With the spring announcement that mainstay American manga publisher Tokyopop was closing up shop in the states, the wisdom of cracking open the first volume of a recently launched T’pop series is slim at best. Yet Koge-Donbo’s Pavane for a Dead Girl is such a strange misfire that I can’t help wanting to look at it more closely. “What were they thinking?” the stunned manga reader wonders after they’ve reached the end of the first volume. Damned if I could tell ya.
Set at the end of the Meiji Era at the start of the twentieth century, Pavane concerns Takenomaru Sagami, a young violin prodigy living at the Marianne Music Academy, a school for girls overseen by Takenomaru’s adoptive father, himself a former musician. Gifted with both preternatural beauty and the ability to play the violin “like a dazzling jewel overflowing with love and radiance,” Takenomaru has a dark secret. His looks and talents are “gifts from heaven” that have been bestowed at a price. To keep them he must regularly gather the Tears of Maria for the Great Angel. This entails finding young girls who will be willing to sacrifice themselves by allowing the young musician to remove “a crystal of feeling” from their hearts. Though the details of this process aren’t shown in the first volume, it’s pretty clear that it’s at the expense of each girl’s life.
We’re shown this in the first half of volume one through Nanao Kaga, a cute-eyed young girl who has come to the big city music academy in search of a musician she calls the “Prince of Harmony.” Though the back of this self-billed “romance/fantasy” makes it look as if Nanao is going to be the series heroine, in actuality she’s Marion Crane to the violinist’s Norman Bates. Second half of the first book is devoted to our anti-hero’s back-story, wherein we learn how he got to make his less-than-heavenly deal — and also discover the roots of the deep misanthropy which provides him the capacity to extract the Tears of Maria from young innocents with a sword and his bare (surprisingly bloodless) hands.
At heart, then, Pavane is a horror manga, even if its packaging and art don’t give that impression. Shojo artist Koge-Donbo is known for creating cute and highly romantic manga (Pita-Ten), not gothic fare like this. Her art is so light-hearted, her heroines so visually childlike, that it works against the story’s themes. Even when we’re provided a flashback to our Bryonic protagonist’s damaged youth to learn why he hates and despises the world, the renderings of our young boy hero don’t quite bolster this — though the image of a small pox riddled Takenomaru come close. On more than one occasion, reading this book, I found myself thinking back to the manga adaptation of The Ring, another instance where art and subject matter were not in sync.
A very strange little title, then, that makes me curious (almost in spite of myself) as to where Koge-Dondo intended to take her handsome anti-hero. Too bad the publisher appears to have gone the way of Takenomaru’s first victim. . .