The mainline manga.

Children of the Sea Vol. 1

This will be out very soon from VIZ. It's a $14.99 softcover, with 320 mostly b&w pages.

It's also the first release in the publisher's new SigIkki sub-imprint, combining the preexisting VIZ Signature line of 'prestige' releases with Japanese publisher Shogakukan's Ikki Comix line of alternative-flavored contemporary manga. Ikki is also Shogakukan's monthly serializing print anthology for many of these works -- the title refers to countryside uprisings against feudal lords, which strikes me as gilding the lily a bit for a Big Three anthology -- but VIZ plans to use the brand primarily as a means of serializing 'mature' manga for free online before offering deluxe print collections at the aforementioned premium price point.

And make no mistake: this is a fairly lovely production, attuned to presenting mostly lovely visuals. Artist Daisuke Igarashi enjoys a renown among North American manga obsessives well beyond his scant official catalog in English, which, prior to this, consisted entirely of one short story in Fanfare/Ponent Mon's Japan as Viewed by 17 Creators; I strongly doubt many will find this production terribly lacking in its role as the first 'major' Igarashi release in English, even given their free access to the guts of it online.

But it's still worthwhile to note that this volume is also the most traditional adventure manga I've seen from this artist, one who isn't exactly a bleeding edge provocateur to begin with. Hell no - at heart, Igarashi's a popular fabulist of the Miyazaki style, albeit a modified variant that slashes away the antics and sentiment to isolate all those wonderous and creepy strains of mystic-bucolic mythmaking.

For example, the artist's 1994-96 story suite Hanashippanashi (and his similarly-styled Fanfare short) bombarded readers with weird visions of extra-normal creatures, so dominant as to suggest surrealism through devout force of their taximony, though the experience was always grounded as human observation of presences in a known, familiar world; Teratoid Heights it wasn't. Likewise, the 2003-05 series Witches (Majo) positioned its eruptions of ancient power as undercurrents to historical (metaphorical) contexts, with a passion for delineating pagan resistance to newer societal structures that recalls nothing so much as early (or proto-)Vertigo comics.

Children of the Sea presses this outlook into even gentler, more straightforward territory; at times it could almost pass for shōjo manga, what with a surfeit of mysterious, aestheticized pretty boys centering its story of a 'typical' girl dropped into an exciting plot wherein her marvelous secret powers are revealed. Perfectly nice, sure, but it signals a certain prudence on VIZ's part; they might be spelling comics with an x on the end, but they're making damn sure their base readership doesn't take that as a "Keep Out," which possibly goes a ways toward explaining why they're launching the imprint with an ongoing one-collection-per-year monthly series, only up to vol. 3 in Japan, from an artist whose bibliography is littered with one-or-two-book projects prime for easy release.

Still, if there's any current (to English) manga this project recalls from its particulars, it'd have to be Yuki Urushibara's Mushishi, and not only because Urushibara and Igarashi place a similar visual emphasis on detailed, enveloping backgrounds and swirling mark-made blasts of glowing phenomena; both of their stories guide wide-eyed people, often young, through a hidden aspect of the natural world, something that affects their being in a way that nonetheless can be taken as the primal, pre-societal way of things, with 'danger' present mainly as the individual's lack of due study, or simple ignorance. Heck, Igarashi even tosses in a teacher/shaman/scientist figure who's picked up a few tricks (and a lack of social grace!) on his travels.

Yet Igarashi's work aims to saturate far more than Urushibara's rather literary approach; he's a considerably stronger visualist, first and foremost, with a special talent for integrating his scratchy character designs into their surroundings and stretching moments to let his narrative eye linger on otherwise fleeting experiences, like a bug landing on your shoulder or a seagull swooping parallel to your bike.

It's not a perfect performance, no - setting aside localization concerns like the English lettering never quite blending with the artist's fine lines (and my personal editing pet peeve of inconsistent chapter title translations between the table of contents and the text proper), Igarashi's grasp of vivid, extended moments doesn't always extend to fluid character movements or nuanced 'acting,' and a few of his attempts at multi-panel lyricism of stillness simply don't work, like a bit where the story suddenly goes sideways for one splash, distractingly. But these aspects never entirely upset the wash of the artist's approach, one part plotting and three parts atmosphere, surrounding the reader with the beauty of his world, and all of its accordant mystery.

In other words, if we walk beside helpful Ginko in Urushibara's series, listening to his many episodic lectures on What This All Means, Igarashi places us in firmly in the role of the affected citizenry, wandering in amazement and concern through their own extended saga. And you can bet your ass it's kids that are affected, and adults can't entirely help, caring as they can be; so it frequently goes in those Miyazaki spectaculars!

Indeed, in spite of its T+ rating, Igarashi's plot unfolds like a fit-for-children adventure for all ages, if unusually prone to staring off into poetic space; it's even situated via prologue as a story being told by one of its now-adult participant to an eager child. Ruka is a moody, anti-social young girl whose deep hunger to fly doesn't preempt earthly concerns, like sending a classmate to the hospital after she stomps her foot on the handball court. Exiled from summertime club activities, Ruka pisses off to Tokyo for the day, where she runs into Umi ("Sea"), a curious boy with a major connection to the ocean.

Is it chance, or does it all have something to do with Ruka's own attraction to sea life, and her memory/dreams of seeing a ghost at the aquarium where her father works? Before you know it, Our Heroine is whisked away into a wish-fulfillment fantasy of living in a fun environment (said aquarium) with a far away divorced parent (said father), filled with kindly adults ready to teach her snorkeling and magical friends like Umi and his distinctly bishōnen pal Sora ("Sky"), who can't stay out of the water for too long, and know of the burning souls in the sky. All the while, rare fish school to Japan as speckled specimens vanish from captivity across the world; global shit is going down, as Igarashi indicates via to-the-reader testimony from witnesses across the world, which does admittedly jumble the subjective storytelling motif.

Try not to sweat the details, like how a major aquarium keeps supernatural young kids swimming around in the tanks and treated at local hospitals without any discernible media attention; Igarashi certainly didn't. Rather, his emphasis is on people as elements of spaces, and his children just that: children, of the natural parent, the environment, glimpsed through contorted time and countless blinking glances at place, the artist's subject and the true basis of his story. All else is finally supplicant, and from this we become like kids ourselves, seated agog at roiling waves and starscapes below sea level as summertime passes slowly. It may not be experimental, but the experiential has virtues all its own.