Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
A Centaur's Life
Himeno and her friends Nozomi and Kyoko are first year high school students in a Japanese metropolis. They ride the train to school, take tests, and worry about boys. This all sounds pretty basic, but there's a twist – they're all monsters. At some point there was a shift in history, and now centaurs, goatfolk, angelfolk, and draconids make up the world population. And yet at the end of the day, whether centaur or human, high school girls will be high school girls, doing their own thing.
The first chapter of Kei Murayama's A Centaur's Life is likely to either make or break your decision to keep reading the volume. Chapter 0 introduces us to the three main characters of the tale, centaur Himeno, draconid Nozomi, and goatfolk Kyoko, as they are riding home on the train. A young angelfolk man tries to hand Himeno a love letter, but she bolts without taking it as soon as the train reaches the station. Concerned, her friends follow her home and grill her about why she's so leery of love. Himeno's answer? She's afraid her vagina looks like a cow's because she is a centaur, and therefore has a horse's body attached to her human torso. Nozomi then proceeds to suggest that they all examine each others' vaginas in order to assess the “humanity” of Himeno's, which they do.
Needless to say, this could be a major turnoff for some people who might otherwise pick up the book. It also has little to do – perhaps even nothing apart from some world building – with the rest of the volume, so it is not a good way to gage how much enjoyment you are likely to get out of the series. While I rarely advocate skipping parts of books, if this makes you uncomfortable but you still really want to read an interesting take on the slice-of-life genre, I believe that you could safely skip the first chapter and jump in with the second, called Chapter 1. Because really, when you get right down to it, A Centaur's Life is not about anything beyond how human the not-quite-human in appearance really are. Murayama's story softly tackles issues of race by making everyone some sort of creature/human hybrid – the story's world has centaurs, angelfolk (with wings and halos), draconids (with pointed ears, wings, and tails), horned goatfolk, horse-legged unicornfolk, catfolk, and all manner of interesting creatures. Small hints indicate that some races are preferred over others, but mostly Murayama explores the differences and similarities between them as the trio of heroines simply goes about their daily lives.
For the most part, A Centaur's Life's first volume focuses on the everyday adventures of Himeno and her friends. They ride the train, go to class, put on a school play, and talk about modeling as a part time job. What sets this apart from other “girls doing stuff” series is the fact that they are all only partly human. While in some cases this has no bearing on things, in others it becomes a major part of the conversation. For example, in the class play, Himeno is set to be the princess and Nozomi the prince. No one has any issues with this casting based on race – the big issues center on kissing and shoddily built stage furniture. On the other hand, when the girls have to run for gym class, Kyoko notes that Himeno has a major advantage because of her centaur heritage, to say nothing of twice the number of feet. This creates a balance that is fun to read about, giving us creative world-building in an otherwise calm and familiar story.
Indeed, the world-building is the strongest aspect of Murayama's series. Budding authors are often told that they must know ten times the information about their worlds than the readers will ever see in the story, and Murayama has clearly taken this to heart. An epilogue in prose gives details about the political and animal make-up of the manga's world, and small inserts on the backs of pages provide little tidbits of information, such as how people with wings wear shirts or what kind of underwear horse and cat people wear. (Some readers may remember similar information being provided in Minoru Tachikawa's Hyper Police manga.) Brief mentions of the first centaur being elected president of the United States give some hints as to potential social prejudices, and the girls mention having studied in school what races can reproduce together. Other details, such as why it is especially important for centaurs not to be overweight or the visuals of different goatfolk horns, also help to flesh out the story's world.
As a first volume, A Centaur's Life introduces us to a bizarre yet familiar world. The first chapter may be a bit much for some readers, and honestly, it is a sort of strange way to bring up the themes that the entire volume covers, but this series has a lot of potential to do something new with the cute girls genre while remaining true to it. Murayama's still clearly getting used to drawing some of the more anatomically fanciful characters – and centaurs sitting or lying down are a consistent artistic problem – but on the whole this is a very interesting read worth giving a chance.
Overall : B-
Story : B-
Art : C+
+ Neat concept and great world-building, recreates the “cute girls doing cute things” genre while still remaining firmly a part of it.
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