Reviewby Carlo Santos, Feb 7th 2008
Pet Shop of Horrors: Tokyo
They say there is a mysterious shop where you can buy exotic pets—some so exotic that they can actually take on human form. But even more mysterious is the owner of the shop, Count D, who has recently moved his storefront to the seedy Kabuki-cho district in Tokyo. The location may be new, but the clients are as plentiful as ever: a single mother looks for a guardian to protect her from her abusive ex-husband, but finds that her true problems lie deeper within. An aspiring writer discovers her muse, but pays a terrible price for success. A yakuza underling adopts a dog so loyal that it would go anywhere for him ... even when he tries to escape the mob. And in a chilling 20th-century flashback, we learn that Count D's grandfather once sold a pet to a certain Führer.
Who doesn't love a good tragic ending? Luckily for horror fans, the infamous Pet Shop of Horrors is back in business, and while the setting has switched to the other side of the Pacific Rim, the stories are just as chilling as ever. You know the drill by now—an unsuspecting individual wanders into Count D's shop in need of a pet, walks out with some freakish creature/human/thing, and ultimately meets a bitter end (which may or may not involve death). This is at once the series' greatest strength but also its weakness: the plot formula makes it easy to dish out just the right amount of human drama, but those familiar with the Pet Shop will see each twist coming—and may even find some of them to be too far-fetched. Ah, such is the price we pay for a good jolt of horror.
The first story in the book shows how Matsuri Akino cleverly puts the focus on human characters, rather than the creatures themselves: the central characters in "Domestic" are a single mother and her school-age son, one of the most powerful familial bonds. As the characters' lives are fleshed out, we gradually become sympathetic towards them, which makes the conclusion that much more dramatic once fate finally strikes down upon them. A different sort of love emerges in the third story, "Dust," but again the same principle applies: this time it's a yakuza flunky trying to save his girlfriend from the clutches of a mob boss, and his lowly status makes him a heroic underdog. In fact, the pet doesn't even become a major factor in the plot until the finale, but what a striking finale it is. But the most striking idea is the one Akino saves for last—a historical flight of fancy where Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun take in a pet that somehow resembles the perfect Aryan child. It's almost too weird and tasteless, yet the dramatic pull of Braun's ill-fated romance, set against the epic collapse of Germany in World War II, makes for a uniquely heartbreaking story.
So how does the ancestor of a mysterious Chinese count end up selling pets to the Nazis in Berlin? That's anyone's guess; Akino's historical contrivance is one of many holes in the storytelling. And it's because of these holes that the second story, "Double-booking," hasn't even been discussed yet: its abrupt, inconclusive ending makes the whole story weak, and the background principle guiding the plot (something about cicadas' mating cycles?) is just plain confusing. Even the good stories have their weird and wacky elements: a creature that eats dreams, a unicorn-dragon thing—it's at points like these that the stories stop being dark and dramatic and enter the realm of silly. And let's not forget that the stories are so bound to their formula that you can almost predict each key event: the shock at Count D's recommended pet, the bizarre animal/human duality, the surprise revelation at the end. If only Akino would give us a real plot twist by actually changing the pattern once in a while.
Despite its label as a horror title, the art of Pet Shop is not particularly horrifying: there is little gore or creepiness to be found, even when the pets reveal their true nature. If anything, the art is more in line with the typical drama or romance, which actually makes sense considering the strong focus on characters and relationships rather than pure shock value. Unfortunately, this aesthetic does mean that the character designs end up looking quite plain, and the background work is the usual catalog of screentone patterns and city scenery. The war story does make for an interesting change of imagery (swastikas galore!), but it's clear that Akino struggles with any artwork beyond the usual range of attractive young men, fashionable women and the occasional bizarre creature. Despite this artistic averageness, though, there is one area that's done quite well: the pacing and layout, which always manages to guide the eye in the right direction even when navigating through angled and borderless panels. It's also these well-planned layouts that lead to a number of dramatic scenes, especially in the last story as the Third Reich falls apart.
Aside from just panel layouts, dialogue placement is also a key in presenting the story visually: there is a lot of conversation in these stories, and being able to follow along is essential. Fortunately, the orderly sequence of text bubbles and characters' strong personalities make it easy to keep track of the dialogue. The writing is not particularly witty or eloquent—save for a couple of monologues where Count D muses on the frailty of human life—but neither is it dull or confusing. Sound effects, meanwhile, are kind of a half-done job: there aren't too many in this volume, and they get translated when they're essential to the plot (like a door opening or a gunshot), but are otherwise left alone. A couple of cultural footnotes also sneak their way into the text, but it's actually Akino who provides a majority of the background information, discussing mythical animals in the back of the book and explaining the nature of the "pets" featured in each story.
Those with an interest in exotic creatures will certainly find some worthy specimens in Pet Shop of Horrors: Tokyo, but they may also find that the human owners are just as interesting. And that's what makes this volume (and presumably, the rest of the series) worth reading: more than just a collection of freaky-monster horror tales, it's really more about human drama, and revealing the follies of the most advanced species on the planet. It may not be the most artistically striking, and it falls victim to a number of ridiculous plot devices, but there's still some good food for thought here. How far would you go to save your child? What price will you pay for fame and success? Do you have to guts to turn against a criminal organization? And who could love the world's most ruthless leader? Only Count D has the answers.
Overall : B-
Story : B
Art : C
+ Achieves dramatic effect by focusing on the doomed relationships of the human characters.
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