Some manga were never meant to be great stories. Some were meant to be artistic showcases, with just enough story to string the images together. Today's review is a prime example of this.
ALICHINO (Arikino), by Kouyu Shurei. First published in 1998, and first published in North America in 2005.
Alichino are stunningly beautiful and ethereal beings that can grant a human's greatest wish or desire, but they are also predatory creatures that exploit human suffering so that they might consume human souls. Thus, when a young girl stumbles upon handsome yet sad visage of Tsugiri, she believes him to be an alichino. The truth is far more complicated, though. Tsugiri is not an alichino, but he holds within him a terrible power that draws alichino to him, and he is forced to confront a dark past which he had presumed long forgotten.
Alichino isn't necessarily a bad fantasy story, but neither does it feel like the beginning of a complete one. It's got one or two interesting ideas to work with, but it takes its sweet time putting those ideas into action.
The biggest problem is that there's a lot of backstory to get out of the way in this first volume and Shurei's solution for getting that across is through seemingly endless conversations. This wouldn't be so bad if not for the fact that she also plays coy with actual, solid information about Tsugiri and his friends until the last third of the volume. That means the first two-thirds is frustratingly vague while the last third is all but vomiting backstory and motivation upon the reader. I could have lived with that had the main characters been compelling figures in their own right, but even after we learn their backstory they remain dull, lifeless creatures. Tsugiri and his housemate Enju are so stoic and mopey that they can barely leave their house most of the time, while Myobi is kind of a sociopath, regardless of whether she takes the form of a girl or an owl. Still, at least they got the benefit of names; the girl that kicks the story off doesn't even get that much going for her.
The concept of the alichino is an interesting one in theory - creatures with the look of an angel but the minds and diets of a demon. They're not to be meant to be explicitly evil, but instead merely predators looking to survive. It's a shame then that Shurei keeps contradicting this idea by having every alichino save for Myobi be conniving, wicked figures actively seeking to exploit humans, especially Tsugiri. Tsugiri, on the other hand, is the Chosen One, albeit the worst sort of Chosen One possible. He is a kusabi, a human who basically serves as living alichino bait. To the alichino, he's a tasty treat that will grant them incredible powers. To humans, he's an avatar of disaster, bringing death in his wake, and it was only through the intervention of his mother and a mysterious man that he survived to adulthood. What this means for him now is that Tsugiri is a mopey bastard who mostly stays in his house and argues with Myobi. Our hero everyone - a miserable recluse! Honestly, the only character with any spark of life to them was Myobi. She is an alichino but has chosen to overlook her basic instincts and become Tsugiri's friend and protector. Why does she do this? I wish we found out, because doing so would have been more interesting than the monster-of-the-week format that most of the volume follows.
Alichino has some good ideas and a good character or two lurking within it, but it lacks life and momentum and needs to parcel out its backstory in a more evenhanded manner instead of dumping exposition and long flashbacks onto the reader. If Shurei could find that sort of balance, then she might just have something interesting here.
Of course, Shurei isn't known for her storytelling, but for her art, and it's easy to see why she would be so acclaimed. Her character designs are exquisite, with loads of finely textured hair and clothes, androgynous faces, and dark, doll-like eyes that seem to burn straight through the page. Her characters reminds me strongly of the works of Yoshitaka Amano or Ayami Kojima. The only problem with that is that to maintain that highly detailed sort of Gothic beauty, Shurei had to sacrifice the cast's ability to emote. When combined with the fairly static story, it makes the whole cast come off like a collection of beautiful corpses drifting through the pages. It's a suitably Gothic notion in theory, but it only adds to the inernt plot.
There's no life to be found anywhere within the world of her manga. The backgrounds are just as well-rendered as the characters, but they're drowning in darkness and lack any sense of personality. She does at least know how to frame her art for best effect. She keeps her page composition quite simple to keep the focus on all those beautiful faces, and she makes very effective use of dark space and vertical frames. Still, the manga itself can't compare to the color artwork they included. It's full of cool blues, blacks, and purples contrasting against warm pastels alongside Art Nouveau flourishes. It's just a shame that she can't breath that same sort of life into her black and white art. Alichino can be a marvel to look at, but when it comes to visual storytelling it tended to leave me cold.
Alichino truly is one of those manga that you should read more for the art than the story. The art is intricate (if a bit lifeless), and it might be enough for some to gloss over the story's inert pacing and infodumping.
This series was published by Tokyopop. This series is complete in Japan with 3 volumes available. All 3 were published and are currently out of print.