The Fall 2018 Manga Guide
Ran and the Gray World
What's It About?Ran Uruma is precocious and lively in the way that most children are. The only difference is that she has magical powers. Being the daughter of a sorceress, Ran is able to affect her environment, lifting objects and tossing herself out of bed while she's asleep and transforming into a much older version of herself when she puts on her favorite shoes.
Her erratic, impulsive behavior in tandem with her powers causes constant headaches for her family, especially her older brother, who has to clean up after his sister's messes, rescuing her from danger and making sure she doesn't go too far. Top it off with the fact that their mother is perpetually absent, having to protect her village from dark forces, and the Uruma household is always set to explode in the wake of one of Ran's temper tantrums or flights of fancy. But they adapt and survive. After all, even with Ran's out-of-control powers, they're still a family.
Is It Worth Reading?
Ran and the Gray World's first volume borrows elements from a lot of different sources to come up with a story that's entirely its own. There's the folkloric aspect, of course – from Ran's magical shoes (which have spiritual companions in the seven league boots and glass slippers of fairy tales) to the wolfskin Jin puts on to effect his transformation, which bears a striking similarity to the sealskins of the selkies or feathered robes of celestial maidens, this story has plenty of interesting little details from world folklore that add a grounded (yet still magical) element to the story. Then there's Otaro, the adult man who falls for Ran in her transformed state – like men in everything from Fancy Lala to Instant Teen, along with less savory stories, he's the grown man who finds child-in-an-adult-body Ran captivating for her, well, childish innocence, but can't believe that she's a seven-year-old done up like a seventeen-year-old. Factor in bits and pieces from classic children's literature like the works of Astrid Lindgren (Pippi Longstocking and Ronja, the Robbers' Daughter) and camp classics like Bewitched, and this volume really feels like a pastiche of themes and elements.
What's really impressive is that it works. All of those bits and pieces make the story an interesting magic realism piece, where the magic world blends into ours at its edges, with only a few people who care to, or perhaps can, notice. It seems to be strongly implied that Ran and Jin's mother Shizuka is in charge of making sure that both worlds run smoothly, but mostly the heart of the story is that Ran's a little girl who doesn't like, or truly understand, that her mother can't live with them. She acts out accordingly, trying desperately to become a better sorceress so that she can go visit her mother, and if that means putting on the magic sneakers that age her up about ten years, then that's what she's going to do, no matter how well her big brother tries to hide them.
Part of the appeal here is that Ran really is a seven or eight-year-old kid. Even when she's in her teen body, she acts like a little girl; there's no maturity that comes with secondary sexual characteristics. She's an angry, hurting kid, and that's not something her father and brother seem equipped to deal with, or maybe not even to understand. That's not to say that she doesn't love them, but her mother's absence has such an impact on her that she's unable to reconcile things within herself. Magic helps her to feel closer to Shizuka, so that's where she turns.
With all of these positives, among them Aki Irie's busy, detailed artwork, it's a shame that the story doesn't feel hugely cohesive in this volume. I suspect both that it's deliberate and that it will change into a more linear tale going forward, which makes it worth giving the series at least another volume to sort itself out. Right now Irie seems to be operating under the assumption that magic realism doesn't have to make lots of sense, and while there's an argument to be made for that, this will be an even better story when it can spring into the sky from a place where its feet are firmly planted on the ground.
Ran and the Gray World drops the reader right into the dynamic life of the youngest child of what appears to be a visiting spirit and a (perhaps?) human. While the manga does a great job of painting a picture of a whimsical child, as well as her chaotic nature frequently being a thorn in her older brother's side, it does little to reveal to the reader what's going on and what's at stake by volume's end. Ran's ability to make her body older and voluptuous with a pair of magic shoes is at first a random turn of events that becomes more important when a devil-may-care playboy finds her in adult form in his backyard and quickly becomes enraptured with her. To be fair, he has no idea this child-like woman is actually a child, but regardless, he quickly becomes obsessed, and their relationship is uncomfortable on multiple levels. Though her put-upon brother is a likeable character, there's no room for him to be more than a shallow, undeveloped character constantly trying to rein his wild sister in. As a whole, the story could have been developed and explained at a slower pace so the reader has a better idea of what's going on by the end of the first few chapters.
