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Sword of the Dark Ones

Sword of the Dark Ones and Kikaider 02

I’m often surprised by the ability of many manga to slide under my critical defenses. There are books that I know I shouldn’t like but do, in spite of excessive violence or lurid sexual content or crude humor (or all three).

So it’s somewhat refreshing to find a couple of titles that I suspect I shouldn’t like and don’t.

It’s not that CMX’s Sword of the Dark Ones or Kikaider 02are particularly bad at what they attempt. It’s entirely possible that my description of either will make some readers think, “Is he crazy? That sounds awesome!” But I find that both suffer from a dedication to enthusiastically violent illustration at the expense of character development and narrative clarity.

The worse offender of the two is Sword of the Dark Ones, Kotobuki Tsukasa’s adaptation of a novel by Yasui Kentaro based partly on illustrations by Tasa. Its protagonist, Leroy Schwartz, is a former mercenary gone freelance. He battles “Dark Ones,” demonic invaders who have been preying on humanity for thousands of years.

Aside from a range of more-than-human abilities, the most valuable weapon in his arsenal is Ragnarok, a sentient sword. Ragnarok isn’t just enormous and really, really sharp; he’s the brains of the operation, every bit level-headed and intelligent as Leroy… well… isn’t.

Things start simply with Leroy protecting a caravan of prostitutes as they travel between cities to return to the safety of their brothel. (Sometimes I simply can’t believe the sentences I type in my duties as a manga columnist.) Delighted that they returned to their flesh market unblemished, the brothel-keepers invite Leroy for some gratis hospitality, and that’s where the action really begins.

It’s also where clarity goes out the window. Circumstances are complicated by a visit from one of Leroy’s exes, an assassin named Lena Northlight. She has her own interest in the brothel and its employees and wants Leroy to investigate on her behalf (in spite of the fact that he detests her).

Thus begins a somewhat dizzying process of introducing characters (from fey assassins to child prostitutes to lycanthropes, though very few actual Dark Ones, despite their titular prominence), revealing their deep, dark secrets, and placing them in circumstances where they can demonstrate their boundless abilities to inflict pain. Depending on your taste, you might just have said “Sold!” and stopped reading this review. Personally, I’m still trying to figure out half of what went on during the fight sequences.

Tsukasa has a somewhat odd approach to rendering these pages. They’re extremely bloody but strangely static, as if things are happening too quickly for the eye to see. There are gashes and bruises in abundance, but it’s never really apparent how they got there. Explanations from the characters (and really, if they cared about killing each other so much they’d clam up and get on with it) aren’t especially helpful. Making matters worse is the fan service, not so much for its frequency but for its object. (If shots of the child prostitute’s panties make the reading experience richer for you, please don’t let me know.)

It seems like there’s a potentially interesting mythology in place here, but in three volumes, it’s never fully realized. There’s just enough of underlying depth to keep it from being a bloody romp, though. Ultimately, Sword of the Dark Ones comes across as a bit of a rush job, a cash-in on a popular prose work.

Kikaider 02 is another adaptation, though this time it’s a new version of a manga adaptation of a television series called Artificial Human Kikaider. I’m always strangely fascinated by Japan’s ability to franchise a story, whether it’s Rose of Versailles turning from hit manga to perennial favorite stage production, Battle Royale shifting from novel to movie to manga, or the cottage industry that is Nana, so this kind of multi-media saturation doesn’t immediately suggest poor quality.

Using Kikaider creator Shotaro Ishinomori’s story, artist Meimu gives the Pinocchio variant an updated visual style. We first meet Mitsuko, daughter of one of the world’s foremost experts in robotics and a promising scientist in her own right. The death of her older brother left Mitsuko’s father shattered and obsessed, and the event passed a few issues onto Mitsuko as well.

After a long period without contact from her father, she receives a message informing her that his research has been perverted by a terrorist organization and that Mitsuko has a younger sister she must protect. This leads her to one of her father’s abandoned laboratories, a mysterious girl, and an android that’s the spitting image of her dead sibling.

It also leads to lots of explosions as some of dad’s less benign creations try and destroy Jiro, the imperfect copy. Lots of things blow up as the quasi-family is reunited, and Mitsuko is understandably reluctant to get in too deep at the bequest of a father who abandoned his living child in favor of a dead one. She tries to distance herself from the insanity, but her father’s creations and former employers aren’t content with that.

Mitsuko’s ambivalence and alienation are the most interesting elements of the two volumes I read. Jiro, the ostensible protagonist, is genre standard. He wants to be human but he’s plagued with doubt, convinced he’s failing to live up to his creator’s ambitions and torn between saving his android brethren and ending the threat they pose. He’s serviceable but too plastic, if you’ll pardon the pun.

For all of the carnage, Kikaider 02 is surprisingly slow. Android throw-down money shots are all over the place, and the concomitant property damage is rendered with loving detail. But it all seems like a distraction from the story’s emotional core. Meimu is a gifted illustrator, but all the mayhem overwhelms the character arcs. It’s out of balance, and it keeps the book from being anything extraordinary.

But as I said, if you’re in the mood for some demonic swordplay or android whupass, Sword of the Dark Onesand Kikaider 02 might be right up your alley. They just aren’t right up mine.

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