March 18, 2010

, , , , ,   |  

Series Review: Lament of the Lamb (7 Volumes)

Written by Kei Toume
Illustrated by Kei Toume
Tokyopop

Kazuna is a young man struggling with the usual problems of being a high school student. He's a bit frail, loves a girl from afar, and isn't sure what his future holds for him. He's unoficially adopted, but his foster family loves him dearly. If only he wasn't having such odd dreams relating to his mother's death, things might not be so bad.

All this changes when seeing red literally makes Kazuna see red, too--bringing up feelings he doesn't understand. Drawn to his childhood home, he discovers the sister he never knew he had--and their terrible family secret

Kazuma and his sister, Chizuna, like their mother--and many other members of their family before them, have a strange craving for blood. In a world that believes them to be nothing but legends, they are vampires. But unlike your traditional creatures of the night, they are tortured by the disease that makes them different, and will kill them no matter what they do.

Doomed never to live a normal life, their relationship becomes unhealthy, as a web of lies keeps them propped up. Both Kazuma and Chizuna wish to keep people away, but Kazuna's foster family, and several others (including a doctor who shares their secret and a girl who loves Kazuna) refuse to leave them alone.

As things slowly grow worse for our sibling pair, can they do anything to change their lives, or are they fated to tragedy? Knowing they have no hope, is there anyone who can hear the cries of two lambs who are doomed to be slaughtered by their own genetics?

I remember really liking this series when I first started it years ago, and re-reading it in its entirety, I'm even more impressed by Toume's seven-volume work than I was the first time. Given just the right amount of space to tell the story, we are given just enough room to appreciate the whole without padding on volume after volume. You can tell that Toume had a strong idea of where she was going and did not try to cut corners OR go for an extension to drag out the agony.

Chizuna cannot keep waffling between her father issues and trying to lead a normal life for more than a few volumes before that would lose its impact. Similarly, Kazuna must make a choice between the life he wants and the life he's fated to have. Toume understood that there was only so long you can string these ideas along, and manages to cut things off in the seventh volume at just about the right point.

The tone of Lament of the Lamb is very Gothic. It's set in modern times, but the way in which the characters interact has the feel of 19th Century characters acting out the parts they feel they must play rather than being who they are. It's a really nice touch that I don't think I've seen in any of the other manga I've read.

Toume's characters would be right at home in an Edgar Alan Poe novella. Several times while reading it, I was reminded of the Fall of the House of Usher. Toume doesn't mention Poe as an influence in her interview, but I can't help but think she's read him extensively. The whole idea of doomed characters refusing to leave the roles a cruel fate assigns them reads straight out of his playbook. This is a horror story, but not one of violence. Lament of the Lamb deals with the terror of the mind, particularly in the case of Kazuma.

When writing a story like this, the characters have to be carefully crafted to both fit the roles needed and yet remain interesting to the reader. Done wrong, they'd be stock figures and leave the story feeling flat. Toume does a good job making the struggles of everyone in the book, from Kazuna to the well-meaning nurse who tries to solve the mystery of their father's suicide, feel realistic and compelling.

The trick that Poe used and that Toume picks up on is to create one set of characters who feel that things are inevitable and another who refuse to fall in line with the fate handed to them. This gives the story conflict. In our case, Chizuna feels that there is nothing that can be done, and tries to drag Kazuna into her world of bleak despair that ends only in madness or death. Meanwhile, Kazuna's foster mother and Yaegashi fight to try and break into this cycle of death and maybe put a wrench in the workings of fate.

We see their struggle through the lends of Kazuna, who seems to constantly waffle between giving up and fighting back. Time and time again, he tries to find a way out for himself and his sister, but as the pull of her feelings increases on him, he, too, starts to give up. After all, what's the point in living if you're doomed to die?

Minase, the doctor who rather creepily loves Chizuna, is the wild card. He seems to want to help them, but only until his own twisted dreams are shattered. As the story progresses, he is less of a sympathetic character and more of a vampire himself--he wants Chizuna as much as she wants blood.

