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Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Special Guest Edition: Mars

by Shaenon K. Garrity,

Special Guest Edition: Mars

Mars sounds like the title of a science-fiction story, but it's not. It's the story of a painting—a painting of the god Mars, and the planet Mars, and a particular teenage boy named Rei. It's also the story of the artist, Kira, and everything that went into her first real work of art. In Mars, art and love are intertwined, forming the only defense against a world where brutality is part of human nature and “anger and sadness…leave an indelible mark.” Developing like a well-plotted novel, it's a reading experience that few fans forget, and it's haunted me ever since I reviewed the first few Tokyopop volumes for Animerica magazine in the early 2000s.
As the manga opens, high-schooler Kira is a timid introvert with a reputation as the weird girl: there's her hatred of being touched, for one thing, and what kind of girl spends all her time drawing? Rei, recently transplanted to Japan from L.A., is the bad boy, an aspiring motorcycle racer who goes through girls faster than he screams around the racetrack. (Was Mars the first of all those shojo and shonen ai manga that use “from L.A.” as shorthand for “this love interest is a little bit wild”?) In a moment of uncharacteristic courage, Kira asks Rei to model for her, and, to her surprise, he agrees.

As it turns out, Rei isn't really a bad guy at all; this isn't one of those Happy Mania situations where boy treats girl like shit on his shoe and she puts up with it because he's hurting inside, don't you know. Rei is hurting, and he's got a lot of anger and violence inside him, but he takes it out on himself, slacking off at school and risking his life on the motorcycle track. Around Kira, he reveals a perceptive mind, an instinct to protect those in need (in one memorable early sequence, he coolly takes revenge on an art teacher who sexually harasses Kira), and a deep capacity for love. Most crucially, he appreciates Kira's art. In response, Kira opens up, too, and these two young people who seemed stranded on separate lonely planets drift together.

It's hard to talk about the plot of Mars beyond the first few volumes. Secrets are revealed, then give way to deeper, darker secrets, gradually forming a web of lies, wounds, and disappointments that stretches all the way back to the characters’ births. Even the supporting characters reveal hidden sides, developing and changing allegiances as the central relationship between Rei and Kira builds into the one source of strength anyone can count on.

That relationship is the great joy of Mars; this is the rare manga romance with two protagonists who actually seem to be good for each other. Kira cheers for Rei's racing career. Rei pushes Kira as an artist. They have conversations about art and life. This may well be the only teen manga where characters discuss DALI and Egon Schiele. They stick up for one another. Beneath all their interactions is the quiet, powerful thrill of discovering someone who gets you—the thrill of falling in love.

I admit I have a weakness for love stories where the leads talk a lot, especially when they talk about big issues: life, death, love, philosophy, creativity. It's disappointing how rare this is in teen romance, manga or otherwise. Most young people think a lot about big issues, more than they do when they get older, and most people's experience of young love includes long, intense late-night conversations about The Meaning of It All. Why don't we see more of this in fiction? Are writers as embarrassed as the rest of us by their old naïveté, their outsize teenage dreams? In Mars, those conversations begin during Rei's modeling sessions with Kira and continue on rooftops, at racetracks, on lonely streets at night. And it's not just Rei and Kira. Most of the characters in Mars are in the process of figuring out, clumsily and painfully, what being human is all about.

And sometimes what they find isn't pretty. Mars goes to some very dark places, dredging up child abuse, suicide, murder, family secrets, deep-rooted bitterness, and, it sometimes seems, every conceivable trauma. This is a manga where a teenager can speak out in favor of committing casual murder, Leopold and Loeb style, just to prove that the world is fundamentally evil, and assume that his audience will agree with him. But these developments are, for the most part, handled realistically rather than melodramatically. And somehow Mars manages to meditate on darkness and cruelty while remaining, at the same time, a sweet love story. If the manga has an ultimate message, it's that this world is ruled by the god of war, but that's no reason not to choose to serve the god of love.

The cover copy of the Tokyopop edition calls Mars “one of Japan's most popular comics for teen girls ever,” and it's easy to see why. It's great romance, it's great drama, and, story aside, it's great-looking. Fuyumi Soryo's art shows an old-school Twenty-Four Year Group influence in its delicate linework and carefully rendered figures. She has a gift for capturing expressions and body language. Shaggy-haired, long-limbed Rei is a very beautiful boy, while Kira's changing appearance telegraphs her development from a shy misanthrope into a brave, big-hearted aspiring artist. Setting the story at a school that doesn't require uniforms allows Soryo, a former fashion design student, to telegraph the changes in her characters’ inner lives with changes to their wardrobes and hairstyles.

Given that this is the story of the creation of a portrait of Rei, it's appropriate that so much space is devoted to capturing him: his face, his body, his movements, his clothing. In the early volumes, the contrast between Kira's uptight, ramrod-straight posture and Rei's unaffected easy grace speaks volumes about the characters before they speak a word of dialogue.

And, unlike many shojo artists, Soryo can draw action. Her racing scenes are a blur of speedlines and machinery, with motorcycles careening across the page. A fair amount of research clearly went into the racing material, as evidenced by the copious marginal notes on industry terminology and the lovingly detailed renderings of different makes of motorcycle. Soryo's love scenes are thrilling in their own way. In one lovely moment, Kira kisses Rei in a crowd, and at the moment their lips touch the crowd fades into the background.

Mars was one of Tokyopop's first forays, ten long years ago, into non-fantasy shojo manga. After the game-changing success of Sailor Moon and the manga of CLAMP, Tokyopop took a chance on the comparatively down-to-earth high-school romance/dramas Mars and Peach Girl, both serialized in the publisher's much-missed shojo magazine Smile. The Smile titles opened the floodgates to a torrent of high-school shojo romance from English publishers that still hasn't abated.

But few, if any, of the series that followed have matched the glorious soapiness of Peach Girl or the thoughtful human drama of Mars. Currently out of print, Mars would be a prime title for Kodansha USA, which published Soryo's more recent sci-fi series Eternal Sabbath, to add to its lineup, just to show the rubes how love, art, and motorcycle racing are done.

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