Nozomu Tamaki’s Dance in the Vampire Bund (I know, whatta title) is one of those books where a manga-ka normally known for adult material turns around and creates something for — gasp — relatively mainstream audiences. In fact, given the nature of this story and the previous work Tamaki’s signed his name to in both English and Japanese, such as Femme Kabuki, I’m stupefied this has only been labeled with the “OT16+” rating and isn’t sold in shinkwrap. A story about vampire princess who only looks like a pre-teen girl but still shows off a dismaying amount of skin isn’t exactly something you want to be seen reading on the bus. That said, what’s between the rather racy covers is actually pretty good.
Said princess is Mina Ţepeş, queen of all vampirekind and entirely an adult now despite her underage appearance. The age/appearance issue is a convenient loophole through which the story manages to avoid veering into complete tastelessness, especially since there are a couple of moments — one, predictably enough, involving the application of sunblock — where Tamaki’s wink-wink-nudge-nudge approach to that material really pushes the boundaries of taste. Put those questionable elements aside, though, and what’s left is actually quite readable: a nifty premise that has the potential to go places, provided Tamaki’s predilection for female curves doesn’t turn the whole thing into a mere flesh parade.
The story opens not with Mina herself, but Akira Kaburagi, outwardly an ordinary young man attending an expensive private school. After ditching his would-be girlfriend — and getting punched in the face by a fellow classmate for committing that particular emotional larceny — he steps into a limo and is whisked away to a cathedral-like building where vampires are holding court. He’s not human, but a member of the werewolf “Earth Clan”, one of many tribes of inhuman creatures that roam the earth. And now that he’s turned seventeen, it’s time for him to take his rightful place as the duly-appointed bodyguard for Princess Mina. Akira’s insolent and mouthy (in typical sullen-shonen style), but he has the right instincts for the job: when called into the throne room and commanded to swear allegiance to the woman seated there, he spurns her. He knows the real princess by her scent, and this impostor doesn’t smell a thing like her. This lady was his chauffeur, Vera — to his eyes, she’s a bit of a creep who needs to unwind a little.
Mina is young by vampire standards, but canny and ambitious in a way that few of her ancestors or contemporaries can match. The creatures of the night have remained second-class citizens of the world for far too long, she argues: it’s time we stepped out into the light and created a place for ourselves. To that end, she has acquired an artificial island off the coast of Japan — a former landfill, purchased from that country’s government — and dubbed it the Bund, hence the title. This sovereign nation will be a home to vampires the world around, and its revelation to the world will also serve as a way to introduce the creatures of the night to the human race at large. When asked how Mina negotiated this land deal, her answer is (literally) priceless: She bought it outright, to the tune of Japan’s entire ¥1 quadrillion national debt. “Our kind have been ruling this world since your ancestors were using stone tools,” Mina declares, “and this sort of expenditure is but a fraction of our ample coffers’ true reserves!” (That inspired, on my end, a mad image of Mina gleefully swan-diving into a Scrooge McDuck-sized money vault.)
Not everyone finds Mina’s idea wise, or even particularly desirable. Among them is the Marquis, a vampire nobleman disgusted at the way Akira’s “mongrel bloodline” has achieved such prominence with Mina. Akira has his suspicions that the Marquis is plotting a violent insurrection from within, and he’s able to put to good use some of the training his father gave him. When someone attempts to smuggle explosives into the Bund, Akira’s nose roots them out not just once but twice — the first time when he smells the plastique itself, and the second time when another crucial smell gives away the game. This leads to one of the best exchanges in the whole book: “You have to disarm this; you underwent bomb disposal training!” “I went through the training program for dogs!”
The further we go into the volume, the more the story turns its attention to the world it’s created, and the more intrinsically interesting it becomes. When Mina skips out on her duties to go jump rope with some kids in a park, Akira’s dispatched to go bring her back and encounters the nightlife of the Bund firsthand. He despises it utterly; the vampires have been given the gift of eternal life, and have proceeded to do nothing with it but play sick games with each other. And yet here and there are signs that he has not seen the whole picture: the kids Mina is playing with are “fangless” — a sub-society of vampires who elect to pull out their fangs and drink synthetic substitutes for human blood. Without a place like this to go, or so goes the reasoning, these folks might not even have existed. It’s elements like this which make Bund worth following, if only casually, and I hope the series sticks with that stuff instead of just showing Mina with most of her clothes off for cheap kicks.
Art: Tamaki cut his teeth in the adults-only market, and from that developed a highly-polished style suited to both the curves of the human body and the angles of a monster’s maw. We get to see plenty of both here, and while the Bund itself isn’t terribly creative from a design point of view (it looks like, big surprise, metropolitan Tokyo), the characters take front-and-center anyway. Tamaki occasionally gives us a little unexpected touch of cute in the designs (he omits the nose, usually), and while he relies heavily on tone screen it never gets too muddy or ends up obscuring his highly-controlled lines.
Translation: Seven Seas are one of the smaller publishers out there, but also one of those most attuned to fans. Aside from doing all the usual stuff like retaining original right-to-left formatting and leaving FX unretouched but annotated on the page, they also take the trouble to make sure that the reproduction quality is second to none. Bund’s pages are often heavy on the tone screen, but they don’t turn into shimmering puddles of moiré, and the crispness of every line is preserved. The bonuses for this volume are slim, though: a set of four-panel gag manga about Mina’s three maidservants.
The Bottom Line: A lot of the bad vibes I got at first about Bund stemmed from the fact that most every time I’ve seen an adult manga-ka go “straight”, it’s been bad news. When Hiroyuki Utatane applied his artistic talents to the quasi-SF Seraphic Feather, nobody expected the resulting book to be such a thudding bore. Bund gave me bad vibes at first, but actually seems to be more interested in its story than just becoming a meat market, so let’s see where it heads.