…and other amazing alliterations.
No Power Rangers this week, for the simple reason that my back acting up delayed Sunday’s post to Monday, which gave me a shorter timeline to pop out today’s post, and the Power Rangers Retrospectives take longer to do than other posts. Instead, I’m going to review and recommend two of my favorite obscure manga series: Double Arts and Qualia the Purple. Both of these are short-running series which can be consumed fairly quickly.
There will naturally be some spoilers within, but I’ll try to keep them to a minimum.
Double Arts was the first serialized series by author Komi Naoshi, who is now somewhat more famous for his second, more commercially successful, series, Nisekoi, which recently concluded. Unfortunately, Double Arts never really took off with Weekly Shonen Jump‘s Japanese audience, and it was cancelled after only twenty-three chapters. Which is a shame, because Double Arts was something really special that deserved a chance to shine.
In Double Arts, the world is wracked with a mysterious plague called Troi (or Troy, depending on how the translator was feeling that day). This disease spreads instantly on contact with the skin or hair of an infected person, and is always eventually fatal. It builds up toxins in the victim’s body which cause a variety of symptoms and, finally painful seizures as the disease goes into its final stage. At the end of the seizures, the victim simply…vanishes into thin air, leaving behind nothing but a pile of empty clothing.
There’s only one treatment for Troi: the touch of a Sister. Sisters are young women with a strong resistance to the disease. Note that I said resistance, not immunity. The Sisters are infected with the disease themselves, and can spread it with a touch, which is why they spend all their uniform is all thick robes, hoods, and gloves. But whereas Troi would be a death sentence for most people within a few years, a Sister could live to old age if she wanted to. What’s more, by touching a victim of Troi, they can siphon those toxins into their own body, alleviating symptoms and resetting the disease’s clock by shortening their own lifespan.
One such young woman, Sister Elraine Figarette, takes on one patient too many, and goes into her death throes. As she starts to fade out, she falls to the ground, and a young man passing by catches her…and just like that, her seizures stop, and her symptoms fade. His name is Kiri Luchile, and he has a special power which makes him the first person immune to Troi.
This discovery instantly makes him the most important person in the world. If they can get him across the country to the Sisterhood’s headquarters, they can study his body and hopefully develop a cure or vaccine for Troi. There’s a catch, though: his powers are keeping her infection in check, but the instant they lose contact, her death seizures start up again. If they ever stop touching for thirty seconds, she dies. Which means they need to get all the way across the country, holding hands the whole way.
Oh, and did I mention that there’s an order of assassins out there (calling themselves the ‘Gazelle’) who target Sisters specifically for unclear reasons? So not only can they never stop touching each other, they have to do it while dodging or fighting off a bunch of trained killers.
In another series, by a different author, this could have been a disastrous premise. It could have been an opening to all sorts of tasteless jokes and tired old ecchi content. It could have been a big load of pandering to adolescent sexuality. Fortunately, Komi handles it with a lot more delicacy than that. He addresses the obvious questions (How do they shower? How do they get dressed? How do they sleep without losing contact?), but does so without relying on hoary old sex jokes and titillation.
Instead, the series is concerned with the simple power and danger of intimacy, delivered through the simplest possible metaphor: the touch of a hand. For Elraine, a simple touch has always been terrifying, even deadly. Thanks to the disease she carries, her hands are weapons. But the touch of a hand, both in the form of Troi treatment and also through Kiri’s power (which I won’t go into detail about here, but rest assured that it’s pretty unique and interesting), is a way to reach out and connect with other people, and in so doing help to shoulder their load. Reaching out to other people can be scary, but people make each other stronger when they do. Two clasped hands are a simple, yet powerful, image of innocent physical intimacy, and Double Arts gets a lot of mileage out of it.
Of course, all that blather wouldn’t mean much if the execution was off, but I’m pleased to report that Komi is absolutely on point in that regard. His pages read smoothly, his character designs are all distinctive, and the characters are an absolute delight. Kiri and Elraine have a great dynamic, and play off each other quite well, and the supporting cast are all memorable as well; Sui, Kiri’s hedonistic and fight-happy ex-girlfriend, is a laugh riot in every scene she’s in, and the surprisingly childlike mysterious martial artist Farran Denzel is intriguing; I’ve seen plenty of characters who’ve sworn oaths to only use their powers to help others, but until I read Double Arts I’d never seen one who’d sworn the opposite.
Although the assassins they battle (and, yes, this is a battle manga) are not generally very interesting as characters, they’re still well-designed, and more importantly each have their own gimmick that really makes the fights pop. What’s more, Komi proves himself an extremely competent action draftsman. It’s never unclear who is doing what, he takes advantage of the setting, and all the hits have the appropriate level of impact. And when one of the Gazelle’s leaders takes the stage, he’s both terrifying and compelling; Komi packs a lot of characterization into only a few chapters, and his words and actions raise a lot of fascinating questions.
