Sunday, April 13, 2008

Ral Ω Grad: Contains breasts and monsters (and even monster breasts)

Hmmm, I'll probably have something or other up at Comics Bulletin today or tomorrow. But not right now. And more reviews coming after this one, so stay tuned.

Ral Ω Grad, volume 1
Written by Tsuneo Takano
Art by Takeshi Obata

Internet buzz on this title indicates that it's got a bizarre obsession with boobies. Well, I can report that that is quite true. The main character of the books is fixated on them (and he uses that exact term quite often) and spends just about the entire time trying to get some groping action in on any female he meets. It's pretty distracting, and it makes for another case of a comic that's kid-targeted in the more permissive Japan but gets slapped with a "Parental Advisory" label in the U.S. It makes for a strange experience, seeing the kiddie shonen plots spiced up with the ol' inappropriate touching.

But let's back up a second. Although any indication of such is oddly absent anywhere in the book, this series is a spinoff of the XBox 360 game Blue Dragon. It seems like a missed opportunity for corporate synergy, but judging by the description on game's Wikipedia page, the manga is not very similar to the game, either in story or art style (the game's characters were designed by Akira Toriyama). So maybe Viz figured it would be better to have it stand on its own.

The plot certainly feels like a role-playing video game though, with characters sporting different abilities banding together to go on a quest and defeat a great evil. Of course, that's also the formula for a shonen manga, so it works pretty well. The story goes like this: shadow-based monsters called (wait for it) "shadows" are attacking a medieval world. They're parasites, and a powerful shadow bonded with a young boy, so he was locked away in a lightless cell for fifteen years, since the shadows are powerless without light. Ral, the boy, was educated in the ways of the world by his tutor, a topheavy girl named Mio, and he also spent the time forming a bond with Grad, his dragon-shaped shadow. So when the situation is looking hopeless, Mio convinces the authorities to release Ral so he can defend the castle. Plenty of dragon-on-shadow action ensues, but not before Ral gets some motivation when he notices that girls are shaped somewhat differently from boys:

And that's the genesis of most all the humor in the book. Be prepared for plenty of scenes like this one:

But, eh, while it's pretty juvenile, it's not too offensive. And while there are plenty of scenes of near-nudity (lots of servant girls throw themselves at Ral, offering to bathe him and let him squeeze their boobies), Ral is actually naked himself for most of the book. And his obsession does give him some personality apart from the usual overly-optimistic, "gotta be number one!" shonen heroes. He even gets some chances to expound on his boobie-loving philosophy, stating that he's just expressing what everyone else represses.

And then there's the creepy sexual element to the "big bad", a tentacled shadow queen who consumes human women in order to absorb their beauty before tossing them to her minions to abuse. It's a weird counterpoint to Ral's oversexed nature, and it's pretty damn disturbing:

But if the whole series was just boobie-groping and other sexual shenanigans, there wouldn't be much point to the book. Fortunately, we also get plenty of action, and it's pretty dynamic and exciting. There's a bit more discussion of the various forms of shadows and fighting techniques and whatnot than I would prefer, and some of the battles rely a bit too much on characters discussing how they've out-strategized each other before actually fighting, but when they get down to business, it's pretty awesome. Takeshi Obata, the artist on Death Note (and also Hikaru No Go, but I haven't read that series so I can't compare it with this series), gets to really go nuts with the freaky monster designs that he only dabbled in on the previous series. His design for Grad seems pretty Evangelion-influenced:

And there are plenty of other crazy designs and wild action, like this scene in which Ral and Grad test another shadow to see if they want to join forces:

Or this bit in which Grad looms menacingly over a castle in preparation to attack an evil monster within:

And I like the character work Obata does too, giving Ral a very expressive face:

It's definitely a nice-looking book, and while it's not going to change anybody's life or anything, it's a fun read, as long as you can handle some of that specifically Japanese brand of sexual openness. I would certainly be open to reading the next volume.

This review was based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.