CROWN (Kuraun), written by Shinji Wada & drawn by You Higuri. First published in 2005, and first published in North America in 2008.
Mahiro Shinomiya has had a hard life. After her parents died, she was forced out of her home by grasping, scheming relatives, and now she must work multiple part-time jobs just to get by. The only mementos she has of her past are a photo of her parents, a pendant with mystic powers, and vague memories of an older brother. That same older brother, Ren, comes charging back into her life, revealing himself to be a professional mercenary. It turns out that he's come back for more than just a family reunion. He and Mahiro are the heirs to a foreign kingdom, and the pretender to the throne is determined to eliminate both of them by any means necessary. Now Mahiro, Ren, and his partner Jake must work together if they are to survive.
Shinji Wada is something of a legend in Japan, having created the long-running shoujo series Sukeban Deka, about a delinquent girl who solves mysteries. He hadn't done a manga in over a decade before starting this one, but if this story is anything to go by, he hadn't lost his touch. While things can get a bit clichéd at times, Crown is a highly entertaining and timeless sort of tale.
It does start off a bit roughly. It's never a good sign when one needs background characters to explain the lead's backstory to the audience, and it's not a good sign when your lead's backstory is so damn tragic that she gives Cinderella a run for her money. That backstory sets the tone for Mahiro for the rest of the story, as someone who suffers tragically in a noble manner. If she were any more innocent and sweet, she would have a big poufy ballgown and would be swishing around with all the other Disney princesses. She even has a magic artifact, the titular gem which does pretty much whatever the plot needs it to do. It can divinate romance, it can find hidden entrances, it can even define a person's moral character, and it serves as both the resident Macguffin and a Get Out of Plot Complications Free card. So yeah, Mahiro is a little bit useless and a little bit juvenile for a heroine, and I do wish she had more of a grasp on the severity of her situation or at least wasn't quite so dependent on her brother, even if he can kill a man multiple times before he hits the ground.
At least Ren and Jake are relatively likeable. They're both cool and competent but they never come off as superhuman. Ren himself is charming and affable while Jake is more awkward due to his less than stellar ability to speak Japanese and because he's clearly growing a bit sweet on Mahiro. They do have a shockingly blasé attitude about collateral damage, though. At one point they literally fake a hostage situation in a plush Roppongi Hills building, only to blow said building sky-high in the name of stopping their enemies and exposing a gun trafficker. Their actions may be in the name of good and self-preservation, but it's kind of weird how the story just blows off major actions like that as no big deal, diving straight back into Happy Family Time like it's no big deal.
Maybe their acts would have a greater sense of gravity to them were the villians not quite so broad. Mahiro's adoptive parents are the sort of family you usually only see in Roald Dahl books. They're all fat, coarse, greedy bastards who think nothing of trashing the place or wasting Mahiro's inheritance, and they're dispatched so fast from the story that it's almost laughable. The proper villain is the false queen of Ren and Mahiro's made-up kingdom. She wants them out of the picture because she's a greedy racist and she needs Mahiro's Macguffin pendant to legitimize her claim to the throne. That's why she's perfectly ready to spend no small amount of money on weapons and mercenaries to make it all happen. If she were more blatantly, nakedly evil, she would have a top hat, a cape, and a handlebar mustache to twirl. The only evil person who gets any sort of character is the ludicrously named Chrondrite Bourne. He's another ex-mercenary who holds a grudge against Ren and Jake, but he gets disarmed through quick action and Mahiro's infallible belief that he's a good guy deep down. Just like that, he's on their side, and at this point the story betrays that it's shaping up to be a bit of a reverse harem.
What's really strange is that for all its faults (and as I've noted, it has many), Crown is a genuinely enjoyable story, successfully merging shonen-style military action with shoujo fluff. It's just that it falls apart the moment you start to look deeper. The leads are pleasant but insubstantial. The action is thrilling, but the villains are ridiculous and any real threat to our leads gets explained away in an instant. It's content to coast on the thrills of big action pieces and pretty guys but not to turn them into something truly memorable.
You Higuri is no stranger to this blog. She's mostly known for her BL works, and even those that aren't explicitly yaoi tend to retain a bit of slashiness. Here she's working solely as an artist, though, so the hoyay is all but nonexistent. Still, she was a good choice for this work, as her appealingly attractive characters and her nicely rendered backgrounds make this a generally good-looking work. I still suspect that Chrondrite is nothing but a rip-off of Full Metal Panic's Sosuke Sagara, though. He's got the same hair, the same cross-shaped scar on his cheek, and the same profession, and that similarity would have only been more obvious when this first came out, as that particular franchise was still going strong at the time. Higuri also apparently has something against fat people, as both Mahiro's adoptive family and the evil pretender queen are distinctly heavy set for no particular reason other than we're mean to associate non-pretty people with evil. Higuri does use a lot of dramatic angles and lighting throughout the manga, but Higuri is clearly more comfortable drawing cute girls and sleekly handsome guys than she is with drawing action scenes. She tends to skip over the actual fights and feats of violence, so Ren and Jake's actions come off like a before and after montage. That's kind of a problem when this is meant to be an action series. Higuri can draw really attractive art, she just can't really make it flow in a way that looks and feels exciting.
Crown can be good fun if you let it, but neither the story nor the art stand up to any sort of close scrutiny. The sum of Crown is far greater than its parts.
This series was published by Go!Comi. This series is complete in Japan with 6 volumes available. 2 volumes were published and both are currently out of print.