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Mao is a predictable yet enchanting page turner

Mao Book review 1

There aren’t many mangaka as revered or successful as Rumiko Takahashi. His designs have defined entire generations with classics like Inuyasha and Ranma 1/2, and now she’s back with a new, but decidedly familiar, shounen series dubbed Mao. While this first volume is brief, it sets the stage for a compelling old-fashioned tale of time travel, demonic curses, yokai, and the awakening of great power from within.

The story is told through the eyes of Nanoka, a high school student who miraculously survived a tragic road collapse that claimed the lives of both of her parents years before. As a result, she grew up with a fragile constitution and very few strong memories of that fateful day.

Fast-forward eight years later and as she walks home to her grandfather’s house, she stops at the crash site, which is right in front of a shopping mall today abandoned. Hearing strange sounds from inside brings her in, and before she knows it, Nanoka is suddenly transported to another world and abruptly attacked by a bloodthirsty yokai. Enter Mao, the titular exorcist who heals her after the encounter and ultimately reveals that she has stepped 100 years in the past – and that she may not be as human as she once thought.

MAO © 2019 Rumiko TAKAHASHI / SHOGAKUKAN

For better and for worse, Mao throws readers into the thick of the action without too much time spent fleshing out Nanoka’s personality outside of her aloof attitude at school and physical weakness. On the one hand, it sets the stage for the action and fun group dynamics that Nanoka ultimately establishes with Mao and his assistant Otoya. In contrast, as readers barely get a chance to know her, Nanoka ends up being rather bland and uninteresting for the majority of the volume. The role she plays is akin to that of a virgin protagonist in a video game; she always gets things explained to herself and reacts to her surroundings rather than being her own distinct person. Nine times out of ten, the real stars of the show are Mao and the Otoya doll, both of whom are tropey but interesting nonetheless.

Fortunately, the overall plot is compelling enough on its own to make this first volume a page turner. Mao’s tireless quest to find the Byouki who cursed him hundreds of years ago is a classic yet powerful hook that quickly establishes an end goal while simultaneously linking Mao and Nanoka in a predictable yet exciting way. It also makes sense of the series of murder mysteries the trio begin to investigate: Mao has been hunting down the Byouki for ages, and Nanoka fits perfectly into the team as the precious third. The fact that she ends up doing research and forming her own motivation for wanting to hunt down the monster only strengthens their motivation even more.

While the pace seems a bit rushed at times, Takahashi does an admirable job of keeping readers invested in learning both the mystery behind the curse of the Byouki and the moment-to-moment adventures of the crew. This is in part thanks to the fantastic design of the monsters; The Byouki and all the other yokai look really intimidating and fearsome despite how difficult they might be.

Mao Byouki
MAO © 2019 Rumiko TAKAHASHI / SHOGAKUKAN

For as nice as Mao is chapter by chapter, however, a few problems have already arisen in this first volume. The first is the speed with which Mao spoils her eventual romance. Fans of Takahashi’s previous works might have guessed right off the bat, but there still could have been a playful “Will they, won’t they” dynamic between Mao and Nanoka if their romance was inferred rather than outright declared. The worst part is that there is absolutely no romantic development in this first volume, which makes the framing totally unnecessary when it could have been a smooth and gradual build over time. It’s not a compromise, and it remains to be seen how well the relationship is handled as the series continues, but it’s an annoyance nonetheless that could have been easily avoided.

The other misstep is how Mao quickly asserts himself as immortal, largely removing the stakes from any battle he participates in. casually letting enemies attack him once he loses interest in the fight takes some of the excitement out of every encounter. Thankfully, Nanoka starting to awaken her own abilities at the end of the first volume gives some hope that future fights will have more stakes.

Mao
MAO © 2019 Rumiko TAKAHASHI / SHOGAKUKAN

The start of Mao looks like the start of a great adventure that Rumiko Takahashi could have conceived of decades ago. His art style is more distinct and striking than ever, although it may seem a bit bland or mellow to young manga readers accustomed to the more bombastic and detailed action sequences that are preferred today. For those in the mood for a nostalgic action-adventure series that’s unabashedly old-school and traditional, however, Mao may be exactly what you are looking for.

Rhonda G. Connally

The author Rhonda G. Connally