THE EMPTY EMPIRE (Kara no Teikoku), by Naoe Kita. First published in 1993 and first published in North America in 2006.
The Emperor Idea once ruled the world through a combination of incredible powers and indominatable charisma. Then the emperor suddenly died and the world was thrown into chaos. In the midst of this chaos, a stray duke and a whip-wielding girl from the streets find a boy that looks just like the late emperor. He's a rejected clone that was left without any memories and bearing a rose-shaped scar on his forehead. They bring him to the palace to teach the boy what he needs to know to survive, but there are many people who both adored and despised Idea and are determined to dispose of this doppelganger by any means.
The Empty Empire is a hard series to pin down. Much like its leading man, it's lacking a sense of identity. Without it, what good ideas it has to offer are obscured and the plot as a whole feels aimless and lost.
It's a real shame it turned out that way because the core concept is quite strong. Rose (the name the clone adopts for himself) is struggling not only against countless enemies, but against the needs and expectations of an entire nation. In many ways, Rose is treated less like a person and more of...well, an idea. With every cry of "I'm not Idea!," he pushes back against those expectations and the call for him to become Idea Version 2.0 so he can find the space he needs to forge an identity all his own. He's basically having a (lack of) identity crisis and it's quite compelling, but at times it feels like it's being drowned out by the rest of the cast.
There are a handful of supporting characters here, all with stories of their own as well. They all had different experiences with the original Idea and different notions of what to do with Rose. Some want him to be the new emperor, others believe him to be the previous one come back to life, and yet others would sooner see him dead for being an abomination. The problem is that all of these stories are competing for panel space with Rose's and there's simply too many to keep track of. Kito seemingly just tosses older ones on the garbage heap even as it adds new ones.
If there are any stand-outs within the supporting cast, it would have to be the pair of Eiri (the duke) and Ririka (the street kid). Eiri exists mostly to give exposition while Ririka mostly exists to give Rose attitude and wield a mighty fine whip. Still, they're the closest thing he has to allies and it's honestly kind of cute to see how attached he gets to the tossed-off nickname Ririka gives to him. The rest of the cast is either too underdeveloped at this point to care or nothing but one-note villains to be swept aside as needed.
Just as Rose is lack identity, so too is the world he lives in. There are god-emperors, flying ships, psychic powers, cloning, fancy castles, and impoverish slums, but there's little in the way of history or culture to tie it all together. I was never sure if this was meant to be a future world, another planet altogther, or something else entirely. I'm not asking for Kito to have plotted out the entire world like it was the Dune series, but a better defined world would have helped to keep Rose's world from feeling detached from both the story and the reader.
It's not hard to believe that this is from 1993, as the character designs are a dead giveaway. They have the saucer-eyed, poofy-haired bobbleheaded that was all the rage in early 90s shoujo. That being said, their giant shoulder pads, oversized capes and moussed-up hair make even more of a throwback to the post-apocalypic works of the 80s. Kita's linework is fine, but she can be a bit vague with her backgrounds which only adds to the story's lack of identity. The only one she draws in any particular detail is the interior of Idea's castle, which is positively rococo in style. Her composition is little better, as her panels tend to be small and cramped and her pages get kind of messy during the more emotional or action-filled moments.
The Empty Empire is an all-too-apt name for this series, as it feels more than a little empty and driftless itself. If it had a more definite setting and far fewer cast members, than perhaps it could find an identity alongside Rose and let its good qualities shine.
This series was published by CMX. This series is complete in Japan with 7 volumes available. All 7 were published and are currently out of print.