Friday, June 22, 2012

Animal Land vol. 1-4

(contains spoilers)

I discovered 'Animal Land' by chance while browsing my library's manga selection. I had never heard of it before, which is odd because I thought I payed close attention to the American manga industry and I follow lots of manga blogs. Well, after reading these four volumes of 'Animal Land' by Makoto Raiku of 'Zatch Bell' fame, I am determined to pay even closer attention so I don't let more gems like this slip by my manga radar.

Monoko the Tanuki is hungry and lonely. Having lost both her parents in a wild cat attack, Monoko now has no family and barely survives amongst the other Tanukis with not enough food to go around. Spotting what she thinks is food floating down the river, Monoko inadvertently saves a newborn, human baby from certain starvation, and vows to become this abandoned baby's new mother. Soon, Monoko and the other Tanuki's release that this human baby has a very special gift. It can speak. Not just to the Tanukis, but to all animal species. Something that has been previously unheard of. With this unique ability, the newly named Taroza starts to bring about unprecedented, and sometimes unwanted change amongst the animal kingdom. Acting as an interpreter between species, Taroza sets out to unite meat-eaters and plant-eaters to live in peace. He wants to be friends with all the animals. Something that won't come easy.

After seven years of hard work, Taroza is now a young boy and leader of his own territory. In his territory, herbivores of all kinds work together to farm the land and share in natures bounty. No more do the harsh Winters bring the high likelihood of starvation. Though Taroza has yet to be able to reach meat-eaters with his goal of coexistence, and that's where problems start to arise. After saving a young monkey from being eaten by lions, Taroza has a fateful meeting with another human for the very first time. Princess Capri of a lion pride hears of Taroza's existence and is determined to eat his meat! But she didn't count on her feelings as a human being getting in the way of her instincts as a lion. After being warded off twice by Taroza and his clan of herbivores, Capri comes to an uneasy peace with Taroza, but sadly can't come to grips with coexistence with non meat-eaters. Though after learning of an immanent attack by a rival pride of lions, in which Capri and the other cubs will be killed as to not compete with the new alpha's cubs, Capri seeks out Taroza, wanting to ask for help, but only managing to tearily let him know she was going to die. Not willing to let the only other human he's ever met perish, Taroza uses all his cunning and charisma to save Capri and her young siblings, but not before the strong males of her pride are wiped out. Motivated by Taroza's words, the females and surviving young lions of Capri's pride are determined to survive without the alphas protection. Inching closer to peace with the pride of lions, Taroza and his clan of herbivores celebrate and continue to progress forward. Everything seems to be going in the right direction until the third human, Jyu, makes an appearance. This enigmatic young man is anything but a friend to Taroza and seems resolute in crushing his cause of peace and reinstating nature's way of survival of the fittest.

The art in this manga is interesting and really well done. Some of the animal designs are realistic and drawn in great detail. Others are designed partially anthropomorphic, complete with clothing or human-like faces. It's kind of bizarre, but I like it. The Tanukis have the human-like faces, and as you can imagine, a raccoon-dog with a human face is quite the comical sight, as well as having the advantage of being very expressive. Some of the younger animals are drawn to be very cute. Almost like stuffed animals. "Cartoony" in comparison to some of the realistically drawn animals. This clash of styles really works though. Imagine your childhood teddy bear to come to life, only to have it's stomach slashed open by a lion and blood sprays everywhere. It's quite a powerful scene, and in the manga, I think these bad things happening to cute characters only enhances the message of how harsh the reality of nature is. The stylized designs of the anthropomorphic characters are also very imaginative. Unique clothing, cool scars, tribal face paints, as well as the ability to stand up and some human-like features really make this group of characters stand out. The human characters also have really fun designs. I especially like Capri, who fits her lion theme with a grand mane of blonde hair. While a very fun style, don't let the cutesy art fool you and stop you from reading. Like I said, it hides, but at the same time compliments some surprisingly dark themes within.

One of the more well-developed characters in the black wildcat, Kurokagi. Once a staunch meat-eater and a believer in a kill or be killed mentality, until one day, he was changed after witnessing the newborn baby of one of his prey die without it's mother's care. Not being able to bring himself to kill anymore, he resorted to stealing fish from the Tanuki's. This way, he wouldn't have to kill, and in exchange, he secretly protected the Tanukis from other predators. After being brought together with the Tanukis by Taroza's interpreter skills, Kurokagi becomes the very first meat-eater to join Taroza's cause. His willingness to change and go against nature is rivaled only by Taroza himself. Taroza is also an interesting character and while quite similar to your typical Shonen main character, he also has his differences. For one, when we first encounter Taroza, he is just a baby, not even able to walk. And even as he grows, he is still the most physically weak of all the animals. He at first feels like just a burden to his adopted Tanuki family. He can't walk, and he can't even gather his own food. What he can do is talk in all species language and he is determined to use that tool to make friends with all animals. So while he may be a typical, Shonen determinator, he doesn't go about achieving his goal with the strength of his fists, but with his unique, human ingenuity, and his charismatic way with words.

I think the most surprising thing about this series is the level of hidden depth it has. Yeah, if you want, it can just be an entertaining story about a boy and his typical, Shonen goal with lots of crazy looking animals standing in his way. But underneath that, I see a lot more depth than I come to expect from what is essentially a kids comic book. In my interpretation, the conflict between meat-eaters and plant-eaters very much reminded me of the modern day state of politics. You have both sides, unwavering, unwilling to change their antiquated ways, and no progress to be had. Both sides suffering. And in the story, when Toroza introduces the lions to cheese as an alternative to eating meat, you have your compromise. That cheese symbolizes the compromise that we so desperately need, but don't have. That's a topic for another type of blog though.....Point is, underneath the entertainment aspect of this series, are some really, thought provoking question being asked, and I thought that was really interesting and nice for me as an adult reading a comic geared toward kids.

This story also features many, fable-like lessons that I think should be heard by the ears of kids and adults alike. One of the biggest themes of the story is "change" and how resistant the world is to it. Now, in the real world, Taroza's goal of becoming friends with all animals and to have them stop eating each other would cause chaos within the circle of life, but putting the literal consequences aside, it's his belief that he can bring about a change and make a better world that has importance here. Where would we be in real life if nobody ever stood up and fought against the "normal" way of doing things? Like the female lions, who were resigned to let their cubs get killed after their alpha died, just because "this is the way of things". Imagine a world where we didn't have people like Capri and Taroza who "don't want to live that way anymore". Fortunately, we do have people like that in this world. People who are willing to go against the grain and bring about great change and progress. I think that's a good message to readers and I appreciated that about this book.

As you might be able to tell, I really enjoyed 'Animal Land'. I think it is a great, all ages story. Well, not all ages. It might look kind of cutesy in parts because of the art, but the survival of the fittest aspect and the brutalities of nature might be a little much for much younger readers. I personally thought it could get kind of dark in places. Right off the bat, one of the main characters' parents get eaten alive. Death is a very harsh reality in this story, and I wouldn't give this book to kids that are too young yet to understand that. It's also a bit violent. It can get pretty bloody. Besides that, I highly recommend this imaginative series, and I know I'll be looking forward to the release of volume 5 next month.

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