Tokyopop famously made their fortunes on the back of shoujo manga back when they were still Mixx (...or sometimes Chix Comix. It took them a while to settle on Tokyopop). Of course, for every Sailor Moon they picked up, there were more obscure works like today's selection.
JULINE (Kakuto Komusume Juline), by Narumi Kakinouchi. First published in 1997 and first published in North America in 2001.
Juline is the heiress to the Kenga clan of ninjas, but she's more concerned with winner her handsome guardian's heart than any outside threat. Then a mysterious new clan called the Black Pearl starts stealing their members, a clan connected to both a mysterious, androgynous leader and the princely new girl at school. To discover the truth, Juline must team up with the other clans in town to investigate...presuming that they survive.
The early days of Tokyopop is a decidedly checkered time, one marked by releases of terrible manga and terrible releases of good manga. Juline falls somewhere in the middle, a story that's equal part by-the-book romance and mysterious ninja action that entertaining in spite of its faults.
It's pretty clear that Kakinouchi was far more invested in the ninja action than anything else. The high school portions are little more than fluff to fill the time until the plot gets going. There's only so many times we can watch Juline endure the ship-teasing between her and her Childhood Friend (tm) Kio or her swooning over her guardian and dreaming of ways to make him regard her as something other than a child. It's a welcome relief once the Totally Not Evil Tamayo Black shows up at school and all of these ninja kids start acting like ninjas.
The plot isn't all that coherent, as it involves missing family members, mystical ninja artifacts, possible demon possession and so forth. It's easy to forgive, though, because Kakinouchi lends everything a languid, dark, mysterious air and thus the story can largely coast on the strength of its atmosphere. Still, it's uncommon to see so much action in a shoujo series. There's still plenty of emphasis on feelings and romance, but there's also room for brief but elegently drawn fight scenes as well. If anything, there's a little more romance than usual thanks to a healthy dose of homoeroticism. Juline pretty falls head over heels for her cool new sempai Tamayo, and there's a scene between a couple of her classmates that hums with unexpected romantic tension. Still it combines with the action in a way that feels harmonious and that's something I can't say for most ninja manga.
Maybe I was just captivated by the art. This was not Kakinouchi's first manga - in fact, most old-school fans might remember her as the creator of Vampire Princess Miyu. That being said, she was first and foremost an animator, with a career spanning all the way from Macross to the most recent version of Lupin the Third, and you can see signs of this in the art. It's clear that she's done a lot of live studies as the poses and movement are all very natural and elegant. There's a beauty in their movements that makes every fight look like a dance.
This is only enhanced by her delicate linework as well as her fondness for flowing capes, robes, and curtains. If anything, sometimes it gets to be too much and panels can dissolve into a mass of lovely lines. Luckily, she keeps her page composition equally loose and airy, as panel borders tend to come and go freely. She's also very good at framing each image to best capture a particular mood, a sweeping motion, or just a particularly good pose or beautiful, expressive face. While it's still recognizably shoujo art, there's a level of skill on display here that's not frequently seen in the genre and it gives the entire book a very timeless quality.
Alas, the same cannot be said for the translation. This is early Tokyopop, so expect weird fonts and blunt-force translations. There are also a lot of clumsily translated sound effects that are done in equally goofy fonts. They stick out like a sore thumb, especially when compared to similar edits that Viz did in their books at the time. At least the larger-than-normal print size lets the artwork shine, even if it's all flipped. There's also some really nice character sheets for Juline and some of the other cast members.
Despite the terrible adaptation work done by Tokyopop, Juline's quality manages to shine through. It's a little lacking in the story department, but the artwork more than makes up for it. It's a shame that the planned unflipped rerelease for this fell through due to Kodansha taking back all of its Tokyopop licenses because this is a real hidden gem.
This series was published by Tokyopop. This series is complete in Japan with 5 volumes available. All 5 were published and are currently out of print.