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by Carlo Santos,

Sexy Voice and Robo


Sexy Voice and Robo (manga)
In her spare time, 14-year-old Nico Hayashi scams lonely men by running a phone-dating hotline. She's honing her skills to be a spy or fortuneteller who can read people just by hearing their voice. While taking calls in a café one day, she catches the attention of a nearby old man, who decides to send her on a "mission": identify the voice of a kidnapper on tape, then locate the criminal and his hostage. Along the way, Nico runs into one of her clients, a wimpy robot-figure collector whom she nicknames Robo. Taking on the codename "Sexy Voice," she sets out with Robo to complete various tasks assigned to them by the old man. But where does he find all this work? Looks like another mystery to solve.
"So it's about a teen detective and an otaku who solve mysteries?"
"Well, not exactly... because, the girl also pretends to be other people for a phone-dating service, and the otaku keeps calling and getting roped into her adventures... "
"So that's what it's about, then?"
"Well, it's not exactly about that, because there's more to it, like the old man, but you don't find out who he really is until the end of Volume 1, and the reason he sends them out—"
"So what is it actually about?"

That's the kind of conversation you might have when trying to describe Sexy Voice and Robo to someone. So multi-layered is this manga that any attempts to explain the story end in "Oh, just read it and you'll see." And there's no reason not to read it—it's smart enough for picky intellectual comics nerds, thrilling enough for action lovers, and deep enough for those who care about characters, emotions and drama. Once you step into Nico's hotchpotch world, you'll never want to leave.

From the early chapters, it's easy to believe that there's nothing more to the story than the aforementioned mystery-solving. However, shades of Iou Kuroda's grand master plan start to creep into the episodic pattern—side characters keep coming back, while minor events blossom into full-blown cases. By the time it wanders unsuspectingly into the "Mr. Forgetful" story arc, you finally realize the depth of the narrative. All those rambling vignettes about Nico and friends—even the subtle, inconsequential scenes—have been building up the story in some way, connecting everything together. Every chapter is complete, whether it be a game of phone-tag or tracking down a wanted man, but the entire volume is also a unified work.

How does the world of Sexy Voice stay interesting? Credit that to a unique cast of characters. Nico's ability to identify and mimic voices is pretty rare on the list of special manga skills, and it isn't something she mysteriously receives from an otherworldly power. Instead, she's got it right from Page 1, as if it were the most natural thing in the world; most other characters are introduced that way as well. Robo slides his way in from the background scenery, and his personality—so weak yet lovable—is revealed in a subtle passing moment. Even the old man starts out as a casual eavesdropper in a café. Equally compelling are the side characters: with their well-defined personalities and histories, oddballs like Mr. Forgetful, soccer terrorists, a morally conflicted systems engineer, and many others invite the curiosity of both Nico and the reader.

Iou Kuroda's character designs are just as varied and distinctive as the characters themselves. Unlike most mainstream manga artists, Kuroda has no trouble creating elderly characters, and isn't particularly concerned about making everyone look pretty. (Nico is arguably the only "cute" person in the cast.) The sketchy linework—seemingly done with about seven different pens, three types of brush, and a Sharpie marker—belies a talented eye for striking imagery. It might look like pages and pages of cartoony chicken-scratch, and then suddenly Kuroda blows you away with a sweeping cityscape, an unexpected viewing angle, or a special effect. With bold, chaotic brushstrokes, hairline cross-hatching, and everything in between, Kuroda demonstrates the greatest skill an illustrator can have: creating nuanced drawings with just a handful of lines.

Of course, fully appreciating the artwork wouldn't be possible without Viz's decision to publish this title in an oversize 7" x 10" format. At almost 400 pages, it actually contains two volumes' worth of material (which is how it was released in Japan), for the price of two regular-sized manga volumes ($20). The special fold-in covers, strong binding and sturdy pages are all signs of a labor of love: a true Editor's Choice. The final touch to the terrific storytelling and artwork is a translated script that's direct, colorful, and always aware of what the characters mean to say. It even squeezes in some wordplay without seeming forced—a challenging feat in any Japanese-to-English translation. You can almost hear how the characters talk, from Robo's fanboyish wheeze to Nico's arsenal of sexy voices.

The only weakness of Sexy Voice and Robo is that there isn't more of it—the conclusion seems like it got cut off in serialization rather than getting a chance to close out the storyline. Yet in these 400 pages, you get the feeling that Nico has already traveled a full journey from a flirty, reckless phone-actress to a concerned young woman thinking about her decisions. Of course, it never hurts to meet some fascinating characters along the way—most folks can name at least one person who changed their life, and in her 14th year, Nico's met enough for several lifetimes. In this brush-and-Sharpie rendition of Tokyo, where billboards stand tall and crowds line every street, one girl is out to discover what makes people tick. Like she says in the manga: Sexy Voice is on the job.
Overall : A
Story : A-
Art : A

+ Pulls you in with its unique characters and deceptively talented artwork.
What? There aren't any more volumes?!

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Production Info:
Story & Art: Iou Kuroda

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