Reviewby Casey Brienza, Jun 3rd 2009
Although her relationship with Fuji is getting more complicated, all Ann wants to do is return to Shimane and reconnect with Daigo. What she finds though, is a Daigo who knows that something is amiss and Fuji's family drama lurching its way through his and little sister Shika's life. When Fuji runs away and Ann is the only one who knows where he is, it opens up a further rift between her and Daigo…one that the now blossoming beauty Shika, who know also knows her mother's terrible secret, wants desperately to fill. Ann, meanwhile, keeps saying and doing exactly the wrong thing around Daigo, and they decide to spend some time apart to re-evaluate. But it may well be that the emotional torment that such an arbitrary separation entails could push Ann to the breaking point…
Surreal, bizarre—often flatly incomprehensible and ultimately meaningless—titles often seem par for the course in manga. Sand Chronicles, however, a literal translation of the Japanese title Suna-dokei, is emphatically not one of these. It has a poignant meaning, betraying perhaps Zen Buddhist influences, and one that mangaka Hinako Ashihara deploys with impressive grace.
No, “Sand Chronicles” is not about an historical epic set in a exotic desert kingdom, which would have been this reviewer's first blind guess had she just been told the title. Nope. Quite the contrary. It is a slice of life story set in contemporary Japan about a small cohort of ordinary youngsters as they progress from childhood to maturity. The “sand,” in its most literal sense, refers to the sand in a souvenir hourglass that the protagonist Ann treasures as a memory both of her mother and of her first love Daigo. But in the more metaphorical sense, the sand is the characters' own lives, the future draining irrepressibly into the past like sand falling from the hourglass's top bulb to its bottom one. The present is ephemeral, like the flow of grains moving through the narrowest part of the hourglass.
The metaphor of the hourglass and its association with the bittersweet one-way flow of time appears throughout volumes three, four, and five of Sand Chronicles in a way that is pleasantly poetic but not too saccharine. In fact, this delicate balance between sentimentality and bathetic ridiculousness is one that the creator walks quite well, demonstrating a tremendous amount of personal maturity, and the intimate exploration of the characters' rather unremarkable—let's be honest with ourselves here—exploits are utterly riveting. This series is considerably under-recognized, and it is one of the best shoujo manga of its sort on the English-language market today.
Why exactly is it so good? Well, because even though the characters are almost painfully ordinary people of modest horizons, the manga itself slides in sideways like a judo expert and throws down some pretty weighty issues that you might be more likely to expect to see in josei, not shoujo. For example, in volume four, when Daigo runs away from home, he shacks up with a divorced mother/hostess club worker locked in a bruising custody battle with her ex-husband for the children. Remember, now, that in Japan it is harder for the mother to retain her children in such cases than in the West—even if she weren't employed in a position that many would view as borderline prostitution. The subplot gives this seemingly soft-focus series an unexpectedly gritty edge. But even more profound is the underlying implication, typically unwelcome in a love story: Romances end, and you may be left mopping up the consequences.
Haruka's appearance foreshadows Ann's own escalating conflict with Daigo. By around the middle of volume five, they have officially broken up. The evolution (or is that devolution?) of their relationship progresses at a measured, yet occasionally gut-wrenching pace through volumes three through five. But to make a long story short, Daigo cannot be what Ann wants or needs, no matter how hard he tries, and it makes him unhappy. His unhappiness, in turn, makes Ann unhappy and pushes her to the edge. Recall that her mother committed suicide; maybe she is too much like her mother after all. Sand Chronicles is very good at showing how the simplest of communication breakdowns can drive people to unthinkable, tragic action and self-abuse.
And finally there is Shika, who plays an important role in these three volumes. In the third, she discovers that she is the daughter of her mother's lover, and her path to maturity—she is desperately in love with Daigo—becomes quite the rocky one. She is arguably among the most beautifully drawn character thus far in the series, and her long black hair is striking in illustrations of only passable quality that otherwise feature relatively little shading or gray tone.
In any case, the end of volume five marks both the halfway point for the ten volume run of Sand Chronicles and a major turning point in the lives of all the characters. With Ann ready to reboot her personal life and Daigo with newfound academic ambitions, you will be quite eager to see this series to the end…and these beloved characters to young adulthood.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : B
+ A understated yet ambitious manga series that only looks ordinary on the surface.
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