Another stuffed animal has come to life in the world of manga, an event that's about as unique in the shojo genre as the presence of large, glittery eyes. Surprisingly though, Minima contains some dark plot twists and a human heroine who's not entirely typical to cutesy stories about talking dolls, though it still probably contains your daily recommended intake of manga clichés.
Ame is a shy young schoolgirl who has little to say for herself, but still experiences the same hopes, fears and puppydog romances as her more boisterous peers. It seems as if she's set to pass out of her school career without anyone noticing anything particularly special about her…until she acquires Nicori, a stuffed meerkat who decides to break the stuffed animal taboo by walking and talking in front of his new owner. Though Ame initially uses Nicori to get attention and Nicori initially craves stardom and popularity (something that comes in no time when he comes out to the media), the two eventually discover that a real friendship between them is far preferable to the phony stuff. Unfortunately, by the time they stumble upon their revelation, it's too late to go back to a quiet life.
What makes Minima unusual is that Ame's personality is believable despite the fantastic storyline. The majority of school-oriented anime and manga feature a hero or heroine who's taunted aggressively by bullies, but few titles offer much about the bad guys beyond the fact that they do what they do because they're evil and bored. Ame's tormentors, on the other hand, allow her to hang around and pretend to include her in the group--but as any outsider can see, she's actually being insulted, used and made to feel like a child for enjoying innocent pastimes like dolls and amusement parks. Girls who had troubled school careers are unfortunately more familiar with this kind of passive-aggressive manipulation than with the outright hostility most manga bullies exhibit.
It's almost a shame to see such a realistic portrayal of school life get pushed aside in favour of a wisecracking stuffed animal (though Ame's school career is revisited in further realistic detail over an incident involving a photo). Nicori's fairly generic as far as cute animal sidekicks go, but the circumstances surrounding him are also unusual for the genre. Manga-ka Sakurai admits to being highly inspired by Pixar's Toy Story, but she definitely works with her own themes. The toys in Minima don't necessarily relay messages about the innocence of childhood: They talk to whomever they choose. As it happens, they simply choose not to on most occasions. Nicori is different simply because he has a desire to see the world and interact with humans, whereas his fluffy friends are more interested in sleeping for days at a time. When Ame's life is threatened by thugs (yes, you read that correctly), he's forced to choose between fame and friendship.
Minima's concept is a little crusty around the edges, but its presentation makes up for it. If you're in a bit of a dark mood but you're somehow craving a story about talking stuffed animals, this is the one to pick up. Volume one retails for $10.95.