Reviewby Caitlin Moore,
Momo Ayase believes in spirits. Her classmate, Ken “Okarun” Takakura, believes in aliens. After she defends him from some bullies, the two end up arguing about which one is real, and end up going to an abandoned building, each in hope of proving themselves and the other wrong. But they get more than they bargained for when it turns out both are real. Now Ayase is stripped naked and tied down, and Okarun has an old lady spirit after his genitals! Can they help each other get out of this situation?
It has to be intentional that the first volume of Dandadan is coming out shortly before Halloween, right? The series has been running in Shonen Jump for over a year and has been available online for about as long. It's also not available on the app, so I always skipped over it, but now that I've read it, I can't believe what I was missing.
The first thing that jumps out about Dandadan is the art. From the very first pages, Ayase practically leaps off the page with a sense of motion and perspective as she throws a kick at her newly ex-boyfriend. Yukinobu Tatsu excels at creating a sense of life, or unlife as the case may be, in every panel, and as Ayase and Okarun move through their world, every single environment builds the necessary mood and atmosphere. There's the comfortable familiarity of school and the shrine Ayase calls home, so vulnerable to being violated, and the alienating creepiness of classic horror environs such as decaying hospitals and abandoned tunnels. The locations may be stock, but that appears to be a deliberate choice, as the story effectively plays with expectations and cliches within the horror genre. Well yeah, of course the creepy hospital is haunted, but do you expect there to be ghosts and aliens at the same time? Probably not! And when both the protagonists encounter the thing they didn't believe in, that's going to build into an important dynamic.
Plus, those ghosts and aliens are super creepy, too detailed, and just kind of upsetting and uncomfortable to look at. Their incongruity with the rest of the art creates an uncanniness, as has been the case in other series like Mieruko-chan and Sachi's Monstrous Appetite. Unlike those two series, however, they have the same sense of motion as the rest of the characters, which makes them feel more like an immediate threat than merely unsettling. That old lady asking to gobble Okarun's schlong means business, and ignoring her isn't going to make the problem go away. This is an action-horror-comedy, after all!
As it turns out, one of the reasons Dandadan isn't on the Shonen Jump app is that there's a lot of blue comedy. The granny ghost does indeed gobble Takakura's schlong, and Ayase has to keep an eye on him at all times in order to stop him from transforming. Yes, that does include pooping, much to Okarun's chagrin. I can't help but appreciate a bawdy comedy that doesn't hinge on the female characters being sexually humiliated or molested. Instead, the humor leans more toward slapstick, with lots of yelling and shoving and incongruity.
A lot of manga have that kind of humor and fail, but Dandadan manages to make it work by displaying its heart alongside its horror and humor. Okarun's… situation throws him and Ayase together into a much more intimate relationship than they probably would have developed otherwise. The two have chemistry as both foils and friends. Ayase may talk tough and have terrible taste in men, but she has a good heart that shines through from the very first pages; Okarun is a reedy little nerd boy but his guts manage to show through when it counts. Well, except that he gets depressed when he transforms into his super form. That's an issue that he's going to have to get over.
But either way, the text makes it clear: these are two good kids who needed each other. Their respective beliefs in the supernatural and UFOs mark them as outsiders. Ayase, with her spirit medium grandmother, has a complicated relationship with her belief in spirits and has learned to keep it under wraps for the sake of social inclusion, while Okarun is open about his nerdiness and gets picked on for it. Each one offers the other something they lack: for Ayase, Okarun is a person who she can talk to the supernatural about, and in turn she gives him friendship and protection from bullies. They really care about one another, and that makes it easier to accept all the scenes where they're just yelling and squabbling.
There are, however, a few low points. Like I said earlier, Ayase doesn't ever get molested for the sake of humor… but she does for drama and tension at multiple points. While the volume is relatively low on fan service, these scenes have an uncomfortable edge of salaciousness as villains' hands strip Ayase of her clothing and creep up her thighs. Sexual menace is as tired a trope as they come with regards to female characters facing a threat, and defaulting to it shows a real lack of creativity. It's especially frustrating seeing a character as powerful early on as Ayase facing it; is there not a way to force her to awaken to her powers that doesn't involve the threat of rape, forced pregnancy, and disembowelment?
Although there are a few dozen chapters of Dandadan available in English, I've only read the first volume so far. Still, I'm curious to see what lies ahead. Will Ayase and Okarun continue to act as equal partners as their bond strengthens? I've read enough shonen manga to be cynical about how they treat their female characters, and I worry that once Okarun gains full control of his power-up, Ayase will be relegated to the support role. I want to hope for the best, but I've been hurt before. I'll definitely keep on reading to see what happens.
Overall : B+
Story : B+
Art : A
+ Dynamic art and writing blend humor, horror, and heart; likable main characters with a strong bond
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