Thursday, June 4, 2009

Blank Slate (manga, vol. 1) by Aya Kanno

If you haven't read this volume and don't want me to ruin everything, you probably shouldn't be reading this post. At the very least, skip to the end. As usual, there's commentary and read-alikes/watch-alikes at the bottom.

The story takes place in a country ruled by the Galay government, which, in theory, is benevolent. Twenty years earlier, the Amatans were taken over by the Galayans and supposedly saved from their previous suffering under an oppressive government. However, many Amatans aren't so grateful - they're not particularly happy about being discriminated against and forced into a position where they can't survive without the Galay government.

At the beginning of this volume, a bounty hunter named Russo is pursuing a mysterious criminal named Zen. He finds Zen at the Meeting Room, a place that houses all kinds of activities banned by the Galay government - prostitution, banned drugs, sexual deviance, etc. As a bounty hunter, Russo is basically a legalized killer, and he enjoys his work, but even he understands that the underworld has rules. Zen doesn't care, and, not long after Russo finds him, Zen kills nearly everyone the Meeting Room. Zen, now on the run, seems to have accepted Russo as his partner in crime, and Russo keeps telling himself that he's waiting for the perfect moment to kill Zen, the moment when Zen has truly come to trust him and has let his guard down. Eventually, Russo gets the perfect opportunity to kill Zen, but, rather than take it, he shoots the guy who tries to make him take Zen down. Unfortunately for Russo, Zen shoots him in order to kill the other guy. Russo dies while telling his story to an Amatan fortune teller.

After robbing a bank, Zen is misfortunate enough to have one of his car's tires shot out, so he secures new transportation by taking the people in a nearby car hostage. One of those people is Rian, the daughter of an important Galay general. The other is her Amatan attendant and bodyguard, Maka. Rian is blind and seemingly has no fear of Zen, despite the fact that he makes it clear he will kill her if either she or Maka try to get free - she is happy that Zen is around, because his presence provides her with the first real freedom she's had her entire life. Zen has Maka drive them all to Rian's family's summerhouse. While there, with Rian's help, he finds a potential escape route, a passageway that leads to a soldier's graveyard.

Unfortunately for Rian, it is soon revealed that Maka is a terrorist who has taken care of her for years in order to get close enough to kill her, as revenge for the death of her older sister during the war between the Galayans and Amatans 20 years earlier. Zen tries to get his hostage back, but Maka thinks her terrorist comrades have come and she's won. Maka is wrong - the Galayans have captured all her comrades, and they kill shoot as she leaves the summerhouse. Zen is wounded, and, before she dies, Maka tells him to take her bracelet and give it to the doctor who lives on the outskirts of town. Apparently, this doctor is her brother and will help even criminals on the run. Zen wants to take Rian with him as a hostage, but Rian says she'll only slow him down - it's unclear whether Zen really wanted to help keep Rian free from her oppressive life, but that does seem to be how she takes it.

Zen manages to make it to the doctor without dying of blood loss, but it's a near thing. The doctor, Hakka, was actually Maka's brother-in-law, a Galayan who had been married to Maka's older sister. Hakka does his best to help Zen, even though all Zen wants to do is get his gun back and go on his way. However, Hakka is horrified when he discovers that Zen is such a high-profile criminal. He worries that everyone in the Amatan village he lives in will be killed for harboring a criminal like Zen. By cutting his ties with the village and going on the run with Zen, Hakka manages to save the people of his Amatan village from the Galayan soldiers who come looking for Zen. He tells Zen that he has injected him with a virus, and that he will only cure him if he helps him free Maka's terrorist comrades. Zen agrees to go with him but later reveals that he knew all along that Hakka was bluffing about the virus - the real reason he agreed to go with Hakka was because he thought it might be interesting to see someone so righteous become evil.

Zen has no memories of the first 20 years of his life - all he knows is that he came to consciousness one day, dying, with a urge to kill and destroy. He is ruled by nothing but those urges, and he hates that even those things rule him, because he wants no one and nothing to control him. Zen and Hakka manage to free Maka's terrorist comrades, but, while they're separated, Zen comes across a Galayan colonel who seems to know him somehow. During his fight with the colonel, Zen is almost killed. He regains consciousness to find Hakka next to him, but he has no memories of the 30-minute period since he separated from Hakka - which means he has no memories of meeting the colonel and fighting him. When the volume wraps up, Zen has made the decision to continue travelling with Hakka, because he believes that there's something about Hakka that might be the key to uncovering his memories and freeing himself from everything that controls him.

