Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Taroza, the human baby raised by Monoko the tanuki, is worried. He doesn't seem to be growing as fast as tanuki babies and thinks he might be a burden on his adopted mother – especially when a pack of wolves kidnaps him to use as bait! Taroza understands that the wolves need food to get through the winter just like the tanuki do, and he tries to explain the concepts of “sharing” and “helping others” to the alpha, with mixed results. After this incident, seven years go by, and Taroza has created an agricultural paradise for the herbivorous animals he has befriended. The carnivores have a difficult time understanding the concept, and, led by another human child, a girl named Capri, they decide to treat the farm as an all-you-can-eat buffet. Will Taroza be able to protect his friends?
Tempting as it is to make associations with the sweet creatures of Disney films, the only valid comparison between Makoto Raiku's Animal Land and American theatrical cartoons is “Bambi,” and not the latter half of the film either. Both volumes two and three of this not-quite-kiddy story involve children being orphaned by violent means, as Monoko was in volume one, and Raiku does not shy away from showing the death scenes. Volume one had hints of this darkness, but Raiku really brings it to the fore in these books, and one or two moments in the second volume are enough to bring tears to your eyes.
Those warnings given, Animal Land continues to be one of the more interesting shounen titles to be translated into English. Volume two concludes Taroza's first year with the tanuki pack. It is winter and all of the animals are slowly starving. When Monoko takes the baby fishing with her, a group of wolves steals him to lure the other tanuki out, essentially using him as a worm on a hook. The alpha of the pack, a wolf named Rao who in this case is also the father and husband, explains to Taroza that in his worldview, it is eat or be eaten, and it is just Taroza's bad luck to be a “plant-eater.” It is clear that Rao is only trying to keep his family alive, especially young pup Zeke. Taroza is of course rescued by both Monoko and the wild cat Kurokagi, but he returns later to offer one of the fish the tanuki caught to Rao and his family. Rao is baffled by this turn of events. He cannot understand why one animal would offer sustenance to another, even when Taroza tries to explain it to him. Like a character in a Jack London story, Rao's determination leads to his death and that of most of his pack, but he learns Taroza's lesson and asks the boy to raise Zeke, the only survivor, as a cooperative animal. This section, which takes up the majority of volume two, is expertly done to convey the most pathos and jerk the maximum amount of tears from sensitive readers. It also marks the moment when Taroza really takes over from Monoko as the hero of the series, devoting himself to the idea that animals of different species can get along and can work together to survive, a concept which looks like it will drive later volumes.
Book three begins with a time skip – seven years have passed and Taroza is now, by the standards of the animals he lives with, a young man. The sprouting seed he found in the end of volume two has grown into a community farm run by a variety of herbivorous animals all working together. It isn't entirely clear if they can indulge in interspecies communication, but everyone, including the now full-grown Zeke, is getting along beautifully. One day, however, a pride of lions appears on the scene, hunting a family of monkeys. After readers are once again shown a scene where a child watches his parents get eaten, Taroza appears to save the day. The lions are shocked to see him – they, too, have a human child in their group, a little girl named Capri. When they report back to her, Capri is thrilled and fascinated, and naturally falls for Taroza almost immediately. (“Is something wrong with me?” she asks a female lion, “I wanted to 'snuggle' him.”) Having been told that she is “in heat” by a lioness, Capri attempts to woo a confused Taroza, and when she is rejected, orders an attack on the farm. The ensuing battle ends the book and looks like it will force Capri and Taroza to have a serious conversation. Volume three finishes out with a short story about Kurokagi's past and also sheds a bit of light onto just what “animal land” is compared to “human land.”
It is difficult to say whether one volume is stronger than the other; two is certainly sadder, so it will depend on personal tastes as both are well written and drawn. Raiku informs us that he uses photographs as models for his drawings and conducted a research trip to Kenya, so the bones of his animal pictures are very solid. There are some clear manga touches, of course – Zeke's adult face is hardly wolf-like and many of the animals wear some form of clothing, the tribal lions and gladiator bulls being the most noticeable. The strange mix of domestic and exotic animals may be off-putting to some, but more uncertain are the sizes of the creatures. Some appear to be normal sized (cows), while others are distinctly larger than in real life, such as the wolves. Is this done in a Princess Mononoke sense, where the oversize animals are spiritual representations? If so, what does that say about where animal land is? Observant readers will remember the indication that Taroza's bassinet sank in volume one, which may support the idea of animal land being some sort of spirit realm.
In terms of layout, this is a very smooth read. Raiku doesn't take any risks with his panels and it is very easy to follow the story from one to the other. He seems to be aware of his art as it appears to his readers, and motifs that do not work quickly disappear from the story, such as breasts on adult female tanuki and the large string of snot that at first seems to be part of Taroza's eight-year-old design. Translation is also well done,with a natural feel to the dialogue. Vocabulary is clearly geared younger, an indication of an original intended audience that would most like find the series too upsetting in the English-speaking world.
Animal Land is both like and unlike other shounen series on the anglophone market. It is, at its heart, a tale of love and friendship and how together we are stronger than apart. But it is also a story of child-abandonment, the cruelties of nature, and the violence of the natural world. More “The Fox and the Hound” than any sweeter fare, this story is darker than it at first appears (although it is filled with lighter moments as well), Animal Land is a fascinating story that should appeal to those looking for something a little different in their manga diet.
Overall : B+
Story : A-
Art : B
+ Interesting story of survival and cooperation, Taroza is a hero it is easy to like. Writing (and translation) are strong enough to provoke tears in places, and the basics of the animals are well drawn.
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