Since I was finally able to get to Vampire Knight last fall, it's as good of a time as any to check out one of Matsuri Hino's other, vampire-free manga.
MERUPURI - THE MARCHEN PRINCE (Meruhen Purinsu), by Matsuri Hino. First published in 2002, and first published in North America in 2005.
Airi Hoshina has her romantic future planned out to the last detail. Her life goal is to get married and love someone forever and ever, and it's this goal that drives her everyday life. She's so driven to find true love that she makes it a point to never be late to school because rumors say that the longer a student can go without being tardy, the better their future boyfriend will be. Her streak is almost ruined when she loses an heirloom mirror pendant, which is then found by a mysterious little boy named Aram. She takes Aram in to take care of him, only to get the shock of her life when that little boy physically ages into a teenager overnight! Aram turns out to be a prince from another dimension on the run from his older half-brother, and that his sudden aging is due to a spell gone wrong. Now Aram needs Airi to help him regain his throne, and Airi's life and notions of romance will never be the same.
MeruPuri's subtitle is "The Marchen Prince," a title that suggests this will be like the fairy tales of olden times. Well, having read this, it's hard to see how it really fits. Oh sure, it's got its fair share of fairy tale princes and magic and whatnot, but it also feels like it's trying to imitate them and subvert them at the same time and doing neither particularly well.
Airi is a sweet enough kid, but even for a shoujo ingénue she's kind of ridiculous. I know teenage girls can get terribly romantic, but her entire life revolves around romance and enacting every bit of superstition and luck to bring it about. Sure, it's meant to be super-ironic that such a romantic girl has a literal fairy-tale prince wander into her life, but it's also kind of sad that she has no goal for herself other than to fall in love and get married. She feels rather empty as a character, a feeling that's only enhanced when she's compared to the other guys.
Aram's situation sounds typical enough at first, being a lost prince from a faraway kingdom who needs to go on an epic quest to reclaim his birthright. Sounds simple enough, right? Wrong. It's hard to be an epic hero when your hero spends at least half of his time looking and acting like a grade school kid. Still, he's a terribly nice kid and it's cute to see him get excited and distracted over things like omurice or tokusatsu shows like any kid his age would be. It just gets epically weird when the curse kicks in and he starts aging rapidly. He looks the part of the romantic lead and Hino certainly tries to push things in that direction, but it comes off as incredibly awkward because Aram still thinks like a child. As such, their relationship feels less like a proper romance and more like a farce as Airi does her best to hide Aram's true identity from her world.
She also throws in a few twists when it comes to the villain, Aram's half-brother Jeile. You'd expect him to be a complete ogre of a man, but instead he's much more of a comic villain. He wants his brother's position, but he still loves his half-brother nonetheless, and he only fails because he's kind of incompetent and something of a lech. It helps keep everything fairly light-hearted, if a bit distracted at times, but that onto itself is part of the larger problem with MeruPuri. Light-hearted is not a term one readily associates with fairy-tales. Most them to be odd or gothic in tone, where the characters and morality alike tend to break down into simple forces of good and evil. It would be fine to subvert that by turning a fairy-tale quest into a farce, but MeruPuri would need to find a stronger focus and some better jokes to make that work. As it currently stands, it's just too mixed-up and odd to work.
Hino's art style is a fairly safe one for the world of shoujo, but to her credit she's not a lazy artist. She does put a lot of detail and fine linework into her character designs and they are terribly pretty. She especially seems to love drawing exquisitely tousled hair, but she often takes it too far. Often it looks like Aram and Jeile's hair has grown sentient and is trying to wriggle its many tendrils in an attempt to escape their heads. She also loves drawing all the fanciful, frilly costumes, especially the more old-fashioned looks that Jeile tends to sport. I just wish she had invested a little more of her time into their faces, as most of the cast tends to look rather alike and she focuses too much on making them cute instead of making them suitably expressive and dramatic. She also could have spared some time for drawing some backgrounds instead letting her character drift through a sea of sparkles, bolts, and flowers. I will say that I'm mildly impressed that her pages read as clearly as they do, considering that she tends to divide her panels into all sorts of pieces and wedges to pack as many images on any given page as possible. It all can be terribly pretty at time, but Hino tends to lose herself in the details and sometimes the artwork suffers for that.
While I'm glad that MeruPuri isn't melodramatic like Vampire Knight was, it's still a bit too silly, slight, and unfocused for its own good.
This series is published by Viz. This series is complete in Japan with 4 volumes available. All 4 have been published and all are currently in print and available in e-book form through Viz.com.