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Short Takes: Genghis Khan and Venus Capriccio

Much as I love composing in-depth reviews, the sheer number of new releases makes it impossible for even the most ambitious critic to give every interesting series the 800-word treatment. In an effort to stay abreast of current titles, therefore, I’ll be posting a regular column that offers more concise assessments of new and noteworthy books — manga tapas, if you will. This week, I look at two recent releases: Genghis Khan: To the Ends of the Earth and Sea (CMX), a done-in-one biography of the famous warrior; and volume one of Venus Capriccio (CMX), a romantic comedy about a tomboy and the piano prodigy who loves her.

genghis_khanGENGHIS KHAN: TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH AND SEA

BY NAKABA HIGURASHI AND SEIICHI MORIMURA • CMX • 178 pp. • RATING: TEEN PLUS (13+)

Cecile B. DeMille never made a movie about Genghis Khan, but if he had, it might have resembled To the Ends of the Earth and Sea, a beautiful but turgid biography of the great warrior. All of the requisite elements are there: sweeping vistas, epic battles, blood oaths, and feuding brothers. The only thing missing is camels.

To the Ends of the Earth follows Genghis Khan at two critical stages in his life: his early adolescence, when his father was grooming him to become the new head of the Borjigin clan (a powerful Monoglian tribe); and his mid-life, when he was systematically conquering the rest of Mongolia. In the first chapter of the story, we learn that Khan’s tribesmen questioned his parentage, suggesting that he was, in fact, the scion of a rival clan. We also see Khan’s fateful meeting with Jamuqua, the future leader of another powerful tribe, the Jadirat. These two scenes provide the subtext for later chapters, implying that Khan needed to conquer Mongolia to prove himself his father’s heir, and to settle an old score with Jamuqua, to whom he’d sworn a blood oath of allegiance as a child. Unfortunately, this effort to bring psychological nuance to Khan’s character falls flat; at 178 pages, the book isn’t long enough to accommodate quiet scenes of character development and epic battles without skimping on both. That leaves the dialogue with the primary responsibility of advancing the narrative, yielding passages that sound more like exposition than conversation: when was the last time you heard one of your siblings identify himself by birth order?

The best reason to read To the Ends of the Earth is Nakaba Higurashi’s artwork. Her characters are gorgeous, rendered with a considerable degree of naturalism, from the shape of their faces to the patterns on their costumes. She draws a mean battle scene as well, staging the action clearly without losing any sense of urgency or dynamism. It’s too bad the script lacks the same sense of urgency; without a compelling story or characters to draw us in, To the Ends of the Earth is a grand but empty spectacle.

venusVENUS CAPRICCIO, VOL. 1

BY MAI NISHIKATA • CMX • 200 pp. • RATING: TEEN

Takami is a tomboy—the kind of tall, athletic gal who’d rather wear a pair of sneakers than heels, who eats with gusto, and who isn’t afraid to use her fists if she gets into a jam. Though Takami is a certifiable babe, she’s batting .000 with guys her own age. Frustrated, she seeks advice from her childhood friend Akira, a handsome piano prodigy who’s two years her junior. Takami has always viewed herself as Akira’s big sister, defending him from bullies (he was small for his age) and championing his musical talent. But his solicitous behavior, sincerity, and smokin’ hotness are beginning to penetrate her defenses, leaving her to wonder, Should we be more than friends?

You don’t need a doctorate in narratology to know where this story is headed or, frankly, the pit stops that it will make along the way, from a cultural festival to an amusement park. Mai Nishikata even introduces a romantic rival straight out of the shojo playbook: a super-cute, super-talented pianist who will stop at nothing to win Akira, especially if it means humiliating Takami in the process. For all its predictability, however, Venus Capriccio is a shockingly good read, offering just the right mixture of mush and slapstick to satisfy the most discriminating shojo fan. And that obligatory cultural festival scene? Nishikata takes a familiar trope—a “Prince and Princess” contest—and gives it a cross-dressing, gender-bending twist that turns the whole event on its head. Pure bliss.

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