Misao Harada, the blond heroine of Kanoko Sakurakoji's shojo manga Black Bird (Viz Media), is suffering the pangs of teenhood in a unique way. Gifted with the ability to see invisible creatures blocked from the rest of us ("The world is full of bizarre things," she says early in the first volume of this fantasy romance, "but the average person can't see them."), Misao finds these invisible pests increasing as she approaches her sixteenth birthday. They harass and trip her as she attempts to walk down the halls at school, interfering with her personal life and giving her a reputation as a weirdo among her classmates.
With her birthday, Misao's connection to the invisible world of sprites and demons becomes even more dangerous. Turns out she's a significant figure in the world of demons: "Once every hundred years, a human like you is born," she's told. If a demon drinks her blood, s/he is granted long life; if it eats her flesh, it's granted eternal youth; and, if the demon marries her, his clan will prosper. They "want to eat you or ravish you," her returning childhood friend Kyo tells her – a definite dating dilemma.
Whether Misao can trust her onetime childhood companion is a whole other question. Though she has vaguely positive memories of her early years with Kyo, they may not be wholly innocent ones, since Kyo himself is a tengu, a bird demon capable of growing large black wings and flying. As children, Kyo promised our heroine that they would always be together, but was this promise made out of love or ambition? Misao can't be sure, though the tengu does prove a handy protector more than once now that other demons have started honing in on her.
Still, the fact remains that Kyo's demon nature is reflected more than once in the series' first volume. A bit of a bully, he enjoys making his boyish demon servant Taro cry and is not always the most chivalrous in his interactions with Misao. At one point, for instance, after he's reassured the girl that he doesn't intend to eat her, he grabs her breasts and adds, "But these are certainly ripe enough." Classy guy.
The maiden who's in love with a brute has been a romance fiction staple since before Catherine fell for her childhood pal Heathcliff, though after reading this and the first VizBig Edition of Hot Gimmick, I have to wonder about the prevalence of domineering men in shojo series like this. The relationship between Misao and Kyo—at least in the first volume—is decidedly unequal. When he comes back into her life after being away ten years, for instance, it's as a teacher in her school. Sakurakoji skirts around the question of his actual age, though when we see the two in flashback, they both appear about the same age. Perhaps demons age differently than humans?
Misao, to her credit, proves no girly doormat. Though "fated to suffer" and regularly bloodied by the increasing demon attacks, she refuses to immediately turn to Kyo for protection. She steadfastly continues to look toward her human classmates for a more normal kind of companionship, though she's regularly thwarted here since all the students who are attracted to her either turn out to be demons themselves or possessed by demons. As with the high school years of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, the manga series uses the supernatural world as a jumping off point for considering the trials of adolescent romance. While Sakurakoji shows a sense of humor about her storytelling in the side notes included within each chapter, she doesn't wink over much in her panels.
There's also an erotic underpinning to this "Older Teen" rated work that's rather surprising. Though Misao is regularly scratched, slashed and bitten in the book, her wounds can be healed by having a demon lick them. The manga lingers over these moments as the impossibly beautiful Kyo (first time she spies him as an adult, Misao thinks he's a girl) medicinally tongues her flesh. When our heroine is scratched on the thigh by an eyeless child demon, Kyo refuses to go down there. "I'm sorry," he says, "I don't have the confidence that I can restrain myself." Okay, so maybe he can occasionally be a classy guy.
While its storyline possesses a dark, almost sadistic undertone, Black Bird's art is light and airy in the familiar shojo style, filled with floral, feather and twinkling background motifs. "I apologize to those who bought this book expecting thrills and chills," the author of the Kabuki theatre set romance Backstage Prince notes, "(of course there probably aren't too many who did)." Those readers coming to the series for a lovingly rendered, lightly twisted older teen romance, however, most likely won't feel cheated.