Thursday, May 11, 2023

Merry Month of Shojo Manga Review #10: UNICO

Let's look at a slightly unconventional bit of old-school shojo, one that's better known for its animated adaptations than the original source.

UNICO, by Osamu Tezuka.  First published in 1976 and first published in North America in 2012.



In the days of the old Greek gods, there was a lovely little unicorn named Unico.  He was the beloved pet of the princess Psyche, whose beauty and gentle nature has caused Cupid himself to fall for her.  Enraged by this betrayal but unable to lash out at Psyche directly, she decides to hurt Psyche by taking away Unico.  Venus commands the west wind to steal him away, erase his memories, and take him as far away in time and space as possible so that he cannot make friends.  Yet everywhere Unico goes, he finds others in need of his power and his friendship in order to find their own happiness.


You know the saying "keep it simple, stupid"?  I think that statement holds true for the works of Osamu Tezuka.  A lot of his work from the 1970s were moody and complicated, full of adult concepts and scenarios.  Yet it's Unico with its child-friendly morals and relatively simple premise that has managed to speak to so many across the ages.  It's definitely one of his best and most relatable works from this otherwise turbulent era in his career.

Since this was a manga made for children, the characters themselves are pure and childlike.  They throw tantrums and willfully disobey Unico's warnings, even as they yearn for basic things like love, family, and romance.  Unico himself is innocence personified, determined to make the people and creatures around him happy even if he is often dragged away before he can receive any thanks or even say goodbye.  The stories in this collection draw a lot upon fairy-tales and mythology, referencing everything from Cinderella to A Midsummer Night's Dream.  True to his usual form, Tezuka also throws in the occasional metatextual gag (like the character who burns her own speech bubble for warmth) or pop-culture reference (like references to then-current idol duo Pink Lady).

The manga itself is quite episodic, but it works here thanks to the conceit around Unico's memory loss.  Every time he leaves, it's like the manga presses the reset button, so continuity is not a big deal.  The only major failing is that Tezuka never really came up with an ending for it.  There's certainly a bookend of sorts, as Venus reappears in an effort to find the worst time and place possible for Unico, but it ends all the same with Unico whisked away by the winds.  Perhaps that is fitting - like Venus, life itself can be unfair even to those who are blameless and try to do good for others.  Even then, that doesn't mean that the impact of that goodness isn't felt by others and there's always an opportunity to start over.  If that's not a good lesson for kids, I don't know what is.


This is probably the most Disney-esque Tezuka had gotten since the days of Princess KnightUnico has one big advantage over that series, though: from its inception it was made in full color.  It was also printed purposefully from left to right, since this was published in a Sanrio magazine with hopes of reaching international audiences.  The colors literally spill out of the edges of the thick white frames, making the whole book look like some lost Silly Symphonies short.  If there's a downside to that lavish color, it's that Tezuka's paneling is rather restrained here.  The wildest he gets are during a couple of romantic montages which are presented almost like dream ballets.  Still, the cuteness and bright colors help to enhance the happy feelings and soften the edge of the tragedy.


Unico is a classic that can be enjoyed by readers of all ages.  Its beauty is in its simplicity and innocence, and like Unico himself it brings happiness to those who read it.  It's a tragedy that this series is stuck in the grasp of the functionally dead DMP as it's a work that deserves to stay in print and be as widely accessible as possible.

This book was published by Digital Manga Publishing.  The physical edition is currently out of print, but the digital edition is currently in-print.

1 comment:

  1. I got lucky in that I actually managed to find a physical copy of DMP's Unico off Amazon, and still have it. Yeah, this manga is pretty cute.