It's been almost four years now since Seven Seas Entertainment shot into the New York Times manga bestseller charts with their release of Okayado's Monster Musume and the rampaging horde of the weird and unnatural that the publisher has unleashed is not even close to abating.
Monster Musume itself shows no signs of franchise fatigue and is still going strong - Volume 10 of the manga debuted in the New York Times manga bestseller charts once again on Christmas 2016 at no. 3 - and Seven Seas evidently believes that lightning can strike in the same place not just twice but a dozen times, as even if you exclude the publisher's straight fantasy manga or the manga that are about 'mere' vampires and werewolves that's the number of different monster manga titles that Seven Seas has swimming behind in Monster Musume's wake - and there's more to come still since Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid was in Seven Sea's license announcements at Anime Expo 2017.
There's so many that if you search Seven Seas' online catalogue 'Monster Girls' and 'Monster Boys' have their own categories! Seven Seas' approach to monster manga has seemed scattershot at best, throwing out whatever they can as fast as they can to recapture Monster Musume's magic, and so we've only given them a mixed reception - but roll dice enough time and you'll eventually come up with sixes, so as it's been a while since our last monstergirl review it seemed appropriate to check back in and see how Seven Seas are doing with their latest offering, the cryptically-titled Species Domain. Will it be a monster hit, or just a plain old monstrosity?
A world where the plane of reality and the plane of magic are intertwined and can be crossed may never seem like a wholly normal place, but no matter how fantastic the realm it seems you still have to go to work in the morning and you still have to do your school homework, so be you man or monster the routine is rather more ordinary than you might believe. Kazamori may seem like a typical high-school girl in this world (as typical as a pointy-eared elf can be, anyway) but she is in fact a changeling - not in the fantasy shapeshifting sense but in the ancient folkloric sense. She is not just a female elf but a cuckoo in the nest - her human mother's son, her mother's actual child, was stolen from the crib and an infant Kazamori was left in his place. Despite the shock of having her real child snatched away Kazamori's new mother nonetheless accepted the young Kazamori into her family with love and she has grown up into a teenaged elf in the mundane, human world.
In high school, her elfin heritage has given Kazamori the reputation amongst her classmates for being something of a 'cool beauty' - not quite aloof, but statuesque in her grace and comportment and so quiet and unapproachable as everyone is in awe of her magical powers brought over from the fairy realm. The problem for Kazamori, though, is that she doesn't have any - despite being an elf (and with the ears to prove it), it seems that being brought up in the human world has dulled her natural abilities and she can't cast so much as a cantrip. Kazamori feels utterly shamed and humiliated by her inability to use magic and match her classmates' expectations, which leads to her being withdrawn at school and unwilling to reach out for fear of being shown up.
Breaching this veritable social chasm is Kazamori's classmate Ohki. Ohki is something of a boy genius and prodigy inventor, and an ardent rationalist who thinks magic is bunkum and any reports of it as just illusions. This high-handed approach utterly enrages Kazamori - magic is an important part of her identity (even if it's only by its absence) and Ohki's dismissive attitude feels like a deliberate insult while his amazing devices, whose seemingly impossible functions come across as having very much magical properties even as much as he insists they're all scientific machines, casually mock her own lack of potential. Kazamori wants to damn Ohki for his impudence but as she's about to turn her ire on him she finds herself wondering, that after years of having no magic of her own she would like to play with Ohki's magic-like toys...
Monstergirls come with something of a reputation but Species Domain is worth having a look at if you've found other monstergirl mangas offputting, or even if you like them you've found them just plain exhausting. Monstergirls are an inherently fanservicey concept founded on giving kawaii anime girls extra accessories to play with; Monster Musume began life as a hentai doujin before it was dialled back into being 'just' an ecchi for commercial release, and even now not a chapter goes by when the hero's monstergirl harem aren't showing off their monster mammaries. Species Domain contrasts with that completely and while there are a couple of minor and oblique sex references (and then just in the sense of indirect unvoiced gossipy tittering over Ohki and Kazamori's meetings than examining monstergirl plumbing in excurciatingly foresnic detail) there is absolutely zero nudity in the entire book. Indeed, Species Domain seems outright aggressive in its determination to actively deny you fanservice. This manga does not just omit fanservice but confounds it, setting up scenes with camera angles that in other manga would be obvious jackpot money-shots but then pulling them back and declining to complete the sale. The winged angel-girl wears bicycle shorts (I refuse to call them 'spats', she's not wearing a Prince Albert in the Twenties... where on earth did that bit of weeaboo jargon come from, anyway?) so no chance of any aerial upskirts; when Kazamori is sitting down and pulls her legs up to her chest her skirt pleats thwart any panty shot; and then there's the uniforms themselves. A typical trait of old-school 'seifuku' uniforms is how a girl's untucked blouse hangs off her bust, lifting the hem up and out enough to expose a bit of cheeky midriff as she moves - you see it a lot in Sailor Moon especially and it's quite common in other sailor-suited school manga as well. The girls of Species Domain also wear their own seifuku in the same way, but despite multiple scenes when the wind picks up to tantalisingly ripple their tops or the camera angles up at them below any hope of a cheeky belly-button is dashed when they're all wearing undershirts beneath their blouses. Not only that, their skirts have braces to keep them up! It even shows this on the front cover so you don't pick up the manga with salacious and wrong expectations.
