Reviewby Carlo Santos, Dec 1st 2012
Tegami Bachi: Letter Bee
In the land of Amberground, a man-made sun is the only source of light, and intrepid letter-carriers known as Letter Bees are the main form of long-distance communication. Lag Seeing is a young Letter Bee trying to re-awaken the memories of his role model Gauche Suede, who turned against the Letter Bees and joined a rebel group named Reverse. After being captured and held custody at Letter Bee headquarters, Gauche has finally come to his senses. He reunites with his sister Sylvette, and even saves Lag's life ... but will Gauche's tainted past catch up with him? Meanwhile, Reverse has unleashed a flying monster named Cabernet, with the sole purpose of destroying the sun and overthrowing the Amberground government. Now it's up to Lag's letter-delivering colleagues to race after Cabernet and stop the creature before all chaos breaks out.
Volume 11 of Tegami Bachi: Letter Bee pulls off a balancing act that many attempt, but few succeed at: exhilarating action and heartfelt drama. For many series in the Shonen Jump family, too much weight is placed on the former, with flashy fights and mad chases that are only enjoyable on the surface. But this story does all that while also digging into the characters' personal ups and downs, most notably in the rekindling of Lag and Gauche's friendship. It's not easy to bring different moods and genres together, but as this volume shows, it can be done.
Before it can reach that accomplishment, however, this storyline has to work around a bumpy start. The first couple of chapters are kind of a mess, trying to tie up loose ends in the government conspiracy and Letter Bees vs. Reverse conflict. A flashback involving a minor villain is disorienting (who is this guy again and why are we looking into his past?), and after that, the plot lacks cohesion—it jumps around trying to check up on all the supporting characters, whether on the road or back at headquarters. Even the return of fan favorites like motorcycle-riding deliveryman Jiggy Pepper feels like an out-of-left-field decision: he comes back in just for the sake of being there.
This volume doesn't hit its stride until the third chapter (out of five), where Lag, Gauche and Sylvette get together to share good times and mend broken bonds. For those who fell in love with Tegami Bachi early on for its nostalgic tales of friendship, this is a return to that form—melancholy and uplifting all at once. Yet the spirit of adventure is never gone for too long; when Lag sets out to make "one more delivery before dinnertime," there's no doubt that it'll lead to a shootout in the wilderness.
But the spotlight also shines for other characters besides Lag and Gauche. After tidying up the supporting cast and giving them a fresh sense of purpose (mission: kill Cabernet before it kills everyone else), the series can now launch into a breathtaking chase scene between Jiggy's motorcycle and the flying beast. Supernatural gunshots are fired left and right, comrades come to the rescue right on time, and the excitement from the showdown with Cabernet provides the perfect complement to Lag and Gauche's sentimental reunion. Then, just when it seems that the plot has come to a resting point, an end-of-the-book cliffhanger opens up new uncertainties and raises the tension level again.
With Lag's latest delivery turning into a grand battle, and his compatriots desperately chasing down Cabernet, this volume is a gold mine for great artwork. The steampunk-fantasy setting is beautiful enough in itself—detailed mountain backdrops and small-town charm are never too far away—but the added bursts of action should please even the most demanding fans. Whether it's Gauche arriving on the scene in his old Letter Bee gear, Jiggy Pepper's high-flying motorcycle stunts, or vintage pistols firing bursts of spiritual energy, the action scenes come thick and fast in these chapters. (Even in the so-so early pages, characters are often on the move.) If anything, the art style is almost too dynamic—some panels come dangerously close to being buried under a mess of glittering stars and special effects. Even sedate scenes, like Lag recalling past memories of Gauche, use techniques like a dreamy montage to leave a lasting impression. Flashbacks could probably be handled more adeptly, though, as the transition from past to present isn't always clear.
As expected, the battle and chase scenes are good enough that the imagery speaks for itself—but dialogue is still necessary for plotting and drama. Simple, heartfelt language makes a strong impact in the conversations between Lag, Gauche and Sylvette; discussions among the higher-ups are less eloquent, but still help to move the plot forward. Occasional verbal outbursts in the middle of action scenes also add to the excitement, while being sparse enough to avoid slowing the pace down. One area where the writing loses clarity is in the fantasy-world jargon being used: if you're not up to speed on the specific meanings of heart, gaichuu, Akabari, and the characters' odd-sounding names, it can feel like an impenetrable fog of words as people talk to each other. This translation also converts all sound effects directly into English, with lettering that blends into the artwork well enough that it doesn't hurt the overall style.
When it comes to action, drama, and visual quality, this volume of Tegami Bachi gets it right. It turns up the intensity for big, monster-slaying battles, turns it down for quiet moments of life, love and friendship, and makes it all happen in a beautifully rendered fantasy world. The early chapters get a bit messy trying to mop up the remnants of previous plot points, but once the storyline gets into a groove, it delivers the right mix of ups and downs to keep readers interested. Best of all, there's a twist right at the end that's sure to keep everyone interested for several chapters to come. What makes this series so great is that the concept of delivering letters in the wilderness is just the surface—it's the characters, and their personal battles deep down, that make it whole.
Overall : A-
Story : B
Art : A-
+ Thrilling action, heartfelt drama, and eye-catching artwork are woven into a smooth, compelling storyline.
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