I’m going to start this review with a position I fully expect others to find irritating at best and indefensible at worst. I hated Axis Powers Hetalia so much that for a long time I didn’t dare tell anyone how much I despised it.
The show has a strong fanbase, but I know better than to try and lecture people about taste. I only know that the show makes my stomach bubble and my temples pound in rage. Hetalia reminds me way too much of exactly the sort of nationalist, race-baiting propaganda produced by the very countries depicted in the show during WWII — including, I must add with no small amount of chagrin, the United States itself. That it tries to be cute and inoffensive only makes it all the uglier to me. And yes, I’m intimately familiar with the whole “Japan has very little political correctness as we understand it in the West” argument; it doesn’t make the damn thing any less uncomfortable for me to watch. There’s plenty of other stuff out there that I know I want to check out, and that I know isn’t going to give me a case of the sociological squicks.
(Pause for deluge of hate mail. Delete. Onward.)
So. I should have hated Afterschool Charisma just from what was in the front flap alone. Sometime in the near future, there exists a school whose student body consists exclusively of clones of popular historical figures. Marie Curie, Florence Nightingale, Napoleon, Freud … Hitler. Yes, Hitler. Great, I thought; it’s the comic that Godwins itself. I winced, a lot, and then decided to just read the thing and let the story weave its own rope.
But by the end of the book, the noose had come unraveled. Artist and author Kumiko Suekane (of the Blood+A spinoff manga, which also deals with historical personages aplenty) had redeemed material I thought would be borderline offensive. The trick, I think, is that Suekane understands from the git-go that this material has implications and confronts them in fairly short order, instead of just letting them hang around, build up, and finally undermine everything. It’s a smart approach, and I hope it’s sustained through the rest of the series.
The setting’s patterned after most every Elite Private School we’ve seen in manga: Utena’s Ohtori Academy, or Ouran in Ouran High School Host Club, or you-name-it. The big twist, as described above, is each student being a clone of someone from history. Most important is that everyone is fully aware of what’s going on: they all know who they are; the administrators know that they know; and so on. Some are quite pleased with their lot (Mozart); some less so (Nightingale). Nobody is certain what the real reasons for their existence are, despite them being fed a line of guff from the school’s administration about “surpassing the achievements of the originals”. Ontology doesn’t recapitulate phylogeny, and it sure as hell isn’t destiny, either. The whole thing has the unnerving overtones of a social experiment, and one corollary of such experiments is that they can, and often do, fail.
Into the halls of St. Kleio Academy comes another student: Shiro Kamiya, the only one of the bunch who is not a clone. He knows; everyone else knows; he knows they know; etc. Most believe the only reason he’s there is because his father is one of the professors on staff. Kamiya’s most immediate friends consist of Napoleon and Freud, who stick up for their friends but are not above being haughty in their own way; Ikkyu, whose enthusiasm sometimes comes out in a more rough-and-tumble way than Kamiya would like; an Einstein with a playful enthusiasm that reflects well on his “original”; and … Adolf Hitler.
It’s the introduction of this last part which had me squirming the hardest, but the way Hitler is handled here is a big part of how Charisma works even when it should not. Adolf knows who and what he is, and has adapted a kind of gentle, fatalist stance about it: he’s despised by everyone at the school, and has decided that it is a kind of karmic punishment that must simply be endured for its own sake. It serves in its own way as a nod to the idea that it probably wasn’t genetics that made Hitler a monster but upbringing, circumstances and opportunity.
It also provides an embodiment of the central question in the story, which is whether or not history must repeat itself. A major plot earthquake early on is set off when a Kennedy clone, a graduate of the academy now running for president himself, is assassinated — although not by a Lee Harvey Oswald clone, but by a shadowy figure who taunts the school’s administration in cryptic e-mails. Variations on the same theme ripple through the story. It’s expressed most heartlessly at one point by Mozart, when he admits he had no interest in Marie Curie after she’s been transferred away to another school: “Take away her discoveries and there’s nothing left, is there?” Achievements are what matter to him, not lineage, which all throws his creative frustration into sharper relief — especially by the end of the book, which involves another fairly major upheaval that I won’t detail here.
File off the brand names, though, and most of what Charisma seems made of is that old standby elemental particle, high-school drama: who’s in, who’s out, who’s hot, who’s not. This isn’t a bad thing, just a hint as to the flavor of the story. It’s also not the only thing: the high-school setting is used as a framing device for other conceits, and while a good deal of the story’s foundation is built on variants on high-school drama there is just as much that isn’t. It’s a promising first installment for a series I honestly expected to be all but unreadable. Color me pleasantly surprised.