Reviewby Carlo Santos, Jul 18th 2005
Tokyo Mew Mew a la Mode
It's Berry Shirayuki's first day of middle school, and right now her biggest concern is keeping up with the prestigious rich kids. However, an encounter with a handsome young man leads her to the Mew Mew Café, where her curiosity causes a mysterious accident. The next day, Berry finds herself jumping 10 meters high, hearing conversations several rooms away, and constantly craving carrots. To her surprise, she's gained the powers of a Mew Mew, and is the first one to have the genes of two animals: a rabbit and a cat! With the original leader Ichigo studying abroad, it's up to Berry to helm the next generation of Tokyo Mew Mew, and her timing couldn't be better: a new threat, the Saint Rose Crusaders, aims to take over Tokyo, and only the forces of Tokyo Mew Mew can stop them.
Could it be that the magical girl genre is shifting from cliché to nostalgic relic? Apart from some short-lived series and the occasional parody, today's titles have fully moved away from the formula that once spurred the imaginations of a frilly, wand-waving fandom. So when something like Tokyo Mew Mew is successful enough to spin off a second series, it's as if the 90's never ended. A contemporary manga that plays the genre straight up is a rarity in itself, and when Tokyo Mew Mew a la Mode takes the challenge, it also highlights all the strengths and weaknesses of the magical girl template. Enjoy this series for the lighthearted fluff that it is, but don't expect to find any high artistry or profundity here.
The initial premise of the story is, of course, a textbook example of how to open a magical girl series. Take an average middle-schooler, thrust her into a mystical situation, and let her discover her latent abilities. Add some new friends to the mix and a troupe of villains who aren't nearly as threatening as they think they are, and the rest of the storyline writes itself. It's probably easier to switch off your brain and let the story drag you along, rather than worry about following it. As with all repetitive adventures, the main thing that keeps the reader hooked is "How will Berry get herself out of this one?" Most of Berry's early victories involve the arrival of supporting characters, as the first volume reintroduces the cast. Every magical girl must have her band of loyal friends, and for Berry it's the original members of Tokyo Mew Mew: Mint, Pudding, Lettuce, and Zakuro, who prove that food names are inherently cute. However, it's assumed that everyone already knows them from the original series, so they get skimmed over in favor of developing Berry's character.
While Berry has the potential to become insufferable ("I decided to take this school's entrance exam because of the cute uniforms!"), her behavior usually leans towards that of a typical preteen girl, rather than a marketable character trying to rack up charm points. It's an approach that works throughout the first volume: be sweet, be silly, but stop right before it gets annoying. Berry's relationship with her childhood friend Tasuku exemplifies this ideal—instead of slathering on the puppy love clichés of embarrassed glances and tongue-tied moments, the two of them are down-to-earth friends who can actually talk to each other. Little touches like these make the reader believe in the characters, even if they are just stereotypes within a formula. After all, a rabbit-eared heroine in a pseudo-maid/waitress outfit is far-fetched enough—so her daily life, at least, rings closer to reality, and takes the edge off the intense magical girl antics.
Mia Ikumi's artwork is perfectly suited to the story, and it's not even all that wispy and frilly compared to other shoujo material. Like many budding manga-ka, Ikumi's greatest strength is in carefully posed character portraits, and her prolific use of tones creates unique effects while also sidestepping the challenge of backgrounds. The rectangular paneling makes the visual flow easy to follow, although images spill out of the borders constantly—assuming there are any borders in the first place. Equally uninhibited are the speech bubbles, which occasionally require some analysis to figure out which character they belong to. The characters are drawn in a very orthodox, ready-for-anime style, designed to be pleasing to the casual shoujo fan while avoiding any strong individualism. When it comes to action and combat, Ikumi's biggest weaknesses become apparent: she can think up clever names for attacks, but can't make them look distinctive on the page. The lackluster fights with the Saint Rose Crusaders fizzle out all too quickly, and maybe that's allowable in a story that isn't hardcore shounen action, but it makes it look like Berry and the Mew Mews aren't really trying.
Tokyopop's production is no more or less than what might be expected for the average magical girl story. They've certainly come forward since the Mixx days of Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura, but there are still some glitches like blurry chapter-dividing pages and an overly fancy font for out-of-bubble dialogue. The English adaptation is clearly written and well suited to the young teen audience that will be reading this, although the plain style of dialogue doesn't help to set the characters apart. As is company policy, the sound effects remain untranslated, so brush up on your kana or you might as well be reading a "silent comic." The manga-ka's marginal notes and postscript are kept intact (but translated, of course), although the translation staff probably needs to get over how adorable that curly font is and pick something more readable for large blocks of text.
So is the magical girl genre dead? No, it's just in hibernation, and holdouts like Tokyo Mew Mew a la Mode must keep on bearing the flag in this new era. This manga adheres to the tradition of schoolgirl protagonists, sparkly transformations, and magical combat, showing that it can still be a lot of fun, although without a whole lot of substance. Using an honest approach and straightforward artwork, this first volume presents an appealing lead character, but doesn't deliver when it comes to interesting story ideas or exciting action. However, if you liked the original seven volumes of Tokyo Mew Mew—or are wondering what the magical girl genre is up to these days—then be sure to check out the continuing Mew Mew adventures right here.
Overall : C+
Story : C-
Art : B
+ Fluffy, lighthearted mood is enjoyable without being too sugary.
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