Dolls vol. 1
Chad Clayton rates it:
Author: Yumiko Kawhara
Although it’s hardly the first genre that comes to mind when one thinks about anime and manga, the morality tale is alive and well in the medium today. By “morality tale,” I mean any story that strives to make us aware of the human condition and our own moral failings. It’s a very versatile genre that can take any number of forms, from gritty cautionary tales like Confidential Confessions, to the gothic horror trappings of Petshop of Horrors, to the psychodrama of Paranoia Agent, to genre-spanning works like Kino’s Journey. Depending on their presentation and content, the best of such stories can either ennoble us or profoundly disturb us. However, these stories also run the constant risk of becoming pedantic and/or powerless, and unfortunately, Dolls falls prey to this mistake. It’s not preachy or pedantic in any way, but for all the back cover’s blurbs about the stories being “unsettling” and “questioning the dark side of love and pride,” Dolls doesn’t really accomplish much of either.
Funny I should mention Petshop of Horrors, because it seems like that’s the title from which Dolls borrows its central concept (some of the similarities, however superficial, are uncanny). Dolls is a collection of five stories centered around a doll shop, where an eccentric shopkeeper sells “plant dolls” to various clientele. Plant dolls are living dolls that live off of milk and sugar cookies, and in return provide some form of companionship for their owners. However, ownership of these dolls often ends revealing more about the character of their owners than they might want us to know. The volume finishes up with a couple of unrelated stories, one being a ghost story and the other being a dream-tale.
I wasn’t all that impressed with Dolls. It doesn’t have any one big problem that hamstrings it, but it has a lot of niggling little problems that really do add up. The individual stories have the tendency to be far too short, and they usually spend too much time setting up the story and not enough playing it out. As a result, stuff tends to happen from out of nowhere; people fall head-over-heels in love with these little dolls simply because the plot requires them to. There’s little room for character introspection or for the stories to build up a full head of suspense. This robs the stories of almost all their power. Things happen, but there’s never a sense that anything is actually happening. I know what’s going on and I understand the implications, but Dolls never really convinces me that what’s going on really matters.
That seems to be the case with everything in Dolls: it’s all much more interesting in concept than it is in execution. Each story’s concept has the potential to turn into something really involving, but the comic’s overall style is too low-key and demure to produce much genuine excitement. It never really wakes up when it’s time to get intense. In one story, the protagonist’s moral failure comes through not caring for his doll properly. This is certainly an irresponsible thing to do, but his actions are depicted so benignly and innocuously that it scarcely feels like he’s done anything wrong. Sure, it does raise questions such as, “what if he was this irresponsible with a real child?” but that doesn’t make the story itself any more interesting. It’s much the same with the other stories; they do raise moral questions, but they never make us take a good, hard look at ourselves. Add in the fact that most of the stories don’t really do anything new or interesting with their concepts (even the most memorable story, “Potpourri Doll,” is basically a less-effective retelling of Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”), and there really isn’t much to get excited over in this comic.
I’ve probably made Dolls sound a lot worse than it really is in this review, but that’s because it did leave me pretty disappointed. The stories are competently done and have some interesting ideas, but these ideas never really become anything more than propositions. It says a lot about how engaging a comic is when mulling over its subtext tends to be more interesting and fun than actually reading it. Dolls does a good job of making suggestions concerning moral or social issues, but it never makes any of them personal or profound enough to arouse much reader concern. It lacks the one element needed to make any good suspense, psychodrama, horror or morality story work: intensity. The stories tend to start off languid, and they never really wake up when things are supposed to get intense. It’s too timid and coy to frighten or convict its audience. I don’t know exactly what age demographic Dolls is aimed at, but I’m inclined to think that the audiences most likely to be interested in this title are ready to handle something meatier in the way of both action and message.
Added: Monday, January 24, 2005
Related Link: Viz Comics