Monday, June 27, 2016

REVIEW: A Centaur's Life (manga, vol. 2) story and art by Kei Murayama, translation by Angela Liu

A Centaur's Life is a slice-of-life fantasy series. It's licensed by Seven Seas Entertainment.

I'm using the same cruddy read-alikes/watch-alikes list I came up with for volume 1. Sadly, I haven't thought of anything better to add yet.


In this volume, Hime gets a visit from Shino, her young cousin. Shino adores Hime. When she and Hime meet Manami, the class president, and Manami's young triplet siblings, she gets jealous when Manami's siblings greet Hime with kisses. After that, Hime decides to get her hair cut, everyone tries to make it through the colder weather in their own way, there's a flashback about a class visit to a merfolk high school, and Hime worries that she'll be too nervous to do well during a traditional centaur archery event. The volume ends with a lengthy story called “Fears of a Human Faced Dog” which, as far as I know, isn't set in the same world as the rest of the volume.

In some ways this volume was better than the first one, and in some ways it was worse. Shino was cute, and the drawings of Hime's potential hairstyles when everyone was suggesting how she should get her hair done were nice. There were even more world details, which was both good and bad: good, because it was clear that Murayama had fun thinking this stuff through, and bad, because I noticed the series beginning to groan under the weight of its own world-building.

To be honest, the too-detailed world-building was evident even in volume 1. I feel like this series was born out of several lengthy centaur-related “what if” and “how would they” sessions between Murayama and a few friends. I can picture Murayama translating these sessions into a slice-of-life manga because slice-of-life seemed easy enough to do. (My Googling indicates that this is probably Murayama's first multi-volume series, although I could be wrong about that.)

A Centaur's Life is a pretty good example of why authors shouldn't underestimate “simple-looking” genres. Good slice-of-life manga needs characters readers can care about, situations that can hold readers' attention, coherent storytelling, and well-integrated world-building, just like everything else. Here, there's just too much world-building detail, incorporated too badly. All that detail backfired, because I found myself thinking too much about the things Murayama messed up or chose not to mention. I mean, when a series goes so far as to explain how centaurs use Western-style toilets, complete with diagrams and a visual depiction of the difficulties that overweight centaurs have with wiping themselves, pretty much everything starts to seem like fair game.

For example, in this volume Hime and Shino wore hats with little pointed parts that their ears could fit inside. Why were the hats designed to cover their ears like that? Wouldn't it have been easier, from a manufacturing standpoint, to include ear holes? And besides, wouldn't that design have impeded their ability to hear?

Then there was the way Hime lifted Shino. She grabbed her under her armpits and lifted her straight up, leaving Shino's horse half unsupported. Something about the image immediately made me think of my parents' dachshund. An important thing to know about dachshunds is that, when you lift them, you need to support both their upper and lower body. Otherwise you risk damaging their spines. When I thought about it more, it occurred to me that lifting Shino up by her armpits would also be similar to lifting a cat or dog up by its head. Just like the weight of the dog or cat's body would suddenly put a lot of strain on their necks, the weight of Shino's horse body would have put a tremendous amount of strain on the point where her horse back met her human back, damaging and possibly even breaking her spine.

The merfolk also had me asking questions Murayama possibly hadn't considered. Their bodies were designed so that, from the knees up, they looked like ordinary humans. Their legs fused together at the knees to form long tails that propelled them, eel-like, through the water. I can't even begin to say whether this method of movement would be possible for them, so instead I'd like to comment about the strange point at which Murayama chose to fuse their legs. Yes, this design allowed merfolk to wear bikini bottoms, but it also left me wondering about merfolk skincare. Did they have problems with fungus growth or callous formation between their thighs? And how did merfolk women give birth?

Part of me feels like I'm being too nitpicky but, again, it's not like Murayama didn't go into obsessive detail in a lot of other areas. This particular volume gave readers more information about how evolution differed in this world (all life sprang from six-legged creatures, while four-legged creatures died out).

Okay, moving on to the rest. After the pervy weirdness of the beginning of volume 1, I was a little worried about what this volume would bring. Thankfully, the perviness was limited to a bathing scene (in which Murayama demonstrated that he doesn't know how breasts work) and an extended scene in which a lesbian character (I can't find her name anywhere) awkwardly and persistently tried to prove Manami wrong after Manami told her little siblings that “Once you grow up, girls don't kiss each other.” While Manami's statement was clearly flawed, her siblings were, what, maybe 5 years old? The amount of effort that whats-her-name went to to prove Manami wrong was more than a little weird.

The archery portion of the volume was bizarre. I'm pretty sure that the entire hostage scene was just a nervous fantasy on Hime's part, but Murayama made zero effort to visually distinguish it from everything else, so it looked like an event that actually happened. Maybe I'm wrong and it really did happen, in which case I'm even more confused.

I'll wrap this up by talking about the short at the end, “Fears of a Human Faced Dog.” Technically this counts as an extra, but it was long enough and weird enough that I think it needs a few paragraphs devoted to it. In this story, a little girl takes care of a tiny human-faced dog, feeding her, playing with her, helping her use the toilet (what is with Murayama and toilet use?), and reading to her from an Alice in Wonderland-like book.

I have no clue what the point of this story was supposed to be. There were indications that the girl was being abused. Her mother threatened to kill her if she left the house or phoned the police, and she threatened to kill the dog if the girl didn't get rid of it. It ended happily enough, but the happy ending came out of nowhere. It was this short that solidified my feeling that Murayama's storytelling skills weren't very good.

Well, I have one more volume of this series on hand. Who knows what that one will bring? Besides at least one slightly pervy moment, of course.

  • Two full-color illustrations.
  • "Kanata City's past, present, and future," information included on the front and back inside covers. While I think this might be the city where Hime and the others live, I can't for the life of me figure out what any of this information has to do with any of the hints of the world's history that readers have been given so far.
  • A 2-page afterword primarily featuring Manami and the triplets, with a bit of crossover with the human-faced dog (the triplets chase and tease the dog). There's also a tidbit of merfolk info: apparently merfolk children aren't instinctively able to swim. I suppose it makes sense, considering their bizarre anatomy, but now I have even more questions. 
  • Several informational pages about various animals in this world, as well as beings that existed in this world's past.
Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Zootopia (CGI animated movie) - Those who'd love something else that gets into a lot of the nitty gritty details of life in a city where beings of all shapes and sizes live might want to give this a try. Just be warned, the recommendation doesn't work both ways. I've written about this movie.
  • Babylon 5 (live action TV series) - Another one that might be good for those who are particularly interested in the "beings of all shapes and sizes living together" aspect of A Centaur's Life. This is sci-fi with political aspects, though, so otherwise very different from Murayama's work. I've written about the first season and the first movie.
  • Alien Emergencies (e-book) by James White - Medical science fiction. This omnibus isn't the first in the series, but it's the only one I've read. Again, on the surface not very similar to Murayama's work, but it might be a good one for those who'd like more "beings of all shapes and sizes living together" aspects. I've written about this book.
  • Mindtouch (e-book) by M.C.A. Hogarth - Maybe? It's basically slice-of-life sci-fi starring a humanoid empath and a centauroid being. There are indications that the world has a very dark past, but the story itself is gentle and often sweet. One warning, though: there are kids with terminal illnesses, and one does die. I've written about this book.

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