January 22, 2011

, , ,   |  

Karakuri Odette Volume 1

Written by Julietta Suzuki
Illustrated by Julietta Suzuki
Tokyopop

I almost didn't make it in time, but the library managed to find this book for me so that I could participate in this month's Manga Movable Feast, Karakuri Odette.

The Manga Movable Feast (or MMF for short) is a chance for those of us who hang out on Twitter to all write about the same series. We've discussed things as different as Yotsuba&! and To Terra over the past year. Sometimes the feast is about a well known work like One Piece, but other times we'll look at books that might be a bit under the radar. I think Karakuri Odette fits that description, so I'm hoping we can drum up some interest by our collective writings.

This month's host is Anna, at Manga Report. You can read her introductory post here, and a permanent link to the all of the MMF posts is here.

On first blush, Karakuri Odette is the story of a robot trying her best to be human. This is not really a new story, as it goes all the way back to Pinocchio. It's not even the first time we've seen this in a manga published by Tokyopop (Chobits). Yet this manga, unlike the other stories I've read, takes the concept and moves it into very different territory, particularly for one featuring a cute girl robot. That's what really makes Karakuri Odette sing for me (and I suspect others, as well). Suzuki knows there's more to this story, and over the course of these chapters, begins to explore it.

In most robot wants to be human stories, the main character spends a lot of time showing how much more caring an decent they are, and if they're lucky, they get to be human in the end. I don't see that happening here. In fact, Odette learns quickly that being human might just be the worst thing that can happen to her, and pulls back on her desire. That frees up the rest of the volume to telling stories of how Odette can long to be more like those around her, but at the same time retain the advantages of being super-strong or harder to harm. Odette is looking for a way to make it as both a robot and a person. There's a big difference there, and it's one Suzuki exploits for stories that don't read like the same ones we're familiar with in this genre.

I also appreciate that while Odette is a cute girl robot with potentially male admirers she is not oversexualized. We don't get a character with oversized breasts, a desire to (comically or otherwise) love all the males around her, and she's not, at least so far, subject to anyone's lurid fantasies. This is a female robot character who is being respected for who she is by the writer, not treated as an object. That automatically puts this one above Chobits for me, because even though she can be reprogrammed, Odette seems to have her own personality.

The theme of this manga is a character's search for how to be human, not how to be an object of love for someone else. The difference is crucial. While love and relationships are a part of being human, it's not all that being human is about. It seems like the idea of love turns the plot of most robot-to-human stories. I feel like Suzuki is looking deeper at what it means to be human, such as making sacrifices or trying to do the right thing. Yes, you can do that within a love story, but I feel like the meaning is stronger when you're helping a friend or struggling to understand the everyday concepts that maybe we take too much for granted.

Suzuki even gets a subtle dig in at some other humanoid robot tales by introducing a character who exudes personality and is seemingly more realistic than Odette. Yet, as we quickly see, it's all superficial. Trying to be happy all the time is just as fake as anything else. There's a lesson in there for all of us, not just Odette.

Despite being the opening of a series, the first volume feels very much fully formed right from the beginning. We get the premise, a few main characters, and a quick look at how Suzuki is going to approach the concept of the book. This may stem from Karakuri Odette's origins as a one-shot story. Either way, I like being able to get into this story right away and not having to warn readers that it takes time to build. Odette is a bit innocent, almost like a slightly older version of Yotsuba, but with more self-control in order to avoid giving out her secret. Her creator seems capable of anything, yet you never feel as though he'll be a deus ex machina. The supporting cast is small, but I love the idea that Odette's friends at school are not the best examples of humanity for her to model after. They're shy or brash, aggressive and sometimes petty. None of them would win model children awards, and that, too, fits into the message of this manga. Humanity isn't something you can craft perfectly, not even in the original organic models.

I've gone all this time and haven't even talked about Suzuki's illustrations. This is an extremely well drawn manga. Odette is pretty without being sexualized. Each character is distinctive enough that I can pick them out without needing narrative direction. The pacing of the panels works well, keeping an even flow that allows the drama and comedic moments to have the time they need to develop. Everything is crisp and clean, with a lot of emotion in the faces. That's no mean feat given that the main character is a robot! I'm really impressed with the strong artistry in this one, and I hope to see more of that in the future.

Karakuri Odette was a pleasant surprise for me. I love finding new manga to enjoy, and this one is an early contender for my favorites list. I really hope the sixth and final volume is released soon, but in the meantime, I'm definitely going to have fun reading the other four volumes available in English, as long as they are as good as this one. I recommend Karakuri Odette strongly, and urge you to pick up a copy for yourself. You'll be glad you did!