CERES: CELESTIAL LEGEND (Ayashi no Ceres), by Yuu Watase. First published in 1996, and first published in North America in 2001.
Our story begins on Aya Mikage's 16th birthday. Sure, there have been a few weird things going on around her, but nothing can go wrong for her and her twin brother Aki, right? Well, when they are brought over to the family compound they find that it is not cake and ice cream that awaits them, but a mysterious, mummified hand. Aki breaks out in mysterious cuts all over his body, and Aya has visions of blood before creating an explosion which destroys both the hand and her wardrobe. From that moment, Aya is an enemy to her own family. The Mikages are descendants of a man and a 'celestial maiden,' and the girls of their family who manifest powers like Aya's are killed to protect the family. Aya manages to escape the compound thanks to a mysterious man named Toya and the Aogiri family, distant relatives who know about the Mikage's little supernatural secret. Now Aya must learn to control the terrible power within her and somehow save her brother from her own family.
Now this is a Watase work I can get behind! I made no secret of the fact that I hated Fushigi Yuugi back in February; I found it a dull reverse harem with an irritating, vapid lead. Ceres is mercifully nothing like that series, instead being a supernatural thriller with a far more competent and compelling lead.
This was a fast paced story, and yet it never feels rushed. In this single volume alone, we meet our heroine, tragedy ensued, the backstory for said tragedy given, our heroine's motivation is set, and it all ends on a cliffhanger. Not even the brief moments of comic relief and fanservice in the second half can derail the pacing. There are far greater stakes for the reader to invest themselves with, and far more tension for them to feel.
Aya was also far, FAR more likeable than her predecessor. She's confident, sometimes to the point of being a smart-ass. I only wish she didn't share that same proclivity for plunging herself into obvious danger. Sure, she wants to get her family back and she's desperate, but after two or three attempts attempts on her life by various family members, you'd think she would learn that she might need to utilize a little strategy so that she doesn't constantly need to be saved by the Aogiris or Toya.
Speaking of the supporting cast, Watase pretty swiftly sets up the love triangle, and she's about as subtle with the love interests as a sledgehammer. They might as well have "Love Interest" stamped on their forehead! Yuhi, the younger of the Aogiris, is sadly a knockoff of Tamahome, right down to the fact that he and the lead fight like cats and dogs. Toya, on the other hand, is mostly just mysterious and utterly ridiculous looking. It's hard to take him serious when his weird, stringy hair, sunglasses, and midriff-exposing top makes him look like a refugee from a Pet Shop Boys concert circa 1985. The other Aogiri, Suzumi, is there mostly to spout exposition and serve as a sort of psychic homing device when they need to find Aya. We barely get to see Aki to figure out how he compares to his twin sister, and the rest of the family is just generically evil. There's also the Aogiri's weird, fishy-looking (literally) servant, who is there solely for comic relief.
Ceres represesnts something of a step forward and a step back for Watase's work as a whole. The plot onto itself is a step forward, mercifully stepping away from the 'girl getting sucked into magical world' crutch she so often uses. Instead, we have a seemingly ordinary girl with extraordinary powers who must hide from and fight against her own family to regain something resembling her previous life. Where Watase steps back is with the romance, pitting our heroine against a couple of one-note love interests that I couldn't give two damns about, leaving the love triangle they creating feeling incredibly hollow. It's a flawed work to be sure, but an enjoyable one.
Watase's typical artstyle hasn't changed from her previous works, alas. It's still kind of stringy and kind of generic, and Watase can't seem to stop drawing guys that look like Tamahome. I will say there's a bit more fanservice than I expected - what, you thought there were plot-related reasons that Aya's psychic freakouts always caused her clothes to explode? Really, aside from that the artwork is presented in a fairly straightforward manner, both panel and page alike. There's little that's remarkable about the artwork, but it works with the story fine.
My review copy was from the first printing, so like many older Viz works it is slightly oversized and flipped. There are a few bits of artwork in the back, but the impact is mostly lost as they are printed in black and white.
This is a Yuu Watase work I would actually recommend to others. The artwork is too plain and the romance angle too dull to boost this up to a green light, but the plot is interesting and well-paced, enough so to make me want to see where it goes.
This series was published by Viz. All 14 volumes were released, and all are currently in print.
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