In a land still purging itself of the poisons of a past “dirty war,” people seek hope and comfort in tradition. As the busy festival season starts, construction worker Manaka finds himself drawn to Kishima, a capable yet secretive young woman on his crew. When authorities from her remote mountain village suddenly show up to take her home, saying she’s a runaway avoiding her duties in their upcoming Tenken festival, Manaka initially lets her go, promising to hold her job for her. But as he witnesses one strange thing after another, he begins to worry that Kishima had good reason to run away and resolves to save her from what he at first believes is just her community’s ignorant barbarism. The more he involves himself, however, the more he suspects the danger extends both deeply into and far beyond the bounds of the physical world.
This suspenseful, romantic, post-apocalyptic tale of destiny and environmental consciousness uses as its jumping-off point a traditional Japanese legend, helpfully summarized on the first page, about the god Susano’s clever rescue of a young woman from the eight-headed serpent Yamata no Orochi. In creator Shirai’s hands, the story takes on multiple local reinterpretations, including one in which the young woman, the Kushinada Princess, is separated from her true love, Master Orochi, when bellicose Susano kills him. Going through the motions of delivering her to her rightful bridegroom on the other side via the guidance of the latter’s serpentine servant (also called Orochi) is considered a rite of purification and protection for the pollution-burdened society. But as Manaka, Kishima, and the reader gradually discover, they don’t know the half of it.
The artwork here is lovely, a mix of realism and impressionism, full of bold ink washes and ephemeral linework that often give the images a sense of fragility and an appropriate dreamlike quality. Unfortunately, the fine artwork can also feel confined by the frames and doesn’t always provide enough visual depth, making details difficult to pick out, especially in moments of high action (such as the climax) where light is blinding, shadows are deep, and movements are blurred and lost among the fluid, exaggerated brush strokes.
With engaging characters, an intriguing story based on tweaked mythology, and compelling visuals going for it, Tenken still has a rather significant flaw in that it is unnecessarily hard to follow. And the pretty if occasionally confusing art is only a very small part of that. Several aspects of the complicated post-war setting are not very fleshed-out or explained within the story, instead referring readers to the end notes, some of which contain plot-pertinent information that would have been more effective had it been worked into the story itself.
Most of the reader’s frustration, however, is due to technical issues. Narrative perspective shifts between characters go unflagged and it takes the reader several panels or even pages to figure out whose voice is being presented. In the same vein, dialogue bubbles are without tails or lead-lines to indicate who’s saying what and the reader has to rely on placement, context, and one or two character-specific font changes to figure it out. These issues are exacerbated by the English edition’s bizarre editing choice to forgo the use of periods. This is particularly awkward where multiple statements occur in the same area on the page, in which case they’re separated by an ellipsis or a space or are just run together. The only exceptions, besides a few random strays, are the introductory legend and the end notes. While this practice isn’t unusual in original Japanese texts, I’ve never before seen it retained in a work professionally adapted into English. There are also a handful of proofing errors, including one badly scanned panel (which, oddly enough, was fine in the ARC), two empty dialogue bubbles, and a number of typos consisting of extra or missing words and spaces (and, in one instance, a “1” stuck in the middle of a word).
Tenken, winner of the Encouragement Prize at the 2007 Japan Media Arts Festival, clearly deserves acknowledgement for its imaginative plot and impressive art. But it reminds me of a beautiful, character-ridden old house nevertheless in need of a little work to make it a structurally-sound and comfortable home. The creator and her publishers make you put in more effort than you should have to, but if you have the time and energy to invest in a re-read or two in order to pull it all together, it’s still a thought-provoking, attractive tale that makes you hopeful Shirai will keep at it, honing and improving her skills, and someday produce something spectacular.
While the publisher offers no suggestions as to audience, the mild swearing, violence, and reader-patience requirements probably make this most suitable for older teens and adults.