When I first spotted the cover for Olympos, I had a nagging feeling I’d read something else by Aki, but couldn’t remember the title. A quick surf of the internet and presto! I had my answer: Aki also wrote Utahime: The Songstress, which DMP released in 2009 to strong reviews. In preparation for reading Olympos, I tracked down a new copy of Utahime. I had a vague notion of reviewing both books, then decided that the two-books-one-author concept would make a swell basis for a Short Takes column.
Which title did I like better? The answer might surprise you.
BY AKI • YEN PRESS • RATING: OLDER TEEN (16+)
Have you ever spotted a stunningly attractive person at a party, only to discover that he or she was a crashing bore? (Or worse, a boor?) If so, you may experience a few pangs of deja-vu while reading Olympos, a beautiful manga with a shapeless script.
Early in the story, the Sun God Apollo kidnaps Heinz, a human whose dearest wish is to marry his childhood sweetheart. Apollo offers Heinz a chance to perform a task in exchange for Maria’s hand — a task far more difficult than it initially seems. That sounds like a decent starting point for a cat-and-mouse game between Apollo and a plucky mortal, but Heinz soon disappears from the narrative altogether, creating a vacuum that’s never satisfactorily filled. Other figures from Greek mythology wander in and out of the story — Zeus, Poseidon, Artemis, and Hades all pop by for a cup of coffee and a little prophecy — but the endless stream of chatter grows tiresome.
That’s a pity, because Aki’s sensual linework is ideally suited to the material. Olympos is one of the few graphic novels in which the gods are so physically perfect, so pansexual in their appeal, that one can imagine why the gods bristled at the suggestion that any mortal might surpass them in beauty. Consider Hades, god of the underworld: Aki renders him as lithe man with goat horns, cloven feet, and a long mane of hair. For all his animal parts, however, Hades is undeniably attractive, moving with the grace of a Bolshoi dancer and meeting the other characters’ gazes with eyes that are both terrifying and alluring. The other gods are executed with similar care; even Poseidon, who’s portrayed as a bearded buffoon, has a handsome, agreeable face.
Some readers may find these drawings so appealing that the aimless script won’t spoil their enjoyment of Olympos. Others may find — as I did — that no amount of sensual imagery can hold their interest while the gods hold forth on the meaninglessness of their existence.
Review copy provided by Yen Press.
UTAHIME: THE SONGSTRESS
BY AKI • DIGITAL MANGA PUBLISHING • RATING: OLDER TEEN (16+)
Is gender destiny? That’s the question at the heart of Utahime: The Songstress, which takes place in a kingdom in which utahime, or “song princesses,” preserve the fragile peace through the power of their singing.
The story focuses on a trio of characters: fraternal twins Kain and Maria, whose mother is an utahime, and Thomas, whose father is the head of the nearby village. Kain, Maria, and Thomas’ relationship is shown at several stages, beginning with Kain’s return from a self-imposed exile of ten years. We then jump back in time to explore the characters’ childhoods, watching them come to terms with the ugly truth about Kain and Maria’s mother: she’s a virtual prisoner, jealously guarded by the local townspeople to ensure that their village remains safe and prosperous.
If you can soldier through the first few pages — which, I grant, are a mess — you’ll find an intimate story that focuses as much on the characters’ interior states as their actions. Aki allows her characters room for growth and reflection; though Kain and Thomas have a predictably antagonistic relationship as children, their shared concern for Maria overrides that hostility in adulthood. Aki also makes good use of her setting to explore the relationship between gender and destiny; if only women are allowed to be songstresses, what happens when a young man is born with the requisite voice?
If the artwork isn’t as lush as Olympos‘, it nonetheless makes a strong impression. Aki devotes the most attention to character designs, giving each cast member a distinctive appearance and an elastic, expressive face capable of registering subtle shifts in mood and energy. Her backgrounds, by contrast, are very sparse, making use of an occasional prop to establish the setting: a table and a few rickety chairs for a saloon, a high window and a iron frame bed for the utahime’s home.
That artistic restraint serves her story well, firmly establishing the characters’ emotional states without excessive reliance on dialogue and thought balloons. As a result, Utahime‘s script is leaner and more focused than Olympos‘, gently but insistently leading the reader through a series of effective (and affecting) scenes that help us appreciate the utahime’s plight. Recommended.