Today's review was one of the first series out of Shonen Jump Alpha to get some serious buzz, and some thought it might be the next big title out of that magazine (Spoilers: It was not). What was it about this series that got people so hyped?
BARRAGE (Sensei no Baruji), by Kouhei Horikoshi. First published in 2012, and first published in North America in 2013.
Astro is a street rat living in the capital of the planet Industria, which currently is locked in the middle of a fractious, violent civil war. Astro is oblivious to all this, though - he's simply working when and where he can so he can earn enough to feed himself and his makeshift family of fellow street children.
Astro's life changes forever after a chance encounter with Prince Barrage, who turns out to be Astro's doppelganger. Barrage trusts Astro with a strange bracelet, only to die shortly thereafter. Astro now must impersonate the crown prince, and that the bracelet is in fact a secret and powerful weapon. With the help of Tiamat, the king's most trusted knight, Astro must set out to use his weapon to not only save the capital, but the whole planet.
To a degree, I can see why people got excited for Barrage. It's built on a lot of classic shonen archetypes, and has a lively pace. On the other hand, it can never quite make all those archetypes mesh into something more coherent. Instead, it seems more like Horikoshi just kept thowing ideas on the pile of archetypes hoping something will work, and the result is a mess.
At first, it seems like the story is going to be a riff on The Prince and The Pauper, until said Prince is blown away by random gunfire. So next you'd think it'd be more of a personal journey for Astro and how he is transforming into both a hero and someone worthy to rule, thus showing how nobility is earned instead of being granted by others. Then midway through it becomes a sort of combination of buddy cop action and a shonen tournament arc, with Astro and Tiamat learning to trust one another and how to get stronger while taking down an ever-escalating series of goons. Any one of those ideas would work fine for a manga, but it seems like Horikoshi kept changing his mind about the direction of the story every couple of chapters. That uncertainty in direction thus makes it hard for the reader to get invested in the story, because it could totally change on them without notice.
Astro is like so many young Shonen Jump leads - young, spunky, loyal to a fault, not terribly bright. One thing that makes him different is that he has a veritable monomania when it comes to family. Even after he becomes a prince and the kids are brought to the castle, Astro's first concern is making sure that his kids are safe and sound, and any threat to his or anyone else's family is met with fanatical anger. Tiamat serves as reluctant mentor to Astro, being strict and formal, always having to keep Astro focused on the task before them. He also has a painfully labored quirk where he is either afraid of or extremely nervous around women, to the point where he can't even look at a girl. At least he's trying to keep the story moving, because no one sticks around long enough to do so. These two are pretty much the only constants within the story, as the cast seems to shift chapter to chapter. Those kids that Astro so highly values are completely pointless, offering a few brief moments of cuteness before disappearing midway through. The villains aren't much better themselves, since they are mostly big dumb goons, abusive and one-dimensional.
It's not that Barrage is completely awful. It's fast paced, so even when the concept changes it moves on quickly which helps to smooth those transitions. The greater focus on action in the second half only adds to this. It's a perfectly enjoyable, simple story. It's just that it has yet to settle on just what kind of story it wants to be.
Well, this certainly looks like a modern Shonen Jump series! That of course meaning that the character designs are simple, cartoonish, and often oddly angular with big, broad, and frequently shouting expressions. Horikoshi's style actually reminds me a little of Hiroyuki Imaishi (of Gurren Lagann and Kill la Kill fame), in a pleasant and not overly derivative way. Horikoshi is also good at making his action scenes lively and flowing, which when combined with the fast pace of the second half makes those scenes thrilling and fun to read. Otherwise his art is clean and clearly assembled. While Barrage's story may be muddled, its artwork is not. Instead is lively and broad in a way that works with the story (such as it is), not against it.
The only extras are a few bits of character art between the chapters.
This series is published by Viz. This series is complete in 2 volumes. Both volumes are currently in print. The first volume is currently available in e-book form from Viz, and the series was serialized in full digitially via Shonen Jump Alpha.
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