“Is this 1984 but manga?” asks a meme. At its simplest form, yes, The Shadow Prophet can be described so, but there are definitely more than four cranes in this Webtoon series.
The Shadow Prophet
Sanne Cazemier (colorist), Daniel De La Cruz (flatterer), Marissa Delbressine (creator, artist), Anne Delseit (co-writer), Sabrina Kooijmans (letterer), Annie Lahue (editor), William Ritstier (concept), Pieter van Oudheusden (concept)
Season One (40 episodes): January 25, 2020 to June 26, 2021
Itshou’s life is perfect, and how could it be any less with Godo’s guidance? Despite her apparent flaws, she works hard to earn her place in this world. But when she takes an exam that she ought to have passed with ease, her failure marks her for exile, leading her on a path that will unearth the dark secrets of this perfect society.
“A clean room mirrors a clean mind,” read the words of the prophet in the first episode of the series. As Itshou rifles through her belongings, things strewn all over her room, we know that she doesn’t quite fit into the world as Godo expects her to. Yet, until this moment, she has always gotten by. But who is she to question Godo when her failure is announced for all of her classroom to mock?
In these first few episodes of the story, it took me some time to connect with Itshou. She is a perfectionist whose accomplishments and habits clearly speak of someone who has learned to cope with ADHD in her own way and through medication (as confirmed by creator Marissa Delbressine, who is also neuroatypical and shaped Itshou based on her own experiences), but has also had many helping hands along the way. Her failure hits her hard, and Delbressine depicts that anxiety and fear with palpable imagery, sinking Itshou into dark, deep water as the origami cranes that are meant to be her focus float around her. When she pulls herself together enough to get moving, she is still a little lost lamb, reliant on others for help. Specifically, she seeks the help of her partner, Ryuichi, but based on his character design alone, readers know that he cannot be trusted — or can he? — no, no he can’t — wait… maybe???
Much like Itshou, it’s not long before I found myself questioning everything the story presents. Unsurprisingly since, in contrast to Godo’s truth, there is Vero, the unseen leader of the underground resistance who claims to speak the actual truth in the face of Godo’s bright lies. As someone who does not struggle with anxiety and indecision and a lack of independence as Itshou does, I soon became invested in her journey, hopeful that she would find her strength, frustrated when she kept falling back on her comfort zones, despite their obvious betrayals. Her journey was a compelling one and, as she fell deeper into the ‘rabid’ hole, I fell with her.
There are several other players in this game, each one pulling Itshou one way or another. It’s hard to say that I like any of these characters because they are written so well that I cannot trust any of them. Every time one of them edges towards being worthy of empathy, a revelation shows them in a new light that once again leaves me uncertain of what to expect next.
The cranes remain a connecting motif throughout the story. Traditionally a symbol of good fortune in Japanese culture, the cranes take on many different meanings as the story progresses. Interestingly, there are no actual cranes in the skies of this world — for reasons we find out later. The only things in the sky are the drones that serve as Godo’s watchful eye, ready to enforce the rules of their master.
Much like the cranes, Delbressine’s artwork moves in sharp lines and corners, though, she explains in an interview with Geek Girl Authority, the style was not originally influenced by origami, despite perfectly suiting the story and symbolism. From the first episode to the season finale, the artwork has become smoother, with more background colour softening some of its sharp edges and intentionally scratchy lines. Delbressine does masterful work with depicting Itshou’s emotions and the oppressive nature of her world through colours, lines, and texture.
One of the things I admire about webcomics is how often the creators will get creative with their word balloons. Delbressine’s unique linework style extends into the lettering, with a clean, simple font housed within word balloons shaded around the edges. Thoughts are softer, with twisting, looping lines, while words spoken aloud feel like they are well-defined in their boxes for Godo to hear. Because Godo is always listening. Always watching…
As the series progresses, music is introduced to enhance the visuals. Not a note is wasted in the songs that are featured, such as the four created by Daniel de la Cruz.
In the interview noted above, Delbressine indicates that she had originally intended this story to be in graphic novel format, but I can’t imagine it suiting such a static format. Delbressine’s artistic style and the introduction of movement through animation and music and the nature of Webtoon — as well as the story itself — make for a dynamic series that cannot easily be confined to the page.
Season one ends with a significant cliffhanger and revelations that may or may not be the truth that Itshou has been seeking. Vero says, “Want what you have, not what leaves you wanting.” Sorry, Vero, but as much as I love these 40 episodes of The Shadow Prophet, I definitely want more.