Some manga series grow from what was originally intended to be a stand-alone tale. And, depending on both the richness of the base material and the writer/artist's skill in expanding their initial concept, this can read as either natural or forced. I was reminded of this reading the first volume of Natsuna Kawase's shojo romance, A Tale of An Unknown Country (CMX). Though loaded with charming moments, much of the book reads like an afterthought to its opening 34-page chapter, which was originally crafted as a single story.
An All-Ages-rated romance, Country is set in two mythical kingdoms, each with its own distinct personality. Ardela, home to the series heroine Princess Rosemarie, is a "small country that's rich with nature" but economically struggling. The tiny kingdom is so cash-poor that both the sixteen-year-old princess and her older brother Mache regularly mingle with the commoners to sell bread and act as tourist guides. Eager to lift their country form its lowly fiscal state, wheeler-dealer Mache arranges his sister's engagement to the prince of a neighboring, richer country. "It's only natural to seek out a connection to a wealthy nation," he explains.
Said nation, the unfortunately named Yurinela, is a "large country on the cutting edge of science," and its seventeen-year-old prince, Reynol, seems suited to this more secular environment. Hearing that the prince is a "cold, selfish weirdo who almost never goes outside," Princess Rosemarie is understandably reluctant to become engaged to this unknown entity. Manipulative brother Mache, though, cajoles her into visiting the prince disguised as a servant: "Marie, Princess Rosemarie's handmaid." This she agrees to do: a hard worker, "Marie" has no qualms about taking on drudge work.
Reynol, for his part, has heard via the rumor mill that Princess Rosemarie is a flake. The central romantic conflict, then, is between the uptight, science-based Yurinelan prince and the more open, natural Ardelan princess. Workaholic Reynol is so mind-centered that he barely takes it upon to eat regularly, something that Marie in her role as handmaid immediately keys into. She pushes the prince into a healthier eating regime, stating that "for the people of Ardela, health is the number one priority." So what we've got here is more than a shojo romance, it's a dramatization of mind and body duality.
Of course, we all know that out couple is destined to fall in love; though they're products of a two different cultures, they've very much in tune with each other. ("You really are weird, Reynol," Mache says late in the volume. "You say almost the same things Marie does.") By the time the first chapter has concluded, Rosemarie's maid impersonation has been put aside and the two admit their attraction for each other. What else is there to do?"
Manufacture more excuses to get the princess in her maid's disguise, of course. In chapter two, Reynol comes to visit Ardela, and our girl winds up donning the costume so the two can find time together away from everyone. In chapter three, a potential rival for Reynol's affections from another land puts on the costume, but can't maintain the pose for more than five minutes. In the fourth chapter, an old childhood friend of Rosemarie's gives her a maid's outfit because "Mache told me you were into them."
"How long is he going to milk that joke?" an exasperated Rosemarie wonders, as the reader starts to think likewise about the series' writer/artist.
Country is Kawase's first work, which in part accounts for its ragged construction. (She has since followed it up with the much-better-received Lapus Lazuli Crown, which I haven't yet read.) You can just the eager young manga artist, after being giving the green light to flesh out her original one-shot into a series, struggling to keep things interesting while hanging onto her original story hook. But in this case, the gimmick starts to interfere with her more naturally appealing leads. If she'd focused more strongly on the cultural clash between our two leads, the romance might have seemed less forced.
The art in Country is clean and simple, well suited to an All-Ages manga, though the young artist missed an opportunity by not establishing a clearer visual distinction between the two book's kingdoms. Yurinela should look more shiny and hermetic, while the more nature-centric Ardela calls for a more open and floral appearance. A few simple establishing panels could have set up this visual dichotomy early, though Kawase doesn't do this
Still, I suspect A Tale of an Unknown Country will pull in readers enamored with the manga artist's later series and will also work with a younger audience less concerned with critics' issues like obvious plot contrivance and more invested in seeing our plucky young heroine in costume. Let's forget about the possible sexist implications for now. As they sang in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, everybody ought to have a maid. . .