Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Kiichi and the Magic Booksby Jason Thompson,
Episode CXXVII: Kiichi and the Magic Books
Kiichi was born with a horn and pointy ears, and people call him an oni. Though his late mother loved him, other people fear and dislike him, and life in his small village is not easy. Then one day, a pair of strangers come to the village: a tall dark man, Mototaro, and Hanako, a young girl. Mototaro is a librarian who runs a traveling rental library, and when he spreads his books on a cloth, the villagers gather round to read them.
Kiichi wants to find books about oni like himself, but unfortunately, he can't read. Then he sees something impossible: tiny oni crawling out of Mototaro's books and dancing on the pages. When a villager steals a book, a giant elephant-like monster crawls out of the drawings and wreaks havoc. Mototaro shows up just in time to use his magic to put the creature back into the book. There is a reason why books are valuable: in this world, things from books often come to life. (Because of this, biographies of real people are forbidden.) Only the librarian clan, people like Mototaro, are permitted to own books and carry them between the 12 Depositories where librarians shelve the books and researchers spend their lives studying the secrets within.
Kiichi is amazed by Mototaro's abilities, and also by the fact that Mototaro doesn't fear oni, so he leaves the village and follows him on his journeys. Mototaro isn't too happy at first—he already has one little kid tagging along—but he gets used to it. Hanako is no ordinary human either; she's a girl who escaped from a book, and like all book-creatures, she's made out of ink. This makes her vulnerable to water. ("When people like us cry, the tears make us melt.") On the other hand, when she loses an arm, Mototaro just has to draw her a new one. With Kiichi's oni strength, Hanako's inky endurance, and Mototaro's ability to summon creatures out of books, they head off on an adventure on their individual goals: to find other oni for Kiichi, to find Hanako's book, and for Mototaro, to find something dark and secret that he can't share it with any of them, not until the right time comes.
Kiichi and the Magic Books, by Taka Amano (she's also on twitter), was one of the last completed series from the now-defunct CMX Manga. It's one of several series CMX licensed from Flex Comix, a small Japanese publisher which publishes online magazines; Kiichi ran in Flex Comix Flare, their 'shojo' online magazine. Like most online manga nowadays (including I Don't Like You at all, Big Bro! from Web Comic High), it's drawn in B&W exactly like print manga, and you'd never know it had been online from looking at it. Flex presumably makes their money from the tankobon sales, so you can read their comics online for free, although Kiichi isn't online anymore now that the series has completed. One of the reasons CMX licensed from Flex might have been that the series was from a smaller publisher and less well known, which means there weren't scanlations floating around.
On the other hand, some manga aren't scanlated because they're so bad not even scanlators will touch 'em; but luckily, Kiichi and the Magic Books isn't one of them. It's a solid, fantasy series with with twists & turns you'd never predict from my summary in the first three paragraphs. The story moves quickly and doesn't drag on (five volumes feels like just the right length), the storytelling is clear and the characters are distinct. The art is appealing, a vaguely Naruto-esque style with lots of spot blacks and bishonen and action; if I didn't know it was supposed to be "shojo" I would have looked at it and called it a shonen manga, which points out how meaningless these categories can be. On the other hand, like Naruto, it does have lots of scenes of people wandering in the woods. LOTS of scenes, like looping backgrounds in an old Hanna-Barbera cartoon. Luckily, later in the manga there are some great settings, like the half-ruined Book Depository shaped like a massive ivy-covered well, with a spiral staircase lined with bookshelves going all the way down into the darkness, and smoke trickling up from far, far below where a bonfire of discarded books perpetually burns.
Around the eternal bonfire (a creepy echo of real-world bookburning), a cabal of researchers puzzle out the truths of the books, like the readers exploring the infinite library in Jorge Luis Borges' The Library of Babel. In Keiichi's world, books are carefully controlled, lest dangerous things come out of them. Sometimes these are monsters (mostly traditional-looking Japanese mythological beasts like tengu and oni), but then there's the case of the woman who stole a baby from a book to raise in place of her dead son. Perhaps stories like this one and Book Girl (or, to pick a Western example, Inkheart) are reflections of a time when physical books are passing out of common usage as information storage devices and becoming reappreciated as artifacts and art pieces. Even Kingyo Used Books treats books more as rare magic items (the nostalgia for old '70s and '80s manga! the smell of the cheap crappy paper!) than part of a living culture. But luckily, Kiichi doesn't have any predictable "reading things on paper is good for you" message (apart from the rather cool subplot in which Mototaro teaches Kiichi to read); in fact, books are just one small aspect of its plot. (CMX's English title makes it sound bookier: the original title was the tongue twister Moto no moto no ana no naka, "The Hole in the Original Book" or "The Hole in Moto's Book".) Although Mototaro can take things out of books (and put them in), his power is no more important than those of his traveling companions.
Indeed, the heroes discover that Kiichi, not Mototaro, may be the key to everything. Mori, a member of the amamori clan (forest people who keep trained birds and traditionally serve as bodyguards to the librarians), is the first person they meet who shows an unhealthy interest in the ogre child. Mototaro wonders if he's one of those bandits who hunts oni horns, which can be sold for fabulous amounts of money. But the truth is even stranger. A researcher at the Depository explains that the oni are actually "seeds"; if an oni is planted into the ground, in just the proper way, it will grow into a giant tree. (This is wordplay: both "oni" and "tree" can be written as ki in Japanese). To the researchers and the amamori, Kiichi is not a boy at all, he is part of a prophecy, "one of the 12 trees which hold up the world." To become a tree will mean the end of Kiichi's life, but is there a way Kiichi might accept this fate? Is there something for which he would sacrifice his life as a human being?
What is Mototaro's secret? What is the true nature of the "trees"? And why, unfortunately, does this manga have so many ugly old men as villains? (Even the author wonders in her omake, "Huh? Is this manga rife with old men…?") Apart from the final question, all the answers are explained in the last volume. This is an all-ages book, and you can tell it won't get too dark from the first chapter (which ends with a tankobon-only two-page bonus story where the village kids apologize to Keiichi for bullying him), but it's a good read and the plot goes into strange and unexpected places. After I read the first four books I couldn't locate the fifth one for awhile, and it really ticked me off not knowing what happened at the ending. That's the highest recommendation I can make about any manga.
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