School Zone Vol. #01 (Mania.com)
Review Date: Monday, July 10, 2006
Release Date: Wednesday, March 01, 2006
Translated by:Heidi Plechl
What They Say
Kanako Inuki, the Queen of Horror Manga, brings you School Zone, stories about ordinary children who encounter the strange and terrifying at their very own school, and discover that many ghost stories, urban legends, and superstitions are truly and horribly real.
She's kinda like Hideshi Hino... except not humorous, and not as good.
I kind of disagree with some of the cover choices for the Dark Horse horror manga on the grounds that they look kind of unappealing. This one is a good example, though not one of the worst offenders. The cover features one of the chapter opener images colorized, a girl backing away from her classmates and being pursued by shadows. The logo is at the top and takes up most of the top third, it's done in yellow with white lines through it to look sort of like a crosswalk, and it's got a strange warp effect that isn't quite, but makes me think of, the opening text on Star Wars. The bottom lefthand corner has the volume number enclosed in a diamond that's meant to look like a street sign, with the author's name in Kanji running vertically above it and romanized to the right of it. The logo, though I like the packaging's take on the "school zone" idea, is really rough-looking, the color is not a good match with the image, and the two clash and sort of interfere with each other. The back uses the "school zone" idea a bit more effectively, the logo is on a white field at the top of the volume, and is separated by a thick black line from the bottom half, which is yellow and contains the volume summary. There is a small color image of the main character's head, but that's all we get to see of Inuki's color art.
The inside front and back covers have the best packaging and use of the play on School Zone, with the front having a pedestrian walk sign modified slightly to look sinister and the back featuring an "end school zone" sign. The title page is pretty much just a greyscale version of the back cover with just the logo and graphic work, and the table of contents is sort of boring, featuring unexciting placement and two character headshots. The only thing close to extras we get is an illustration at each of the chapter openers. Other than that, the book begins and ends with the manga, the last page featuring the copyright info and the "you're reading the wrong way!" message. I was also really, REALLY disappointed with the touchup in this volume. I generally expect the highest quality from Dark Horse, but this looks like it was rushed out the door. While there are no mistakes, it does look extremely sloppy wherever the art had to be touched up. If there was text on a toned background, the text is just placed in an extremely conspicuous white box overtop where the Japanese text used to be. Sound effects are not ignored or placed nearby, but dropped directly on top of the Japanese ones, with those still visible underneath. It's not as much a part of the artwork as it is in other series, and I actually prefer this to Scary Book's method of cluttering the page with translations between panels, but it still looks sloppy all the same.
I thought the translation here was really strong, particularly since there are some cultural differences apparent when reading through this manga as far as the Elementary school day goes. I thought there were some notes explaining things like the group system that's extremely prevalent in this volume and completely unknown in the US, but I can't see any while skimming through now, so I guess it was just explained well enough through the translation effort. There were no grammar or spelling errors that I remember, and everything read really well in English.
Inuki's artwork looks a lot like Hideshi Hino's. You can certainly tell she was very influenced by him, but she takes a less comical approach than he does, and somehow it just doesn't work as well. In Hino's work, the people (particularly children) are sort of grotesque and slightly malformed, but it's acceptable because something silly and over-the-top will usually happen. Here though, the characters are just sort of grotesque and ugly. The characters who were supposed to be particularly beautiful struck me as the most harsh, actually. The character designs are all sort of similar as well, so I have trouble telling a couple of the characters apart. Surprisingly, there's not a lot of violence in this volume, so you don't really get to see the art in action, so to speak. The one thing I can say about it, however, is that there is a lot of detail. The characters all sport original and somewhat detailed outfits, and there are frequently respectably detailed backgrounds. They aren't anything fancy, but they weren't a rush job, and I appreciate them being there. Overall the character designs really put me off, and the art in general I didn't think was that good.
School Zone is interesting in that it takes the urban legends that may be associated with any school and puts them in a situation where they may or may not be true, and they may or may not affect the students who go to the school. It's said that at this school, if you hear all 13 of the ghost stories, something may happen, and that something may have happened to one of the characters... or perhaps she became an outcast who sees ghosts from playing a game of kokkuri-san (seems like Ouija) by herself? This series is especially creepy since it takes place in an elementary school.
The chapters are loosely based around incidents that happen to students in a particular group that walks together to school (it seems like these groups are chosen by the school and based on the proximity of the students living together). I'm not entirely sure if all 13 ghosts stories are revealed in this volume or not, since the students will often bring up variations and it seems like new ones are happening all the time. In the first chapter, the leader of the group, Nanka, has a run-in with the story regarding the large display mirrors in the halls of the school. The next chapter deals mostly with the youngest member and his run-in with the legend surrounding the confiscated doll graveyard and the lonely dolls that come to life there. The next chapter deals mostly with a group leader from a different group losing one of his students, and how the students from the main group react to him. The last two chapters deal largely with the story of Reiko-san, the ghost who wanders the halls and the reason you shouldn't walk around between classes. Throughout the entire book, the two twin characters and the other girl in the group, Kimi, make appearances in various contexts. The two twins constantly talk of playing kokkuri-san, and Kimi seems to be the local paranoid expert on all the school's ghost stories.
