Reviewby Caitlin Moore,
Heaven's Design Team
When God created the land, sea, and sky, He decided to create something to inhabit it: animals. But designing them all himself seemed like too much work, so he created the design team instead. It's up to this motley group of heavenly beings to fulfill the divine requests with animals that not only meet the often-vague requirements, but are capable of surviving Earth's harsh environment and the threat of other animals. The angel Shimoda is just starting a new job as the liaison between God and the team, and he may have his work cut out for him.
As a kid, I was completely obsessed with those books about weird animal trivia and, based on the proliferation of that particular genre, I can't have been the only one. It turns out, nature is really weird, and there's no end to the strange alleys, side streets, and dead ends that evolution has taken the animal kingdom through, even in the cute, “popular” animals. If you were or still are one of those kids, actually or in spirit, Heaven's Design Team was made for you.
The concept is simple: through the conceit of a team of designers, Heaven's Design Team explores some of the more bizarre aspects of the animal kingdom. It's the kind of edutainment that made Cells at Work! a huge hit, but for zoology instead of human microbiology. Did you know, for example, that baby koalas spend a period of their development feeding mainly on their mother's poop? And that the males have forked penises? And that they're just disgusting creatures in general, despite their cuddly appearance? You'll never see some of your favorite species the same way after this.
The text doesn't just look at just how bizarre animals can be; it also spends a lot of time considering how they got there. Sure, there may be a divine hand behind them, but it uses that to explore the evolutionary arms race between predator and prey, such as birds and snakes. It examines things like what traits allow elk to grow their antlers when, say, a unicorn wouldn't work, how to make an animal that is completely transparent, or why prey animals taste better than predators. It even asks questions that zoologists still aren't sure of the answer to, like why zebras have stripes. At the end of each chapter, three of the featured animals get paragraph-long discussions of the traits that were explored, rounding out the frenzied characters' explanations with greater detail and context.
Okay, it's educational and interesting, but is it funny? Absolutely. While the supposed main character Shimoda is kind of nothing, the design team could accurately be described as “colorful”, full of broad personalities that spend lots of time bouncing off one another. Each one has their own aesthetic and set of interests, which are often in direct opposition to one another. Pluto, who is small and wears gothic lolita dresses, likes to design what she considers “cute” animals, such as the aforementioned koala and the parasitic horsehair worm. Tall, solidly-built Jupiter works more on what most people would consider cute, and Saturn really just wants to design more horses. Even though they have fairly simple personalities, none of them rely on stereotypes.
One character I want to shout out in particular is Venus, a designer who specializes in birds. Venus is, by all appearances, transfemme: their appearance is generally feminine, but they have broad shoulders and hips, and when they wear low-cut clothes, you can see the outline of pectoral muscles instead of cleavage. It's never remarked upon or used as joke fodder; in fact, when the team goes to Galapagos, they bathe with the female characters. It's quite lovely to see a character like this treated so casually and matter-of-factly, without buying into homo- and transphobic stereotypes.
The humor's blend of character interactions, snappy dialogue, and physical comedy makes sure that no one joke ever gets old, even the recurring gags. There are even a few pop culture jokes that have some fun with non-human icons, like Ridley Scott's Alien. What would it take for made-up creatures like that to work? And, more importantly, do they taste good?
I would describe the art in Heaven's Design Team as precisely “good enough,” and nothing more or nothing less. This isn't damning with faint praise; drawing a manga with so many different species of animal and making them look good and anatomically correct is a feat, and Tarako rises to the occasion. Saturn's obsession in particular means a lot of horses, which are notoriously difficult to draw. Perhaps in exchange, the background art tends to be spare and little more than functional. The celestial characters' designs are simple but appealing, with varied silhouettes and features, and plenty of goofy expressions to drive the humor home.
Heaven's Design Team is a great read for animal lovers of all ages. While Kodansha has rated it for ages thirteen and up, I would put it closer to ten or older, as long as you don't mind the occasional matter-of-fact reference to zoological genitals. However old you are, it's guaranteed to make you laugh and learn, because nature is weird.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : B+
+ hilarious more often than not; brimming with fascinating, weird, and gross animal trivia; educational AND fun; casual trans representation
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