While you could make the argument that Species Domain indulges in some Flying Witch-style implicit clothed fanservice (Kazamori does have a nourishing chest and it occasionally gets emphasised when she crosses her arms or squats down) even what's implicit is still very tame. All you get in the whole volume is one bikini-top on the last page of the end-of-volume omakes - it's kind of awkward as it comes out right if you open the book at the wrong end and it really gives an incorrect impression of an attitude that isn't present at all in the book proper (this back-matter wasn't even in the original Japanese tankobon, it was hidden on the reverse of its dust cover, a fact admitted in an amusing footnote in the English edition). Whatever exists on the margins though, Species Domain is certainly the most conservative, restrained monstergirl manga that I've read and one that other than that last page would be safe to share with the wider family.
Shunsuku Noro the mangaka hasn't put that much emphasis onto anatomy, then, but he has rededicated that energy into other areas. Species Domain is his first professional manga and it's a very good start for his art. You could say that it lacks style or imagination - all the costumes and scenery are ultimately just the identikit off-the-shelf suburban high-school tileset - but even if you don't think it's art there's still plenty of craft, as the manga is drawn with skill and quality. Proportions are appropriate, clothing is detailed in its folds and creases, backgrounds are familiar but drawn efficiently, and the characters are all very expressive as Ohki and Kazamori butt heads over magic and science.
The feeling of sound quality craftsmanship even if not necessarily orignality applies to the story as well. I look at the heroine Kazamori and I think about the tsundere. Now, that may make some readers flinch. 'Tsundere' is a notorious anime and manga character trope but despite how absolutely universal it is applied, with the tag assigned to hundreds if not thousands of anime girls, it's rare to find a mangaka who truly understands what a tsundere is. The word 'tsundere' is most commonly translated into English as "bipolar" or "Sweet'n'sour" but that's really a misnomer as it implies that the character is fractious, inconsistent, and constantly flipping personas as someone with a dissosociative personality disorder... something often played up and exaggerated by modern mangaka who, in the way that Japanese humour suffers from an overreliance on slapstick, seek out the laborious comedy of exaggerating her extremes into that of a cruel emotional and physical bully whose rare lapses into fleeting tenderness make her more resemble an outright psychotic. Maybe this more violent type of tsundere is more 'relatable' to the unassertive modern otaku manga readership who are resigned to being looked down on and overridden, but the early tsundere, before the writing tendency was noticed and codified into a trope, was someone who was initially hostile to the protagonist but gradually mellows over time - a gradient from 'tsun' to 'dere' like Kurogane from Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle, instead of a random hair-trigger switch flipped backwards and forwards between 'tsun' and 'dere' like Ayano from Stigma of the Wind.
I bring this all up because Species Domain's Kazamori is a very good, classic tsundere. A question that bedevils inferior anime romcoms is why two characters who obviously can’t stand each other would even interact in the first place, and so Kazamori and Ohki are not just mashed together, their relationship is established on reasonable and practical circumstances for why they would keep meeting if they were so hostile. Kazamori's initial aggression towards Ohki is not because she's an anime sadist but because she is entirely understandably insulted and infuriated by his anti-magic attitude; and Kazamori's desire to keep seeing Ohki is not just the lame, limpid, meagre "he's nice" indulged in so many other Generic Anime Protagonists, it's because she's fascinated and intrigued despite herself with his impossible magic-like technologies and wants to explore them - and in so doing, finds out more about herself. They are not partnered because plot structure dictates that there must be a hero and heroine regardless of how irrelevant they are to each other, all of their interactions make sense within the context of the story itself. Their "meet cute" at the start of the book is also superbly handled in that it's a unexpected collision that's a complete seed of the nature of each character and why they would stick together that elaborates further over the course of the book, two characters on different wavelengths tuning themselves and suddenly and shockingly finding themselves in sync: Kazamori goes out alone onto the roof to reflect and gets locked out, while Ohki ends up letting her back in not by getting the key but by using one of his Dexter's Lab inventions to phase her through the door. The surprise is a spark which starts something smouldering, and more kindling gets added when the device is reused a few times to make the roof a recurring little secret garden.
Kazamori's status as a tsundere also helps to sum up Species Domain as a whole. It tells a familiar story in a familiar setting, but its adherence to tropes isn't just a way to phone it in by bullet-pointing the headings and then telling the readers to fill in the blank themselves, but as a solid foundation on which to build a complex structure. Species Domain is an entirely pleasant read: a simple tale but well-told.