Monday, May 22, 2023

Merry Month of Shojo Review #15: CIPHER

 And now let's switch things around to the opposite: an old-school series set in (what were then) modern times.

A series that's literally as old as I am.

...oh dear.

CIPHER, by Minako Narita.  First published in 1984 and first published in North America in 2005.


One day, Anise manages to gather up her courage to confess to her handsome famous classmate Siva.  What she wants is not a romance but his friendship.  Amazingly, he accepts her offer but remains cryptic and cynical.  Eventually Anise discovers his secret: he and his identical twin brother Cipher have been switching places on a regular basis.  Anise is furious at the deception and presumes the two do this just to hold everyone at a distance.  She's ready to disclose their secret, but the boys counter with a bet: if she can tell them apart after two weeks, they'll tell her everything.  If she can't, she has to keep their secret forever.  Anise is determined to win, even if it means moving in with them.


These days, if Cipher is remembered at all it's for its bizarre OVA adaptation.  That's a shame because the Cipher manga has a lot going for it, namely its compelling heroine and the intriguing circumstances she finds herself caught up in.

Anise has a level of complexity that we seldom see in modern shojo heroines.  She really feels like a young teen girl, one who can still be naive and even a little childish but also possesses bravery, empathy, and a keen sense of justice.  In many ways she's an open book, which makes her the perfect foil to Siva and Cipher.  Their characters are largely defined by their mystique and the self-constructed walls they have build around themselves, and everything from their choice of career to their identity-swapping feeds into this.  Her openness combined with her strong personality ensure that she continues to drive the plot forward instead of the other way around.

As for the twins, Narita is clearly setting up a lot of potential plot threads around them.  Aside from the bet (which takes up most of this volume), we get hints of trauma that may or may not involve their dead dad.  They're also not above doing weird, inscrutable things for the hell of it like kissing one another on the lips (???).  Ostensibly they do this to fluster Anise, but mostly this feels like the mangaka throwing the fujoshi a bit of fanservice.  Still, there are times where the boys' air of mystery falls away and they react like the dumb teens they truly are.  They get mildly freaked out by Anise's period products and they engage in a childish running gag where they mess with Anise's Legally Distinct From Michael Jackson fashion doll.  It's also clear that while they try to project an image of interchangeability, the two of them are distinct personalities.  Siva is the kinder, more empathetic one, while Cipher is the moodier, more cynical one, as well as the one more deeply focused on their acting career.  There's clearly a lot more to learn about these two, so while Anise's bet ends on a draw (something that both sides are aware of) it's far from the end of the story.


Minako Narita's for Cipher is as cute as you would expect from a 1980s shojo manga, but there's a naturalism to the character designs and posing that really helps to ground her work.  It's not as angular and stylized as some of her peers, and because of that it's aged very gracefully.  That's not to say that you can't tell this story wasn't created in the 1980s, as Narita clearly paid a lot of attention to the fashion everyone wears, as well as throwing in references to then current musicians.  

She was also clearly in love with New York City and never misses an opportunity to show off her setting.  That means she actually devotes some time and care on the backgrounds.  It's not just the skylines - even the art school and apartments have lots of detail and a real sense of time and place.  It's an unusual level of effort at a time when most Japanese media portrayed NYC as just one big, scary, crime-ridden graffiti-covered slum.


Cipher has so much going for it as a manga: a great cast, a compelling premise, and great art that looks as fresh as it did nearly 40 years ago.  I can only hope that perhaps some modern publisher will give it the love that CMX and bubble-era manga readers were never able to provide.

This series was published by CMX.  This series is complete in Japan with 12 volumes available.  All 12 volumes were released (with the final as a 2-in-1 omnibus) and are currently out of print.

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