I've approached all of Dark Horse's horror manga releases fairly open-mindedly to say the least, and I've been pretty excited about all the classic horror stuff. This was no exception, as I do really like the plot of all sorts of different horror stories played out in an Elementary school. However, after reading the first volume, I found myself extremely confused, and I was unaware not only of the direction the series was going in, but really what most of the ghost stories and legends were about and what they did or did not have to do with one another. One of the biggest problems with its coherency is probably the characters and, to a lesser extent, the character designs. I was constantly confused since it jumps around from character to character through the entire volume. We only really get a good sense of the "main" character, Nanka, and even then, I'm not really sure how the events of the first chapter did or did not affect him the rest of the way through the story. It focuses mostly on his school zone group, however it also jumps to another little boy and girl in a different school zone group, which isn't hard to remember since those characters are at least distinctive... but one of the other problems is that a lot of the characters don't even get names. The youngest boy in the school zone group, when I flipped back through, I don't believe was ever called by his name. There's also a pair of twins that may or may not have different personalities, and that doesn't help things either. These are mostly problems with the characters, which I generally discuss separately, but these problems really just handicapped the manga all the way through. Even the ghost stories themselves are told and retold by different students, and the ghosts don't have names like "lost girl" or "late teacher," they're all called on a first-name basis, which also lends more character confusion. One of the other big flaws is the pacing. It jumps around between all the characters at a choppy and inconsistent rate. The story is driven mostly by these cuts from supernatural events to ghost stories being told elsewhere, except you become disoriented by these cuts because there's absolutely no sense of time, and at a few points I was actually unsure as to whether or not the events were happening simultaneously or it was referencing something from earlier or... what. You get the gist of most of what's going on, but it's often not very coherent until the last chapter. Enough of the bad stuff though, on with the good! The one thing about it that I thought was really strong was, as I said earlier, the idea of this Elementary school haunted by 13 ghost stories that only the children know about. The stories get told through the duration of the volume, and there's two or three that actually distinguish themselves as pretty clear stories, and I really like that aspect of it. When the stories are clear, they tend to make an extremely straightforward chapter, so maybe a lot of the confusion in this volume will be cleared up later on when we learn more of the ghost stories. Two of the action scenes where the ghosts interacted with "residents" of the school were particularly notable, the one about the doll graveyard early on and the one about the teacher that pops up in the end. I think I also really like a lot of the ideas Inuki uses, like the cuts between action with one student and stories from others and focusing on a number of students instead of just one to sort of get the maximum haunting effect... I think that if things clear up in the next volume and the story becomes easier to follow, this could easily turn itself around and become a great series. As it stands though, it's terribly unclear and I had a hard time following along with the story through most of the volume.
I'm not going to talk too much about the characters. It wasn't so much because they were bad or not given names, but mostly because since there wasn't too much focus on one in particular and it jumped around a lot, you didn't get much of a feel for most of them, so they all just sort of assume roles. I actually liked this despite its problematic nature, it worked out (or could work out) nicely with the way the story's being set up. I pretty much went over everything you need to know about each of the characters in the summaries... there's slightly more to them than a simple description (and I did the twins especially an injustice), but they're not terribly deep, and they function in the story quite well. There's no complex relationships set up at this point other than Nanka and his feelings of responsibility for most of the other featured characters since he's the group leader and also one of the older students in general, and... well, the twins' relationship with one another. I don't know that the story is setting itself up for friendships or the like between everyone, so that's just one more thing we may be able to look forward to later. I think the point is that they are in different classes and grades and don't interact, so when it cuts between them we get vastly different stories. They all know of each other, and they do interact a great deal, but all in all they seem to act independently of one another a lot. Though there's not much to the characters, I found them to be quite an interesting element, and I think it's yet another thing that could be strengthened later and really make this a great series.
I was more disappointed with this release than with any other of the horror manga releases from Dark Horse. It was very confusing and hard to keep track of as it jumped around. Its biggest problems were probably with the pacing and the fact that there were a lot of characters, but I actually wound up liking some of the storytelling techniques. Despite its extremely flawed nature, I'm still quite interested in its ghost story plot, so I'm waiting to see if future volumes improve clarity and really help me get a feel for these little guys. I would say avoid it unless you're getting really desperate for a horror manga, but do keep an eye out to see if future volumes improve.
Mania Grade: C
Art Rating: B-
Packaging Rating: C-
Text/Translatin Rating: B
Age Rating: 13 & Up
Released By: Dark Horse
Orientation: Right to Left