One of the great complications of this series is that no one seems completely free of a selfish agenda. They are tempered her and there by madness and love, but after reading this series, can you say that anyone, save maybe Yaegashi, is really acting in an altruistic manner? Don't point to Kazuna, by the way--by accepting his terminate fate, he escapes the need to deal with the real life issues of growing up. Isn't that awfully convenient?

The constant shifting of emotions and revelations (both large and small) over the course of the seven volumes really keeps the reader engaged throughout. I could probably sit here and type for another few hours and still not mention all the nuances I picked up on.

I was particularly impressed by a few points, such as the truth about their mother, the way in which Toume shows just how dysfunctional Kazuma's family really is, and the way we learn just how manipulative Misune is. Those three things taken together really drive the bulk of the story and impact on the way in which the reader interacts with the characters. Best of all, Toume spaces these moments out, along with the use of Yaegashi as a lifeline so often thrown but never grabbed by Kazuna, to keep the tension and interest going for the reader.

Though there is a lot of angsting in the dialog, it never feels plodding because just as it might get too dull, Toume adds something to bring the pace back up. A scene or two of Chizuna acting entirely too familiar with Kazuna will jolt the reader back if they start to drift.

Toume's shocks, however, also make you think about what's happening and what you've seen so far. I love stories that make you think about them long after you're done reading, the kind of book you can sit with a friend and talk about for hours. Given the number of mysteries that are never one hundred percent solved in Lament of the Lamb, it's right up my alley.

In fact, one could make an argument, especially based on the end of the story, that Kazuma's problems are entirely of his own making. Is he really cursed? Or was he just driven that way due to the manipulations of his sister, who needed him to be a replacement for her father? I know what Kazuma thinks as he heads to the climax, but I think Toume leaves the true answer open ended, which is part of why this series is just so good.

When you read this series, you may feel differently about the tone of the ending than I did. For me, it changed my impression of what had come before. I definitely did not expect the story to end as it did. While on the surface it might have seemed to be a bit of a cop out, I really like the implications. Everyone involved must now carry with them the burden of the events of the past year, and the clean (if tragic) ending that the book seems headed for is not nearly so clean. I thought it was a good way to wrap things, up, veiling the whole truth from the reader and leaving you guessing. I'd love to hear what others thought about the ending.

Before I end this series review, I do want to touch on the art. Toume's sketchy style worked well for this series. At times some of the pages looked slightly unfinished, which might have more to do with the change from bi-monthly to monthly rather than an intentional decision, but the feel worked well for me. I definitely saw a change in the art from the first few volumes to the end. As the characters started to break down, it felt like their representations on the page did as well. Again, that might just be due to deadlines, but if so, it's a happy coincidence.

The overall feel of Toume's art definitely set the tone for the text. There are shades of gray, but not a lot of use of black and wide. The nightmares of Cihzuna and Kazuma are hazy as well. Even the clean settings of a hospital or a park look tainted. A sunny day in Lament of the Lamb looks very different from one in a story like, say, Yotsuba&!, and rightfully so.

Though she might not have the detail oriented look of other manga artists, such as the CLAMP group, that's actually a good thing here. Overdrawing this series or giving it a vibrant look of any kind would have ruined the mood. The slight sense of decay that the rougher pencils give is perfect.

Toume is more like an independent creator in Western terms than someone using the house style of a major publisher. Her art fits the need of her story and is every bit as dramatic as someone drawing in a more defined style. Body language, facial expressions and panel construction are all used to good effect. Lament of the Lamb is not pretty to look at, but if it were, you'd lose the Gothic feel. You don't set Edgar Alan Poe in a neon nightclub and neither should this manga be drawn any other way than how Toume constructed it.

While it's fun to read a series that goes on for tens of volumes, I also like works like this that tell a story and finish. Lament of the Lamb is a true graphic novel in the sense that this is a story with a clear beginning, middle, and ending, no matter how ambiguous it may be. It's perfect for those who like works that make you think. It's got all the elements of a classic horror story in the vein of Poe or Shelley, so fans of that style of writing will enjoy this immensely. Lastly, it's good to give to those who want to try manga, but are intimidated by the number of volumes in more popular works. I'm a big fan of this series, and I think you will be, too.