Reviewby Rebecca Silverman, Mar 26th 2017
The fey folk have always had a habit of swapping out their own children for those of humans – and that practice is still in full swing today. Itoko Kazamori is a changeling, an elf who was left in exchange for the Kazamoris' infant son right after his birth. Her family loves her just as much as if she was their blood daughter, but poor Itoko has developed a complex about what an elf is “supposed” to be – namely, that she should be able to use magic. Now in high school, she's totally isolated herself to try and achieve perfect elfishness, and that's pretty lonely – until one day she meets Ohki, a preternaturally gifted “scientist.” Can he make her magical dreams come true?
The literature of changelings, fairy children left in exchange for more desirable human ones, has deep roots, with some theorizing that the stories were developed to explain children born with birth defects or conditions like ASD or Downs Syndrome. As time has gone on, the tales have taken on a more fantastical bent, and Shunsuke Noro now brings it to modern manga with Species Domain, which plays with the idea of changelings as a metaphor for high school – but not necessarily a serious one.
The story revolves around Itoko Kazamori, an elf who was left in place of a human baby boy at the hospital. No one knows why changelings keep happening, but the elves aren't the only ones making the switch – in Kazamori's class there's also an Icarus (angel person), an oni, and a dwarf, although the dwarf isn't a changeling; her dad's a dwarf and she takes after him rather than her human mother. (The likelihood that Dad is a changeling seems high.) Most of the changelings are perfectly comfortable with who they are, and only Dowa, the dwarf, has any dwarven characteristics beyond the physical, which is probably because she wasn't raised in a strictly human household. For Kazamori, however, there's a definite disconnect. When she was in elementary school, her classmates teased her for being different, and then when she didn't rise to the bait, assumed that she could use magic because she seemed so very elf-like. Kazamori was totally onboard for that, although there was one tiny catch: she can't actually use magic. Despite this, she's allowed people to persist in thinking that she can, striving as hard as possible to appear “sylvan” or elf-like. After all, going along with that assumption is what got kids to stop teasing her back in elementary school.
While this can make Kazamori an annoying character from an adult perspective, it's actually a pretty good metaphor for the awkwardness of high school. Having been bullied, Kazamori wants to do anything to prevent that from happening again, and the duel benefits of appearing stereotypically elven are that it makes her feel safe from that and it also allows her to self-isolate. A piece of her, which is growing increasingly insistent as Hanei the Icarus tries desperately to befriend her, is starting to get fed up with herself, but at the same time she can't quite shed her old armor.
Enter Ohki. He's got a bit of a reputation as the class oddball, largely because of his insistence that magic doesn't exist. This is an issue because he's a serious mad scientist, and the “apps” he programs for his smartphone can do things like allow you to phase through a solid wall or shoot fire. When he saves Kazamori after she gets locked out on the roof with his phasing app, she realizes that he could make her magical dreams come true, and the next thing either of them knows, they've formed a sort-of relationship. It's clearly a bigger emotional deal for Kazamori, who has to keep reminding herself that this is about the magic (not science!), but Ohki seems pretty invested too. He may see himself as Kazamori's one link to a real social life or he might genuinely like her; right now that's unclear. But he keeps making excuses for why he can't quite come up with science (not magic!) that she wants, which indicates that he doesn't want her to have a reason to go back to her old ways.
Ohki and Kazamori both feel like believable characters, and using the idea of changelings to represent high school issues and emotions works well. It helps that Noro doesn't take his subject matter too seriously – Kazamori is just as likely to fly into a tizzy about her cat's behavior as she is about her own self-image or her classmates, which feels pretty on-the-nose for a (self) tormented high schooler. Ohki's obliviousness is a little more tropey, as is Hanei's character with her focus on (other peoples') romance and her determination to befriend the quiet girl, but there's nothing overtly annoying about anyone; despite the pointy ears, wings, and horns, they're all just people, something that Kazamori is going to have to eventually realize.
As far as world building goes, Noro doesn't offer very much – we don't know why there are changelings or what the “other world” where the fey folk live is like, or even if there's really any communication between the two besides the odd baby swap. Noro does appear to be basing his fantasy on a mix of Eastern and Western, which we can see most clearly in that Dowa, the female dwarf, has a beard. There are strange moments of fussiness in the art, such as the insanely complicated design of the girls' school uniforms, which appear to have a button-down shirt and suspenders covered by a sailor top, but apart from the fact that Noro has an odd idea of how skirts cling to thighs, the art looks nice and reads easily.
Species Domain's first volume is a fun story. It mingles fantasy with high school in a way that makes it feel different from the rest of the crowd, and it almost never takes itself too seriously. It does seem like we might have a shift to a more standard high school story going forward, as at the end of the book the gang forms a club to work on Ohki's inventions, but the changelings as a focus may be able to keep it from feeling too stale. In any event, this is worth checking out and keeping an eye on: it's lighthearted with a solid core and has the potential to remain fun.
Overall : B
Story : B
Art : B-
+ Changelings make for a good high school angst metaphor, characters all feel believable, general air of fun
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