Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
In a mysterious mansion live the Shadows, a family with pretensions to the nobility. The Shadows are an odd group – entirely black, they emit soot and have no discernable facial features. To mitigate this, they are served by a group of “living dolls,” with one assigned to each Shadow. Emilico is the doll bound to Kate Shadow, and while she's happy to take everything for granted, that may not be in her best interests – the mysteries are as dark as the sooty dust that collects in the corners of Shadows House.
Shadows House is translated by Taylor Engel and lettered by Lys Blakeslee.
Hindsight is, as the saying goes, 20/20. That means that if you're already familiar with the story of Shadows House from its anime adaptation, you may get a lot more out of this introductory volume of the manga that inspired it, because if you're armed with a bit more knowledge, the foreshadowing is everywhere. That's not to say that you can't spot things if you've been waiting for the source material's English-language release, but I suspect that pre-anime and post-anime reading may turn out to be quite different experiences.
Either way, there's a lot to dig into here. The story takes place in the eponymous Shadows House, the home of the mysterious Shadow family. The Shadows, it's implied, may not actually be the nobility they act as; the opening line of the book is, “In a certain place lived a family who played at being a part of the nobility.” Right there we get a sense of how the Shadows are manipulating the world around them – they have no hereditary claim on a title, they don't appear to have bought one, but they have somehow still managed to convey to others that they are, in fact, nobles. This may be a question of money talking, but the first page goes on to tell us that the Shadows have no faces of their own, and so they employ “living dolls” to playact their emotions and expressions to the world. If that's not a demonstration of wealth and power, I don't know what is, but it's also the sort of unsettling thing that makes a normal person not want to question the Shadows too much for fear that there's something more behind their silhouette-like appearances and their strange dolls.
There almost certainly is something else going on, and we start to get hints of that fairly quickly. The focus quickly shifts to one particular doll/Shadow pair: Emilico and Kate. Emilico firmly believes that she's nothing more than a construct made to appear human; she worries about being thrown away if she breaks and she doesn't understand that she has to eat, because the china dolls in Kate's room certainly don't and she views herself as merely a better made, more helpful version of them. When she faints from lack of food, we have to question her self-assessment – is food just a substitute for a clockwork key to wind her up, or is she not the object she assumes she is? Kate is almost certainly pondering this; she makes sure Emilico eats her meals, feeds her extra, and in general doesn't treat her like a thing, but like a person.
In fact, Kate rarely treats Emilico like a servant, which makes sense because the two girls only have each other to interact with. As a new doll, Emilico isn't allowed out of her room or Kate's, and since she hasn't yet debuted, Kate is forbidden from interacting with the other Shadows. It's an interesting mimicry of 19th-century social rituals, with the idea of a debut still standing for being along wider social interaction, but in this case still not necessarily meaning outside the confines of Shadows House itself. Emilico is more or less Kate's lady's maid, but rather than simply chaperoning her from a few steps behind, she's meant to perfectly shadow Kate's movements and provide a visible facial expression for others to see. The two learn this when Emilico falls out a window she's cleaning and Kate chases after her; the two girls meet Sarah and her living doll Mia outside. Mia, whom Emilico waved at from the same window before, has no discernable personality of her own during this encounter, instead simply mirroring Sarah's gestures. Both Kate and Emilico are disturbed by this meeting, and we can see that it sets Kate to thinking.
Most of this volume is made up of establishing the atmosphere and rules of the story while also introducing Kate and Emilico. They truly are a light and shadow pair, with Emilico's bubbly enthusiasm and willingness to take things at face value contrasting with Kate's anxiety and over-active mind; Kate clearly likes Emilico more as the volume goes on, but she also finds her a bit of a trial at times. They nicely embody the use of mirrors throughout the highly detailed art, something that calls to mind such well-known texts as Snow White and Through the Looking-Glass, the sequel to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, which also seems to nicely fit the overall feel of the story; Emilico's appearance and fall both call to mind Tenniel's illustrations of Alice herself.
Although not a whole lot happens in the first book of Shadows House, it does an excellent job of setting up a strange, upside-down world where the Shadow is the master of the person and nothing is quite what it ought to be. With its pseudo-Victorian sensibility (largely maintained in the translation), detailed background and clothing, and light references to classic folklore and children's literature, this is a house worth paying a call on – especially if you pay attention to what might be hiding in the dark corners.
Overall : B+
Story : B
Art : B+
+ Plenty of foreshadowing, detailed art and a good pseudo-Victorian sensibility.
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