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Seven Little Sons of the Dragon

December 30, 2019

The descriptive text on the back of this volume says, “Ryoko Kui, the master storyteller behind the beloved manga series Delicious in Dungeon, pens seven brand-new tales that will delight fantasy fans and manga devotees equally.”  Half of that sentence is unimpeachable gospel. The other half is a real case of Your Mileage May Vary.  While I think that all of the stories featured in this anthology are enjoyable, some are definitely moreso than others.

The Dragon Turret: The neighboring countries of Highland and Sealand are all set to go to war, until a very gryphon-looking dragon takes up residence in the turret on top of the wall that separates them.  As the dragon has come to lay eggs and raise its hatchlings, the war has been called off for the foreseeable future. While the countries plan for the day the dragon leaves, a lone Sealand trader makes his way into Highland in search of some much-needed goods.


This doesn’t turn into a story about two sides learning to trust one another, it’s more specific in that.  We get to see how Julka, the daughter of one of Highland’s captains, gets to know the trader and slowly let go of her prejudices.  Hers may be a familiar arc, but one that’s still teased out quite well over the story’s length. Better are the little details within the story, such as the inset panels of the soldiers capturing their distraction on the first page, the ongoing struggle of the dragon to rear its young, and the final pre-war twist that cleverly frustrates both sides’ desire to fight each other.


The Mermaid Refuge:  On his way to school, Jun finds a mermaid on the brink of death by the side of the road.  It’s a little bit out of the ordinary, mainly because mermaids usually don’t come that far onto dry land.  Yet this one is persistent in her desire to get to Jun’s school for some reason.


There’s clearly a lot more going on in this story than Jun’s attempts to try and understand/communicate with this mermaid he found.  We hear about how mermaids are regarded in this world, find out about “mermaid rights” movements, get hints that Jun’s friend Hama has some history with them, while Hama also brings up some valid points about communication.  Fortunately all of this is doled out in a way that doesn’t overwhelm the story’s simple framework. It’s really about Jun learning that good intentions are only a start towards building bridges between species, not the end. This is a message story in the end, but it gets points for avoiding sanctimony.


My God:  Yukie has a dream:  To study a lot, get into a good school, become renowned as the world’s top oceanographer at a laboratory with the very best facilities on top of marrying a huge Hollywood star.  Unfortunately, despite her best efforts at the first part, the second part is seeming out of reach at the moment. That is, until she encounters a river god at a construction site in the mountains.


This is arguably the best story in the collection, and it’s mainly down to my expectations were turned on their head with what happens on the final page (and its epilogue drawing as well).  What we think is a story about a young girl going through cram school hell turns out to be something far more melodramatic and amusing. Even better is how we get two of the most understanding parents I’ve seen in a story revolving around cram school.


Wolves Don’t Lie:  At first the story reads like a parody of a comic manual for understanding something.  In this case it’s “Werewolf Syndrome” and how mothers who find out their young children have it can cope with it.  Then when the story proper begins we find ourselves following Keita, the kid from the comic, as he has now dealing with the syndrome in college while his mother makes a living relaying her experiences with it.  Keita has had a difficult life as a result of his condition, but it looks like things might be changing when he gets to know fellow classmate Saya who encourages him to tell his mom what he really thinks of how she’s raised him.


Part of me wants to think that Kui was inspired to do this after she saw the anime film “Wolf Children.”  This story deals with the same basic concept, only from a more socially integrated perspective. It’s also really about the difficulties parents have with raising their kids and the lengths they’ll go to in order to try and raise them right.  So it’s not a new story that’s being told, but it hits the expected beats well and the ending’s good for a laugh too.


Byakuroku the Penniless:  The title character is a painter of great skill and renown who has fallen on hard times.  However, his skill is so great that in order to bring the beings in his painting to life, all he has to do is draw in their eyes.  That’s what he does to a counterfeit of one of his paintings and orders the poorly-drawn man and his horse to take him around to his other nearby works so he can paint in the eyes of tigers and dragons, capture them, and sell them to regain his fortune.


It’s a plan that sounds as half-formed as Byakuroku’s assistant looks.  You wonder how it’s even meant to succeed given the assistant’s clear lack of any physical ability.  Also, while the publication dates of the stories in this collection aren’t given, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that this was one of Kui’s earliest published works.  The art is pretty rough overall, which is a real problem for a story that hinges on distinguishing between good and bad art, and the real world. Still, like almost every other story in this volume, it wraps up well with some sentimentality that feels earned.


“My Child is Precious,” Cries the Dragon:  Prince Shun’s father is ill and the only cure for his sickness is a dragon’s scale.  So he heads into the mountains to look for one. In a village along the way he meets a woman named Yoh who agrees to guide him and his entourage to the dragon’s nesting place.  Even though she lost her son years ago, she remembers his reckless efforts to make her happy. Seeing Shun do this for his father reminds her of how much she loved her son and what she needs to do to honor his memory.


So when I said “almost” every story here wraps up well, this one is the “almost.”  There are some good twists and surprises to be had as the story goes on. It even looks like the story is headed for a fittingly bleak end where nobody gets what they want.  Kui can’t quite help herself, though, and we get an ending where everyone but the dragon does. Even the nature of the last-minute reveals don’t make the happiness in the ending feel earned.


The Inutanis:  Are a family where each member has supernatural powers.  Most are fantastic like Yurika who can warp through dimensions.  Then there’s her sister Arisa who can… turn people’s regular clothes into pajamas.  The whole family has done their best to keep their individual powers secret from the world at large, which isn’t normally a problem for them.  When famed teen detective Kousuke Doudaichi finds himself over at their place one evening, being found out turns out to be the least of their problems when their powers put them square in the middle of a (fake) murder mystery.


This story is basically a parody of “The Inugami Clan,” a famous Japanese mystery novel that keeps getting adapted into TV and film versions,.  Even though I’m only familiar with the surface elements of the story, Kui’s version still wound up being a lot of fun. That’s mainly down to how Doudaichi’s dead serious investigation of the case clashes beautifully with the escalating ridiculousness.  Still, there’s no getting around the obvious fact that Arisa’s “useless” power was going to be the one to save the day for everyone in the end.


Despite a complete lack of dungeons or interesting culinary creations, “Seven Little Sons of the Dragon” offers proof that there’s more to Kui beyond her signature creation.  All of the stories here have something to recommend and showcase some very diverse tones and styles successfully. All I can say in the end is that if there are any more anthologies like this (or any other collected works, really) from Kui, then they should be brought over right now!


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