Saturday, June 7, 2014
Utahime: The Songstress (manga) by Aki
I'm not including any read-alikes for this. My excuse is that it's almost an anthology, because it contains two stories. And also, I'm still trying to get through my review backlog.
After reading Aki's Olympos, I knew I wanted to try something else by this author/artist. Utahime: The Songstress appeared to be the only other thing available in English (although Yen Press will be releasing The Angel of Elhamburg next Spring).
Utahime: The Songstress is composed of two unrelated stories, the primary “Utahime” story that takes up two thirds of the volume and “Darika,” which takes up the final third.
“Utahime” is about a land that is protected by two beings, the sovereign and the songstress. Traditionally, the sovereign is male and the songstress (or songstresses, since there are many) is female. There is an uproar when the next sovereign is born and she turns out to be female. What few know is that there is also a male songstress.
Aki seems to like beginning stories by showing readers the characters' “present” and then revealing, via flashbacks, what motivates them and how they got to where they are. At the beginning of “Utahime,” we learn that Kain, the songstress, once had a twin sister who was thought to be the songstress. Kain had run away from home and returned only after he began hearing something discordant in Maria's voice. Unfortunately, he was too late. Maria was dead by the time he made it back. Kain and Thomas, the village chief, hid Maria's death by having Kain secretly act as the songstress.
The story then flashes back to Thomas, Kain, and Maria's childhood. Seeing the blossoming affection and love between Thomas and Maria, a jealous and awkward-feeling Kain opts to run away. Over the years, Thomas searches for Kain, and Maria enjoys Thomas's company, until they learn painful things about their village and the role of the songstress that drive a wedge between them.
This story's mixture of humor and bittersweetness was nice, and I loved the artistic detail involving Maria and Kain's earrings (each has one, until after Maria's death, at which time Kain wears both his and Maria's earrings). However, it wasn't on the same level as Olympos, for a couple reasons. One, the premise had holes you could drive a truck through, and, two, the ending wasn't quite complete.
For most of the story, I wondered “What is it that the songstresses actually do?” Supposedly, they protected the country, but protected it from what? And how? The country appeared to be peaceful, and, from what I could tell, the primary effect of a songstress's voice was to charm people. Kain used his voice to convince rich women to give him money and men to gamble against him and lose. For years, Maria acted as a songstress despite not being a real one, and her part of the country didn't fall to ruin. Why did it take so long for people to start asking “Is this really necessary?”
As far as the ending went, Aki almost managed it but fell a little short. Thomas got a bittersweet ending that wrapped up his various emotional and story threads. He atoned for the wrongs he felt he'd committed, and he finally got to say what he wanted to say (even though the person he wanted to say them to was no longer around ::grumble grumble::).
Kain, on the other hand, was left adrift. He'd chained himself to the his secret songstress position so that he could, in some small way, make up for his part in his sister's death. It was basically a kind of self-punishment. The way things wrapped up meant that he didn't even have that anymore. Readers got to see his shock at the news, but then nothing. What did he do next? Had he forgiven himself enough to be able to move on? There was no way to know.
“Darika” is the story of two young men at an elite school. One of them, Roy, has been given the task of watching over the other, Darika. Darika is bright and happy and has no idea that Roy has been given a grim task by the head of the school. Supposedly, Roy's actions are meant to keep a demonic being in check and possibly allow a "child of God" to be created, but he begins to question what he's been told.
Honestly, I wasn't sure what to make of this story. As in "Utahime," we're shown another world in which people carry out a horrible task without question, because they are told it's necessary. By the end, it appears as though that task may be useless. Whereas the people in "Utahime" took steps towards fixing this situation, in “Darika” Roy accomplished nothing. He protested what was being done but, as far as I could tell, everything continued on as before. There wasn't even any indication, one way or another, that Darika would remember him and what he'd tried to do to help. So what was the point? Or was the point that there was no point? Either way, I was disappointed.
Utahime's primary story was okay, but I'd recommend Olympos over it. “Darika,” on the other hand, was a let-down.
A couple pages of author's notes. Aki frets over “Darika” not being very good and wishes she'd (?) gone with her instinct to give Kain an older brother instead of a sister.