Reviewby Casey Brienza, Mar 22nd 2009
Free Collars Kingdom
GN 1-3 (Complete Series)
Cyan is the young boy Kokoro's beloved pet Abyssinian, and he loves Kokoro as much as Kokoro loves him. But then one day Kokoro gets sick, and Cyan is left to fend for himself. Certain that his master will come back for him, the loyal cat takes up residence in the basement of the Nyan-Man apartment complex. As it turns out, however, the basement is already occupied by a group of stray cats who call themselves the Free Collars. The Free Collars defend Nyan-Man and East Ikebukuro—prime real estate due to legends about a “Wild Cat”—from the incursion of other strays. If Cyan wants to stick around, he is going to have to liberate himself from pet-dom and join the Free Collars' cause. Will they emerge victorious against Siam and her West Ikebukuro goons?
Let's say you are an American publisher, and you want to license the super-popular Title Wow from Japan (famous worldwide due to its hit animated adaptation, also called Title Wow). The Japanese publisher is amenable, but they know that they have a potential bestseller on their hands, so they only agree to license Title Wow to you provided that you are also willing to license some obscure manga you have never even heard of called Title X. Even though you know that Title X is likely to be garbage being foisted upon you because the Japanese publisher knows very well that no one would want to license it on its own merits, you take the deal because you want Title Wow so darn badly.
The sorts of bundling deals described above actually happen more often than you might imagine. For this reason, unsuspecting English-language manga readers are then confronted with a shelf full of manga at the bookstore, some of which are genuine Title Wows and others that are Title X dreck…and it takes a very well-informed consumer to be able to tell the difference. Although, make no mistake, I am not privy to any privileged information in this case, I can only conclude that Takuya Fujima's Free Collars Kingdom is a Title X that Del Rey licensed from Kodansha in order to get some other Kodansha manga that they actually wanted to publish. It is the only logical explanation. There is simply no way—no way!—anyone in their right mind would want to license the unspeakable awfulness that is Free Collars Kingdom, let alone be put through the unspeakable agony of being forced to actually read all three volumes in their entirety.
It's a terrible shame, really; Fujima is a gifted artist. Like many mangaka who now draw for the diehard otaku crowd, he got his first professional career break in ecchi manga. His style back then was richly detailed and fantasy laced (some samples are in the backgrounds of the first volume, when the characters take a trip to the bookstore and Scottie notices an exhibition of her master's art) but definitively less “cute” than his style in this series. Nevertheless, the richness of imaginative detail remains, as does Fujima's scrupulous attention to the anthropomorphized female bodies of his large cast of cat characters. As expected, he devolves quite naturally to flirtations with the naughty, with the worst case possibly being the back cover of volume two, which depicts a prepubescent cat girl whose naked body is almost visible beneath her sundress. Nothing, though, is actually pornographic, and in this context, “action” means fight scenes, not sex scenes. More's the pity, perhaps, since the action is nearly indecipherable visually.
To be blunt, Fujima should stick to pinups. Or illustrating someone else's stories (as he does with the more recent Negima! Neo). The story, no other word for it, sucks. It is a pastiche of a large number of manga and anime clichés, not because it seems like it was intended to be a pastiche, but because the mangaka flatly is unable to sustain a coherent, unified storyline that is his own, original creation. There is a little bit of tournament shounen, Initial D type action, otaku in-joking and trips to manga shops, moé-saturated trips to the hospital to get immunized, bishoujo-heavy trips to the beach to oogle cat girls in bathing suits, pseudo-profound statements about the relationship between housecats and humans, etc. None of it is well developed, and all of it is instantaneously forgettable. What little overarching plot there is involves the Free Collar's struggles with Siam and her goons and Cyan's internal struggles with his divided loyalties. This gets hurriedly—and anticlimactically—wrapped up at the end of the third volume.
Characters, virtually all of the anthropomorphized cats (a.k.a. cat girls and cat boys) are equally unimaginative, with one-note personalities that just feel insincere. Even their names are just shortened versions of their breeds: Siam is a Siamese, Amesho is an American Shorthair, Scottie is a Scottish Fold, and so forth. The protagonist Cyan, short for Abyssinian, is also nicknamed “Cat-kun.” Well, manga doesn't get more moronic than that, does it? Scottie is based upon the mangaka's own cat, though his real Scottish Fold is a male, not a female. (We can also assume that her master is an alternate universe version of Fujima himself, not that it matters.) The one major bit of character development, which delves a bit into Siam's motivations for becoming the villain of the piece, do not even come till the very end, which is not where character development ought to be placed. It's a very sloppy choice piled on top a reeking morass of slop that came before.
Free Collars Kingdom is, in short, a beautifully drawn manga series with a story that flunks miserably…and if the story flunks, the series as a whole might as well flunk too. After all, manga is sequential art, and sequential art means pictures that tell a story. Substandard art is eminently forgivable when it is paired with a great yarn, but a manga without a viable, reasonably interesting or entertaining tale to tell would be better off if it ceased to exist altogether.
Overall : D-
Story : F
Art : A
+ A cast of adorable cat girls and boys drawn in a gorgeously detailed, sexy style.
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