Sunday, July 26, 2009

Manga Review: Ai-Ren

Series name: Ai-Ren (translation: "lovers")
Author: Tanaka Yutaka
Number of volumes: 5 (series is completed)
English language distributor: none
Fan translation link: on Manga Volume

I didn't think I was going to review this one. Ai-Ren is a sci-fi Manga set on a grim future version of Earth. The human race has lost its vigor and appears destined to die out. Most people do not have children, those that do have them by artificial means; people have forgotten what sex is. People no longer build, nuclear weapons detonate in some part of the world on a nearly daily basis, coastal cities are inundated. World events are not really presented in a complete or coherent way, either as a result of deliberate narrative choice or sketchy amateur translation. But world events are generally not important.

What is important are the main characters. Ikuru is very ill. Due to some mysterious past catastrophic accident, extraordinary experimental measures have been taken to save his life, grafting parts of another person's body to his. These measures are inadequate however, and he is slowly dying, frequently in pain, and usually unable to eat. Because he is dying, society has given him a gift: an ARG-RMS which is a companion for the dying, an artificially created, genetically enhanced girl left over from some unknown project (experimental super human?, assassin?, sex-slave?). She has been genetically tailored to love him (an only him) absolutely. When he first takes her to his home, an isolated crumbling house on the "coast", she has no memory or sense of self. These companions for the dying are themselves doomed to a very short lifespan, frequently dying before their beneficiaries. Typical to this genre, her name comes from the first word she can say, Ai ("love").

Despite the monstrous morality (my judgement) of Ai's creation, purpose, and the massive way in which her innate volition has been violated, what transpires between them is one of the most beautiful, innocent, disturbing, and heart-rending short love stories I've ever seen. All of the things you think could be creepy about this situation are in fact, creepier than you think they are. This creepiness is enhanced by the fact that Ikuru is stalked in his dreams by a shadowy feminine figure of death and Ai seems to fell that she is destined to kill him, the person she loves most in the world. Besides the near continual presence of death, the fact that Ikuru and Ai (ages unknown) are drawn to look so young (manga, go figure) there's a very creepy, Blue Lagoon vibe to the whole thing. As an aside, the artwork is (almost) top notch for manga.

This is not one of those sci-fi stories where the mysteries about the state of the world are resolved with some big reveal, or we learn more over time. Humanity's crisis is not resolved. The story shifts back and forth between Ikuru and Ai, and other world level plots involving a dragon... or an alien, or ghosts in space. It's unclear just what it is, but in essence, there's a starman waiting in the sky. He'd like to come and meet us but he thinks he'd blow our minds. Just who or what he is, like so much else, is never reveled. And it doesn't matter, because there's Ikuru and Ai, whose story blows my mind effectively enough without the starman... dragon, ghost... whatever he is.

Do I recommend it? No... Yes... No... don't read it. Well, you should,... but you really shouldn't. I've been holding off a review until I can say just what I think of it, but I am still unable to really characterize it. Is it a great piece of art? Maybe. Is it an exploitative, amature, trashy work? Maybe. Is it good, bad, moral, immoral? I don't have a mental compartment where it fits... which is an artistic triumph in a way. If you can get past the cover art on it's page at Manga Volume and the end of the second chapter without completely freaking out, congratulations, you've made it through some of the most disturbing parts; you might as well finish the series. It's very short.

Americans, I think, will view this series from across a very long cultural divide (I did), probably why it has not found an English language distributor yet.


ish said...

I'd leave a detailed comment, but I'm every bit as conflicted about the thing you made me read as you are, so it would take me 6 months to write it. So I'll just say, "Yeah."

Anonymous said...

I think the fantastic thing about ai-ren is how simply and deeply it conveys the characters emotions. That's what makes Ikuru/Ai screentime so calming and bittersweet, and ultimately what destroys your misgivings about the morality of Ai and how she was born.

If or when humanity becomes able to manufacture other sentient life... Our greatest duty to that "child" would be to ensure it could lead a happy, fulfilling life in some way. I don't know about you, but I felt Ais life was so happy and fulfilling my heart was breaking. The Ai-Ren are chemically altered to have a natural devotion and affinity for love. In a way, their happiness was given to them at birth. That's how I look at it.