By Jason S. Yadao
This month’s Manga Movable Feast focuses on Karakuri Odette. If you haven’t heard of it before this post (and weren’t linked here from host Anna/TangognaT’s blogroll beforehand — by the way, if you’re visiting from there, welcome!), I can’t blame you. I hadn’t really heard of it before it was announced as this month’s focus, either.
It’s not one of those titles that’s readily visible on bookstore shelves — while hopping around various Borders stores around town for the ongoing “buy 4, get 1 free” manga promotion (and the occasional trip to the Ala Moana Barnes & Noble) over the past month or so, I’ve seen all of one copy of Karakuri Odette on sale … and it was a copy of volume 5, at that. Save for the equally rare (now, anyway) Sexy Voice and Robo, I can’t recall another MMF subject that’s been as difficult to track down in traditional bookstores as this one … and this series is still in print.
Fortunately, we live in a world with the Intarwebz, where one can just click on a few buttons, run a credit card and get what they want delivered to their doorstep at a reasonable price (unless, of course, you want a used copy of Initial D vol. 33 … just remember if you look at that link that shipping’s still only $3.99!). That’s how I managed to obtain five very pink volumes of Karakuri Odette. Their very pinkness, in fact, was what struck me at first: These covers just screeeeeeeeeeeeeam girliness, to the point where guys would probably feel a serious hit to their masculinity were they to be caught reading these books in public. And then I read the cover blurb — “Odette is a lovely android built by Professor Yoshizawa. Curious to find out what it’s like to be human, she convinces the professor to enroll her in high school.” At which point I thought: Oh noooooooo, this is going to be like Chobits from the robot’s perspective, with high school hijinks thrown in. What is love? Can robots feel love and develop emotions like humans? Will we want to strangle the male in the relationship that inevitably develops for all his internal angst over falling for some sweet thing that’s running on Windows/Mac OS/Linux/other operating system of choice? Those were the questions that I already saw addressed in Chobits. Don’t get me wrong, I liked Chobits. I was just afraid of getting a pale imitation of that.
But I’ve yet to see a clunker among the series chosen for the MMF, and Karakuri Odette won’t go against that trend, either. I like to think of this dish of the Feast as being like sashimi, those chunks of pink, raw tuna that local families happily devour every New Year’s Day and during other special occasions. Sure, it may not look appetizing at first, but it’s actually quite delicious. (Umm, let’s ignore that whole mercury contamination thing for purposes of this analogy.)
What helps is that artist Julietta Suzuki doesn’t go overboard with her characters’ emotions and the situations in which they’re placed, nor does she beat us over the head with extended musings about love. Instead, she infuses everything with a sense of optimism and frivolity, gradually introducing her cast to readers and giving each character some quirky trait that makes him or her instantly endearing. Central to all this is Odette, the android who could be a real girl at a casual glance — heaven knows she has most of her classmates fooled — if not for winking nods every now and then at her robotic nature. For instance, she complains about having to lug around a giant battery as a backpack at one point because it’s so ugly. (Professor Yoshizawa’s solution, dressing it up as popular character Pixie Rabbit, is met with an equal amount of scorn.) As readers, we end up rooting for Odette because she has a way of bringing people together with her eternally positive outlook, yet also has a vulnerable side that reminds us of our own emotions. Credit Suzuki also for not fetishizing Odette, giving her a simple, yet pretty look. Boys don’t fall in love with Odette because of the way she looks (although she is pretty in her own way), but more because she’s a nice girl.
Other characters are equally grounded where they could have easily fallen into exaggerated tropes. Asao, for instance, is a guy that tries so hard to project an image as a resident bad boy, is saddled not only with the rare knowledge that Odette is an android, but also with the fact that he has a chubby, spoiled younger sister. Another of my favorites in the cast is Shirayuki, a rich yet lonely shut-in who gradually warms to Odette and her friends after she finally, albeit reluctantly, emerges from her social shell when she enrolls at Odette’s school. (A sequence where Shirayuki’s servant sends her off to school with three stereotypical girls as “classmates” — a cheerful little-sister type, a dependable and cool big-sister type and a comforting mother type — is priceless.) And then there’s fellow android Chris, who looks like he could fill the “stereotypical emotionless pretty boy” role when he’s introduced. But his internal conflicts, first with his original mission and then with his struggles with how he should respond to Odette’s care toward him, make him so much more of a fleshed-out character than that.
As for drama and intrigue, this series has its share. There’s an underlying conspiracy afoot where it would seem that a shadowy group is tailing the good professor to try to learn the secrets of his technology, but that falls to the wayside after a few early chapters. (Somehow I wouldn’t be surprised to see it pop up again as the series starts building to its conclusion.) I’m also curious in seeing how the various romantic elements resolve themselves — as it stands, Asao may be falling for Odette; first-year high-schooler Akihisa is definitely falling for Odette but can’t get past (a) her inability to grasp love as of yet or (b) Asao shutting him down; Chris has some sort of whatever-androids-regard-as-”love” thing going on with Odette; and Asao’s sister has a major crush on Chris. Throw in some of the other secondary characters, and you’d probably need a flow chart to keep everything straight. It’s all in fun, though.
So if you can find Karakuri Odette somewhere — I’d recommend getting it online now, while retailers still have it in stock — I’d definitely recommend it. While I wasn’t able to get to volume 5 for purposes of this review, you can bet I’ll be reading it soon, then awaiting the concluding volume 6′s arrival in the mail.
One final note: Now that we’ve seen and loved Karakuri Odette, can someone please bring over Suzuki’s other series? Perhaps even you, Tokyopop? You can’t tantalize us with a cover tease that says “From the creator of Akuma to Dolce!” and never show us what Akuma to Dolce is, after all. That would just be mean.