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Title English: Ze
Author: Shimizu Yuki.
Published in Japan: 2004 by Shinshokan
Published in America: 2009 - 801 Media.
Genres: Comedy, Drama, Supernatural, Yaoi.
One of the things we learn throughout life is that words indeed have power. We are being told about this since an early age: to be careful with what we say and think before we speak, because words can't be taken back. It is a pretty wise advice, after all, our principal mean of communication is through words, whether spoken or written. And there is more to words than their straightforward meaning; sometimes they carry more than one, they can soothe, they can hurt, they can dominate and they can even destroy people. We can easily recognize those special beings that attract fortune with an amazing eloquence, and make us wonder if it isn't actually a super power what they have. Therefore, it's not strange that many cultures believe words have an intrinsic power that can influence our environment; in Japan this is called kotodama, translated as soul of language, power of language or spirit of word. Many of Japan's supernatural stories and famous mangas are based on this belief, what we would call spells, an ability we even dream about sometimes. Not many of them delve on the fact that we should be really careful with how we use words, in fiction or reality, because they can come back at you. Yuki Shimizu plays with this philosophy, creating a very original twist for a boy's love manga.
After losing his grandmother and only family, Raizou Shichikawa is taken in by a mysterious sponsor who sends him to live with a big and wealthy family. The Mitou household is inhabited by the weirdest people Raizou has seen in his life. To top it all, while he is trying to assimilate their behavior, and the fact that one of them hates him for no good reason, a new reality is revealed, one that surpasses everything he thought strange before. It turns out some members of this family have special powers and others are merely creations that act as shields for their spells. Kotodama-sama are the masters of words, what they say can become real, but they can only do damage with this ability, and they have to pay dearly for it. In order to avoid getting hurt each master has a kami, a paper doll of the same sex as his master that receives the damage through a spell or through contact with any of their mucous membranes.
The title of this manga, ze, is the kanji character for right or righteousness or justice. It might be just a random name, picked as a nice sound, but the fact that the sun component in the upper part of the kanji was replaced by a figure that looks a lot like a moon leaves me wondering about a possible extra meaning. Am I reading too much into right and wrong? Or did I just get the wrong meaning for the character? In any case, "Reversed justice" would make a lot of sense when you think about the kotodama's payback. Sadly, the English volumes discarded the symbol, which looked kind of stylish in the Japanese ones. (note that the cover here and in Amazon is the Japanese one, 801 Media features the new one: http://www.801media.com/?view=107)
This volume is composed by 5 chapters and an extra. The first chapters feature the introduction of the different characters in the household and Raizou's involvement with them, especially with Kon and a mysterious character with a fox spirit mask. After Raizou solves the first obstacles towards a comfortable family, and even love life, the mysterious character is revealed and we get a glimpse of the second featured pairing of this series. This is where Ze introduces a feeling of mystery, related to this couple that will be developed slowly in further volumes. The extra is a funny treat related to all the characters already presented. A lot of things happened in this volume, and I was honestly confused at first by the fast pace, quick explanations and matter-of-fact answers related to the kotodama and kami. It could have been worked smoothly, instead of becoming the sort of rush that seemed intended to get to the point, that is of course, the BL action.
Type and Purpose
This is a yaoi manga, that means a sexually explicit boy's love story, and being under the 801 imprint (adults only!) you can expect to see the explicit part very developed. That doesn't mean Ze has porn-style drawings, since there is some censure in the original art. However, this story seems to be created around the sex scenes, as you might have noticed with the mucous membranes system for transferring wounds. In spite of the deep meaning that could come out naturally with such a plot, Yuki Shimizu created this story as an enjoyable read, not a thought provoking one. This is a BL tinted with supernatural action drops, leaving a bit of space for mystery and meaningful situations, but just enough to spark our interest in the plot and enhance the excitement towards the featured relationships and very sensual love scenes.
Narrative and Development of Ideas
The flow of the story is very simple and straightforward. We see their daily lives through several funny situations and some dangerous ones too. Only the featured characters receive more exposure through memories or flashbacks, giving us some background information about their motivations. The beginning that could have been set as a solid base for a very interesting plot, which would happen to have man-to-man action, ended up being secondary to the romantic relationships and to the comedic situations. Hence, at the end of the volume we have little information about the family and the origin or purpose of their powers, as if it was merely an excuse for any exciting situation that can be presented. Besides, the writing is also pretty straightforward and simple; an ironic presentation for a manga about the power of words.
Ze might not be a deep or intelligent story, but it is easy on the eyes and quite interesting. Yuki Shimizu's style is really enjoyable; simple but engaging and, of course, exciting when it needs to be. Her art is not what I would call beautiful, more like a bit messy, but sometimes it looks like it; especially with certain scenes and the colored insert. It seems this mangaka has gotten better at drawing the many different types of attractive men, creating one good-looking character for every taste. Aside from that, her story-telling isn't what I call captivating, but the quick succession of actions, likable fan-service, intense sex scenes, funny characters and the spark of mystery, only leave you hungry for more of each one of them. Yuki Shimizu tries to appeal to a wide audience, using just a bit of innovation that's mostly represented by the character's dynamics.
