Nagaru Tanigawa will be best known to the English-speaking world as the author of the multimedia sensation The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. However, while we in the west have been enjoying the japes, scrapes and escapades of the SOS Brigade over the last few years, we should bear in mind that this is very much after the fact – the last light novel in the series on which the Haruhi Suzumiya anime was based was released in 2007, and a new volume will not appear until this May – a good four years later! Tanigawa hasn’t been spending the long hiatus sipping fruit cocktails and sunning himself on a Caribbean beach though, and he worked on other projects in the interim. One of those, the original manga Amnesia Labyrinth, now makes its way here courtesy of Seven Seas Entertainment; they are evidently hoping to mine the famous association with Melancholy (the cover sleeve even proclaims it on the front and spine in bold type), but have they hit paydirt?
Certainly, this manga does prospect in a different seam. Amnesia Labyrinth has a very different tone to The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya – whereas Haruhi spins, trips and waltzes with the fantastic, this manga remains more coolly and calmly grounded in reality; while Haruhi’s friends kept their secrets for the sake of excitement and adventure, in Amnesia Labyrinth secrets have the darker taint of conspiracy, that one should speak no evil.
Souji Kushiki is the younger son of a patrician family that owns an expansive estate overlooking a rural town. Souji is both intelligent and athletic and has been attending a boarding school in the city but when Kazushi – his elder brother and family scion – suddenly disappears, Souji is recalled home to take up the position of heir to the household. On his return Souji meets again with his other siblings, who he has been estranged from for the year and a half he was away – sister Youko, half-sister Saki, and stepsister Harumi. Still encased in the gilded cage of the Kushiki compound, all three girls have been pining for their brother since he flew the nest, and are overjoyed to see him return to the fold. Disturbingly so...
Souji re-enrols in a local high school, where he encounters the spunky and vivacious Yukako, a would-be Sherlock who has proclaimed herself chairman of the student council’s “intelligence committee”. Yukako is fascinated by Souji – who is surprised to find that he now has the role of the ‘mysterious transfer student’ thrust upon him – and quickly attaches herself to him; but for all of her gleeful and energetic character, she is unsettled by another kind of strain. Murder Most Horrid has struck the school, with three pupils killed over the summer vacation. The police are confounded and the murderer is still at large, with no indication that he won’t strike again - and as all of the victims were high achievers, could Souji be the fourth target?
The threads binding these two plots together are Souji’s three sisters. It becomes evident that the Kushiki family history is more disturbed than a mere remarriage, and that Souji did not leave to pursue his education – he fled from the shadow of a black cloud in his past, one which still continues to hang over the Kushiki mansion, casting suspicion over all members of the family... not least Souji himself.
Let’s get it out of the way first - this is a manga after all. You half-expect it as soon as Souji’s family is described... and you’d be right. Souji’s sisters make few bones about the fact that they all want to jump his. In an early scene Youko frankly discusses marrying Harumi to Souji – while Youko herself is clambering all over him. Not only do we have three different sororital spices for every deliciously transgressive flavour of incest (their hair is even colour-coded for easy reference), each course in the banquet doubles up with a side-dish: Youko is a traditionally-styled ‘yamato nadeshiko’ with long raven hair and a wardrobe of patterned yutakas; even though the Kushiki household already has domestic staff, Saki still volunteers to be a maid, complete with frilly apron; and Harumi is sweetly endearing with her childish clumsiness and blushing shyness, practically dripping moé from her watery doe-eyes. What a titillating bonanza! It’s a fetish feast!
Despite these first impressions, though, it has to be stressed that Amnesia Labyrinth is definitely not an ecchi harem comedy; while that would not be bad in and of itself, the unexpected way in which Tanigawa adapts this concept to a crime drama is what makes the manga interesting. There is very little nudity (three panels in the entire book) and sex is not so much the narrative objective of the sisters’ affections as is demonstrating to the reader how the sliding doors of the mansion’s tatami rooms are snapping and biting shut, spinning Souji around in a bewildering maze that he sought escape from, but that he has now been hooked back into. Time is taken for the sisters to express themselves in ways that are genuinely dramatic – with her feet invisible underneath the hem of her long robe, Youko ghosts about the mansion eerily, her dark hair merging into the shadow of unlit rooms and there is a unsettling sense of creeping, predatory menace as she sidles up behind Souji in his blind spot, not so much entwining herself around him as tightening vices, her tall and narrow frame becoming a constricting snake. In contrast, Saki practically floats into the room, buoyed up on a frictionless cushion of airy, mesmeric, faraway desire, and when she slides up Souji it isn’t just fanservice – it’s actually stirringly seductive. Souji himself also responds to these advances in a coherent way: with short black hair and outwardly inexpressive, initially he seems to be “generic harem protagonist” ready for the reader’s self-insertion fantasy, but he has depths beneath that. We come to understand that he’s actually quite repulsed by his sisters’ conduct but, feeling powerless to resist their overbearing insistence, he’s constructed a wall around himself to be mentally insulated from the uncomfortable associations; and while he struggles to keep up with the energetic Yukako (literally - in multiple scenes she’s physically dragging him around the place), the more innocently carefree and openly honest nature of their interactions warms Souji and gets his more genial side pecking through the shell.
