Reviewby Carlo Santos, Dec 21st 2008
St. Dragon Girl
Momoka Sendou and Ryuga Kou are childhood friends whose special skills complement each other: Momoka is training in martial arts, while Ryuga is a practitioner of ancient Chinese magic. Their lives become even more intertwined when one of Ryuga's spells goes wrong and he accidentally gives Momoka the power of a dragon spirit. Now, whenever Ryuga unseals the dragon inside Momoka, her strength is magnified to superhuman levels! Their powers turn out to be very useful in fighting all sorts of foes: a serpent demon who tries to kidnap Momoka's classmate, a teacher who's putting his female students under a dangerous spell, a couple of mischievous demon cats, and a rival of Ryuga's who wants to make Momoka his own. No matter who stands in their way, the link between Momoka and Ryuga is not to be denied...
The worlds of Eastern magic and martial arts are not often found in the same place as high school romance—but that's exactly what happens in St. Dragon Girl, and it's clearly the identifying mark of this series. Natsumi Matsumoto's love of Chinese culture shines through in this energetic romp where the lead characters are just as likely to be beating up the villain of the week as blushing at each other in class. But energy and passion don't always translate into high artistry, and in trying to straddle two genres, this series ends up with only average results in both. Following formula while applying a unique cultural spin might be good enough for some, but there's still the nagging feeling that this story could be doing a whole lot more.
Nevertheless, this first volume is quick to jump into adventure: the origin story behind Momoka's power doesn't take up much more than the first half of Chapter 1, and from there it's plenty of demon-fighting action with sprinklings of teenage flirtation. In fact, the chemistry between Momoka and Ryuga is one of the more enjoyable aspects of the series; like most manga couples, they're constantly denying their feelings for each other, yet their gentle bickering (and effectiveness in battle) is so much fun that one can't help but root for them. The action scenes and magic/combat system also prove to be surprisingly fresh, with the use of Chinese cultural elements—when every other super-powered teenage kid in Japan is some kind of Shintoist or Onmyouji, there's a visible difference when one employs ethnic influences from the country next door.
Unfortunately, that's about where the good stuff stops; the actual execution of the story is where things fall short. Cultural flourishes can't hide the obvious use of formula in each chapter: bad person shows up, Momoka and Ryuga get pulled into the conflict, and bad person is dealt with accordingly. Even the appearance of a rival from Ryuga's family doesn't do much to change the repetitive pattern (unless maybe he turns out to be a recurring character with a greater role). Meanwhile, the more conventional villains like predatory teachers and trickster animals are exactly that—conventional, with not even a twist to make things interesting. The romantic angle between Momoka and Ryuga also fails to achieve anything much beyond surface cuteness, sometimes even needlessly forcing itself: an exchange of Valentine's chocolates, for example, turns out to have no bearing on how that particular chapter turns out.
The artwork, although lively and accessible at first glance, also stays firmly in the realm of the ordinary. True, there are some visual gems to be found here—most notably when Momoka unleashes her dragon powers (and thank goodness for a shoujo artist who can actually do action poses convincingly)—but there are also many long stretches of cluttered, run-of-the-mill art. This series makes all the classic mistakes of the genre: too much material on the page and not enough breathing room, layouts so vague that one almost has to guess which direction to read in, and screentones as a cheap shortcut to get out of having to draw backgrounds. On the design side, the Chinese-influenced character outfits and prop objects definitely catch the eye, but fundamental things like character design are far less exciting—Momoka looks like every other high school heroine, except with hairbuns, and her supporting cast is even more nondescript.
Even the dialogue takes the easy way out by being as simple as possible, although that's probably a good thing in this case—with straightforward vocabulary and phrasing, this one goes by pretty quickly, adding to the fast-paced feel of each adventure. The only linguistic quirks to be found are a couple of puns at the start of the story, and that's easily explained by a short glossary in the back (it would have helped, though, if some of the quick definitions actually referenced the pages where the word is mentioned). Sound effects and other text in the artwork are handled by replacing the characters with their English equivalents, but the lettering style is fluid and varied enough that it doesn't look too much out of place.
Although St. Dragon Girl starts out with some enjoyable elements, including a likable lead couple, plenty of action, and a strong flavor of traditional China, it fails to deliver on the core essentials that make a series truly great. These chapters don't evolve anywhere beyond a formulaic pattern of beat-'em-up adventures, and the artwork—despite some lively flourishes—lets itself down with the generic-looking characters and hard-to-follow layouts. If the mechanics of storytelling fall short, how can anyone be expected to take an interest in the story? By settling for "good enough" instead of striving to really make an impression, this is one dragon that coasts along aimlessly instead of taking flight.
Overall : C
Story : C+
Art : C
+ Chinese cultural elements and an action-adventure emphasis make this a little different from the average high school romance.
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