Kamichama Karin vol. 1
Chad Clayton rates it:
Several things came to mind while reading Kamichama Karin. Anime resin kits. China dolls. Beanie Babies. Bichon Frises. Jessica Simpson’s acting career. Each of these things have one thing in common: their primary purpose for existence is to look cute. They’re pretty useless for almost all other intents and purposes. Such is the case with Kamichama Karin, but I dare say that this manga even fails to be cute. I have read and will read many manga this year, but no matter how many I read, Kamichama Karin will continue to stand out in my mind as an example of sheer storytelling ineptitude.
The story opens with an orphaned preteen girl named Karin mourning the loss of her dear best friend, who happens to be a cat. Through a chance meeting, she learns that a ring from her deceased mother allows her to transform into a goddess. She meets a bunch of other people who are also gods, some of whom are on her side, some of whom want her ring and/or her destroyed. That’s about all I learned, or cared to learn, while reading the first volume. The plot and characters all read like they were created by someone with an incomplete, malformed understanding of story development and human nature. It’s such an absolute mess that listing all its problems would take forever, so I’ll just list some of the less forgivable offenses.
The worst aspect about Kamichama Karin is a simple lack of logic. It reads less like a complete, coherent story than a disjointed series of events being relayed in arbitrary order. As such, it’s borderline incomprehensible: it takes an entire volume just to give us a very general idea of what’s going on. By the end of the volume, we still have no idea who the bad guys are, or what they want. We don’t really have a great handle on who the good guys are, or what their purpose is. However, that’s not because these things are ambiguous, or even that the characters themselves don’t know. It’s because the manga’s keeping it secret with such annoying devices as “oh-so-comedically interrupting the characters just as they’re about to provide us with some exposition.” As a result, Kamichama Karin quickly devolves into nothing but spectacle, a tale devoid of meaning or significance. What is the point of a good vs. evil struggle if we don’t know what the stakes are, or who the outcome is going to affect?
Furthermore, Kamichama Karin can’t decide if it wants to be comedic or dramatic; not that it’s particularly good at being either. The “comedy” is all punchline and no setup, on the rare occasions when it’s not being desperately cliched. The story’s “drama” mostly amounts to a dreary, whiny “woe is me, I’m so lonely and pathetic and I can’t even pick my nose successfully” shtick that gets very old, very fast. At the start of the story, Karin habitually gets terrible grades, but we’re never given any reason why. Is she in shock or depressed after the loss of her parents? Does she not study? Is she really just stupid, or was she just kidding when she said as much? On the rare occasion that this manga bothers itself with such questions, it tosses out a simple, unconvincing answer in lieu of actually getting to the heart of the matter.
This is a major part of the reason the characters are so awful. Even if we ignore the trite, horrendously uneven dialgoue, the characters are too thin and inconsistent to be believable. One moment, Karin is helpless and self-pitying, the next she’s spirited and fiercely, violently defensive. One thing about the characters is consistent, however: none of them behave like normal human beings their age. Kamichama Karin evidently believes that anyone below the age of 16 should look, act, and dress like children. All three of the manga’s protagonists are supposed to be entering seventh grade, which would make them 12 or 13 years old. However, they’re drawn with the proportions of single-digit age children, they waver between “teenager” and “small child” levels of logic, and they often behave in ways that might be cute coming from a small kid, but are insufferable and/or hateful coming from anyone old enough to know better. Kazue’s bizarre chauvinism might be expected, if not cute, coming from a 5-year-old, but it’s disturbing to see someone entering his teens spouting such harsh, jarring dialogue so frequently that it seems like misogyny is his creed. But that’s about par for this manga: the characters are mostly whiners, jerks, or airheads, so by the time they finally begin to flesh themselves out and try to become sympathetic, I didn’t care because I don’t like them!
I think another reason the characterization in Kamichama Karin is so awful is because the manga tries to arouse reader sympathies through the characters’ circumstances, rather than their actual character. Karin enters the story as a person who has no parents, has just lost her cat/best friend, and on top of that, she gets terrible grades and gets dumped on by everyone because she’s apparently not any good at anything. She’s so downtrodden, so helpless, so vulnerable. This technique can work to an extent, but it doesn’t take very long at all before the audience will catch on and begins to feel manipulated. Especially when the protagonist lacks the character or insight to handle the situation with honesty and grace, rather than simple, outward displays of self-pity. This method didn’t work with Gunslinger Girl, and it doesn’t work here. I want characters I can at least like, if not identify with. An object of pity I don’t need.
Koge-Donbo, the creator of this manga, is primarily known for her work as an illustrator, even among her own fans. She’s touted as the “Artist of Cute,” which she may very well be, if your definition of “cute” amounts to “grotesquely oversized eyes and doughy, smashed faces.” Historically, I’ve liked her character designs, such as the ones in A Tiny Snow Fairy Sugar, but I’ve never been a huge fan of her own artwork. I’ve always found her walleyed, pupil-less expressions borderline creepy. It’s cute, I guess, but it’s cute in in the same sense that Precious Moments figures are cute. It’s so deliberately, self-consciously, artificially cute that it defeats its own purpose. But even so, Koge-Donbo’s talent as an illustrator doesn’t show through very well in Kamichama Karin. When she really gets down to it, she turns out some fine character drawings, but these come at the expense of everything else. Backgrounds are minimal asides from the stereotypical sparkly-bubbly airbrushed “shoujo” backdrops, so there really isn’t anything to look at other than the characters. The action scenes have little sense of motion or intensity. It’s well-drawn, but it looks extremely pedestrian compared to shoujo manga’s more fiercely inventive fantasy artists.
Kamichama Karin is a shoujo manga; it ran in a shoujo magazine, though I think the shoujo classification is up for debate. But even so, the shoujo market in America is currently enjoying a surge of popularity, and American shoujo fans are free to choose from a huge list of titles that boast immaculate artwork, tight plotting, vivid characters, emotional honesty by the plateful, and a certain fearless inventiveness that seems to be lacking from all but the best titles from other categories. In a banner shoujo year that’s seeing American releases from the likes of Kyoko Ariyoshi, Arina Tanemura, Natsuki Takaya, Yuu Watase, Ai Yazawa, and countless others, careless, sloppy dreck like Kamichama Karin simply doesn’t hold up. Offering up something this slapdash and ill-executed is tantamount to asking readers if they’re willing to settle for less.
Added: Thursday, September 29, 2005
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