Kodansha Comics USA
Tow Ubukata and Yoshitoki Oima
Given that we're pretty big fans of Tow Ubukata's original Mardock Scramble novels, and as those among us who have been lucky enough to see its opening animated instalment at the Leeds International Film Festival have been similarly glowing in their praise for its take on the story, it's with more than a little interest and delight that we picked up the opening volume of this story in its manga form courtesy of Kodansha Comics USA.
On the surface, the opening chapters of this first volume tells a story that will be instantly familiar to anyone who has read the novels or seen the first movie, as we join a girl named Rune Balot as she finds herself plucked from destitution and life as a prostitute by a rich businessman named Shell Septinos. While rescuing Rune seems like a grand, humanitarian gesture on Shell's part, there is more to this action than meets the eye, and no sooner do we become acquainted with Balot than we see Shell try to brutally murder her.
Whilst "why?" may well be the first question to arise from this sudden turn of events, first and foremost we find ourselves wondering whether Balot will even survive this attempted - enter a pair of oddball detectives in the form of private investigator Dr. Easter and his assistant, a mouse (yes, really) named Oefcoque who is far more than he seems. This dynamic duo utilise a government programme named Scramble 09 which allows for the use of otherwise illegal technology to save Balot, in turn giving her the tools she needs to investigate Shell's attempt on her own life. But will she even want to take revenge against her would-be killer?
It's this tricky question that dominates much of Mardock Scramble's first manga volume once the initial story is set up - can Balot really turn against the man who pulled her from destitution and made her "somebody", no matter what his ultimate motives were? Balot struggles to come to terms with this while equally learning to get to grips with her own powers - the ability to manipulate and use electricity to her will; a power which makes her a formidable opponent when paired with Oefcoque's capabilities as a shape-shifting cyborg rodent. Needless to say, it's a lot for a young girl who has only just stepped away from the brink of death to take in, but these are considerations which she'll need to cogitate quickly as Shell and his minions soon set out to try and erase their boss' potentially costly mistake.
Although it would be harsh in the extreme to lambast any manga series for not exhibiting the same richness of content around the novels from which it originates, it's hard to escape the fact that this opening volume of Mardock Scramble gives us little to no feeling for the futuristic city which is laid out so well in its source material. This is a problem that plagues these early chapters of the manga throughout in fact - all of its characters feel markedly more shallow than their novel counterparts, and although Rune Balot herself manages to rise above this somewhat thanks to the focus upon her, a lot of the supporting cast feel almost like cardboard cut-outs rather than genuine villains or eccentric heroes.
As well as a lack of depth to Mardock City, this first volume also feels a little too brisk with its pace, feeling overly keen to get to into the thick of action, which may well, in itself, be responsible for the loose characterisation on show here. Thankfully, when we do get to the brief slices of action, we find this manga at its most proficient, with an art style that normally feels a little rough and sketchy working well when exhibiting movement and the like in a suitably fluid fashion. Although the artwork is decidedly hit and miss, the series' character designs at least feel solid and, in Balot's case at least, afforded plenty of attention to ensure that things look and feel right.
Pleased though we are to see Mardock Scramble afforded a western release in this form (and Kodansha's effort here is certainly a solid one which we can't fault), we can't really escape the fact that it's a poor relation to the original novels which tell the same story with far more detail and richness, and without the changes to its story telling landscape which arguably weaken this manga equivalent's ability to grab the attention yet further. If this is an expected side effect of the translation from novel to manga, then the often scruffy artwork doesn't really make up for the other disadvantages of the format, which leaves us with a rather bland and "flat" opening volume which does little to grab the attention. Put simply, judging by this first volume you'd be far better served by enjoying Mardock Scramble in its theatrical anime or original novel forms, and as both of them are available (or soon to be available) in the UK there's no excuse not to check out the fantastic source material in one of those alternative formats.