Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Dec 21st 2006
When the fabulously perfect Idea, emperor of the world, passes away, the world is left in a state of chaos. Desperate, the authorities at the imperial palace ignore the advice of palace scientist Eiri and attempt to clone the deceased emperor. Naturally, things go awry, especially when Ririka, Eiri's feisty female charge, rescues a young amnesiac who bears a suspicious resemblance to Idea. Dubbed Rose, the young man is immediately bounced from the clutches of one conspirator to the next, some of which plan to place him on the throne, but the majority of which plan to place him six feet under. Unfortunately for both sides, Rose has no intention of arriving at either destination, and Rose is no normal human.
The Empty Empire isn't a bad manga. Never once in the process of reading this debut volume does one feel the need to burn the book or slap the characters upside the head. Unfortunately, neither does one's pulse race, consciousness widen, mind-cogs turn, eyes mist up, stomach turn over, or have any other reaction at all. It isn't painful, but neither is it enjoyable. It simply is. For all the lasting impression that this book makes, the pages may as well have all been left blank.
The manga has all of the trappings of a proper narrative. A setting that is smelted from equal parts medieval fantasy, hard science, and the paranormal, with a sizeable dash of whimsical early 20th century science-fiction and late 20th century fashion. It has some back-story friendly characters with oh-so dark pasts. Political machinations. Possible romance between amnesiac Rose and whip-wielding hellcat Ririka. And to crown it all, a central conceit (a lead character who is a clone) that provides ample opportunity for philosophizing about the nature of self. Yet by some mathematical (or artistic) alchemy, when all is added up, the sum is zero. Psychic outbursts, sword fights, multiple kidnappings, mysterious enemies, religious fanatics, gunfights, political maneuvering, nothing strikes even the most evanescent of sparks (excepting a briefly touching scene in which Ririka learns of Rose's origins).
For a fantasy, the narrative is sorely lacking in scope and depth. No thought or time is given over to elaborating on the social and cultural structures of the empire. Not exactly flat and not exactly three-dimensional, the characters are likable but too shallow to fully empathize with. Other than preventing Rose's adventures from achieving any significance beyond their immediate concerns–usually survival, this lack of a greater social or psychological context also leaves unaddressed some crippling problems with the manga's basic premise: Is there any reason, outside of outdated Platonic convictions about benevolent tyrants, that an emperorless empire must perforce devolve into a "lawless wasteland"? And how was Idea able to unite the world in the first place? Were the leaders of the world so awed by Idea's perfection that they willingly subordinated themselves to his unparalleled greatness?
The manga's insistence on telling self-contained stories crams far too many events and actions onto too few pages, which not only inherently foreshortens the audience's emotional and intellectual investment in the narrative, but also results in artwork that is too crowded and rushed to be enjoyable. The art rushes events along, nullifying much of the impact that the plot developments might otherwise have had. It is often so crowded, busy or indistinct that it sacrifices clarity for expedience. Characters aren't terribly difficult to distinguish from one another, and are fairly attractive (big 90's hair notwithstanding), but are generic in a wispy shoujo kind of way. Backgrounds, so essential for providing information about entirely fictional worlds, are of the now-you-see-them-now-you-don't variety, only providing the bare minimum of information necessary to make geographical sense of the action. Layout of the panels is varied, but uninspired, often flubbing dramatic moments with poor pacing choices. The use of solid blacks sometimes creates memorable high-contrast compositions–though without the skill and reliability of, say, CLAMP's XXXHOLiC. The outcome is art that, while not an eyesore, is as strangely uninspiring as the rest of the book.
CMX's books have been, of late, of a consistent (low) quality. Flimsy paper, few extras (in this case, some comments by the author), floppy covers with blase graphical designs. Art reproduction is fine; the blacks are solid, and Naoe Kita's thin lines are unblurred. Sound effects are replaced with their English equivalents in most cases, although–for reasons unknown–they are occasionally left intact with translations placed nearby.
At seven volumes, there is room for things to develop further (some background on Idea, and a little world-building would be most welcome), but this volume comes at you fast, and will leave you just as quickly, never to trouble you again. It may not be awful, but when your most memorable moment occurs in the first chapter and doesn't even involve your main character, you know that your manga is on the ropes. The problem is that there's no reason tune into the second volume to see if it dodges the oncoming KO.
Overall : C
Story : C
Art : C
+ Not actually bad.
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