Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Mikura Amelia is a free-spirited pilot flying cargo out to the sparsely populated chains of islands stretching out into the Pacific. When her grandfather suddenly dies and leaves her his house, she discovers that he has also bequeathed her a package, to be delivered to the mysterious “Electric Island.” Electric Island turns out to be a local myth, an island that floats around in the ocean, never stopping. Mikura decides to take up her grandfather's quest to find it, determined to solve its mysteries.
Whether you call it Brigadoon, Shangri-La, or Electric Island, legends and dreams of a mystical place just slightly removed from reality abound in both fiction and folklore. This fabled paradise is the backbone of Kenji Tsuruta (creator of Spirit of Wonder)'s 2011 manga Wandering Island, currently being released in English by Dark Horse. That same feeling of wonder and appreciation for things just out of reach that permeated his previous work is very present here, and even if you're just an armchair voyager, there's something enthralling about Mikura's quest to find the mysterious island her grandfather left to her.
Wandering Island takes place in the Ogasawara Archipelago, a string of sparsely inhabited islands stretching six hundred miles into the Pacific. Mikura Amelia grew up with her grandfather, Brian Amelia, out on Hahajima, and he trained her to fly their seaworthy WWII biplane, a Fairey Swordfish. When the manga opens, Brian has just died, leaving Mikura his home and belongings, as well as their cat Endeavour, presumably named for Captain (then Lieutenant) James Cook's ship. Among his belongings, Mikura finds a package addressed to “Electric Island,” which she's never heard of. A bit of research and gossip with the local fishermen reveals it to be a mythical island that floats around the ocean. No one really believed in it except Brian and his friends, who spent years compiling research on its projected locations. Mikura quickly becomes obsessed with Electric Island, and decides to continue her grandfather's research to find it.
For a story with very little text, Wandering Island manages to be very dense. Tsuruta's art style is highly detailed, giving us little hints about the truth of Electric Island, local color, and insight into people's personalities from their clothing and living spaces. The house Mikura inherits from Brian is so full of books, boxes, and other fascinating detritus of his life that you just want to climb into the panel and spend hours going through it. The images of the Ogasawara Islands feel very true to life, and if you've ever been in a small island town (particularly a fishing village), there's a familiarity that all coastal settlements share in the body language of the people, the clutter of elderly fishing vessels, and the way that rural homes always seem to accumulate random piles outside the home in a way urban ones don't. If you're an airplane geek, the biplane is a real treat. (My father looked at the manga and knew exactly what kind of plane she was.) The only real stumbling block in Tsuruta's art is Endeavour the cat – she looks more like a creepy alien than an actual feline.
Not that this is photo-realistic art – characters are still very much drawn to manga standards, but Tsuruta uses them in interesting ways. Mikura spends most of her time lightly dressed or completely naked, but she's so clearly comfortable in this mode that it doesn't come off as fanservice. She owns one nice outfit that she wears whenever she has to, but she's otherwise more interested in where she's going and what she's doing than her clothes. The bond between her and Endeavour (who often travels zipped into her warm bomber jacket) seems to mirror the relationship she had with her grandfather – loving and symbiotic, but not codependent. Mikura leaves Endeavour at home as often as she takes her flying. All other relationships are based on small details Tsuruta drops – Mikura had a crush on her (young) middle school teacher, she's got a few acquaintances and one good friend, she gets along well with the elderly. Of all these relationships, the teacher stands out as the one who matters most, given that he helped her grandfather with his research.
At the heart of this story, however, is the idea of exploration, the drive to go out and find the impossible. As I mentioned before, the name “Endeavour” likely comes from James Cook's vessel, in which he explored Australia and New Zealand, and the fact that Mikura and Brian's last name is “Amelia” is too convenient not to be a reference to Amelia Earhart. The parallels between Electric Island and James Hilton's mystical Himalayan paradise are also obvious, in no small part because the “discoverers” of both stories are pilots. There's also an air of Gulliver's Travels to the story and Treasure Island in its thirst for adventure (and at least one sneaky reference), making this read like a classic 18th or 19th century adventure story in manga form. That Mikura does catch a glimpse of Electric Island simply makes her quest all the more tantalizing – the parcel left by her grandfather is not only directed to Electric Island, it's addressed to her.
From its sweeping scenes of a biplane's flight to its mystical adventure plot, Wandering Island's first volume is the kind of book you can get lost in. It isn't a particularly fast read, if only because there are so many little details that you want to observe, and the yearning for something special and the need to discover something come through clearly. If you ever spent a day tromping around outside looking for buried treasure or being certain that the next rock you looked under would conceal a portal to a magical land, this is a book you don't want to miss.
Overall : A
Story : A
Art : A
+ Wonderful detailed art, storyline that appeals to a sense of adventure while feeling very grounded, essay in lieu of notes is good informative reading
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