The featured characters in this volume are Raizou and Kon. Raizou is the most innocent and earnest boy, always trying to cheerfully accept whatever life brings him, always giving his best. Kon, on the other hand, is a cute boy, quite grumpy and dissatisfied with his existence. He is kami without master, so he thinks he has no purpose and that he needs to heal in order to have a reason to live. The endearing Raizou is exactly the kind of person Kon needs to have around, to remind him of his worth, even if he is hated and not able to use kotodama. The rest of the household is presented mostly as a comic relief; we don't learn much of each member but they are all interesting and amusing in their own way. Lastly, we have the mysterious fox-masked character that is revealed at the second half of the volume. I liked him since the first moment I saw him, and it's because Asari is the personification of mystery, he is the sort of presence Ze needed to start with. Well, at least we get to know him later, when his identity is revealed, the same moment when he became one my favorite from the lot. Asari is not only mysterious but playful, teasing, sensual and he holds a very unique presence along with secrets that look similar to Waki's, the doll-maker, probably all related to the family's past. Honestly, this character was my reason to look forward to the rest of the story.
In the end Ze's words didn't strike me as powerful. If you consider the possibilities of its supernatural setting, it has a bland start. However it is an enjoyable enough read to make me want to know more, especially because it seems to have some potential to grow on me, even with the small bits of background given. Ze is definitely recommended for those that are looking for supernatural action along BL. The plot is very original, compared to your usual vampire stories, and there are enough characters that guarantee we will have several volumes of good-looking men in strange master-slave dynamics. Remember, Kotodama-sama can also transfer their wounds with a spell but, rest assured, they are not going to waste their powerful words when they have the chance to obtain the same result with a kiss or more. Pain becomes pleasure in Ze; don't you find having sex while severely wounded a fancy way of coping with a deadly reversed justice?
Special thanks to Digital Manga for providing the digital copy for this review.
When I was a child, some well meaning auntie or another would up and decide to send me a little thin paperback book filled with paper dolls, usually accompanied by a note about how when they were a kid and money was tight, and they had to walk to school 50 miles in the a blizzard, and only if Fagin had not caught them sneaking away from the pickpocketing they had to do just to buy bread, they had paper dolls to play with. I have no idea what these notes were supposed to inspire me with? Joy at playing with overpriced dolls in elaborately cheesy costumes? Amazement at the intricate detail of the Kate Greenaway costume artwork? Seeing as these were all VERY expensive boutique imprints, I utterly failed to see how the poor little me stories contained within the notes were supposed to make me feel an obligation of being overjoyed.
Don't get me wrong, they were VERY nice. But they were so nice, I got warned to be careful, not to damage them, etc. And then there was the whole 2D problem. Unlike normal dolls, these were little slips of paper that were of no size and shape to tea party with, sit under a tree with to share a storybook, or anything else. I used to wish that with their beautiful face and clothes, that I could utter words to turn them into a REAL doll. Yuki Shimizu takes this childhood wish, and turns it up several notches.
Making use of the Japanese notion that words have power, or kotodama, she introduces us to the Mitou family and their new housekeeper, Raizu. Raizu has had it tough. His mother was a foreigner and he was her child from a previous relationship, so he stood way out in the rural Japanese community he was raised in thanks to his height and naturally blonde hair. His parents died when he was young, so all he had was his loving grandmother, who was actually his stepfather's mother. Not that any distinction had ever been made, as the son and the grandmother fully accepted and loved him as one of their own. Raizu had planned to graduate from school, and get a job to support his elderly granny so that at last she could take it easy, but fate has another cruel hand to deal Raizu. His granny dies, and Raizu has to sell the property they live in and all his clothes just to pay for the funeral expenses and travel expenses to his new job as a housekeeper.
If this is not daunting enough, Raizu soon discovers that the large family he is to work for seem rather different, in an ominous sort of way. No matter what he cooks, half of the family refuse to eat and that do, eat off on their own. Then one day he makes a hotpot, so that they MUST gather together, and he is startled when a sudden tearing sound rends the air and one of family member Konoe's arms lands in the nabe pot after being severed. Even freakier, there is no blood, and the offending appendage is stuck back on. What is going on? It is time for the family to come clean. They are a very special family, users of kotodama, and each kotodama user has a special partner. Every time kotodama is used, a wound appears on the user, and the partner must make contact with a mucous membrane to transfer the damage to themselves. The partner does not bleed, because he is a doll. To be exact, a living paper doll or kami. They appear human in most respects, but are creations of the family's doll maker using an ancient art.
Between the intimate scenes he witnesses between the kotodama users and their dolls, the strange people visiting the house, and the cold shoulder he keeps getting from his room mate Kon, the only masterless paper doll, what is Raizu to do? Well, if the mysterious figure in the kimono and fox mask has anything to do with it maybe he'll find true love....
With a cast full of quirky characters, intricate plot lines, and a unique plot device, this promises to be an interesting series as it progresses. This first volume does very well, introducing us to the core cast of characters and the family business without sacrificing any attention to detail in regards to the building of the relationship Raizu has with Kon. I quite like the way the stories are set up as journeys of self discovery; Kon finding out what it means to feel, how to value himself, and to discover his purpose in life, Raizu to discover his place in the world within this unique set of circumstances he finds himself in. The narrative flow is smooth, and while there is explicit content, it slots neatly within the framework of the story while driving it forward.
The attention to the finer details, especially in regards to the nature of the kami (the paper dolls) raises this above the common garden variety boy's love, moving it from the mere yaoi fan service type with little plot towards being more of a fantasy romance that happens to contain BL (and yuri, aka girlxgirl romance, as it happens thanks to the inclusion of the Benio partnership). The artwork is as well presented as the story, integrating into a seamless whole that lures the reader into going from frame to frame and page to page without wanting to stop. Currently with five volumes in print, out of the current 9 volumes in Japan (and still ongoing), this promises to be one of those series that goes down as a classic in the genre.
***Ze is published under the 801 Media imprint. Due to explicit sexual themes, Ze is rated at 18+ . I'd like to thank Digital Manga Publishing for providing me with the review copy.***