Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Teenage thief Gareki is carrying out a routine heist when he stumbles upon innocent younger boy Nai, who has been captured by a strange and evil woman. Recognizing that something very wrong is going on – and coveting the strange bracelet Nai is wearing – Gareki rescues him. Nai, it turns out, is looking for his missing friend Karoku, the owner of the bracelet. Both the jewelery and Karoku may have ties to Circus, a special branch of the government which pursues the most dangerous criminals, strange human experiments known as “varugas.” When Nai and Gareki have a surprise encounter with Circus on the train, it turns out that Circus is every bit as interested in them as they are in it...and Nai and Gareki find themselves caught up in a very strange world indeed.
The words “carnival” and “circus” have dual connotations. On the one hand, they are places of entertainment, words which make us think of swirling music and fantastic feats, glittering costumes and trained animals. On the other hand, the words can refer to a place where the rules of everyday life have been suspended, where people can defy gravity, see “freaks,” and exist on cotton candy and glamor alone. Touya Mikanagi's manga Karneval uses both meanings in its story, making Circus both an actual circus performance with all the requisite performers and also a government agency that exists to patrol the shady area just outside of reality, where women become spiders and children thirst for flesh and blood. In this first omnibus volume, containing volumes one and two of the original Japanese release, we are introduced to a sci fi fantasy where magical animals live on rainbow islands and at the same time cruel experiments are carried out on children, causing them to mutate. It's both beautiful and frightening, like a slightly seedy traveling show.
The story, although its cast expands quite a bit over the course of this book, largely follows fifteen-year-old Gareki and younger Nai, who looks to be somewhere between ten and twelve. Nai has left his country home in search of Karoku, his apparent caregiver, who vanished one day leaving only a bracelet behind. He falls into the clutches of Lady Mine, a woman who has some nasty tricks up her sleeves. It is at her house that he meets Gareki, who has broken in with his gang to rob the place. Gareki saves Nai much in the way that you might instinctively help a lost puppy – he's little and cute and clearly in trouble, so Gareki saves him without much thought. He realizes, however, that Nai has Karoku's bracelet, which looks like the ones belonging to Circus. That could make it valuable, so he agrees to help Nai find Karoku in exchange for the bracelet. This begins a relationship that is somewhere between “owner and slightly dim pet” and “older brother and much younger sibling.” It's clear that under his gruff exterior Gareki is a caring person, and he quickly becomes attached to Nai...who has a habit of not understanding much of anything, wandering off, and being naive to the point where you have to question whether he's a toddler in a pre-teen's body. By the second half of the omnibus, we understand why he is that way; for poor Gareki it's an exercise in patience.
The third character who gets a lot of page time is Yogi, a member of Circus with a lighthearted attitude and an uncanny ability to annoy most of the people around him. Yogi adds a welcome bit of humor to the story, which, while not strictly dark, definitely deals with some material both heavy and strange. Gareki's reactions to Nai also help to lighten the mood at times, such as his worries that he'll get too comfortable with Circus and too attached to Nai, thereby losing both his edge and his grim outlook on life. Since both of those things have helped him to survive in a harsh world's seedy underbelly as well as given him a focus in life, he fears becoming someone he doesn't recognize as himself. This is all made much more clear in the final third of the book, and we can understand why he would be so afraid of changing. But his relationship with Nai is changing him nonetheless, and watching it grow is one of the more interesting parts of the story.
Mikanagi's art is very angular, with very pointed faces and joints, and there's an almost cyberpunk aesthetic to the whole volume. When mixed with the more traditional circus imagery, such as the top hats and suits of the Circus captains or Tsukumo's outfit, the cyberpunk feel makes everything feel grittier somehow. Unfortunately there is a blurred quality to some of the printing, with the front cover being one regrettable example; we more typically see it on pages that were once in color but have been printed in black and white for the book, but it does show up now and then in the regular panels as well. On the subject of panels, each page feels very full and busy, but this is not an impediment to comprehension, as Mikanagi is able to lead our eyes through them easily.
There's a lot going on in this first omnibus of Karneval. Besides Nai's story and Gareki's, there's the dark plot of the people creating the varugas (human/monster hybrids), the mystery of Karoku and how he relates to the politician from chapter two, and the question of Circus itself and what's really going on with them. At this point it isn't safe to write off any character as a one-off or a throw-away, and the cast stands to become very substantial. The interconnected quality of the subplots and apparent main plot (Gareki/Nai storyline) is intriguing thus far, but it feels like it could become overwhelming down the line and might cause the story to break under its own weight. Right now, however, this is an interesting, complicated story in a world that somehow feels twilit even when it's daylight. Buy your tickets for this carnival – it looks to be one worth visiting.
Overall : B
Story : B+
Art : B
+ Intertwined subplots make everything important, pages read naturally despite being crowded. Nai/Gareki relationship is a lot of fun in several ways. Some good humor breaks the tension.
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