Full Moon o Sagashite vol. 1

Full Moon o Sagashite vol. 1
 Chad Clayton  rates it:    

Author/Artist: Arina Tanemura
Format: Paperback
Price: $8.99

“Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

It’s a shame that those two lines, written decades ago by Dylan Thomas to his dying father, have become one of today’s over-quoted cliches. The poem that these lines come from is a very touching soliloquy where the speaker begs his dying father to reach for life, rather than embrace death. In case you should wonder why I’m quoting a Welshman’s poetry in a manga review, it’s because the sentiments expressed in those two lines seem to be the same sentiments that Full Moon O Sagashite‘s entire being is structured around. Even though it’s a manga meant for teenage girls, it’s as emotionally complicated and difficult as any manga I’ve read.

Mitsuki is a 12-year-old girl whose life revolves around dreams of becoming a singer, to fulfill a promise to someone very special in her life. But due to difficulties in her life, it seems unlikely she’ll ever reach her goal. But one day, a couple of magical beings drop into her life, and decide to help her accomplish her dream. Seems simple and formulaic enough on the surface, sort of a heir apparent to fare like Fancy Lala.

Or at least it would, if that were the whole story. You see, Mitsuki’s “difficulties” aren’t youth, awkwardness, or stage fright. She has throat cancer, and a music-hating grandmother who won’t allow her to leave the house. The two “magical beings” that come to call are shinigami, or “harbingers of death” who have come to tell Mitsuki that she only has one year left to live. Upon seeing her situation, they take pity on her and grant her the ability to transform into a healthy 16-year-old. I suppose you could call this a “magical girl” manga if pressed, but I’d hesitate to do that. The ability to transform is nothing more than a plot device, rather than a point of focus for the manga.

The actual story is a lot more complicated than this synopsis might indicate, but explaining all the relationships between the characters would do nothing but spoil the story. Suffice it to say that this is a manga where everyone has their own ambitions and motives, and all of these motives are set to run very afoul of each other. I have no idea what’s going to happen next, but the table is set to serve huge platefuls of conflict and tension, the lifeblood of dramatic storytelling, in the coming volumes.

Like all great shoujo, the most striking aspect of Full Moon is its emotional complexity. Although the manga has an everpresent tinge of sadness to it, the overall mood of the comic is one of guarded optimism. While the cast of characters will undoubtedly be familiar to any shoujo reader at first glance – the suffocating guardian, the high-spirited heroine, the snippy self-obsessed rival – Tanemura blesses even the lesser characters with humanity and emotional depth. The antagonists are very good at making you hate them, until something is revealed about them that drastically changes your perception of them. Mitsuki is a likeable character, but she’s a bit too naive and oblivious to like completely. When characters clash, you may want one to win, but you don’t necessarily want the other to lose. It’s pretty challenging reading for something with such a cutesy exterior.

Full Moon isn’t without flaws, but I found most of them easy to dismiss. It occasionally falls into cheesy melodrama, but I can’t name very many shoujo manga that don’t. Mitsuki sometimes stretches the boundaries of being a plausible character by being a bit too positive. The hardest flaw to dismiss is that terminal disease tends to come off as too much of a plot device, but then, pushing it to the forefront would ruin the theme of the story. Full Moon is not about terminal disease and the process of dying, as the archetypal “cryin’ and dyin'” novel tends to be. It’s about reaching for life in the midst of death, and mankind’s struggle to determine his own destiny.

Self-determination has been a huge issue in many of the shoujo manga I’ve read recently, with Gals! being the most notable of them. But while Gals! and Full Moon both espouse the same themes, their approach to the matter couldn’t be more different. In Gals!, it was absolutely clear that all the sympathy was supposed to go to the heroine, Ran. The parents, who wanted to decide her future, acted exactly like cartoon characters, with their comical attempts to get Ran to bend to their will, and Ran’s rebellion was portrayed as some Great Cause of Righteousness. In Full Moon, the issue is nowhere near as clear-cut. Mitsuki rebels against her grandmother not out of desire, but out of necessity, and her rebellion is hardly a righteous one. Ambivalence, rather than confidence, is the order of the day here. So it is with all Mituski’s decisions in the story. We may cheer for her, but all the while, we question the wisdom of her deeds. One could argue that Mitsuki is a fool for refusing medicine or a life-saving operation, that would cost her her dream. One could also argue that her motives for doing so are utter lunacy. But I won’t make those assertions for you. The question Full Moon asks is whether it’s better to live a long, secure, incomplete life, or a shorter, fuller, less ordinary life. This is obviously a highly personal question, and who among us could claim to have a definitive answer to that?

As a society, we’ve come to take today for granted, and tomorrow as a given. We live as though we’re immortal until our work is done. Yet there are still people who don’t have such a luxury, for whatever reason, and they have to finish whatever work they can before night falls. Full Moon is an anthem to the things many of us tend to forget on a day-to-day basis: what life means to us, and how we ought to live it. It’s not necessarily the easiest manga to read, but it has the potential to turn into something truly special. I still have to wonder, though, how exactly this is all going to end…

Added:  Monday, July 18, 2005

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