Fifteen-year-old Oz Vessalius, son of a duke, is about to have his coming-of-age ceremony, but it’s not going to go as planned.
At the out-of-the-way mansion where the ceremony is to take place, Oz goes exploring with his sister Ada and his valet, the timid Gil, who is Oz’s age and his best friend. The two boys discover an old grave, where they find a pocket watch that calls to Oz with strange music. Touching it, Oz experiences a frightening vision: a girl he’s never met threatens to kill him.
Deciding to inquire about the watch later, Oz readies himself for the ceremony. Earlier, he had convinced Gil, against the valet’s protests of unworthiness, to take part as not a servant but a friend. Unfortunately, since the watch and the vision, others have taken an interest in Oz: a group called the Baskervilles uses the powers of a supernatural puppetmaster to secretly seize control of Gil.
The Baskervilles descend on the ceremony and force Gil to attack his master. Oz finds himself saved by an enormous, scary black rabbit – who then turns into the girl from his vision. But there is no time to ponder this: attempting to rescue his valet, Oz is horrified when his sword goes through an illusory Baskerville and strikes Gil.
On that awful note, the Baskervilles, condemning Oz for a sin he doesn’t understand, banish him to the Abyss, an otherworldly prison full of terrifying creatures. There, once again, he encounters the girl/rabbit, who calls herself Alice. She offers a deal: by making a contract, they can both get out of the Abyss. But this “contract” is no pen-and-paper affair – it would bond the two together, and might have dangerous consequences. With little choice, Oz agrees. But when he and Alice return to this world, they meet only representatives of an organization called Pandora, who want their help to hunt down the Baskervilles. There’s no sign of Gil, alive or dead – although one of the Pandora operatives looks strangely like an adult version of him.
The art is crisp and detailed, making good use of screentone. The costumes and scenery are lovely and the monsters creepy. The characters have distinct appearances – the exception, Pandora operative Raven, is clearly intentional, as Oz himself thinks for a moment that Raven is Gil.
The sound effects are treated in a way I hadn’t seen before. Depending on whether there is room in the panel next to the Japanese character expressing the sound (or non-sound, e.g. “blush”), translations sometimes appear outside the panel, like footnotes. So you might get “ba (shove)” squeezed in beside the Japanese characters in a panel, or you might get “SFX: suri (stroke)” underneath the panel. Some panels have both, translating different sound effects. Sometimes the romanization is translated into a phonetic sound: “su (swf)”. I find all this interesting rather than distracting – it highlights just how many sound effects a manga like this contains.
Oz shows a range of emotions, but has a strong tendency to return to his buoyant, silly default. This is sometimes funny – after narrowly escaping a monster in the Abyss, he forgets his distress in the joy of finding a box of cookies – and sometimes disturbing, as when you recall that the previous example takes place shortly after Oz accidentally cuts open his best friend with a sword. This tendency is recognized in a conversation with Alice, so it’s understood to be a little strange, and may be further explored later in the series.
The other characters promise to be interesting: Alice is eerie, her mind as inhuman as her monstrous rabbit form; the Pandora operatives are definitely hiding secrets of their own. The Alice in Wonderland allusions are, so far, noticeable but not emphasized: besides Alice and her rabbity alter ego, the Abyss is reminiscent of a shattered Wonderland, and the Baskervilles include a pair of shadowy characters named Duldum and Duldee. Also notable is the frequent imagery of clocks and of chains – exemplified, of course, by the pocket watch Oz finds, which echoes the watch carried by the white rabbit in the original classic.
Pandora Hearts, vol. 1
by Jun Mochizuki
Yen Press, 2009
Publisher Age Rating: Older Teen