It's been too long since we've looked at a manga by Sanami Matoh. Let's fix that, shall we?
RA*I, by Sanami Matoh. First published in 1995 and first published in North America in 2006.
Al Foster was just another no-name private detective until the day Rai Spencer came through his door. Rai is a 13-year-old genius from a wealthy family with ESP, and he and his older sister Rei are concerned that their elder brother is trying to kill them. Al helps them solve their case, but what will happen when they decide to stick around and start solving crimes with him?
It's hard to read Ra*I and not think of FAKE. There are plenty of similar character types, concepts, and even a similar sort of sense of humor. It's not too surprising considering that this series would have been running at the same time as the early chapters of FAKE. Still, what it does borrow from that series are many of its best qualities and it does add enough of its own ideas to keep it from feeling completely redundant.
While Ra*I has plenty of crime-solving and telekinetic battles to offer, the real heart of the story is the dynamic between Al, Rai, and Rei. The broadly humorous tone to their interactions and the love-hate dynamic between the three of them are not all that far removed from that between Dee, Ryo, and Bikki in FAKE (albeit straighter). Luckily, this dynamic was one of the best parts of FAKE and Matoh maintains that particular, delightful brand of character chemistry here. She even gives Rai his own cute blonde love interest later on and ages them up for their own romance later after the main couple gets together.
The big difference between the two is Rai's psychic powers. I'm not fully convinced that it works here, or at least works well with the detective antics. Still, she manages to get a couple of good action pieces out of it, including the inevitable esper-on-esper battle complete with mental beams and forcefields. I also wish she had included more actual crimefighting, as it gets overshadowed by the romance as the book goes on. Yet I can't hate it because it's just so damn FUN, and that goes a long way towards putting it in my good graces.
Matoh made Ra*I at the height of her career, and so long as you're down with her particular art style, there's a lot to like here. Admittedly, her style was kind of retro even then, what with her cast having narrow eyes, heavy jaws, and big hair that were all the rage in the 80s. Still, she's able to turn those pretty faces into some hilarious grimaces of surprise and shock for great comic effect. Indeed, her art has a sort of effervescence that brings life to both the action and the comedy here. Even when her panels get busy with ESP nonsense, it never gets bogged down Just try to ignore the fact that Rai and his girlfriend Rathe are basically carbon copies of Bikki and Carol and just enjoy the ride.
There's not much to say about the translation beyond the fact that it's one of the first by Adrienne Beck. These days she translates everything from The Ancient Magus's Bride to Food Wars, and you can see echoes of her modern work in the charming, excellent work she does here.
Ra*I may be derivative, but it's got enough going for it to justify its existence. It might be a touch too old-fashioned for younger readers, but those nostalgic for old shoujo or those who are already fans of Matoh will likely enjoy it.
This book was published by Tokyopop. It is currently out of print.