Circus Dreams Come True in Karneval: A Review
Mangaka: Touya Mikanagi. Translation: Su Mon Han. Lettering: Alexis Eckerman.
March 2015 & July 2015
Review copies were provided by Yen Press.
Just imagine: what if Cirque du Soleil were actually a band of government-sanctioned assassins dedicated to fighting an underground ring of genetically engineered criminals? Can you picture it? Amazing acrobatics, spectacular costumes paired with equally spectacular weapons, lithe figures dancing in a deadly game. No? Well, that’s Karneval for you! Touya Mikanagi’s over-the-top manga is Cirque du Soleil on science fiction. Or hallucinogens. Or both.
Karneval is a mish-mash of steampunk elements—Alice in Wonderland-style costume design, British tea sensibility, and airships—with science fictional genetic manipulation with Something Wicked This Way Comes creepy horror with the comedic elements of One Piece, all delivered in the pages of a spectacularly spastic and dramatic manga series.
My first impression was: wow, this is bizarre. To be honest, I wasn’t sure how I would make it through the entire first volume, which is an omnibus comprised of volumes 1 and 2 of the Japanese tankōbon. The series doesn’t waste any time jumping into action, and the first chapter rapidly introduces the reader to the two main characters (Nai and Gareki), the demonic genetically modified humans called Varuga, and the powerful government organization known as Circus. It was all pretty strange and confusing at first, but I stuck with it—I did promise to review it—and either the telling got better or I got used to the style. Either way, although the story remained rather strange, I had a good time reading the first two volumes.
Karneval follows young, innocent, and hapless Nai as he searches for his missing friend-or-brother-or-creator Karoku. Nai doesn’t remember much about Karoku, other than that he had a bracelet that Nai now possesses and that he was warm and kind, like the sun. Nai is almost a complete innocent, lacking understanding of the world around him (including the nuances of language), which causes juvenile delinquent Gareki to safeguard him out of sheer necessity. As you might expect, too-cool tsundere Gareki has a soft heart beating underneath his thorny exterior, and he comes to sincerely care for Nai.
These two seemingly normal youths are swept up into the not-so-tender arms of Circle as its troops hunt for Kafka, the organization behind the creation of the Varuga. You see, Kafka wants to get its claws on Nai, and Circle 2nd ship captain Hirato wants to keep them from doing so. Hirato is pragmatic to a fault, so while helping Nai search for Karoku, he happily uses them as bait to lure out the Varuga. Hirato also puts them under the protection of two Circle agents: sweet and dashing Yogi, and serious and deadly Tsukumo. And, just like that, our adverturing party is formed!
The story swiftly settles into serial shorts that each drop a hint or two about the main plot. The backstories for Nai and Gareki are slowly filled in, and the mysteries of Circle and the powers its agents possess deepens. There are enough tantalizing plot and character elements, as well as simple humor and slight romantic tension, to keep the pages turning steadily.
Also, my hat is off to the book designers. These are some pretty, pretty volumes! The sexy cover art, large format, and splashes of interior color pages make these books feel like a lush read. Well done!
Some of the foundational elements of the plot do appear out of thin air, which is somewhat jarring. For instance, one of the first curveballs is that Nai isn’t just a cute boy—he’s a cute animal! No, he doesn’t have transformative powers, but he was created from the cells of a rainbow-loving, bug-eating adorable creature called a niji. After about ten seconds of being thrown off, all of the other characters accept this as fact and move on. Maybe that’s because they’re already used to the concept, as curveball number two is that Kafka can turn humans into Varuga by inoculating them with the blood or other bodily fluids of other Varuga. Apparently this causes their cells to mutate. It’s all very scientific, really. (And gross!)
As far as the artwork goes, it’s good. While I wasn’t particularly enthralled by any of the character designs or panel scenes, it’s attractive and it doesn’t suffer from misplaced anatomy or poorly drawn expressions. The character designs are lovely, although not all that surprising or distinctive. They follow many of the “handsome/beautiful/cool” manga hallmarks: long limbs, stylishly flowing hair, strategically bare skin and eyes suited for sultry glances. Karneval definitely plays to the “I just want to look at pretty people doing awesome things” crowd—which I wholeheartedly endorse, by the way. However, the action is hard to track, particularly during the fight scenes, because it swoops wildly across the pages, breaking panel boundaries and scattering text around. To say the artwork is dynamic is an understatement, and at times the storytelling suffers from its energetic depiction.
None of this stopped me from enjoying the manga, although I’m sure if anyone were watching me read they would have laughed at all of the shapes my eyebrows were making—from furrowed to arched to sky high. It’s easy to just go with it, though. Although I still think Karneval is bizarre, it’s the good kind of bizarre. Unlike some other manga I’ve reviewed, it avoids a lot of so-called “fan service” pitfalls (it’s equal-opportunity ogling here, folks). If you can take deus ex machina plot twists in stride and want some light, diverting entertainment with plenty of shipping opportunities, Karneval fits the bill.