A real asset to realising these relationships is Kohane’s art, which is strong enough to sell the volume on its own. She certainly cannot be accused of talking heads - even in a book which is dominated by dialogue over action, the characters spark and bounce with real energy, constantly interacting with their environment and expressing themselves through physical movement as much as with their speech. Kohane smoothly switches between styles, slipping in moments of levity with odd panels of cartoony and chibi styles to suitably accent silly worries but never overplaying them into tone-disrupting self-parody. Backgrounds are fully detailed and hand-drawn with hatched shading – a splendid feature given that increasing numbers of manga these days settle for pasting in a photograph and slapping a half-tone filter over it – and Kohane also plays with panelling, featuring characters reaching across the gutters to harass each other on the telephone, or dreamscapes where Souji is a playing-piece blocked by his sisters on a board. Real effort shines from every page and it is a true delight to behold. On a few occasions I’ve flicked through the book just admiring the art and never minding the story.
Which is just as well - throughout this review I haven’t mentioned all that much about the murders that have shocked the town and that’s because there really isn’t that much to say. Even though there’s a serial killer eluding capture, no-one seems terribly animated about it beyond Yukako herself; I'm not one to insist on overwrought melodrama, but when the atmosphere is scarcely afforded a few coughs and hesitant glances, the sense of threat and drive is nil. There is little progress made in the investigation, too. On one occasion Yukako interviews the girlfriend of one of the victims to see if she can provide any insight into irregularities leading up to the killing, only to find, well, no, she doesn’t know a thing; they gas about stand-up comedians instead. The story meanders vaguely from scene to scene in this way for pretty much the entire book, and for a manga that opens with someone being shoved off of a station platform into an oncoming train it’s an exasperating and dispiriting lack of pace that deflates the drama of the scenario.
On the other hand, though, this does provide plenty of opportunity for character development as the characters express the art of conversation in well-developed dialogue, which is engaging in its own way. When reflecting on the murders Souji and Yukako have a discussion about death which, while it only repeats the same platitudes that we’ve heard elsewhere and offers no new angle on a question that modern secular society has failed to answer, is still more than we’d get in most other manga. Certain character developments are not always appealing, though: Yukako’s position on the “intelligence committee” serves a clear story role – it lets her ‘scan’ Souji to reveal his background to the reader in a neatly internalised way, an inquisitive nature lets us explore the setting more fully, and it’s a point of ingress into investigating the murders. There’s an uncomfortable undercurrent to this, though, when in one scene Yukako freely admits that her job on the student council also involves tabloid scrabbling to dig up dirt on and smear pupils the council considers undesirable – or fabricate it if those victims unhelpfully insist on being decent people. This is said with a laugh and a smile and wink... even though it’s something you’d expect in a communist Stasiland. It seems to be a symptom of that curious conformity that is still prevalent in Japanese society that no-one even momentarily bats an eyelid at this appalling conduct.
On the topic of the relationship between character and plot, the other half of this story relies upon the mystery of what skeletons Souji’s sisters have hidden in the Kushiki family closet. At this juncture Tanigawa has elected to withhold most of the information, keeping up a sense of mystery by avoiding exposition and letting the characters’ actions speak for themselves. However, this is a somewhat hit-and-miss affair. There is a palpable sense of tension in scenes where the sisters have a coldly statuesque unvoiced compact between themselves, and the lack of overt information does not always hinder the story – for instance, it’s no real difficulty to infer that one character has multiple personality disorder – but on the other hand, a crucial failure is that the characters know things that the readers do not. When Souji sits up and announces that he’s sure another character is the killer, you’re left howling “how?” and “why?”, but he’s not telling, not even if you say the magic word. Part of the fun of a murder mystery lies in puzzling out the whodunit ourselves, but we can’t do that if we’re not given the facts – to leave a story unresolved until the scriptwriter condescends to allow a helpful factoid to slip out of his pocket is a clumsy way to spin out an investigation.
Nan Rymer’s translation is largely effective, with characters speaking fluidly in natural vernacular, and also ably handling Youko’s occasional seizures of stiffly formal language – considered politeness and pointed deference as a mode of insult – to let the rigid words hum with anger. However, various Japanese particles are left untranslated, so you’ll find the text peppered with “onee-sama”, “nii-chan” and so on. Personally I can’t stand this fashion of translation and consider it to be half-baked if not outright lazy, but after being bruised in enough Internet debates over the topic I accept that I hold to the minority view and I can hardly blame Seven Seas for appealing to their readership. Seven Seas has also made a quality production of the book itself, with a glossy cover (noticeably brighter than the muted colours of the Japanese edition, in fact), pleasing texture to the paper, no obvious typesetting errors, and a selection of production art and messages from the scriptwriter and artist, which are always welcome bonuses. The book also includes a preview of Gunslinger Girl, a manga that Seven Seas has rescued from the collapse of ADV – being an absolutely huge Gunslinger Girl nut, I’d probably have bought this volume on the strength of that alone, but I assure you that it has not influenced this review!
To sum up, Amnesia Labyrinth features excellent art and genuinely intriguing character relations, but they currently flounder in the morass of scattered and fragmentary plot. It shows considerable promise and it will be worth following the story to volume two, provided that the next volume has more impetus and direction. These outer levels of Amnesia Labyrinth have been frustrating to navigate at times, but the thread to the centre glints brightly enough for me to follow.