One of the big draws of this volume, for me, was the artwork. Yes, it's shallow of me, but Kanno is really good at drawing pretty guys. Zen may be a scary, sociopathic killer, but he's also nice eye candy. The same goes for Hakka, who, as an added bonus, is a good guy who couldn't kill a fly. About Hakka, though - how old is this guy? He looks young and idealistic, but if, say, he married Maka's sister when he was 18, he'd be 38 right? I have a feeling I'd be way off if someone showed me pictures of Kanno's characters and asked me to guess their ages based on the way they look. Zen looks young, too, and Rian is tiny and doll-like, but who knows how old either of them really are.

So, besides the gorgeous guys, what other reasons are there to read this? Well, the mystery of Zen is pretty interesting, although, with such a short series (it's only 2 volumes long), I expected more than I got. Right now it's all just smoke. Zen can't remember his past, so he runs around stealing, killing people, etc. Until he meets Hakka, there's no sign that he's even trying to recover his memories - he lives in the moment. The only tidbits Kanno gives readers in this volume are a Galayan colonel who might know who Zen is, flashback images of a young, wounded Zen, Zen's ingrained urge to kill, and the possibility that Hakka might have some kind of link to Zen's past. This isn't much, when you consider that it's only a 2-volume series. I guess I'll have to read the second volume to see what Kanno comes up with, but, at the moment, the artwork is still my primary reason for reading this series.

I tend to be a very character-oriented person - I can be happy with a slow-paced or even bad plot if I like the characters enough. Pretty artwork aside, were Kanno's characters worth it? I'd say she did a decent job with them, considering the limited number of pages she had to work with. Most of the characters that were around enough to rate a mention in this post had interesting aspects of some sort, and Zen seemed to force those things to the surface. Unfortunately, there wasn't enough time for Kanno to really do much with any of that. Whatever Russo told himself, his relationship with Zen did not seem to simply be "hunter stalking dangerous prey." Rather than taking the time to explore this, Kanno kills him off. Rian, sheltered, vulnerable, and possibly nursing a crush on Zen, is less an interesting character than a potentially interesting character. Meeting Zen allows her to find out things about her world she might otherwise have never learned - it's possible that her position in Galayan society will allow her to change things, but I doubt there will be time for Kanno to show anything like that. Hakka, at least, should be around long enough for Kanno to do more with him. As far as Zen goes, there's still his past to deal with, but I'm also hoping for more besides that. Is Zen really the scary killer he seems to be, or are there softer emotions and maybe even a conscience hiding somewhere inside him? I would've said no, he's just a killer, but it did seem like he was being nicer to Rian than he really needed to be - it got me thinking.

Overall, this volume was ok. I loved the artwork, and the mystery of Zen is mildly interesting. I felt a little like there wasn't enough detail (character detail, plot detail, political situation detail, etc.) for anything in particular to really stand out and grab my attention, so it was all just mildly interesting. Still, it wasn't bad, and I'm willing to see how things turn out in the second volume.

As far as extras go, there's not much, just a few author sidebars. All the author really does is explain why the order of the chapters in the graphic novel isn't like the order of the chapters as they were originally published (serialized in a magazine).

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion (anime TV series) - In this alternate history (?), the Empire of Britannia has invaded Japan. Japan is now referred to as Area 11, and its people are 11's. Lelouch appears to be an ordinary, if extremely intelligent, high school student, but in reality he's hiding many secrets. One of those secrets is the power of Geass, which was given to him by a mysterious young girl who was some sort of military secret. Geass allows Lelouch to make anyone obey his orders, and he uses it great deal as he begins living a double life as Zero, the masked leader of a rebellion to combat Britannia's tyranny. Those who'd like something featuring a similar political situation might want to try this - Britannia is similar to Galay, while the Japanese are similar to the Amatans.
  • Daughter of the Blood (book) by Anne Bishop - Among the Blood (magic users) women rule and men serve. Usually, this is a harmonious and balanced system that benefits both sexes, but there are those who have perverted this system so that men are enslaved and young girls who might grow up strong are broken. If she can manage to grow up, Jaenelle could heal the rot in Blood society. Her family thinks she's unstable, and growing up and growing strong won't be easy, but she has some powerful allies on her side: Saetan, the High Lord of Hell (and, confusingly for some readers, a good guy) and Daemon, a dangerous (and sexy) man who's been waiting for someone like Jaenelle to come along for much of his long life. This series is not for the faint of heart (there's abuse, torture, rape and more). However, it still manages to be a bit lighter, at times, than Blank Slate. Those who don't mind that might want to try this. Daemon reminds me a little of Zen - both men are dangerous, sexy, and don't want others to control them.
  • The Bourne Identity (live action movie) - A mysterious injured man with no memory is picked up by a fishing boat. Soon, this man, Jason, is on the run from assassins, using whatever clues he can find to piece together his own past. Those who'd like something else featuring a mysterious and skilled killer with no memory might want to try this.

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