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Saikano by Shin Takahashi (2000). 7 volumes. Viz, 2004-2005.

I don’t follow many manga titles, but somewhere along the line, while searching out possible titles to investigate (which in the end was mostly unsuccessful), I discovered Saikano. It doesn’t seem to be very popular, as I saw very little written about it while it was still coming out. What on the surface could be a very conventional manga story is done with a perspective and focus that makes it not only unusual but a riveting and occasionally uncomfortable read.

The premise of the story is that Shuji, a high school student, begins dating his classmate Chise, whom he soon finds out was somehow made into the “ultimate weapon” to protect Japan. It sounds rather silly, and not at all a new idea in a manga/anime. What makes this story different is the way the story is told focused through Shuji’s perspective, for the most part, and the two protagonists’ relationship as they try to deal with their confused feelings about sexuality and the war which seems to engulf the whole world.

For a story that involves an “ultimate weapon” and a world war, the reader gets very little information about the war and sees very little of the fighting. From Shuji’s perspective and that of his friends and family in their northern town there is little information about the war. It is never made clear who is fighting who and why. Instead, we see the progression of the war from a distant event to an all encompassing struggle. Except for a few chapters of Chise interacting with soldiers on the front, the war remains distant, an indirect effect on the characters in the form of rationing, lack of television, draftees, and the occasional bombing. This perspective on a war is different than what one usually sees in these types of stories. Even Chise and her abilities are played more for the emotional struggle they entail and her desire to escape the war. We never learn about how she came to be as she is or any details of her abilities or see any real fighting. It remains very abstract. Takahashi’s story is not about the violence itself, but rather the emotions of not only growing up and adolescent sexuality but the human struggle to live and love.

One of the things that makes the story stand out is that Takahashi does not shy away from dealing with the teenagers and sex. It’s a natural fit for the setting, sex and death have been linked for a long time (Freud for one). The story takes on the protagonists sexuality in a way that is not always pleasant but feels honest. We can believe that Shuji feels shame and disgust with his inopportune arousal and the feeling that he is constantly thinking about sex. We can understand that Chise too thinks a lot about it but doesn’t feel it is right for her as a woman to admit that. It’s hard not to think ill of Shuji when he spends time with an old girlfriend, but we also understand her loneliness while her husband has been away for months at a vague and unending war.

Chise’s “ultimate weapon” body holds an element of being on the verge of losing control for her and a fear that she is losing touch with being human. Shuji sees her as both human and alien. There’s a metaphor in here for their burgeoning sexuality and their fear and confusion with regard to it and each other. When they finally have sex (late in the story), Chise has become mostly absent from her own body, now more machine then person, and Shuji mostly forces himself on her at first. This scene in particular makes Shuji a difficult character to sympathize with, but it also offers a probably too accurate metaphor for many early sexual experiences. This encounter leads to Chise becoming more aware of herself as a human (it’s seems the wrong way for that to come about). Chise seems too passive in the encounter, and the whole scene is hard to unpack. Takahashi is a man, and in the epilogue he notes that the story was written for younger men, thus the female perspective seems particularly off here (not unexpectedly though). It’s one place where the story starts to fall apart, a particular problem with the last volume in general.

The end of the story is apocalyptic. I felt a definite connection between it and the old ending of Neon Genesis Evangelion (which if you are not familiar with, I can’t get into here). The idea of Chise taking on the sins of the world even as she allows/causes everything to be destroyed adds another hard to process aspect to the story. Certainly, the idea of personal and community responsibility comes up often in the story as the characters learn about such through their experiences, but the “sins” aspect seem a little over-the-top.

The art for Saikano is fairly typical for what one gets in a manga produced by a manga creator and his many studio assistants: lots of screen tone (computerized?), detailed backgrounds (often scanned photos I think). The only real unusual aspect of it is the frequent use of panels that are empty of anything except text, internal narration. Often whole pages are just panels and text, as if, in their thoughts, the character has retreated from the world and thus there is no background, no people, no image at all.

If this review has been a bit confused and confusing, well that is part of the nature of Saikano. It’s a big mess at times, but it’s also a lot different than similar manga I’ve read or anime I’ve seen (there’s an anime of Saikano that I have not watched). This one seems to have flown a bit under the radar as part of Viz’s Editor’s Choice line. If its characters are often hard to sympathize with, that only makes them more human, and if the story has elements that make one uncomfortable or question the characters action, that only makes one think about the story more. Saikano has an interesting and novel impression on a now cliched concept in manga, and for that alone it is worth looking at.

(Note: While sex is a major theme in the book, it is never done in an a really graphic way. Unlike a lot of similar manga, it is clear that Takahashi does not put in the sex to titillate teenage boys.)