Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Prince in His Dark Days
Atsuko is living a life of misery – her father is an alcoholic, her mother is dead, and she has to resort to tricking middle-aged men into thinking she'll let them take upskirt photos of her in order to get enough money to survive. When her father announces that he plans to trade her in order to pay off his debts, that's enough to send her packing. Strangely she stumbles upon rich young man Itaru, who bears an amazing resemblance to her. When Itaru later disappears, his friend Ryo finds Atsuko and offers to pay her to be Itaru's stand-in until he can be found. Is this a stroke of rare luck or just an invitation to more misery?
There's bleak, and then there's Atsuko's life in The Prince in His Dark Days. Everything about her life is drenched in misery: her mother is gone, her father, unable to cope with her loss, is an angry alcoholic, and there's not even enough money for Atsuko to go to a public bathhouse, much less eat. She's ostracized at school as the “smelly poor girl,” and the only way she can really get any funds is to pretend to agree to compensated dating, get the cash, and then run away from the man who hired her. Her father, who is in debt to the yakuza, wants her to “work” for the man he owes money to, with the strong implication that this will entail actual prostitution. Is it any wonder that Atsuko doesn't believe that anything good can ever happen?
If this sounds difficult to read, that's absolutely true. The first half of Hico Yamanaka's print debut in English (a previous series was licensed by the now-defunct JManga, and another is currently available on the Renta website, which caters to a more romance-oriented audience) is, in fact, incredibly bleak. It becomes difficult to want to relate to Atsuko because she's in such dire straits and appears to have exactly zero hope of getting herself out of them – she doesn't even believe that it's possible. While she has every reason to be as hopeless and depressed as she is, it makes for very heavy reading, and if I had not been reading it for review I might have stopped after chapter one. Even her meeting with Itaru, the wealthy scion of an important family, fails to cheer Atsuko up; in a different series she would be overwhelmed with her good fortune and trying to make the most of it, but Atsuko is so emotionally damaged that she simply becomes passive, doing whatever Itaru wants her to. It's a realistic reaction, yes, but not one that is always easy to stomach.
That passivity is a large part of Atsuko's character. She blames much of her misfortune on the strong love her father had for her mother, believing that his overwhelming love for her created a void in his soul when she died. Therefore Atsuko thinks of love as more of a curse than a desired outcome, and to that end she has developed an “allergy” to being touched, specifically by men. It's the only case where she'll stand up for herself, which comes as a shock to Ryo, Itaru's companion who seeks her out after Itaru's disappearance. Ryo cannot understand Atsuko at all – her passivity at the situation she finds herself in and how it morphs into a low-key acceptance of it and efforts to deepen her voice and alter her figure make no sense to him. He continually misinterprets her actions, such as when he assumes that she has a crush on Itaru's other companion Nobunari and becomes jealous; it takes someone else pointing out that her red face and awkward reaction are discomfort rather than blushing. (That it doesn't stop him from trying to touch her is another issue.) Like Atsuko, Ryo comes from a difficult background, albeit it a very different one, and we can see that this informs his personality just as hers does. It does not, however, make him more likable.
It also doesn't make him particularly easy to distinguish from other white-haired characters, including the original Itaru. Presumably Itaru was given pale hair and Atsuko black in order to tell the two of them apart, but the bigger issue isn't that they look alike so much as the fact that all of the young male characters look alike. Yamanaka isn't great with proportions either, and there's something definitely off about the way heads sit on necks and bodies in general. There isn't much in the way of backgrounds either, making everything feel as if it's happening in a vacuum. On the one hand that does enhance the bleak feel of the story; on the other, it simply feels a bit unfinished.
What then, if anything, makes this book worth reading? Assuming that bleak for the sake of bleakness isn't your preferred genre, we do begin to see some changes in Atsuko over the course of the volume, and Yamanaka's point that money and family are no guarantee of happiness is one that slowly develops and looks to be the core theme of the four-volume series. That Itaru may have had a very good reason to vanish blows Atsuko's mind, as will the true nature of his mother once she learns it. If the goal of the story becomes more about Atsuko coming to understand that her unhappiness is at least in part her own attitude and rejection of anything good because it might lead to something bad, and that there is no such thing as the guarantee of a perfect life, then it will be worth it in the end. The Prince in His Dark Days definitely needs another volume to see what direction it will take its story in, because right now with its sometimes awkward art and air of utter hopelessness, this is a difficult book to stomach.
Overall : C
Story : C
Art : C-
+ Seems to be heading in a more fruitful direction, has the opportunity to explore some interesting, sensitive topics. Atsuko does begin to show more agency…
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