Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Children of the Sea, Volume 1 by Daisuke Igarashi

Ruka is a young girl unliked by many of her classmates, but she finds freedom in playing soccer on the field. When a classmate angers her, however, Ruka body-checks her so hard that the girl has to go to the hospital with a broken nose. That's enough for the teacher, who throws her off the team. Ruka doesn't tell her mother what's happened, and instead, using money her mother gave her for new sneakers, takes a train to Tokyo to go to the Beach.

But she wanders Tokyo with no clear idea of where to go, she finally ends up at a bridge as the night falls, and meets a young boy who leaps into the water from the bridge. He's not harmed by the fall, and introduces himself as Umi.

Back at home, with nowhere else to go on summer vacation, Ruka goes to the aquarium to meet with her father, and finds that Umi hangs out there, too. Umi seems to like her, and he tells her that she smells right, like she belives the same things that he and his friend Sora do. He and Sora are Children of the Sea, discovered swimming with Dugongs (Manatees) as babies.

And Ruka has a strange tale of her own to tell, for when she was young, she saw a ghost at the aquarium, a strange light in one of the fish tanks. She never knew what it was, but it has always haunted her, and the fish she was watching disappeared. Umi seems pleased that she reveals this to him, and takes her to see a comet/falling star passing overhead at the beach.

Obviously, Umi and his friend/brother are not normal. Having been raised in the sea, they are particularly well-adapted to iiving life in the water- they seem unable to drown, or they can hold their breath for phenomenally long times, and they have to keep their skins moist- either by being in water, or wearing a water-soaked sheet around and over their bodies. Ruka likes Umi, but his brother Sora is much more prickly and seems to enjoy being annoying to her- something Ruka doesn't appreciate.

Still, with no soccer practice over the long school break, she asks for a summer job with the aquarium, and is put under the charge of Jim, one of the scientists there. Jim travelled to many isles in the South Pacific, and got tattoos from the many peoples he met there, leaving him looking like a very old-time sailor, or maybe a Maori.

But there is a mystery brewing out at sea- and in the aquariums around the globe. Species of fish are disappearing for what seems like no reason- one day they are there, and the next day, they are simply gone. Not dead, not eaten. Gone. And the scientists have no explanation for why it is happening. Later, when Ruka and the brothers get stranded out at sea after stealing the aquarium's boat, they meet a massive shark with star-like markings on its body that leaves a trail of stars in its wake. Umi tells Ruka about the fish disappearing, and that there are others like he and his brother, and they, too, have disappeared. Umi and Sora are also expected to disappear, but like the fish, nobody knows where they will disappear to.

And a few days later, Sora is gone. Simply gone. It seems he may have disappeared first because he was the more closely adapted to the water than Umi, who had greater success in living on the land. And one scientist working at the Aquarium looks up the species of fish that are disappearing. All of them have star-like markings on a darker background. What exactly is going on?

This is an unusual manga series to make it to America. Unlike many of the Japanese manga already published here, which are Shoujo or Shonen, and meant for young adults, this is Seinen manga, meant for adults. Ruka is very unlike your typical Shoujo or Shonen heroine, being cranky, rude, and occasionally violent- and not played in a cute way or for laughs. She's an outcast from school, not having any friends, and no matter where she goes, people are talking about her in a disapproving way. Umi and Sora are also outcasts- but in a different way, having been found living in the oceans with Manatees, a normal life simply isn't possible for them. They are studied, almost like different forms of life. They don't go to school and live and hang out at the Aquarium.

One thing that puzzled me was why Umi and Sora were called brothers. Okay, they were found together, but Umi is quite definitely black, with dark skin and hair, and Sora is extremely white and pale, even his hair is white/blonde as depicted in the manga. My only thought was that they self-identified as brothers, and this was accepted by everyone around them. Certainly, they have many of the same needs relating to water and the sea. They are also unusually knowledgeable and prescient about the ocean and what is happening there. More so than any children their age could be.

The ocean has played various roles in all sorts of stories, from a frightening devourer that sucks down men and ships and doesn't spit them up again, to a healing, calming, nurturing force that feeds us- even both (witness Greek Poseidon, ruler of the sea, who fed people, but when angered was capable of causing great catastrophes and hardship). But in this story, the sea is linked with another great void- space. Can it be any coincidence that the fish that are disappearing so suddenly all have star-like markings? The story explicitly ties the two together with a mantra repeated throughout the story, linking sea and sky.

This is not like any other manga you will read on the market today, with the possible exception of "20th Century Boys", another seinen manga. The kids here have no special powers, aren't cute or chibified of have funny and cute animal sidekicks. This is a story explicitly tied to the real world, and creates a spooky, effective atmosphere. I found it different, and very enjoyable, and I hope that more Seinen and Josei (the female adult equivalent) are published here in America. Spooky and well-done, and Highly recommended.

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