Monday, September 11, 2023


 September is back-to-school time and we'll be doing the same here at The Manga Test Drive with a month of school-centric manga.  I could have easily started this month with one of the countless magical school harem isekai titles available today, but instead I decided to look a little further back to one of the ancestors of that wretched little sub-genre.

ZERO'S FAMILIAR (Zero no Tsukaima), based on the light novel series by Noburo Yamaguchi with art by Nana Mochizuki.  First published in 2006 and first published in North America in 2013.


Saito Hiraga was an ordinary Japanese boy who stumbled upon a strange sigil in the street one day. He walks blithely into it, whisking him away to a faraway realm and a school for magic.  The sigil was cast by the tiny, moody Louise de la Valliere, who is known by her classmates as "Louise the Zero" for her inability to successfully cast even the most basic spell.  Now Saito is bonded to Louise as her magical servant, but Saito may possess more power than anyone (even himself) could guess.


Honestly, I debated whether to even bother with a plot summary for Zero's Familiar because if you've read a single magic school harem series before, then you know pretty much all the story beats you're going to see and all the character types you're going to meet.  You've got the everyman Potato-kun protagonist, whose only distinct quality he possesses is his annoyance with his status as a servant and the social class system in general.  You've got the primary love interest whose personality begins and ends with "tsundere," and because this work came out in the mid 2000s she's also comically tiny (although she sports pink hair instead of the more typical red).  She in turn is surrounded by a horny girl with big boobs, a stoic girl, a comic relief playboy, a perfectly ordinary maid/secondary love interest who is possibly even more boring than Saito, a handful of teachers, and the occasional disposable villain.  Not even the magic school setting is all that novel, as the original light novels were part of that initial wave of Harry Potter wanna-bes that emerged in the early part of the decade.

As you can imagine there's not so much a plot here as there is a premise, a skeleton upon which the creators can drape a lot of the usual harem nonsense.  It's all very tedious and formulaic, and the regular doses of dopey fanservice doesn't help things.  It's also ultimately all about Saito, despite the fact that he has all the personality of wet cardboard.  It's he who turns out to be the descendant of some super-special magical ancestor, which of course grants him the rarest, most powerful magic of all which is useful only in battle and for this he is rewarded with a harem and a lot of abuse from Louise.  It's shocking how little this story formula has changed in the nearly two decades that has passed since its debut.  The only difference is that now Saito would have died and reincarnated instead of just walking into a magic portal like a numbnut.


I often disparage the quality of light novel-to-manga adaptations around here, but Zero's Familiar takes this phenomenon to a new low.  In fairness, there's an additional step in there, as this manga was made to tie in with the 2006 anime adaptation, which took Eiji Usatsuka's moderately graceful illustrations and made them simpler, shorter, and rounder.  Nana Mochizuki took that process even further here, driving the whole series straight into moeblob territory.  Everything is just off - the characters' eyes are too big for their head, their mouths are little more than flaps, everyone is drawn in a weirdly scrawny, angular fashion.  That makes the fanservice doubly awkward, which isn't helped by the fact that they draw clothing like it's made out of paper instead of cloth.  Everything is flat: the presentation, the shading, the action, the comedy, rendering the whole thing visually inert.


Zero's Familiar is a total zero.  This was a rote, uninspired, ugly manga even when it was brand new, and now with so many of its descendants cluttering up the shelves there's really no point in reading it.

This series was published by Seven Seas.  It is complete in Japan with 7 volumes available.  All 7 volumes were released in 3 omnibuses.  The physical volume are out of print, but the entire series is available digitally

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