A lot of new shoujo titles for 2014 tended to follow the seemingly insatiable trend for supernatural romance, and vampires were the most prominent of the lot. Thankfully, this series is far different from the overwrought lameness of series of Vampire Knight in the best ways possible.
BLACK ROSE ALICE (Kuro Bara Alice), by Setona Mizushiro. First published in 2008, and first published in North America in 2014.
Dimitri is one of the finest tenors in all of 1900s Vienna. He has the support of numerous lovely patrons as well as that of his foster brother Theo. Still, he holds a number of secrets, including his Roma background as well as an innocent but all-consuming crush on Theo's fiancée Agnieszka. A chance encounter with a speeding cart leaves him on the verge of death, but after a strange, dark butterfly lands on him he recovers. Soon a strange man finds him and tells him that Dimitri is a vampire. Dimitri tries to use his new persuasive powers to get his way, but the death it brings is too much for him and as a result he destroys his life, Theo, and Agnieszka. Decades later, Dimitri is living in Japan when he stumbles upon Azusa. She's a high school music theater who finds herself torn between her duty and her forbidden love for one of her students. When an accident threatens his life, Dimitri offers Azusa an offer she can't possibly refuse.
While I'm normally very wary of vampire-based shoujo series, I was reassured once I noticed the name of the creator. In the past I've praised Mizushiro for her sensitive and nuanced take on teenage drama in series like Afterschool Nightmare, and I hope that she would bring that same brand of nuance to this series. Luckily for us all, those hopes were answered, as Mizushino not only finds a way to bring some new ideas to vampire mythology, but populated with compelling characters as well.
Mizushino uses a lot of insect and rose imagery for her vampires, symbols which help to emphasize the inhumanity of these vampires. These are not decadent aristrocrats ekeing out an eternal existence, but instead a community tied together through the intangible connection they share through their sire. Vampirism here works more like a parasite, infecting the corpse and shaping their mind and powers to match that of the sire. While they resist many things that kill most vampires, inevitably they will seek out a mate. Upon consummation of their relationship, the vampire will die, bursting forth in a sea of butterflies to start the cycle of infection anew. If the insect parallels weren't blatant enough, the vampires feed by vomiting tarantulas, who feed on the blood, who are then swallowed by the vampires. Still, the effect is clear - these creatures may look human, but their behavior is anything but that. The rose imagery, in comparison, is a little more obvious. Like roses, these vampire are beautiful yet dangerous, and their powers creep through themselves and their victims like a trailing vine.
While the protagonist is anything but human, the conflict he feels pre- and post-transformation is all too human. Dimitri's placid smile barely hides his contempt for the decadent world of the aristrocracy, knowing all too well that his status is dependent entirely on their generosity and their overlooking his past as a Gypsy. He believes his only respite from all this decadence is Agnieszka, whom Dimitri has idolized since she was a child. He has her firmly placed on a pedestal, believing himself to be unworthy of her even as he clearly crushes hard on her. He gently chides Theo for his lusty ways even as he beds his patrons. Clearly, Dimitri has a lot of hang-ups, and Mizushiro conveys a lot of this just through stolen glances, well-timed flashbacks, and a minimum of exposition. Vampirism gives Dimitri the opportunity to get past some of those hang-up and start exercising power for himself, but when he tries to use that power with Theo and Agnieszka, their delicate love triangle is torn asunder, and Dimitri is left with nothing but regret. Of course, this is only half the story.
The other half of the story focuses on Azusa, and in some ways her troubles parallel those of Dimitri. She's caught in a desperate flirtation with one of her students, constantly writing off his feelings for her as a fleeting teenage crush. The more she protests, though, the more it becomes clear that she's simply trying to deny the strength of her own feelings for her student. She too is in love with someone she's not socially allowed to have, and these feelings are slowly tearing her apart. Like Dimitri, she is the victim of a chance accident, but unlike him she is given a choice. Dimitri offers Azusa a literal life-or-death choice, and without spoiling the ending, it's certain to have a startling effect on Azusa and Dimitri alike. While I was rereading this, I was surprised at how long this section was, as it seems rather far removed from Dimitri's story until the very end. While Azusa is a very strong character in her own right with her own compelling issues, her story simply has a hard time holding a candle to the compact perfection of Dimitri's.
Black Rose Alice does so many things right. It's creative with its vampire lore, it's focused on a collection of well-written, complex characters. It doesn't try to paint Dimitri as a perfect saint and doesn't let him off easy for his actions, and as the story progresses, the story only grows more unnerving. It's a great beginning, and it makes me eager for more.
As always, Mizushiro's art is both subtle and beautiful. The characters here tend to share the same sort of heavy-lidded, wide-mouthed look that all her characters do, but she manipulates them in magnificently subtle ways. She clearly savored the opportunity to draw Agnieszka in all her Art Nouveau glory, from the top of her flowing blonde hair to the bottom of her willowy, swishy dresses. She also brings that same level of detail to the settings, be it the Old World glory of Edwardian Vienna or the more mundane neighborhoods of modern day Japan. Even the insects are drawn with almost photorealistic detail - all the better to give the arachnophobes in the audience the heebie-jeebies. The panels tend to focus tightly on the characters, but it works to show off the subtlety and intensity of their expressions. Black Rose Alice is a genuinely good-looking manga, one that is artful and subtle.
Even those who are as tired of vampire media as I am should give this series a look. It's strange, emotional complicated, beautiful, and unnerving, and it's the best shoujo series I've read all year.
This series is published by Viz. This series is ongoing in Japan, with 6 volumes available. 2 volumes have been published, and both are currently in print.
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