One of the most interesting aspects of manga is how western stories end up being transmogrified into something new by Japanese writers and artists. Often the result is a work that will make western audiences feel, well, a little squirmy. Perhaps the best recent example of this is Kent Minam and Nozomu Tamaki’s Angel Para Bellum.
Living up to a title that can be translated as Angel of War, the story centers around a boy named Mitsuru. As the story opens, he has been kidnapped by the agents of Hell because he is actually a nephilim, the offspring of an angel. He is soon rescued by two actual angels, Gabriel and Azrael, who act as his protectors throughout the rest of volume one.
While the plot is as straightforward as that, the spin on Judeo-Christian mythology that Minami and Takami take is anything but. For, building on the idea that Angels are neither male nor female, they have decided to make Gabriel and Azrael both genders.
Androgyny is often a theme that crops up in manga. Even Osamu Tezuka, Japan’s answer to Walt Disney, explored it in his completely innocuous Princess Knight. However in Angel Para Bellum, it almost becomes the raison d’etre of the series. Gabriel and Azreal are both depicted as attractive females, Gabriel in particular being portrayed as a drop-dead gorgeous blonde bombshell. Yet, much to Mitsuru’s (and perhaps our own) discomfort, they both are also equipped with male genitalia, which is referred to in the story, but thankfully never actually depicted. Every other body part is on display and lushly rendered, though, at times giving the series an almost ecchi feel, stopping just short of pornography. While in some manga nudity is used to depict a virginal innocence or for humor—and there is some of that here—there is no escaping the sexual nature of this artwork.
And it doesn’t stop with the angels. At one point it is decided to disguise Mitsuru to help him escape the demons’ attack. He is presumably a teen boy, but is drawn as rather short and effeminate, so the dress he is forced to wear makes him appear as a female. Tamaki’s artwork emphasizes this, even including a ‘male-gaze’ sort of shot hinting at an upskirt view as he hugs his rescuer Gabriel.
Overall, the artwork is impeccably stylized and detailed. The characters, particularly the angels, are all gorgeously rendered and visually appealing. In some cases almost too much so, as Mitsuru learns about Gabriel and Azrael. The action scenes are well-crafted, if extremely violent and bloody. Needless to say, they remind one of Tamaki’s other popular work, the equally sexualized Dance in the Vampire Bund.
If anything suffers, it is the story by Kent Minami. As the majority of volume one is taken up by incredible action sequences and squirm-inducing revelations of the angels’ true natures (Azrael in particular seems to enjoy laying about totally nude when not fighting), there is little room left for exploring the reasons why Hell would be interested in Mitsuru or why Heaven would want or need to protect him. The reader is left with hints of what may come later, but that is as far as it gets. Depending on the reader, it’s a teaser for the next volume, or a good reason not to continue with the series.
Angel Para Bellum sits right on the edge of being appropriate for older teens, living up to its publishers rating of 16+, much like an R-rated movie, with intense and bloody battles and a nearly kinky sexual overtone to the whole work. As such, it may be a better fit on the adult shelves. Libraries in conservative areas may wish to avoid it altogether, as the combination of violence, androgyny, and sexuality with semi-biblical themes may not be appropriate for this audience.