Reviewby Carlo Santos, Mar 3rd 2007
Sugar Sugar Rune
Chocolat and Vanilla are two young witches competing for the throne of the Magical World. However, their friendly rivalry has taken a dark turn with Vanilla joining the Ogres—a race of outcast wizards and witches—and Ogre prince Pierre threatening to take away Chocolat's heart. An imaginary beach conjured up by Vanilla becomes a magical prison when her power runs out, and Chocolat and Pierre get stuck beneath the waves. Are they doomed to wander forever in this limbo between the Magical and Human Worlds? Even if Chocolat does get out, can she trek across the Magical World and return to earth before being disqualified from her candidacy as queen? Strangely enough, Pierre keeps coming to Chocolat's aid, and so the stirrings of love are really starting to complicate their situation.
Nobody can produce a decent fantasy story anymore. Everything has been reduced to Lord of the Rings ripoffs, or worse, ripoffs of Lord of the Rings ripoffs, also known as "Final Fantasy." Sometimes you might even get something equivalent to Star Wars with dragons, which is like applying a magnifying glass of geeky badness to anything already involving dragons.
Then along comes something like the fifth volume of Sugar Sugar Rune, which almost single-handedly restores all faith in the worlds of swords and sorcery (emphasis on the sorcery). This story arc takes the series out of its schoolyard fairytale scenario, which was getting pretty stale anyway, and transforms it into a classic hero's journey, with Chocolat leading the way. The race against time, the tasks of endurance, the duplicitous villains—it's all old stuff, except that it explodes with imagination once Moyoco Anno sets her pen to it. And really, imagination can make all the difference between a ripoff and a masterpiece.
Taken in isolation, the plot points of this volume do seem like a rehash of old-time quests and adventures—exploring a dark cave (complete with giant spider), traversing a desert, and meeting a witch who demands menial labor in exchange for services. However, the context of the series freshens up these events, as we've never yet seen Chocolat thrown into such perilous circumstances. Everything up to this point has mostly been running around school and capturing people's hearts, with a dash of political intrigue involving the Ogre race—stuff that easily "resets" at the end of each chapter. But now it's personal, as well as life-threatening—Chocolat and Pierre must escape the magical black hole if they are to survive; Chocolat must make it back to the Human World to stay in the running for queen. What was once just magical-girl fluff is now a serious, compelling adventure.
Back-story and character relationships are another key to a strong story, and this installment goes further than anything else yet in the series. Not only is a childhood memory revealed (it's always childhood memories, isn't it?), but also, words are exchanged and gestures made between Chocolat and Pierre that will surely have long-lasting effects. It's a failproof plot device: if you want to get two characters romantically involved, just put them together in a perilous situation and watch things develop. In fact, shoving Vanilla and the rest of the supporting cast out of the way may have been the best thing to happen, as it shifts the focus onto the real heroine and tightens the story into something genuinely exciting.
For all the talk about story developments, though, Anno's art is the real magic bullet in this series. Every page is like taking a class in modern design, exploding with shapes, patterns and images that make it unlike anything else in shoujo manga. Every fantasy convention is turned on its head and pushed to the limits of the fanciful: a barren desert gets rain in the form of cocoa sprinkles; trees in the Cuillère Forest have leaves that are literally spoon-shaped. Even the character designs and outfits show a fashion sense that's at once traditional but also original (see: the ensemble given to Chocolat by the desert witch). The busy layouts of previous volumes haven't gone away, but they seem to make more sense now: the action-oriented plot is more suited to the "draw as many lines as possible" mentality, and there are enough full-page spreads to give the eye time to relax. As Chocolat makes her way through these enchanted landscapes, expect to see plenty of scenes that will induce a breathless "wow" with their elaborate beauty.
The cultural glossary in the back is a signifying trait of every Del Rey manga, but this may be the only one that uses it to explain French words rather than Japanese. The vocabulary of spells and other Magical World entities is explained thoroughly here, showing enough care and research to get the "other" foreign language right. The rest of the dialogue isn't quite so flowery, but it gets the job done, despite becoming confusingly abstract in some places (people will start talking about their feelings... and trail off... and the rest of the sentence... shows up on the next page). No matter what happens in the text, though, at least the print quality does justice to the breathtaking art.
At last, after four volumes of wallowing in its own candy-themed cuteness and girly-girl appeal, Sugar Sugar Rune steps up and delivers a knockout story arc—a turning point that fans can proudly point to and say, "It gets better. RIGHT HERE." Moyoco Anno's distinctive visual flair finally has a storyline to match: a story that relies on worlds as fanciful as you can imagine, with a heroine discovering just how tough she is inside. It's one thing to be fending off pubescent boys and competing against a friend-turned-rival, but being trapped in the literal middle of nowhere with a mortal enemy (and potential love interest) at your side is a whole new battle. Even though it clocks in at number five in the series, this book ignites the spark of discovering a fantasy world for the first time, all over again.
Overall : A-
Story : B
Art : A
+ Elaborate, eye-catching art and exciting turns of plot that add new depth to the main characters.
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