Monday, March 18, 2013


Well, we've looked at the beginnings, we've looked at the present, but let us step back to the past with another old-school harem, one with a bit more personality than Tenchi.  Is it any better, though?

SABER MARIONETTE J (Seiba Marionetto Jei), written by Satoru Akahori and drawn by Yumisuke Kotoyoshi.  First published in 1996, and first published in North America in 2003.

On a distant planet, humanity has managed to survive in a handful of colonies, each theme around a different Earth stereotype nation.  The big problem is that while a handful of original colonists did survive, none of them were women.  They have survived solely through cloning, and the only women who exist outside of myth and legend are the Marionettes, beautiful android women used for pleasure and menial labor.  One boy, Otaru, is more sympathetic towards the Marionettes as he is stuck doing hard labor himself.  Circumstance leads to Otaru releasing a trio of special Marionettes called Sabers, which possess something called a Maiden Circuit which gives them emotions and free will.  Now Otaru is stuck with the three androids: hyperactive, dizty Lime, Cherry the sweet schemer, and brash and bawdy Bloodberry, and they may now be their colony's only hope against enemy forces....that is, if they don't ruin Otaru's life first.

Saber Marionette J is many things.  It's rather high concept for what is essentially a harem series with robots.  It's also incredibly unfocused and manic, never sure if it wants to be just about sexy robot lady fights or more about your typical harem hijinxs, and that lack of focus is the story's greatest flaw.

I can't say that SMJ is lacking in the backstory department, with the concept of a flawed attempt at interstellar colonization and figuring out how to keep humanity going without the abilty of natural reproduction.  Less awesome is the fact that those survivors basically split off to create Epcot-style colonies based around each person's home country, which means each colony is basically one giant stereotype.  Even less awesome is the inheriant sexism - sure, they might have an excuse in that woman are essentially creatures of myth to them, but that doesn't mean that they HAD to turn the Marionettes into day laborers and sex slaves to serve them.  They do briefly acknowledge that homosexuality is common on this world, due to their unique situation, but the story also plays that for awful, offensive and annoying laughs through the extremely femme-y and overemotional Hanagata, who is always chasing after Otaru in over-the-top attempts to win his love.

Mind you, he's far from the most annoying character in the cast.  Otaru's Sabers are all based around different harem girl types, but all share the trait of being UNSPEAKABLY OBNOXIOUS.  Lime is easily the biggest offender, being the genki girl of the group, but it's actually worse once all three are brought together.  Once together, all they can do is argue over who is Otaru's favorite and how better to serve him, because we just can't get away from the sexism in this story.  The only time the trio shuts up and works together is when they have to fight against the battle androids from the Totally-NOT-Nazi-Germany colony, and even then the battle is frantic and comedic versus being anything remotely serious.

The story never settles down for a minute, pausing only long enough to deliver some exposition and then lauching once more into harem infighting or robot battles.  The story just keeps piling bigger, wackier, crazier ideas atop one another without giving them any time for the reader to take things in.  Combine that with the heavier-than-usual amounts of sexism and the broad, stereotype based humor and the result is is an utter mess.

There's no kind way to say it - SMJ has positively butt-ugly art in just about every respect.  The character designs have weird, squashed heads featuring overly simplified, cartoony faces that are almost always twisting into some sort of enormous overreaction.  The body proportions are also equally cartoony, particularly on the Marionettes.  I think someone needs to tell Yumisuke Kotoyoshi that breasts are not in fact shaped like huge, stretched lemons.  You could hand-wave the ridiculous proportions with the fact that no one on this world has seen a real woman (much less real boobs), and that these are artificial beings, so there's essentially no reference for the Marionette makers to work from and they aren't limited by biology but instead by engineering, but I think that's giving the artist too much credit.

I could almost forgive the ugliness of the character art if the panels themselves were not so very BUSY.  Practically every panel is filled to the brim with extreme close-up, big goofy reactions, giant bizarrely shaped boobs, sound effects, speed lines - everything but the kitchen sink, as far as manga goes.  The end result is a veritable assault on the reader's eyes and on the pages of this poor volume.  At least the fanservice isn't overly heavy, as it's mostly limited to bouncing boobs and a few instances of Saber nudity (and they're about as detailed as a Barbie doll).

Saber Marionette J has terrible artwork.  It's not because the artist didn't make any effort, but instead he made too much effort to make it big and wacky, and the results end up falling utterly flat.

The only bonus is a side story where Otaru and company are led into a trap by the promise of a free liver dinner, which of course leads to another android fight.  Honestly, I don't see how this differs all that much from the plot at large.

The combination of loud, obnoxious harem comedy and loud, ugly art makes reading Saber Marionette J akin to throwing sand in your eyes while musical saws are played with angry stray cats.  Sure, there's some novelty to be had in the bizarreness of it all, but that doesn't make things any less irritating.  It's telling that the most annoying parts of it weren't the harem members themselves, but instead everything else around them.

This series was released by Tokyopop.  All 5 volumes were released, and all are out of print.

You can purchase manga like this and much more through!

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