Irie's art is both a highlight and a drawback of the manga. A highlight because the characters, with their angular faces, stand out with fairly unique designs and emotive expressions. A drawback because each panel is simply so cluttered to the point where all of the mess and detail in the background feels oppressive. While that does help convey the chaotic nature of Ran herself, it's also distracting.
Ran and the Gray World volume 1 is an ephemeral story with promise that doesn't quite hook the reader this early on. It throws a lot of detail at its audience, adding to the anarchic atmosphere, but it never quite gels into something the reader can pin down until it adds the uncomfortable element of an older playboy pursuing this wild little girl.
I hate it when I'm enjoying a piece of media and something happens that alarms me so much I can no longer comfortably endorse the thing in question. Sadly that's the case with Ran and the Gray World; a gorgeous, enchanting manga with a single plot element that makes me so uncomfortable my enthusiasm just dies.
In Ran and the Gray World, our main character is able to turn into an older version of herself when she puts on her favorite shoes. She is still a child in heart and mind, however. And while in this form, she encounters a powerful CEO who immediately falls head over heels for her. For a twelve year old girl. This is the kind of thing you'd see in Gunslinger Girl as a sign of moral dubiousness, and it's presented as cutesy. Yes, he doesn't know. But he actually comments that she looks about fifteen, even in the older form. And all the in-universe justifications in the world can't change the fact that the tone of this turn is so at odds with the magic whimsy of the general story it causes the whole enterprise to collapse.
It's such a shame too, because those first three chapters are really good; they're full of wild imagery, dynamic paneling and naturalistic storytelling. So much information is conveyed through subtle gestures, small character interactions and tiny day-in-the-life moments that in any other manga would be entire panels of text. The art is absolutely incredible to boot. There's a scene where Ran's sorceress mother returns to their family home and cakes the town in all manner of giant desserts that is just incredible. So many panels of this manga are that striking, searing themselves into your mind with their visual invention and sheer power.
But every time I remember those moments, the moment that shocked me out of liking the manga flies right back as a rock in my gut. It sucks, but to deny my emotional response to that story turn would be equally awful. As such, Ran and the Gray World occupies a strange middle-space in my heart; one where I at once admire lot of what it does and am extremely uncomfortable with where it ultimately goes. All I can say is check it out and see for yourself. There's a lot of good stuff here. But know to temper your expectations, and be aware of things that might put you off too.
All kids want to grow up right away, and for Ran Uruma, it's no different. Child of a powerful sorceress, Ran desperately wants to be like her mom. With a help of a pair of magic sneakers that turn her into an adult, Ran navigates the world as an adult and child, as well as a human and witch. Whether it's trying to learn how to fly, or being chased down by her werewolf brother, Ran is always up to something that would cause any family member a big headache.
The thing that stands out the most about Ran and the Gray World is the manga's art style. Though the covers and actual manga have different styles, both are incredibly striking and distinct. Immediately, I noticed a style that is not common and it felt like a breath of fresh air.
Despite the art of the manga being unique, the plot itself leaves something to be desired. Each character, Ran, her father, her powerful mother, older brother Jin, and the mysterious rich boy Otaro Mikado are exciting characters, but with the scope given in volume one alone does not set up much. Each chapter is small bits of Ran's life and besides her weirdly developing friendship/relationship with Otaro, there really isn't much of a plot. Chances are, in the long game their characters will grow and their stories will unfold and become much more interesting, but for what Aki Irie has shown us in the first volume, I couldn't say that I was gripped.
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