Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
The Case Study of Vanitas
In a steampunk version of late 19th century Paris, humans and vampires have come to coexist relatively peacefully, largely because humans believe they were all wiped out. There are a few cases, however, where a vampire appears to go rogue and prey upon his human neighbors once more. There is only one man who seems to know both the reason and the cure for this madness, a man calling himself a “vampire doctor,” Vanitas. When young vampire Noé comes to Paris at the behest of his master, he comes into contact with Vanitas, who appears to be nothing more than a silly young man. Oh, how appearances can be deceiving…
Jun Mochizuki may have the market on fantasy 19th century settings in manga – her story worlds are a fascinating combination of exquisitely rendered historical detail and strange, yet gorgeous, contemporary trappings. If there is one thing that will strike you in the artwork for her most recent series, The Case Study of Vanitas, it is the airship La Baleine, which means “the whale” in French, which is a fabulous combination of steel, glass, and total fantasy. It was initially designed for her by Ryou Yamaguchi and the opening scenes of the main story take place there, and it is easily some of the most beautiful background art in recent memory. The level of detail is maintained throughout the volume, which is perhaps even more impressive, from clothing to Parisian alleyways and galleries, making the whole book a visual treat.
The story is also definitely intriguing. Mochizuki's vampire mythology is still being revealed, but essentially humans and vampires, who once warred with each other, have come to a coexistence, mostly due to the fact that most humans think that vampires no longer exist. Vampires, it is mentioned, can very easily abstain from drinking human blood – and we see them eating normally on the airship – so the only sure way to tell is if someone has red eyes. There is still some definite human fear of vampires, with a trial and execution system remaining in place from the previous war, because at times vampires have been known to go rogue. It is thought that when a vampire falls off the no-humans wagon, death is the only answer and that they are just falling prey to their own worst nature, but one man has a different idea. His name is Vanitas, and he is a human who has inherited a mysterious tome known as the Book of Vanitas (he took the name when he got the book). Calling himself a vampire doctor, he claims that the vampires are being manipulated by someone who is warping their “true names,” and if he can fix that curse, the vampires will return to normal.
At this point it is worth mentioning that “vanitas” in Latin can mean “untruthfulness,” “foolish pride,” or “emptiness.” Is this deliberate on Mochizuki's part, a warning to us and Noé, the point of view character, that Vanitas really isn't what he seems to be? Or is it a reference to the fact that the vampires have completely misconstrued one of their key myths about the book? In the story's vampire culture, there is a legend about a vampire born during a blue full moon (most are born under a red full moon) and was ostracized because of it. Vowing revenge, he created the Book of Vanitas to kill all other vampires, and over the years the book has come to represent doom to the species. Noé, however, sees Vanitas using the book to save vampires, so there's definitely some question as to what the real purpose of both it and its wielder really is. That question, whether Vanitas is the hero or the villain, is what drives the end of the volume, and the issue stands to be the central one of the series.
As is usual for Mochizuki, the story is a mix of action, fantasy, and humor, with Noé's country bumpkin innocence making up for a fair amount of the last, along with Vanitas' generally goofy personality. Where her last series, Pandora Hearts, relied heavily on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland for its motifs, The Case Study of Vanitas looks more to folklore for its inspiration. The original Vanitas, vampire of the blue moon, is shown wearing a hooded cloak in classic “Little Red Riding Hood” iconography, and when the current Vanitas saves a vampire woman, there's a use of vines that is very reminiscent of “Sleeping Beauty.” The idea of a “true name” versus one the rest of the world uses is also rooted in the mythologies of many different cultures, as are werewolves, which is the form one warped vampire takes in his madness, which brings us back to “Little Red Riding Hood.” It will be particularly interesting to see how these themes continue to intertwine as the story progresses.
Yen Press' edition of the book is very nice, as usual, with color pages, a matte cover, and a translation that reads smoothly and keeps a feel of the 19th century in its vocabulary. The only fly in the ointment is that there is no glossary of the few French terms used, which isn't particularly detrimental, but could be annoying for those who don't speak the language. For the record, Noé's master calls him “chaton,” which means “kitten,” and “mlle” is the abbreviation for “mademoiselle,” which means “miss,” so “Mlle Amelia” is the equivalent of “Miss Amelia.”
The Case Study of Vanitas' first volume opens the door to an interesting story combining steampunk, fantasy, and a gorgeously rendered world. The direction the story will take isn't immediately apparent, but the hints dropped throughout the book are sufficiently intriguing to make this worth checking out. Who is Vanitas, and what is his real goal? Why does every manga set in France feel compelled to bring in Joan of Arc? Who is Noé's mysterious master? It will be worth following to find out.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : A
+ Gorgeous art (especially the airship), interesting use of folklore themes, enough mystery to be intriguing
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