From the stack: Arisa vol. 1

I wasn’t particularly kind to the work of Natsumi Ando the other day. While I don’t retract anything I said about Wild @ Heart (Del Rey), I’m happy to be able to express a different opinion about Ando’s Arisa. The first volume introduces a tense, observant mystery, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen Ando’s art look better.

Much as I love shôjo that traffics in comedy, romance, and fantasy, I have a weakness for detective fiction, particularly when it features an amateur sleuth. In Arisa, a young girl investigates the attempted suicide of her twin sister by assuming her identity, and she quickly finds that her twin’s seemingly perfect life had some decidedly dark undertones.

Spunky tomboy Tsubasa and demure princess Arisa have been separated for years by their parents’ divorce. They’ve kept in touch through letters, and they arrange a secret meeting to catch up in person. Tsubasa, whose quick temper and loose tongue have limited her social circle, admires Arisa’s femininity and popularity. Arisa gives Tsubasa the chance to live her perfect life for a day – class president, tons of friends, cute boyfriend, the works. Arisa is brokenhearted when Tsubasa doesn’t see through the façade, and Tsubasa is devastated when Arisa tries to end her own life.

Tsubasa decides to continue the impersonation to try and find out what could have driven Arisa to this desperate act. She begins to unravel the creepy secrets of Arisa’s seemingly cheerful, friendly class, putting herself in danger but charging forward because it’s the right thing to do. The students’ secrets are genuinely unnerving, but Tsubasa seems up to the challenge of deciphering them. She faces real danger, even in the seemingly benign school setting, but she’s tough and a quick thinker.

The script has the kind of darkness and ambition that I found lacking in Wild @ Heart, really digging into the ways that kids can have dark sides but finding a fresh, contemporary take on the subject. Better still, Ando’s illustrations are stripped down for the occasion. If your experience with her drawing is limited to Kitchen Princess, you might be surprised that Arisa is by the same artist. Character design is sleeker and less aggressively endearing. The angles in the page compositions are sharper and more challenging. Even the application of screen tone, while still lavish, is more targeted and restrained in terms of choices.

It’s always nice to see a creator stretch her muscles and try something different, and it’s even better to see her succeed in the attempt. Arisa really seems like a great coalescence of Ando’s evident raw talent into something stronger and more balanced, and the fact that it’s a promising, emotionally complex mystery is a welcome bonus. I’m eager to see what happens next.

(These comments are based on a review copy provided by the publisher. Del Rey released the first volume in 2010, and Kodansha will pick up the series in May of this year. It’s currently running in Kodansha’s Nakayoshi.)