It’s not usually an issue to determine what the flaws are in the comics that I read. Some suffer from characters who lack depth or act in dumb, logic-defying ways to serve the story. Others have stories whose twists weren’t clearly thought out beyond the idea of trying to surprise the reader. There are also those that have just plain terrible art. It’s even more rare that I get to the end of any comic and go, “What was the point of what I just read?” As you can guess, this first volume of “Emanon” is just such a comic.
“Emanon” comes to us from writer Shinji Kaijo and is based on his prose stories about the title character. The reason we’re getting the manga in English isn’t because of him, however. It’s because this series is illustrated by Kenji Tsuruta of “Wandering Island” fame. Tsuruta is clearly liked by the crew over at Dark Horse as they published his “Spirit of Wonder” series way back in the day when manga was flipped to conform to Western reading standards.
“Liked” does not equate to “popular” and some twenty years had to pass before we got a second volume of manga from Tsuruta. That would be the first volume “Wandering Island” which I enjoyed on its own terms and other people in the comics field liked well enough to nominate it for an Eisner. (Will vol. 2 get another nomination? I think that’s kind of unlikely.) That was apparently enough to convince the people at Dark Horse that there was now an audience for Tsuruta’s style, which is how “Emanon” found its way to our shores.
As for what it’s about, well, this first volume takes its time in getting there. We’re first introduced to our nameless protagonist, a young Japanese man headed back home on a nighttime ferry ride, musing about the state of the world and the sci-fi novel he’s reading. His musings are interrupted by the long-haired and freckled “hippie chick” who takes the spot next to him on the ferry. While he doesn’t make the best first impression by criticizing her smoking habit, events conspire to put them together and get to know each other over dinner.
It’s over this dinner that the girl, Emanon, makes a surprising confession to the man: She has the memory of all life on Earth. Three billion years and counting. Emanon remembers what it was like to be the first bacteria, the advent of apes and their tools, and humanity’s endless innovations when it comes to killing themselves off via warfare. While this seems like a remarkable thing, the young man even refers to it at one point as a superpower, Emanon herself is not so sure. She just can’t see the point of why she was chosen to bear the weight of life’s memories.
As you might have guessed from how I started this review, I can kind of empathize with Emanon to a certain degree here. The story itself is basically one big “meet cute” with a sci-fi twist to it. There’s one complication to it and a denouement that succeeds kinda alright, I guess, at giving the whole thing a sense of closure. Yet it has no real resonance beyond these things. It’s hard to think of a reason why I should care about this outside of appreciating the story’s atmosphere.
Unless the point of it all is that I’m being pandered to. In addition to being a fan of sci-fi novels, our young protagonist is also described as being really unlucky at love. There’s a rather large swath of sci-fi (or really any genre that can be tagged as “disreputable”) readers that are like this at any given time. The reader is clearly meant to identify with the protagonist from this perspective of being a sci-fi fan and unlucky at love, so imagine how lucky he is when he meets a girl with a quirk right out of one of his novels. It’s not hard to see how this is meant to appeal to the intended reader.
Yet it’s too bad that the story in “Emanon” doesn’t really have any point or hidden depth to it because Tsuruta’s art is really quite lovely. He’s meticulous in his detail whether it’s drawing the gangway leading onto a ship or the characters themselves. Even if their many conversations don’t go anywhere it’s still fun to observe how Tsuruta has his protagonist and Emanon interact with each other. Their interactions are impressively nuanced, from the many degrees of irritation Emanon shows when she’s criticized for her smoking habit, to the dawning realization of the protagonist when he realizes the mild deception regarding Emanon’s “husband.”
There’s plenty of charm in seeing the two interact over the course of this volume and that’s the main reason I can’t bring myself to actively dislike it. The story still suffers from not having any real point to it beyond, “Hey here’s a girl who has the memory of all life on the planet. Isn’t that neat?” Yet Tsuruta does his best to make the whole thing an agreeable experience. It’s enough to get me back for vol. 2, but only in the sense that I like the idea of supporting manga that try something different to appeal to an older audience. Not because of the quality of “Emanon” vol. 1 itself.