With the return of February comes the return of Bad Romance Month, where we explore just a few of the many, many, MANY messed-up romances found within the pages of manga. Today's review is a bit of an exception. It's not so much of an example of a troubled, abusive romance as it an example of a troubled and tragic one.
SAIKANO: THE LAST LOVE SONG ON THIS LITTLE PLANET (Saishu Heiki Kanojo), by Shin Takahashi. First published in 2000, and first published in North America in 2004.
In a no-name town on Hokkaido, Shuji and Chise are trying to start a relationship. It doesn't go very well at first, as Shuji is taciturn and cross while Chise is apologetic and shy. Then Shuji discovers Chise's secret: she was chosen by the SDF to become The Ultimate Weapon. Progressively, more and more of her body is transformed into a terrible alien machine, used to fight against an unknown enemy. As this is happening, Shuji and Chise struggle to find a way to preserve their fledging love against forces far greater than their own.
Saikano is one of those odd little works, the weird sort of cult classics that never quite get popular enough to enter the anime mainstream but remain a sort of touchstone for fans from a particular era. After reading this, I can see why this work would stick in the hearts and minds of others. It only gets grimmer as it goes along, but there's an achingly tender heart and an awareness of the horrors of war that gives it dignity.
That's a good thing because this manga does not get off to a great start. Shuji is too much of an overreactive, grumpy asshole to be born while Chise's tendencies towards weepiness and apologies makes the reader fear she's going to be nothing but a sadsack in a school uniform. Then the story drops its bombshell in more ways than one. It's not just the reveal of Chise's true condition, but also the fact that there seems to be some sort of unspecified war going on, something that actually requires the JSDF to take action. No one ever explains just what's going on, but there are all sorts of ominous signs all around the fringes of the story. It lends not only a darker edge, but also a bit of substance to what is otherwise might be just another sentimental high school love story.
That's a good thing because beyond the war angle and the related sci-fi touches, the romantic parts are all pretty conventional. I do appreciate that Takahashi is honest about the fact that this is a story about teens and that the question of sex is going to come up (pun not intended). Too many manga romances have a hard time getting beyond holding hands or first kisses, so it's nice to see one recognize that there are relationship steps beyond that. Still, as the story goes on the romance becomes less about appreciating the tender moments between the two and more about pounding the tragedy of Shuji and Chise's situation into the reader's head. It becomes oppressive, and I suspect that this is the point that make or break the readers. Either they will eat up every depressing moment or they will find it too much to be believed and mentally check out. It's hard to predict how any given reader might react, but there is enough good here that it's worth it to find out on your own.
Saikano's art is odd. The linework is fine and delicate, and often full of hatching. At times it seems more like someone's proof instead of a finished, inked work. Even the backgrounds are like this, although wider shots are clearly rotoscoped from reference photos. It's not a bad look, as it matches the sort of fragile emotions within the story. I can't say that much for Takahashi's character designs. The faces are simple but emotive, but his grasp on anatomy gets sketchier the further down the body he gets. The exception to that are the few glimpses we get of Chise's Ultimate Weapon forms. At times it takes an insectoid sort of beauty, but often it looks more like a mad alien mash-up of metal, angles and guns. At times I wondered if Takahashi took some inspiration from Tetsuo: The Iron Man. It's certainly effective enough to make Shuji's horror and wonder at her transformations understandable.
Saikano aspires for serious romantic tragedy, and for the large part it succeeds. It gets to be a bit overwhelming by the end, but there's just enough genuine emotion on display here that I can understand why it's still remembered.
This series was published by Viz. This series is complete in Japan with 7 volumes available. All 7 were published and are currently out of print.