This fall, we're going to kick off a two-part theme. This month will be all about angelic titles, and I can't think of a better place to start than with the most notorious shoujo series about angels around.
ANGEL SANCTUARY (Tenshi Kinryoku), by Kaoru Yuki. First published in 1994 and first published in North America in 2004.
It would be an understatement to say that Setsuna is a messed-up kid. Not only is he constantly fighting with his classmates, he harbors a deep and shameful love for his younger sister, and now he's caught up in a literal holy war between heaven and hell. Setsuna is the reincarnation of a powerful angel and both sides want his power for themselves and both are willing to hurt others in Setsuna's life to get their way.
There was one question constantly running through my mind as I read Angel Sanctuary: what the hell is going on? I was able to grasp the basics, but the story gets so lost up its own ass about angels, demons, and reincarnation that it quickly goes off the rails.
The human element is the least complicated part of the story, although it's equally as histrionic as everything else. Setsuna is a churning sea of emotions, between his own sense of alienation, his desire for his sister, his shame in those feelings, and his determination to protect said sister at all costs, even if it means enduring abuse from his mother because of his incestuous desires. It's simply too much drama for any protagonist to bear and as such he comes off as a ridiculous creature. The crazy thing is that the rest of the cast is no less over-the-top than him.
For example, there are a couple of angels stalking Setsuna who serve alternately as comic relief and as bearers of exposition. Seriously, I do not envy the translator who likely had to dig deep into angelic lore to translate some of their conversations. Then there's Rosiel, a ruthless rival angel who manipulates one of the sister's friends through a possessed CD-ROM game to get close to him. That would be frightening were it not so patently melodramatic and convoluted, but that's just par for the course as far as this series is concerned. Maybe I could roll with it if I found the holy war parts more intriguing or found Setsuna more relatable, but they're both simply too much for me to take seriously.
At least Yuki's art is pretty and positively dense with detail. She lends the character designs a lot of flourish and shading. The only real downside is that she tends to give them all the sort of limp, overly tousled hairstyles that remind me of later artists like Matsuri Hino, although Yuki's take on it doesn't come off as nearly so sentient in its messiness. The backgrounds are lovingly traced and she keeps the screentone usage to a minimum. Alas, the same cannot be said for her use of speedlines for dramatic effect. The denseness of the art is only emphasized by the fact that the panels tend to be small and packed tightly onto the page.
There's only a few author's notes and sketches after the story, although compared to a lot of older Shoujo Beat titles that's a positively lavish amount of extras.
Angel Sanctuary has intense art, but its story gets so convoluted and melodramatic that it's hard to take it all in. The sad thing is this is probably the best and most ambitious Kaoru Yuki ever got. Sadly it's all downhill from here.
This series is published by Viz. This series is complete in Japan with 20 volumes available. All 20 volumes have been released. The physical volumes are currently out of print, but are available digitally.