Reviewby Carlo Santos, Apr 24th 2008
Sakurashin may look like a typical suburban town, but among its residents are a group of teenage kids who keep things in order with their secret abilities. Hime is gifted with extreme physical strength, empathic Ao can read minds, curious Kotoha can create objects out of thin air with a single word, and Akina—well, he's just a normal guy who keeps the three girls in check. Psychopathic shooters and demonically possessed dogs are all in a day's work for the Yozakura Quartet, but sometimes it's the day-to-day challenges that can really take it out of them. When Akina and his team are asked to help run a kindergarten, there's one child who doesn't seem happy at all—and fixing his problem is more than just a matter of using superpowers...
This may sound completely counter-intuitive, but Yozakura Quartet would probably benefit from less character development. The characters, as they stand at the end of Chapter 1, are fine. We know their powers, their personalities, and how the team works together—and it's all revealed through a slickly drawn action sequence that promises great things to come. In other words, the first 40-odd pages show all the makings of a solid high-school-age action series.
Then comes the kindergarten double-chapter, and everything just goes down the hole. Yes, it's nice to know about Ao's kindness, and how Hime strives to be responsible, and how Akina is just barely on top of things, but do we really need 60-plus pages of this? What happened to the action? What happened to the special powers? Things finally get back on track with Chapters 4 and 5, but it's hard to regain that lost momentum after two straight chapters of early-development childcare.
Don't blame it entirely on the story, though. Chapters 2 and 3 in this volume are actually 4 and 5 in the original serialization, but an editorial decision moved the "dark stuff" (i.e. the good, action-packed chapters) over to the second half of the book, while placing the more gently-paced chapters in the middle to break up the pace. While this may have been a good idea to highlight the characters' relationships and paint the series as a "superpower meets slice-of-life" affair, it also kills off the momentum and even creates confusion in the plot. Who, exactly, is the mysterious guy with glasses who claims to be Ao's brother? In one chapter he's portrayed as kindly but enigmatic, yet in another story he's basically evil—with no explanation as to how this happens. And that's not the only gap in logic among these stories: Ao and the kindergarten problem kid reach their resolution too abruptly, the demon dog's transformation in Chapter 4 comes out of nowhere, and the Hime-versus-Kotoha training exercise seems to be completely arbitrary because Kotoha just happened to be standing there.
Yet the characters themselves—and their powers—are wonderfully appealing. Athletic Hime revels in her tsundere role, but also shows inner strength as the interim "mayor" of the town; Kotoha's inventive word-magic is as delightful as her proclivity for guns; mind-reading Ao is sweet without ever pushing it too far; and even Akina, despite being surrounded by three cute girls, manages to dodge the harem bullet and instead comes off as a likable everyman who's simply trying to keep things running.
Appealing characters wouldn't be complete without appealing character design, and the series' stylish look definitely fits that requirement. Sharp, clean linework and contemporary fashions give the art a strongly modern vibe, and everyone has a distinctive visual cue to tell them apart, from Hime's lacrosse stick to Ao's cat ears to Kotoha's frequently stuck-out tongue. The cleanly drawn style also lends itself well to the suburban backgrounds—when every building is three stories or lower and the biggest structure in town is a giant sacred pillar, this is definitely a unique setting that's not to be confused with metro Tokyo. Widely spaced panels also contribute to the sparse, clean style, allowing plenty of room for each action scene as well as setting the pace for those gentle, emotional moments. (Who knew that a sparrow could hold so much meaning?) But while the wide-open layouts are easy to follow, they also consume a lot of space, so it often takes a lot of pages to say rather little. Perhaps this is why it takes two long chapters just to expand on the characters' personalities, or why logical gaps keep happening—there needs to be a better balance so that the story can be told in the space allotted.
In addition to easy-to-follow artwork, the concise dialogue also keeps this series moving at a brisk pace. In fact, the first chapter is the very epitome of "show, don't tell"—within the first few pages, the main characters' powers are cleverly revealed through example, rather than littering up the page with narration. But this conciseness comes with a price—the language is often too bland and simple. At least the non-dialogue side of translation fares better: sound effects are left in the original Japanese, with small English translations next to each, while a glossary in the back provides cultural notes as needed in the story (although most of it relates to the character profiles between each chapter).
At its best, Yozakura Quartet is an action-packed thrill ride where crazy kids save the day with their unique abilities—and all of this is exemplified in Chapter 1, which is about as good of an "origin story" as you'll ever get. But this first volume already starts to show signs of weakness when it tries to dig into the characters' day-to-day life and behavior (yawn), when it tries to advance certain plot points (what the heck just happened?), or when it tries to extend the overall storyline with a recurring mystery man (his good/evil alignment makes no sense). It has all the ingredients of greatness: distinctive characters, a premise loaded with action-adventure potential, and stylish, aesthetically pleasing artwork. But processing those ingredients into something successful is obviously going to take more work.
Overall : C
Story : D+
Art : B
+ Appealing characters with a balanced set of special abilities and stylish, action-packed artwork show lots of promise.
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