Reviewby Casey Brienza,
When debt drives her parents to divorce, Ann Uekusa moves abruptly from Tokyo to her mother's hometown in the rural province of Shimane. Although Ann is able to make friends with the locals her age, most notably Daigo, whom she eventually starts to date, and the Tsukishima siblings Fuji and Shika, her mother soon falls into despair and commits suicide. Then, in her last year of middle school, Ann's father shows up in Shimane, eager to bring her back to Tokyo. Though reluctant at first to leave a place she has grown to love, Ann decides it's worth it to go to high school in the city. Unfortunately, that means a long distance relationship with Daigo and only Fuji around to console her…
Those who have been following the English-translated shoujo manga scene for several years now may remember Hinako Ashihara for the fast-forgotten and soon out-of-print ballet title Forbidden Dance published by Tokyopop. Sand Chronicles is the winner of a Shougakukan Manga Award and Ashihara's second series to be released in North America. This time the publisher is VIZ Media, which has been serializing the manga in its monthly magazine Shojo Beat. Let's hope that this time Ashihara's work is remembered—Sand Chronicles is a modest yet enthralling slice-of-life drama that deserves to be entered into the chronicles of history.
Do not be deceived. This is the best new shoujo manga of its type to be published in graphic novel format so far this year, yet it cruised onto the bookstore shelves virtually in stealth mode. Its cover illustration, though reasonably pretty and cute, is basically unremarkable. VIZ Media does not even bother to mention anywhere on the cover that it is an award winner, which is a bizarre omission, given publishers' obsession with having award winners on their lists. And quickly fanning through the pages likewise reveals nothing remarkable. Artwork is, admittedly, not Ashihara's strong suit. While entirely satisfactory with its professional layouts, well-considered sequences, and rarefied mainstream shoujo style, dozens of other mangaka merit the same praise…using near-identical technique. Ashihara's manga look a tiny bit like Ai Yazawa's, a good bit more like Miki Aihara's, quite a lot like Masami Tsuda's…you get the point. If anything about the visuals is memorable, it would be the delicate, waifish character designs.
However, Ann behaves not at all how she looks; this frail-looking teen is anything but a shrinking, spoiled city girl. She's got a mean right hook that lands a mean first impression on her eventual love interest Daigo. Okay now, granted, she gets nauseous at the thought of turning bunny rabbits into stew meat, and her tearful, impassioned defense of that which is destined to be dinner is rather silly. More importantly, however, Ann faces the blizzards of the snow country and the tragic death of her mother head on with enviable—and admirable—courage. The latter in particular is a beautiful, heart wrenching scene that lays the characters' souls bare. Their loyalty to each other is tested, and the survivors emerge victorious.
The story then progresses with a well-paced and leisurely trip through the seasons and the final years of Ann's childhood. Volume one, for example, concludes with a multi-part story arc that takes Ann (age fourteen) and her friends to a summer camp. Ayumu, who is jealous of Ann's close, easy relationship with Daigo, steals Ann's miniature hourglass (once a memento of her mother, now replaced by Daigo) and sends her out into a raging thunderstorm on a wild goose chase looking for it. Though Ann takes a bit of tumble off a cliff, all's well that ends well, and on the bus ride home she and Daigo cement their love for each other with a poignant kiss. Which, it should be added, rival for Ann's affections Fuji notes without comment.
Volume two reunites Ann with her father, and after much consideration and Daigo's unspoken blessing, she goes to live with her father in Tokyo in order to attend high school. She vows to return to Shimane after graduation, but in the meantime, it's, for the most part, a long distance relationship. When spring and Ann's sixteenth birthday roll around, Daigo visits for a day. The two enjoy a picnic beneath the cherry blossoms. But is another picnic later in that evening that Ann shares with Fuji that really hits home. Since the first volume of the series, Fuji has been obsessing over the possibility that he may be an illegitimate child. In Tokyo, he meets the creep who might be his real father but learns nothing definitive. Ann, unknowing, remarks that she loves the cherry trees even if, as Fuji flatly points out, they are all clones. “No matter how they were brought into the world,” she affirms, “To me, they are all beautiful.” This understandably hits a nerve with Fuji and, unable to contain himself any longer, he kisses Ann on the lips. What a low-key, yet poetic way to leave readers aching for more.
Sand Chronicles is an intimate, unpresumptuous series profoundly situated in its Japanese setting, where the weight of tradition and culture wears like a warm, cherished blanket over the shoulders and where human love, laughter, and loss are most important. It is, as mentioned above (and well worth reiterating), one of the best shoujo manga to be published this year. Simply not to be missed.
Overall : A
Story : A
Art : B
+ A nuanced, mature vision of contemporary Japanese teenagers.
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