, shows interest in her. So excited that she faints when he draws near. Though, after their encounter, she feels guilty. Misao and Kyo professed their love for each other when they were children, and her feelings for Kyo still linger.
These lingering feelings are put to the test when Kyo moves back to town.
Isayama asks Misao for a private meeting one day after school. She thinks he plans to give her a gift – it’s her sixteenth birthday, so she goes with him. Instead of a giving her a gift, he slashes her throat. She’s so shocked that she barely reacts. And while she stands there, stunned, Isayama explains that he’s a demon who plans to eat her. She is the Bride of Prophecy. Her blood grants long life; her flesh grants eternal youth; and her hand in marriage brings prosperity to the marrying demon’s clan.
Kyo saves her and heals the wound on her neck by tearing open her shirt and licking the wound. He’s a demon, too – a half-bird, half-man demon called a “tengu” – but he’s familiar and devoted to keeping Misao safe. Teenage necking, raging hormones, and the presence of blood combine to form one of the most effective passages in the book. When it’s over, Kyo offers Misao a choice. Sleep with him and become his bride, or continue to be a target for every demon who hunts her.
From this point on, Kyo becomes a lecherous pervert. He fondles Misao’s breasts, slips his hand up her skirt, and makes lurid suggestions whenever he can. He’s already claimed Misao; he’s just waiting for her to reciprocate. Soon after, he becomes the new math teacher at Misao’s school, so he can keep an eye on her.
Sakurakoji’s art is a bit too light, too sketchy to have any real impact. Sure, there are moments of beauty or drama, but all of them involve Kyo: It’s as if he is Sakurakoji’s favourite character, not Misao. But maybe that’s intentional. Maybe she draws Misao simply so that readers can easily imagine themselves as Misao, and then lavishes more time on her drawings of Kyo because we are seeing him through Misao’s eyes. Handsome (or, more accurately, beautiful), drawn in graceful brushstrokes with backgrounds of lush vegetation – suggesting peace, harmony and fertility.
While Sakurakoji’s depictions of Misao’s life at school and home are adequate, the supernatural elements look so rushed that they seem like an afterthought. Demons, spirits and ghosts are poorly designed, little more than benign outlines. It takes the drama out of her curse. The threat is too faded, too far away to be scary. The only supernatural elements that get any real attention are Kyo’s tengu wings. They are long, black and graceful. Adding to his beauty.
Kyo saves Misao again in the next chapter, this time from a female demon disguised as Kiyo, a student who has a crush on Kyo, the new math teacher. Sakurakoji does little to set up the jealous rivalry between Misao and Kiyo, only hinting at it when she had the opportunity to show some real drama. After Kyo defeats Kiyo (With all the names to choose from, I wonder why Sakurakoji picked something so close to Kyo), things wander into the erotic again. Misao is injured and, in order to heal her, Kyo has to lick her wounds. He tears the back of her shirt off, gets her down on her hands and knees, seemingly mounts her, and licks the wound on the back of her neck. The pages that follow could be pornographic, if only the characters didn’t have their clothes on. They pant; their faces are flushed, their eyes closed. There’s even a panel of Misao digging her fingernails into the ground, her whole hand quivering. Afterward, Kyo makes his case for Misao’s hand again.
By the end of Chapter Two, I wondered if this was going to be the formula. A student – who is actually a demon is disguise – gets Misao alone and tries to kill her, only to have Kyo save her again. But, to her credit, Sakurakoji avoids this pitfall. There are demon encounters in subsequent chapters, but they don’t all take the same form. The rest of the volume features a kitsune named ‘Nagai’, who competes with Kyo for Misao’s hand. The tension increases but not enough to engage the reader.
Black Bird suffers from a thin story and awkward transitions between scenes. The art is adequate, but fails to enhance the drama. The back cover says that it won the 54th Shogakukan Manga Award, but, in my opinion, it only has a 3 out of 10 chance of waking Cthulhu from his eternal slumber.
You can buy Black Bird Vol. 1 from Amazon.com.