Reviewby Carlo Santos, Aug 17th 2013
Tegami Bachi: Letter Bee
The fantastical world of Amberground is in chaos. A monstrous beast—a Gaichuu—known as Cabernet is rampaging across the landscape, and only the Letter Bees, Amberground's intrepid postal service, have the tools to deal with such wild creatures. At the center of the conflict stands twelve-year-old Lag Seeing, a Letter Bee whose not-quite-human companion Niche has engaged Cabernet in a ferocious battle. Meanwhile, other Letter Bees have gathered and are using their life force known as heart as weapons in the fight. The turning point comes when Lag's childhood hero Gauche, who rebelled against the Letter Bees and now goes by the name Noir, arrives on the scene. Has Noir come to hurt or to help? As the battle rages, the sudden surge in heart causes more Gaichuu to appear—and it also triggers an unexpected vision within Lag's memories...
Volume 14 of Tegami Bachi: Letter Bee is one of the few times that the series shifts into full-on, mainstream shonen battle mode. No, Lag Seeing isn't about to pound his way through a tournament of increasingly difficult opponents—but the storyline does bring in plenty of other clichés, including a power-up that comes out of nowhere, the heroes of the story combining their abilities, and a pivotal character who has an unexpected change of heart. Eventually, the Gaichuu threat is disposed of (and about time too, seeing as the hunt for Cabernet was really starting to drag out), and a fresh revelation sends Lag on a brand-new quest. Clearly this volume has plenty of exciting and awe-inspiring moments, but it lacks any major surprises.
The first chapter picks up right where the previous volume left off, and quickly starts piling on the big-battle tropes. A character who had apparently sacrificed himself gets a last-minute reprieve, thus proving the unwritten rule that anyone who's as good as dead probably isn't. This is followed by the big-ticket fight between Niche and Cabernet, with our heroine getting a convenient power-up that makes her just strong enough to hold her own against the beast. (Along the way she also gets a character design "upgrade," in a rare moment of unabashed fanservice.) An evildoer-turned-good also jumps in to help Lag in his moment of need, and then comes the big clincher: every Letter Bee in the area taking a shot at the already-weakened creature. It's an inspiring sight, but one that most readers will have seen coming.
Along the way, the series also tries to tap into its emotional side—the bonds of friendship between major characters that have made other story arcs so enjoyable. Sometimes it works, like when Lag's allies recall past adventures and pour those warm thoughts into their heart-powered weapons; other times it feels forced, like when Lag's last-minute savior makes a trite speech about seeing the error of his ways. But this volume saves the best for last, with a final-chapter revelation that takes place entirely in Lag's mind. In this scenario, where time and space (and hungry insectoid beasts) don't matter, feelings and memories take top priority—and so Lag receives a personal message that cuts right to the heart. It's a satisfying finale to what might have otherwise been just a boilerplate hack-and-slash volume.
Although the storyline sticks to conventional action-adventure fare, the artwork is better than average, with lots of flashy moves as heroes and monsters push themselves to the limit. Jagged lines and tilted angles brings energy into every scene, especially when Niche jumps in with her array of superhuman moves. Cabernet isn't about to be outdone, though: it constantly morphs to fend off attacks, and takes on a warped humanoid shape at one point, adding a touch of horror to the series' steampunk-and-sparkles aesthetic. Then comes a complete mood change when Lag has his out-of-body experience—borderless, abstract spaces and disconnected images (the memories in his head) add up to a truly dreamlike effect. These ambitious visuals have some drawbacks, though: the emphasis on pure black and white tones, with only a few grays, can make some action scenes hard to decipher, and backgrounds are often an afterthought amidst all the special-effects chaos.
As expected for an action-heavy story arc, dialogue is kept to a minimum—sometimes several pages will go by before someone says anything longer than a sentence fragment. When the time does come for the characters to say something meaningful, they do so in basic, almost repetitive fashion, stressing the importance of heart and constantly vowing to protect those they care about. So don't expect anything particularly clever or eloquent to come out of this script—if anything, it's the childlike Niche who has the most interesting lines, making declarations like "My bigness got bigger!" when she gains newfound strength. Even Lag's vision in the last chapter is expressed in simple terms, rather than using flowery language. If anything, the textual sound effects are more elaborate, with some well-done editing that converts Japanese characters into English and makes the lettering match the art style almost seamlessly.
After a story arc filled with adventures, mysteries, and revelations, Tegami Bachi: Letter Bee closes out the Cabernet saga with plenty of fireworks. Niche's sudden power surge, along with the Letter Bees' display of teamwork, sets up plenty of visual delights. Meanwhile the hero of the story, Lag Seeing, goes through an emotionally charged experience that is as much of a new beginning as it is a closing statement. Still, it could have been better: the final battle with Cabernet turns out to be a checklist of fight-scene clichés, and those familiar with the genre will find little in the way of surprises or creative twists. Instead, the real creativity lies in the entire world of Amberground itself—and what Lag may discover in the chapters to come.
Overall : B-
Story : C
Art : A-
+ A climactic do-or-die battle makes for memorable moments and spectacular artwork, and a last-minute revelation packs an emotional punch.
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