By Haruko Ichikawa. Released in Japan as “Houseki no Kuni” by Kodansha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Afternoon. Released in North America by Kodansha Comics. Translated by Alethea Nibley & Athena Nibley.
This was a trip. I wasn’t sure what to expect going in, as I didn’t know much about it beyond “fighting gems” and that it’s been nominated for awards. Indeed, Kodansha even says it’s for fans of Steven Universe, presumably because, well, gems. I can see some similarities, but really, this manga is its own thing, and calling Phos and Steven similar lead characters seems a bit insulting to Steven. As for the plot, I honestly found it to be somewhat confusing much of the time, not really a surprise when it’s the first volume. But there are a few very good reasons to read this. The first is that the author is very good at depicting tension and frustration between two different characters, as our lead goes around and annoys everyone into submission. Secondly, the art is really nice, and conveys a sense of wonder and a sense of horror depending on where you are in the story.
The basic premise is that gem people are fighting against Moon creatures. They seem to fight based on the hardness of their base gem – the harder the better. Our lead gem is Phosphophyllite, who is most assuredly NOT on of the hardest gems – indeed, they’re known for being rather fragile and brittle. Phos is also a bit of a ditz, whiny, selfish, and lazy, which makes it very diffifuclt to find them a job. Fortunately, the sensei who’s in charge of the gems has come up with something: Phos will compose a natural history of their world. This seems, on the face of it, a idea that is both good and bad. Good because it’s the sort of this that plays right into Phos’ skill sets, and bad because Phos really has no skills sets beyond “people seem to like them”. Really, what it is is an excuse to have Phos wander around and interact with the other gems, such as the reclusive Cinnabar or the beautiful yet secretly self-loathing Dia. In the second half of the book, Phos accidentally gets eaten by a slug creature, and after everyone spends a long time figuring out how to get them back, now has… the ability to communicate with it? Maybe?
As I said earlier, this isn’t really a title I’m reading for the plot. It also has to be said, for those who get easily annoyed at selfish characters who clearly are going to grow and change as the series goes on, Phos starts out REALLY irritating, and you can easily understand some of why they’re treated so poorly. But not entirely all of it – Phos is also bullied in many ways, and the excessive verbal abuse heaped on them seems a bit much. Even those characters who do seem to like Phos, such as Cinnabar, show this affection by being even meaner than the others, though that ties more into Cinnabar’s self-hatred and suicidal tendencies than anything else. (The gems seem to be genderless, and I’ve done my best to avoid gendering them when writing this review.) To sum up, I’m not entirely sure where this is going, but I find the character interaction excellent and the art captivating. Which is all you can ask of a Volume 1, really.