LAND OF' THE BLINDFOLDED (Mekakushi no Kuni), by Tsukuba Sakura. First published in 1998, and first published in North America in 2004.
PLOT: Kanade seems like a normal schoolgirl, but she has a secret talent. With a single touch, she can see a person's future. Because of that, she avoids and dreads physical contact with others, even as she puts on a happy face for others. Then one day she meets the new kid in class, Naitou Arou, and right away he recognizes her gift. It makes perfect sense because he possesses a similiar one; where Kanade sees the future, he can see the past. They quickly bond, even if he doesn't quite possess Kanade's altruistic nature. Their bond is tested when Namaki, another, more sociopathic future-seer joins their class and all three are forced to confront some moral quandaries. What is their responsibility towards others and their futures? If they forsee danger for others, should they intervene? Can they change the futures that they see?
STORY: This manga was a real suprise for me. On the surface, it seemed to be another schoolroom romance, albeit one with a psychic twist. While that element is present, it also becomes something more serious where our main trio have to determine if their unique gifts make them obligated to help others, and if the futures they see are fixed or not. These explorations never get too deep or philosophical, but the fact that it comes up at all is a pleasant and interesting surprise, and gives the whole volume a kind of quality that a lot of similiar shoujo stories don't normally possess. Sure, it's awfully convienent that not one, not two, but three touch-based psychic students end up at the same school in the same class, but without them and the unique problems they face, this story would just be another shoujo romance.
I really liked the relationship between Kanade and Arou. Their gifts complement one another perfectly, and almost immediately there's a palpable connection between the two. I liked Kanada's can-do attitude towards her powers, even if it somestimes comes off as being a bit Pollyanna-esque. I also like how they all influence one another; Arou helps Kanada realize the full potential of her gifts, as well as their limitations. Together they try to act as a moral compass for the jaded Namaki, so that they might try to point his interests away from using his gifts for self-gratification and instead towards helping others (only time will tell if their lessons actually stick).
Now, this volume isn't just the story of our psychic trio. There are also two side stories featuring some of their classmates. One features the budding romance between the handsome and popular Takahashi and the loud, bubbly Katsura during the school festival. The other is about the forgetful Fujisaki Nobuhiro, his friend Takashi, and a mysterious dark-haired girl. These two stories are more conventional in their subject matter (although the latter has a vaguely supernatural twist), but they were still sweetly, sensitively done and still possessed a certain degree of personality, and as such I enjoyed them. I wonder if we'll see more side stories like these, which would make the series more of an anthology about an entire class, versus the story of a select few. That would be an unusual twist onto itself, and one I wouldn't mind reading.
So, what at first seemed like your everyday shoujo turned out to be a pleasant surprise, one with a solid cast and suprisingly interesting writing that helps it overcome the potentially gimmicky hook of 'kids with psychic powers' and turn it into something a little deeper.
ART: Sadly, the artwork isn't as unconventional as the storytelling. The character designs are pleasing, with their light linework, but also fairly typical for shoujo. In fact, they could stand to be a little more distinct; on the first read-through, I was not aware that the first side story WASN'T about Namaki until I read the author's notes in the back (which is a shame, because I thought the mangaka was trying to redeem him a little for his actions).
What was a little more unconventional was the page composition, as Sakura-san was often willing to use larger panels or lots of wedge-shaped panels stacked on one another like a column for some of the more dramatic moments. It helped them visually stand out from the more conventionally composed lighter moments, and even gave them a touch of poeticism, be it a progression of reactions between two characters or a montage of Arou searching for Kanade by touch alone.
I appreciate that Sakura-san didn't use a lot of screentones and effects for the backgrounds, something which is common in shoujo manga. I feel that by doing so, she actually enhanced the emotions and tone of the story because she let her story set the mood, instead of foisting it upon us visually. Ultimately, while this artwork isn't going to win any awards for originality, it does have a few subtle flourishes of its own which enhances the story it tries to tell.
PRESENTATION: The only extra present here is a combination of author omake and character profiles, where she briefly describes the real-life inspirations for her characters' personalities or looks.
I love it when a manga surprises me with its quality. Honestly, if the artwork were a little better or more distinctive, this would have easily gotten a green light. I'm really curious as to where this story is going, and I hope it maintains all those interesting little quirks which make it so appealing to me in the first place. This is one obscure little title that is worth your time to check out.
This series was published in the USA by CMX. All 9 volumes were published, but all are now out of print.
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