Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Alice in Murderland
The Kuonji family is just a little different from other families. Every month they hold a tea party which all nine children are obliged to attend. When fourth daughter Stella leaves school early for this month's, she doesn't expect anything different from her family's usual weirdness, only to be horribly shocked when her mother announces that it is time for the children to fight to the death to inherit the family fortune. With her favorite brother's life hanging on the line and a terrible alternate personality known as “Bloody Alice” lurking within her, Stella doesn't know what to do. But she's quickly finding out that one line from Lewis Carroll is true – they're all mad here...
The world's collective obsession with Lewis Carroll's 1864 children's novel Alice's Adventures in Wonderland does not look to be dying out any time soon, and Japan's manga industry is one of the more interesting producers of Alice retellings. Alice in Murderland is Gothic mangaka Kaori Yuki's addition to the fantasy sub-genre (yes, there really are enough retellings to make up their own special sub-genre!), and frankly I'm surprised it took her this long. While this first volume is pretty much the most Kaori Yuki Kaori Yuki series ever, it is also clear that she has done her research and understands the original novel's history, which gives us some tantalizing hints as to what she's going to do with the story even while she's making it darkly violent.
The role of Alice in this series is played by Stella Kuonji, the middle of nine Kuonji siblings. Stella is relatively ambivalent about her large family, noting that they're strange but seeming to accept them otherwise. She's especially close to Zeno, her eldest brother, and the two have a quasi-incestuous bond. One of the quirks of her family is that they have a monthly tea party which all the children are required to attend, no matter that it requires them to leave school early, as we see in the beginning pages. This month's party, however, is a little different: the Kuonji parents, dressed as the Red Queen and the Mad Hatter, announce that in order to determine the family succession, all nine children have a year to kill each other, with the last kid standing declared the sole heir. Stella is utterly horrified, and she's not alone; Mrs. Kuonji is definitely a leading contender for “sickest parent in manga.” She is absolutely gleeful when she makes her announcement, and genuinely seems to think that her children will relish killing each other off. She is quite put out when Stella spends the volume objecting and seems to revel in the destruction of her family. Her husband isn't much better, taking on the role of enforcer to her queen as both of them play with their children's psyches and delight especially in Stella's torment. Scenes with them are a combination of enraging and chilling, making them easily the most effective part of the volume.
Not all of the Kuonji siblings share Stella's disgust of the game, with brother Sid being the major enthusiast. In a battle with him, Zeno falls and Stella in her anger frees a disturbing alternate personality, Bloody Alice, a blue-eyed blond with some serious bloodlust. After Alice's appearance, Stella finds herself fighting the Other much more than her siblings (although that definitely happens too), afraid she'll come out and Stella will lose control. It's very much an American McGee take on the Alice stories, and it works because of the dangerously mad world the Kuonjis have created. Other Carrollian aspects do not fit quite as well into the story, such as the white rabbit figure, a schoolmate of Stella's named Tsukito, and why yes, that is a rabbit on the moon reference, attempting to blend Japanese mythology with Wonderland's. Tsukito has been watching Stella from afar in a decidedly creepy way – even Stella and Tsukito's own grandfather think he's verging on being a stalker – and in all honesty this interpretation of the white rabbit feels like it owes more to QuinRose's Peter White in the Alice in the Country of Hearts franchise than Lewis Carroll's creation. In some aspects the idea that the white rabbit has been observing Alice for a long time before stepping in is an interesting one, and it provides a sense of background to the nonsensical original. However Tsukito's obsession with Stella doesn't feel quite grounded enough, even for a first volume, and he pales as a character in comparison to Zeno, particularly after the latter's transformation midway through the book.
While some first volumes really give you a feel for how the story is going to proceed, Alice in Murderland is more of a slow burn, despite the fast pace of the plot. It doesn't lack in Yuki's usual stylistic fare of elaborate outfits (I've never seen rompers look so alluring), wicked(ly hot) men, extreme violence, and mixed motives for the characters. The Kuonji estate is a land unto itself, and Stella's first appearance in a school uniform before she makes the change to casual clothes seems to signal that divide. There is clearly a complicated backstory to the children's history, one which Yuki gives us hints of, and that ties in with the insanity of the Kuonjis fairly well and serves as a backbone to the plot. The more we see of Stella's and Zeno's past, the more interesting and immediate the present becomes, so while the first chapter and a half feel like just another dark shoujo, things pick up after that. Alice fans will notice that Yuki has included a fair amount of John Tenniel (the original illustrator of the published novel) references in the art, and from her comments at the end of the volume it seems like we can expect more references to Carroll and Tenniel to creep in. Pages are very busy and dark, so this is not a fast read, but the details are worth paying attention to.
Alice in Murderland is another one of Yen Press' hardcover editions, with an $18 retail price that feels a little steep for this particular book. The large format does make it easier to read Yuki's pages, but this doesn't feel quite as “premium” as Demon From Afar and A Bride's Story, with only one color page and four chapters of story. The translation, however, reads very smoothly, and one Japanese wordplay has been very nicely reworked to the point where you wouldn't even notice were it not pointed out in the end notes.
Gothic manga fans and Alice aficionados alike should find Alice in Murderland's first volume an interesting take on both genres. It doesn't always work, but it has enough potential to that given another volume or two, I feel like it will really take off. The price is high, but the story is grimly fascinating, steeped in Kaori Yuki's favorite brand of dark madness.
Overall : B
Story : B
Art : B+
+ Nice references to Carroll and Tenniel, Kuonji parents are really effective as a horror device. Nice translation. Story picks up and becomes increasingly interesting...
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