ADV's Abandoned Manga
Aria Vols. 1-3
Gunslinger Girl Vols. 1-3
Not many comics fans trust ADV as a manga publisher nowadays, and it's easy to see why: The company has a regrettable history of dropping titles in midstream, leaving readers to wonder if they should even bother picking up new series from ADV. Why invest in a storyline if the odds are good that you'll never see its resolution?
One should note, of course, that the fault isn't entirely that of ADV's manga division. A sudden halt in growth for anime DVDs, the company's real source of income, forced a brutal round of belt-tightening that made support for non-profitable projects problematic, at a time when the teen-driven American market for Japanese comics was even more conservative than it is today. Something had to give.
Still, some manga connoisseurs bristle at the merest mention of the company. It's especially vexing if you look at two of the series that ADV fumbled: Aria and Gunslinger Girl. The former is quite conceivably the best comics series for elementary-school girls ever made, while the latter is rooted in a devilishly clever moral conundrum that had earned it a cult following that now numbers among the company's most ardent critics. Both of these titles had qualities that made them eminently readable, and both now appear to exist in some kind of limbo: still produced in Japan by their creators yet seemingly unprintable here in the States.
Read excerpt from right to left. Akari and her tutor, Alicia, set out on a trip to warm their readers' hearts. Sequence from Aria Vol. 1; ©2002 Kozue Amano, English text ©2004 A.D. Vision, Inc.
Take Aria, for example. It's actually one of the most popular children's comics series in Japan, and new volumes have routinely graced the bestseller charts. This tranquil, heartwarming tale of a young gondolier-in-training on a terraformed Mars is a masterpiece of storytelling and illustration, gorgeous to look at and a feast for young imaginations in its ability to present an inviting, fully realized world.
The setting is three centuries into the future. The people of Earth (now called "Manhome") have explored the solar system and even colonized and terraformed several of its other planets — including Mars, which is now called Aqua for its massive oceans. High in the sky, specialists called Salamanders hover in floating cities, where they carefully manipulate the atmosphere to maintain breathable air and a regular rotation of seasons. Deep in the ground, specialists call gnomes use advanced technology to augment the planet's gravitational field. And at sea level, people live on an apparently endless chain of small, picturesque islands. Here, futuristic technology takes a back seat to a more nostalgiac, handcrafted aesthetic. It's a land of quaint houses and small, family-owned shops, in cities that are loving recreations of towns from Earth history, where people still walk to the market or hire gondolas steered by pretty, talented gondoliers known as Undines.
Read excerpt from right to left. Neo-Venezia functions almost like a character in its own right. Panel from Aria Vol. 2; ©2003 Kozue Amano, English text ©2004 A.D. Vision, Inc.
Into this setting steps Akari, a young woman learning the ropes at Aria Company, one of the planet's three leading goldola services. Like her two closest friends, she's an apprentice to one of the Three Water Fairies, legendary gondoliers known for their skill, beauty and adeptness at entertaining offworld tourists. An emigrant from Manhome, Akari is utterly enchanted by her new and exotic surroundings, and especially her adopted hometown of Neo-Venezia, an evocative recreation of Venice, Italy.
Neo-Venezia could almost be called one of the book's central characters. It's gorgeous and meticulously rendered; whoever's assisting creator Kozue Amano with his backgrounds is surely being paid good money. The loving care spent on the town's realization clearly springs from an deep and abiding love of the town of Venice, if the many photos of the Italian city found on Amano's website are any indication. Neo-Venezia is a romaticized recreation of a rustic life by the sea, where quaintly dressed customers frequent bakeries and coffeehouses situated in sun-dappled courtyards, while craftsmen blow glass and build sturdy wooden furniture in nearby shops. Overhead, seagulls soar lazily on thermal drafts; further inland, handsome windmills turn slowly in the breeze.
Read excerpt from right to left. A treasure hunt leads to another precious moment. Panel from Aria Vol. 3; ©2003 Kozue Amano, English text ©2004 A.D. Vision, Inc.
If I haven't mentioned much about Aria's plot yet, it's because there really isn't one. Like this manga's closest spiritual contemporary, Hitoshi Ashinano's Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou, it doesn't have story arcs so much as an endless string of idyllic moments. Instead of plotlines, Aria contains a series of dreamy encounters with customers, townspeople and the city and surrounding countryside. In a chapter from the third volume, for example, Akari and her friends discover a hidden alcove along the walls of a Neo-Venezian canal, inside which rests a small bronze box. The girls open the box to discover a note containing a clue... which leads them to another alcove, another box and another clue, over and over, each time with the promise of a wonderful treasure at the end of their search. As the girls move through the city, readers are treated to one wonderful setpiece after another, traveling down cobblestone alleyways and up endless stairwells, until at last they reach the final point in the search: a grand, windswept vista from which the whole of the town below can be seen. Scrawled along the stairwell wall, grafitti reads, "Now you got a treasure in your heart." Akari and her friends stare out over Neo-Venezia, stunned by the view, before turning around and retracing their steps, returning each note back to its secret space for the next traveler to find, having indeed treasured the experience.
As you've probably guessed, how much you enjoy Aria will depend entirely upon just how much of a sentimental streak you possess. It is a series for young girls, after all, as whimsical and full of schmaltz as a Bobbsey Twins novel. I found Aria charming and enchanting, but if ever there was a Your Mileage May Vary manga series, this one is it.