But, sadly, they’re questions that will never be answered. Just as it looked like the plot was about to kick in for real, the manga was unceremoniously cancelled. The final chapter provides some emotional resolution, but little else. We’ll never know the motivations of the Gazelle, or the origin of Kiri’s power, or the story behind Falan Denzell’s bizarre oath. And hey, for all we know, maybe the answers would have wound up disappointing us; it is, after all, much easier to raise interesting questions than to provide satisfying answers. But barring some unexpected turn of events, we’ll never know, and it stinks.
Despite all that, Double Arts remains an extremely worthwhile read. It wasn’t with us long, but what it brought was charming, a bit haunting, and very much worth reading, despite its incomplete nature.
Qualia the Purple
“Qualia are the subjective or qualitative properties of experiences. What it feels like, experientially, to see a red rose is different from what it feels like to see a yellow rose. Likewise for hearing a musical note played by a piano and hearing the same musical note played by a tuba. The qualia of these experiences are what give each of them its characteristic “feel” and also what distinguish them from one another.” –Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
What the fuck can I say about Qualia the Purple without horrendously spoiling it? To even describe the premise of the conflict that drives the better part of this series is to completely and utterly spoil a huge and important twist. And the better part of Qualia the Purple‘s appeal is that it’s such a wild and crazy ride with so many wild twists, so you really want to go into this unspoiled.
Let me try this. Qualia the Purple is by Tsunashima Shirou and Ueo Hisamitsu, and it is only eighteeen chapters long. Although it appears at first to be a simple slice of life comedy with a funny twist, it takes a left-hand turn into fucking crazyville at some point and turns into a bizarre, yet compelling, science fiction story about one person on a singleminded quest to save someone they love, involving practical applications of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, the Copenhagen Interpretation, Fermat’s Principle, and Unified Field Theory. If that already sounds like your jam, stop reading immediately and go read Qualia the Purple this second, because I’m about to get (somewhat) more specific about what the series is about, and there really is no substitute for going into this series blind.
Still here? Alright, here we go.
In the beginning, Qualia the Purple is about the high school adventures of Hatou Manabu (nicknamed Gaku for reasons that will be obvious to anyone who knows even a little Japanese and totally opaque to everyone else) and her odd friend Marii Yukari, who she meets by running into and accidentally kissing, as one does in the sorts of cute-girls-doing-vaguely-gay-things slice-of-life manga Qualia‘s first chapters is imitating. Yukari looks like a totally normal girl, apart from her weird purple eyes, but there’s something more unusual yet about her: she sees living beings as robots. To her there’s no distinction between a living breathing human being, and a Gundam model.
The series milks some cute laughs out of misunderstandings arising from her bizarre eyesight, and apart from a few hints that something more ominous is around the corner, it mostly proceeds according to what you would expect from a light comedy series of this type, and honestly would be a pretty decent one in its own right.
But then something bad happens. And then we get this page.
From that point forward, shit goes flying off the fucking handle. I won’t get into specifics, because again, spoilers, but I will say that wherever you think the series is going to go, it doesn’t. It seems like every chapter from that point on introduces a new idea, and then goes wild with it until it’s exhausted every possibility. It’s the story of someone iterating on the same idea again and again in order to accomplish a Sisyphean task, watching the boulder roll right back down the hill again, and then trying again from a different angle. It’s a story of determination meeting futility, and both refusing to back down. It is relentless and nonstop, which might actually be a problem.
Remember all those quantum theory concepts I mentioned above? Well, the series really does lean on them, and (at least from this interested layman’s perspective) actually does a reasonably accurate treatment of them. But that means that the reader needs at least a passing familiarity with them. The series does explain all the concepts that you really need to know in order to understand the story, but it doesn’t linger on the explanations.
Everything makes sense in the end, and this isn’t Serial Experiments Lain; Qualia doesn’t delight in obscuring the plot. But still, it would be pretty easy for a reader to be overwhelmed by all the information, especially given that quantum theory is…kind of unintuitive.
That caveat aside, though, Qualia the Purple is one hell of a ride, and there’s nothing quite like it out there. All this insanity builds and builds until it culminates in a finale that feels like a natural conclusion, and manages to be emotionally moving and satisfying all at once. It’s pretty rare that you can apply the term ‘beautiful’ to anything with so much quantum theory in it, but Qualia the Purple manages to pull it off.
Unfortunately, neither Double Arts nor Qualia the Purple have been officially localized for Western audiences, and I’ll be amazed if either ever are. Fortunately, both can easily be found in scanlation form. Please, consider reading them. They won’t take too much of your time, and both are terrific and memorable experiences.