Reviewby Casey Brienza, Jan 31st 2009
Song of the Hanging Sky
Jack is a field-medic who, appalled by bloodshed, has deserted his army during wartime. While waiting out the winter in a snowbound mountain cabin with only his loyal canine to keep him company, he is graced by a most unexpected visitor—a little boy with feathered wings! Turns out that the boy is a member of a dying race of bird men whose existence has heretofore been little more than legend. Unsurprisingly, the embattled tribe is intent upon keeping it that way…even if it means Jack's life. But the boy, whose name becomes “Hello” after his friendly encounter with Jack, wants desperately to keep his new friend. Besides, might not a human no one will miss be worth more to the bird men alive?
A kindly yet resourceful man abandons the war he was supposed to be fighting to take refuge in the snowy mountain wilderness with only his loyal German Shepherd and his trusty rifle by his side? Sounds like Jack London. Where he then discovers a long-lost yet noble race of bird men on the brink of extinction? Okay, not Jack London. H.G. Wells, maybe? Not quite, but there is nonetheless something deliciously nostalgic about Song of the Hanging Sky. The way in which it draws upon the themes and plot points of vintage science fiction and wilderness adventure literature surely helps. Yet who would have guessed that this luminous manga was first published in Japan in 2007 by newcomer mangaka Toriko Gin? Certainly not this reviewer. Heads up everybody: We have an instant classic on our hands. This is one of the best new titles to be published in English for 2008.
So what makes this humble manga so great? Well, everything. The storyline is both beautifully constructed and instantly captivating. Even the prose is attractive, grave but not melodramatic. (The occasional grammatical error does not unduly distract.) It begins modestly, with Jack writing affectionate letters to someone named Natalie. The quiet activities do not last long, though; while foraging amidst the snowdrifts, he finds a boy collapsed in the snow. The boy is not human; he has majestic wings and feathers for hair. Jack nurses him back to health, and the two, despite being unable to communicate, form a cautious bond.
This bond persists even after bird boy returns to his tribe, and the shaman River reveals, to everyone's horror, that the boy's soul name has been changed to the human word, “Hello.” At first, the adults are determined to exterminate this threat to their security, but Hello is able to convince them to stop. And in the end, they decide that Jack might be worth more to them alive than dead, and he is allowed to become a part of the proverbial family. However, Jack is only beginning to learn about the tragic history of this noble people, and as a humanity at war hems them in on all sides and “The Day of Destruction” approaches, by the end of volume one it becomes increasingly uncertain that there is anything anyone can do.
Infusing the story are skillfully crafted elements of narrative complexity. The bird men, for example, have a tragic history which is revealed only in parts, and they also have a well-defined life cycle which involves the molting of their wing feathers upon adulthood. Only adolescents can actually fly. Characters are also lovingly developed: Jack as the benevolent yet resourceful human, Hello as the impetuous yet pure-hearted youth, and the rest of a large supporting cast of characters come alive in their turn. Most are ethically troubled. Many are secretly traumatized. In each case, archetype meets specificity.
Best of all, the story is delivered accompanied by exquisite artwork. Indeed, do not judge this book by its cover; the cover illustration, while charming does not the least bit of justice to the craftsmanship inside. Gin draws in the sort of impressionistic shoujo style that largely went out of style at least a decade go but remains fiercely beloved by fans of the genre, and she combines that with the soft-edged, cartoon features of childhood trademarked by Hayao Miyazaki. (Clearly, there is also something of Miyazaki's thematic style here as well. Think Princess Mononoke.) Of course, the bird men—both male and female—are all inhumanly beautiful in their faux Native American garb…but they have the obvious excuse.
In her afterward to the first volume, Gin admits to wallowing in her manga masterpiece collection and dreaming about being included among the many greats anthologized. Well, if the first volume of Song of the Hanging Sky is any indication, it is not an idle fantasy. She is already batting on their level, and if she can keep this creative momentum up, her future as one of manga's 21st century luminaries is already assured. You will not believe that this is her first continuing series.
Overall : A+
Story : A+
Art : A
+ This is a near-perfect package. Prose, picture, and plot alike are all impressively strong.
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