Read excerpt from right to left. You can probably guess what's about to happen next. Sequence from Gunslinger Girl Vol. 1; ©2002 Yu Aida, English text ©2003 A.D. Vision, Inc.
Gunslinger Girl, like Aria, features young female protagonists and an Italian flavor to the backdrop, but the similarities end there. Both series were both created to evoke strong emotions in their readers, but their aims and methodologies couldn't be more different. Where Aria is dreamy and evocative, Gunslinger Girl is ruthless and melancholy.
Set in modern-day Italy, Gunslinger Girl concerns a secret police force that has developed the technology to transform people into efficient cyborg assassins, but there's a catch: It only works on girls on the cusp of puberty, and because they're on the cusp of puberty, their mechanical parts will eventually kill them. Adolescent growth can be delayed for a few years with a judicious use of drugs and hormones, but it cannot be delayed indefinitely. Undeterred, the agency trolls Italy's hospitals in search of orphaned girls in critical condition. A front organization, the Social Welfare Agency, accepts likely candidates into its care and the experiment begins; as the story opens, the first batch of cyborg girls have recently been deployed.
Read excerpt from right to left. I am trying to break your heart. Sequence from Gunslinger Girl Vol. 2; ©2003 Yu Aida, English text ©2005 A.D. Vision, Inc.
Gunslinger Girl is perhaps the purest expression I've yet found of that woebegone subgenre, the Poor Doomed Girl story. As the series' tagline reads on each cover, "The girl has a mechanical body. However, she is still an adolescent girl." It's more than that: The small coterie of girls starring in this story have been drugged and brainwashed, memories of their prior lives largely erased, trained in hand-to-hand combat and the efficient use of firearms, and turned into remorseless killing machines — and yet they still retain some small semblance of their original natures as well, clinging to what few bits of their prior lives they still possess, all the better to torment you, dear reader.
In one story arc, a cyborg girl named Rico is reflecting upon the second chance she's been given, grateful to still be able to experience life rather than slowly dying in an intensive-care ward. Then comes the mission: She's been assigned to kill a mob boss ensconced in a posh hotel, with instructions to avoid being seen once the job is underway and to kill any witnesses that do happen to pass by. Casing out the back of the hotel prior to the mission, she encounters a bellhop named Emilio who cheerfully engages her in conversation — thanks to the intense brainwashing she's endured, it's effectively her first encounter with a boy her own age, and she finds herself intrigued by the experience. Alas, duty calls: She later sneaks into the hotel dressed as a maid, moves to the floor where her target and his many bodyguards are holed up and engages in a three-page orgy of murderous violence before, on her way out, again encountering Emilio. Smiling, she apologizes and shoots him in the chest at point-blank range. The next morning, Rico awakens, again grateful for the start of a new day.
You see where this is going, right?
Read excerpt from right to left. A metaphor hits too close to home. Sequence from Gunslinger Girl Vol. 3; ©2004 Yu Aida, English text ©2005 A.D. Vision, Inc.
Such missions occupy only half the story, of course. The other half revolves around the girls' lives in the compound, where they're trained and maintained, and where they pursue what little normal life is available to them. Each girl is assigned a handler, who oversees her training, works with her on assignments and decides what if any behavioral modifications are necessary after each mission. It's here that Gunslinger Girl works its most fiendish storytelling magic: The handlers are the series' other main characters, and are presented as generally good people who entered the job expecting high-level police work and found themselves wrapped up in something far more complicated. The girls themselves never worry about the morality of their actions; all they know is that they would have died without intervention, that they're better off not knowing what happened to them before being plucked from the hospital and given second chances at life, and that their actions are all for the good of the nation. It's their handlers who hover at the edges, wringing their hands and wondering how on Earth they came to be in such predicaments. Thus do they stand in for the reader, assisting the Poor Doomed Girls as best they can while simultaneously regretting and wallowing in the situation at hand.
Gunslinger Girl isn't just a Poor Doomed Girl story, but a clever refinement of the form — indeed, it's quite likely the Poor Doomed Girl story's Platonic ideal. It's a satisfying enough action thriller, I suppose, but that's almost beside the point. At its scheming and manipulative heart, this series is about the tragedy of young girls betrayed by their surroundings, a kabuki-esque funhouse that works as ruthlessly and effectively to wrap its readers up in heartbreaking moral ambiguities as its young female protagonists work to kill their targets. Like Aria, you can see why it never found an audience in the still-nascent manga boom: While the former skewed too young for the then-current demographic, the latter skewed too jaded and intense to be very attractive to the customers buying Chobits and Blade of the Immortal.
Alas, I'm not sure that I consider the abrupt abandonment of the latter series to be nearly as tragic as the loss of Aria. After another volume or two, I would imagine that reading Gunslinger Girl would've come to feel like being forced to watch an endless series of Benji movies where the dog was periodically gangraped by mastiffs sporting razorblades for genitals. It has its own perverse entertainment value, I'll admit, but too much would start to feel like decadence. I miss Aria, but let's face it: Gunslinger Girl had to die sometime.
This essay appeared on the then-website of The Comics Journal sometime between 2006 and 2008.
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