Then there's the work that everyone presumed was shoujo but wasn't. Much like The Ancient Magus' Bride before it, this is technically shonen but still managed to capture something strange yet beautiful.
THE GIRL FROM THE OTHER SIDE: SIUIL, A RUIN: (Totsukuni no Shoujo), by Nagabe. First published in 2015 and first published in 2017.
Deep in the forest, past the abandoned village, lives two beings in a cozy cottage. One is Shiva, a friendly and curious young girl who waits everyday for her auntie to return for her. The other is nameless, known only as "Teacher" to Shiva. He cares for her and protects her, but makes her promise one thing: that she never touch him. He bears a curse that turned him into a dark and demonic-looking creature, and if Shiva should touch him the curse will spread to her. That's far from the only danger she faces, though. Not only are there soldiers looking to kill anyone who might be tainted with the curse, there are other creatures like Teacher whose intentions are nowhere near so noble.
Atmosphere can make or break a manga, but The Girl From The Other Side has it in spades. It manages to be tender, whimsical, and haunting all at the same time, balancing all of these moods and more with the grace of a tightrope walker.
In some ways this feels like a lost fairy tale or folk story, albeit one that hasn't been cleaned up by Victorian editors. There are gods of dark and light, a terrible curse, an innocent heroine, a wise and caring teacher, all surrounded by a woodland full of danger. This also extends to the characters, as only Shiva is given a name (and it can't be coincidence that she is named for a Hindu deity whose name literally means "the auspicious one"). Otherwise they are defined by their role. Nagabe parcels out this information slowly over the course of the story. Sometimes it's literal, in the case of a storybook or journal. Other times it's all implied, be in the background of the abandoned buildings, Teacher's messy room, or in the speech of the soldiers.
Unlike Ancient Magus' Bride, the dynamic here isn't so much Beauty and the Beast as it is father and daughter. Most of the story focuses on these two carrying out everyday tasks like gathering food, cleaning house, or enjoying meals, all as Shiva peppers her Teacher with questions and childish tangents. It's all very cozy on the surface, but Nagabe never quite lets your forget Teacher's struggle to hold himself at a distance and to protect this innocent child from the harsher truths of their world. It's the dark cloud that hangs over their every conversation and lends it all a quiet pathos. As the story moves forward, that darkness becomes less sad and more ominous, leading up to the volume's end. It's a moment that will make you gasp, desperate to read more and to continue soaking in this strange, sad story.
I wonder if the story's atmosphere would be half as effective if Nagabe's art style were not so unique. They have a thin, scratchy style that feels not only akin to the works of Edward Gorey, but again like an illustration from a storybook. You can have characters like Shiva, who is a charming little doll of a girl, standing alongside the dark, inhuman profile of her teacher. Teacher's design is fascinating, as he's inked so darkly that light seems to disappear into him. The only thing that breaks up this fearful-looking shadow is his crisp white dress shirt and the piercing stare of his hawk-like eyes.
The backgrounds are lovingly hatched, as if to evoke copperplate prints of timeless old cottages and tall birch trees fading into the darkness of a dense forest. Yet they only really call attention to it during splash pages and the more dramatic moments of the plot. Otherwise the composition is orderly and calm, allowing Nagabe's illustrations to speak for themselves.
The Girl From the Other Side is a striking work thanks to its complex mood and fine art. Those seeking a spookier counterpart to the likes of something like The Ancient Magus' Bride would do well to give this one a look.
This series is published by Seven Seas. This series is ongoing with 4 volumes available. 3 volumes have been published and are currently in print.
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