Two names. The first is You Higuri, she of Cantarella and Seimaden and a slew of other titles familiar to shōjo fans. The second is Shinji Wada, and I wouldn’t be surprised if many people reading this went who?”. And I’ll probably catch Heinz 57 varieties of hell for this, but the second name actually got me more excited about this title than the first.
Back in 1975 — when dinosaurs roamed the earth, and George Lucas was ripping out his beard trying to write the first draft of something he called “The Star Wars” — Wada created a shōjo manga series named Sukeban Deka (スケバン刑事), which could be variously translated as “Bad Girl Detective” or “Delinquent Teen Cop”. Said series starred Saki Asamiya, a tough-as-Nine-Inch-Nails teen sprung from the hoosegow by the Powers That Be so that she might better infiltrate the nation’s crime- and corruption-infested schools on their part. In lieu of a gun or a knife, Saki carried a yo-yo — albeit one made out of high-tech ceramics that could smash heads or strangle opponents with its wire.
You can probably guess this was no flowers-and-hearts love story. Deka was a sprawing, violent, operatic saga that spanned continents and concluded with a Femme Nikita-like existential twist. It also created a set of cultural tropes in Japan as striking and recognizable as Rei’s plugsuit and blue hair, and a whole slew of live-action films, a TV series, an anime adaptation and a recent theatrical remake (directed by Battle Royale II helmer Kenta Fukasaku). Wada went on from that to create a number of other shōjo titles — Amaryllis the Thief, Shark Girl — but Deka remains the one thing he’s best remembered for. It was a first-of-its-kind product, made no apologies for its glorious excesses, and got away with it thanks to a gallery of terrific characters, Saki herself being first and foremost.
Wada is, in short, roots. And sure enough, if you turn to the back of Crown vol. 1 and read You Higuri’s afterword, that’s how she felt as well. The prospect of pairing her art with Wada’s story and writing was both thrilling and intimidating for her. Picture the jitters in the stomach of an up-and-coming director being asked to film something Spielberg wrote, and you’ve got the idea. Higuri and I both had high expectations for this going in. Plus which, I think I’ve said before that Higuri’s art (which is great) needs to be backed up by a writer who has more storytelling chops than she does, and with Wada in the driver’s seat I was waiting for just that.
I’m still waiting.
Critics often use adjectives like eye-rolling to describe how ludicrous something is; with Crown, my eyes rolled so many times I feared for them dropping out into my lap. It’s a bad clash between two kinds of storytelling — the gritty, more action-driven material that Wada built much of Sukeban Deka around, and the fluffier real-life-as-fairytale/wonderland stuff found in many shōjo manga. I kept muttering, pick one approach and stick with it. Quit with the halfsies.
Crown revolves around three characters: mercenary Ren, his best friend Jake (also a gun for hire), and Ren’s little sister Mahiro. Ren and Jake have just turned down a contract that offered them major-league sugar, and have headed for “a little Oriental island”, as Jake puts it. That’s Japan, of course, where the two of them track down Mahiro. How’s this for a stacked deck: After Mahiro’s parents died in a car crash, greedy relatives seized the house and the family assets and booted her out on her own. Now she barely makes ends meet through the usual succession of part-time jobs that plucky manga heroines have to endure — Chinese food delivery, or that ever-dependable cliché, directing traffic at construction sites.
Ren and Jake don’t waste time with any jollying-up. They snatch her off the street, stuff her in the back of their car, scare the big bad relatives into submission (via knife through hand and foot through PS2 console — you choose which one hurts worse), and whisk her off to an apartment on the cushy side of town. As it turns out Mahiro is, get this, the heir to the throne of “Regalia”, a country in the grip of a corrupt and venal queen determined to keep Mahiro from taking her rightful place.
Said queen throws what looks like most of that country’s GDP at hired assassins to go after Mahiro, and so most of the second half of the volume is taken up with Die Hard-style action-movie heroics where Ren and Jake slit throats, blow away gunmen and detonate bombs by remote control … all so that Mahiro can enjoy her birthday party in peace. And then there’s the “Crown”, the jewel that Mahiro wears around her neck that’s also the symbol of state for Regalia. It also turns out to have mystic properties that only Mahiro can unlock, something hinted at early on when Mahiro uses it for a pendulum in one of those goofy fortune-telling games that high-schoolers play.
The core problem, I think, is element overkill. Any one or even two of the four or five plot elements Wada crowds into Crown would have more than done the trick, but instead we get everything plus the kitchen sink and a few appliances, too. Bodyguard protecting little sister? Fine. Jewel that focuses energies a la E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman stories (a major hit in Japan)? Fine. Both of those plus about two or three other plot threads in the same skein? Not fine. All of the above plus soapy shōjo romance? Please, no. This isn’t just oil and water; it’s oil, water, vinegar and peach Schnapps to boot. Gack.
Art: The one nit I cannot pick with this or any of Higuri’s other books is her artwork. I had problems with the pacing and storytelling of Cantarella, but Higuri’s character designs and excellent sense of lines kept my interest even when the potboiler plot didn’t. The same goes with Crown: there’s scarcely a page where I wasn’t drawn to some appealing variety of detail in the designs. I also had to laugh, I admit, at the way the cover art and the frontispiece complement each other. (Go check out the book and you’ll see what I mean; it’s a great visual gag.)
Translation: Go! Comi typically do excellent localization work, and Crown sports all the things manga fans have come to expect from domestic publishers: right-to-left formatting, non-destructive retouching of effects (although here the effects are occasionally relettered entirely when it isn’t a problem), and a translation that’s readable and never screams “HI, I’M A TRANSLATION!” Bonuses are limited to afterwords by both Higuri and Wada, in which they express their joy at being able to work with each other.
The Bottom Line: My guess is that a) there are far more You Higuri fans out there reading this than Shinji Wada fans, and b) they’ll probably snap this up without worrying about what I see as its wretched excesses. But from where I sit, the need for a Sukeban Deka revival is stronger than ever. Saki Asamiya wept.