Shiroyama, the heroine of Okamoto Kazuhiro's shoujo manga Translucent (Dark Horse), is a girl with a problem. Afflicted with a mysterious condition called Translucent Syndrome, the middle schoolgirl regularly turns invisible. It's a gradual process, occurring every four weeks or so ("about the same cycle as my period," Shiroyama says). The first parts of her body to be affected are her lower arms and legs; when she bends and retrieves a fallen eraser in class, we see it seemingly floating as she holds it up before her.
Nobody knows the degree to which Translucent Syndrome will effect each of its sufferers, though some eventually remain fully and irrevocably invisible. We meet one such figure in volume one, a woman named Keiko Haruna, who runs her own glass studio ("Even though they're transparent, you can see 'em," she tells Shiroyama) and is visually distinguished through her clothes, eyeglasses and an ever-present cigarette dangling from her invisible mouth. Keiko has retreated into her studio, where the life of a solitary artist largely suits her condition. ("People like us," she tells our heroine, "are better off just alone.") But for Shiroyama, who has dreams of becoming a stage actress, her syndrome is particularly troublesome.
With the aid of her artist boyfriend Tadami, our heroine attempts to cover up her budding transparency with foundation, but her eyes and mouth prove especially problematic. "If I go completely transparent," she asks Tadami at one point, "don't forget what I look like, okay?" Tadami, who already has her visage captured in his artist's memory, promises to do so. Later, when the girl has gone fully invisible for what seems to be the first time, he is able to demonstrate his commitment to that promise.
Reading Translucent, I found myself more than once thinking back to a first season episode of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, which centered on a mousy Sunnydale High Schooler who became an invisible killer after years of being ignored by her classmates. Though the cause of Translucent Syndrome is still unknown at the end of the first book, at some level, it seems to work much the same way. But where Marcie, the invisible femme in Joss Whedon's teenaged horror series, predictably turned psycho killer, the heroine in Translucent strives to accept her fate with good grace. While she dreams of being an actress, Shiroyama is at heart an introvert who has largely gone through life not being noticed. "Sometimes I don't even know," she tells Tadami, "whether I'm really here or not." It's her transparency, ironically, that's made her more noticed among her schoolmates, including the class' popular golden girl Okouchi, who envies Shiroyama's seeming ability to walk down the hall unseen.
Okouchi's reaction may puzzle some of the members of Translucent's American girl audience, but I suspect it's more readily accepted in Japan, where introversion is a more culturally common personality trait. Shiroyama's father, though not afflicted with the syndrome, proves to be as retiring as his daughter. Leaving work early, his absence is barely noticed by his co-workers who joke that he's "just like an invisible man." Though worried that his own shy nature is the cause of his daughter's ailment, he also inadvertently attempts to compound her invisibility by forbidding her from joining a local drama troupe. In an attempt to shield her from the disappointment that would come if her syndrome becomes permanent, he winds up blocking her from her purest source of joy and accomplishment.
Despite its fantastic elements, Translucent is at heart a small character-driven story. The biggest source of suspense in the first volume lies in whether our heroine will be able to perform in a school production of "Cyrano de Bergerac" (a play about a man who is largely unseen by his would-be love), while one of the story's major conflicts concerns both Shiroyama and the completely transparent Keiko's fear that their invisibility will forever keep them from their loved ones. The latter has broken off with a boyfriend after she noticed that he wasn’t smiling any more around her, and the idea of connecting through basic facial expressions is one that's repeated throughout the first book. More than once, Tadami states that he just wants to see Shiroyama smile, a sentiment that's echoed by her over-protective father.
Karuhiro's art — with its occasionally awkward stances and faces that run the gamut from traditionally big-eyed teen to more broadly caricatured adult — is suited to the story's gawky early adolescent world. At times, it looks like something that would-be artist Tadami might have created, which seems apt. If occasionally, the book's slapstick moments (e.g., a scene where Tadami jumps out a window only to remember that he's three floors up) seem to work against its more serious themes, it's also in tune with the main characters' budding not-quite-adolescence. An oddball, yet ultimately sweet-hearted, manga, Translucent is a work that deserves to find an audience among American Shiroyamas – and those adult manga followers who themselves recall their own barely visible teenhoods…