Dark Horse Comics have been in something of slump over the last couple of years. While they are still acquiring new titles, few have made any sort of impression. Even their CLAMP rereleases have slowed down to a trickle. You can only imagine my surprise, then, to discover this book amongst the manga at my local library (second only to my surprise that it wasn't an artbook). Having never been one for the Vocaloid fandom, I wondered if this collection might help me understand its appeal. Oh, how little I knew then...
HATSUNE MIKU - UNOFFICIAL HATSUNE MIX (Meka Hikoshiki Hatsune Mikkusu), by Kei. First published in 2008, and first published in North America in 2014.
Hatsune Miku and the rest of the Vocaloids are now the stars of their very own manga series, where they encounter everything from festivals to magic to poverty to celebrity, getting through the good times and the bad through the power of friendship and music.
I've never understood the appeal of Hatsune Miku. She's a corporate mascot, for god's sake. She only exists to sell software (along with countless other goods these days), and she has no personality nor voice beyond what the fans and marketing teams produce. Getting excited over her feels like getting excited over the Trix Rabbit or Charlie the Tuna. In spite of that, Japan can't seem to get enough Miku. They'll use her to sell just about anything under the sun, and they'll stick her in every form of media possible, including manga. This one even went so far as to bring in Kei, the artist who created Miku's original design, to draw and write it. It's too bad then that while he may be a perfectly fine character designer, he's a really terrible mangaka.
This is essentially one big short story collection, and all of them are self-contained. This is a good thing because trying to make all of these stories fit a singular continuity would be nothing short of madness. A story about the Vocaloids trying to earn money through wacky part-time jobs can easily be followed by a sob story where someone is sad or dying, which in turn might be followed by a story where summer cicadas have been replaced with tiny, chirping Mikus. The shortness and disconnectedness of all these stories means that there's no space to spare for developing any sort of emotional depth or character building. Instead the stories tend to rely on one of a few things. They may be based around seasonal gimmicks like Doll Day or school festivals, feature humor that either requires in-depth knowledge about Vocaloid fandom or is pure randomness, or built on shallow melodrama. Shockingly, the answer to just about every dilemma presented is "Miku sings a song and everyone is happy."
The Vocaloids here don't have personalities so much as they have a small collection of quirks which are hammered into the reader's brain like so many nails. Weirdly enough, our title character is probably the blandest of the lot. Aside from her obsession with music, her personality shifts wildly depending on what the story needs her to do. The rest are simply character types instead of characters: Len and Ren are child-like and mischievous, Luka is the gentle, motherly one, and Meiko is the drunk. These quirks are used for humor, drama, and sometimes outright promotion, as more than a few of the later comics are meant to promote the Hatsune Miku video games. No matter who is featured of what happens to them, everything is over in 12 pages or less, leaving only a feeling of annoyance and boredom. After reading this, I'm now MORE confused about the appeal of the Vocaloids than ever before.
You'd think that considering the mangaka's background that he could figure out how to craft a good-looking comic. Sadly, the actual manga art looks AWFUL. It's in stark contrast to the many examples of color splash art, most of which look quite pretty. Some are more painterly and other more digital, but they're full of fanciful costumes and warm colors and are generally nice to look at. The manga itself, though, is flat and has been moe-blobbed to the extreme, verging upon super-deformed. Expressions and actions are broad and stiff, and the backgrounds are mostly screentone. Kei may be a perfectly fine artist on his own, but he can't tell a story visually to save his own life, and it's not like he can fall back on deep storytelling to carry the rest for him.
I really shouldn't have been surprised to learn that a manga based on a mascot is shallow, annoying, and badly drawn. This mix is best left on the shelf.
This series is published by Dark Horse. The series is complete in Japan with 3 volumes. These volumes have been released in a single omnibus, and is currently in print.
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