There are just a few people who have not seen the
Wolf's Rain anime, and sadly, this reviewer is one of them. Travesty? Blasphemy? Call it what you will, but it allows one to read the manga without the afterimages of Studio
BONES' work embedded in the back of the mind. Certainly there exists a strong temptation to compare it to the highly lauded anime, but a fresh-faced approach reveals that the manga is strong enough to stand on its own.
Tackling the usual themes of man against nature in a post-apocalyptic world, Wolf's Rain approaches it from a different angle by placing wolves at the core of the story. Why wolves? Perhaps that's a question best left for BONES. The studio itself is credited as a co-author for the manga, suggesting that writer Keiko Nobumoto and artist Toshitsugu Iida worked in close collaboration with the anime staff. The result is a manga that takes what could be a very clichéd theme and instead tells an intriguing quest story that explores the boundaries between animal and human. Unburdened by tangential plot lines and back-story, the manga zips along at a jaunty pace and takes the wolves through several escape adventures in the first volume alone. Meanwhile, some underhanded machinations involving the Lunar Flower lady are going on, but since the wolves are far more interesting, the focus on the "bad guys" is kept to a happy minimum.
The snappy pacing, however, is also the manga's own downfall, making it hard for readers to just sit down and get to know the characters. The four main characters are all introduced within the first third of this volume, but they're sent running so quickly that their personalities can only be painted with broad, two-dimensional strokes. Kiba has a deep disregard for humans, Tsume hates just about everything, Hige is good at smelling things, and Toboe is too nice for his own good (believe it or not folks, this feminine-looking character is male). While these labels are a handy way to keep track of who's who, let's hope that the personalities and histories of the characters become more developed as the story progresses.
Toshitsugu Iida's artwork supports the energetic storyline with its distraction-free backgrounds and clearly identifiable character designs. Although the art relies heavily on an anime look, as dictated by the very nature of its source material, Iida still demonstrates a firm grasp of the techniques and visual vocabulary of manga. What makes Wolf's Rain so fun to read is that there is very little need to stop or backtrack, thanks to the scarcity of poorly drawn details or misplaced lines of dialogue. The panels contain few extraneous elements and present themselves clearly, even in speedline-laced action sequences. In fact, it is in these high-tension sequences that the artwork becomes even more direct--the panel-per-page ratio drops when things get dramatic, and the very act of turning the pages faster plays a role in the reading the manga. In this respect it almost becomes like "reading an anime," where timing and rhythm have an effect on the visuals and really let the reader get absorbed into this fictional world.
The dialogue in Wolf's Rain is nothing particularly remarkable, but like the artwork, is easy to follow (the choice of font also helps in this matter). Although there are a few self-indulgent moments of interior monologue, most of what happens in Wolf's Rain is nicely balanced between action and conversation. Japanese translation buffs will find little to nitpick here as the story itself is multicultural in nature, focusing on a locale that could be anywhere on Earth. Nonetheless, Viz provides a brief glossary of translation and editing notes in the back, including an explanation of some of the manga staff's notes and omake. The sound effects are directly replaced with English effects, which may irk some preservationists, but the choice of words and the way they're placed blends well with the artwork and looks better than some of Viz's other attempts to edit sound effects.
Besides the artists' notes and the translation glossary, Wolf's Rain also comes with a full-color first page. This in addition to the glossy cover and special artbox promotion shows that Viz is committed to marketing this manga as a premium title; a treat for manga connoisseurs who have perhaps grown weary of the usual Shonen Jump suspects. There is certainly plenty to enjoy here--distinctive (if somewhat flat) characters, a storyline that's always on the move, and a sense of visual narrative that's just as exciting as watching anime. While the Wolf's Rain manga doesn't cry out "masterpiece" as it rides along the coattails of the original series, it's still a very talented effort, which should be reason enough for anyone to give it a try, and doubly so for fans of the anime.