4 out of 5
A whirlwind of ideas and concepts brought together in an amazingly cohesive – and unique! – character-rich world. Yes, that uniqueness is deserving of an exclamation (though it would also apply to the cohesiveness), as it’s fairly “easy” to pluck design and story elements from all of your faves, and then put a hat on ’em to make them seem like a new creation, but actually imbuing said brew with its own spirit is truly a whole separate accomplishment. And Jun Mochizuki manages to do it within pages of the first volume of The Case Study of Vanitas, mingling curses and vampire lore and goofy buddy comedy and steampunk into a charming blend that forefronts the important bits – its story-telling and characters – and then supports it with amazing design and artwork.
The first trick is how complicated this seems to explain, but how easy it becomes to grasp: that in this version of the world, vampires and humans co-exist thanks to some agreed upon behavioral rules, though there’s still fear and animosity between the species; that this is paralleled by a similar dynamic within the vampires, where “red moon”-borne vamps are the norms, and “blue moon”-borne vamps are cursed with a transformative bloodlust. Noe has been sent to Paris by his master – an unseen, mysterious figure at this point – to research the existence of a book called Vanitas, which is thought to create the blue moon curses, and on his airship journey thereabouts, he intercepts a man called Vanitas, who also has the book called Vanitas, but who uses it to cure cursed vamps. Mix into this inklings of lore regarding spells, and the human / vamp history, and it should be expository as all get it, but it flutters by effortlessly – and quite gorgeously, to boot, with Mochizuki’s flowing character designs and intricate settings worthy of frequent pauses to savor the art, and before you get worried about all of this seeming a bit heavy-handed, there’s a bevy of chibi / slapstick moments scattered about as well, twisting from comedy to action to drama at a moment’s notice. This can be a bit jarring at first – how much of the story is given over to chibi – but once you get into the rhythm or Jun’s storytelling, it’s part of the charm; it’s a very “natural” and un-indulgent way to bring the world to life. Like, steampunk and vampires beg a type of romanticism, but the constant swerve away from this shows how those just inform Vanitas and don’t define it – we’re not awash in fanged dramatics or clockwork birds, there rather just happen to be vamps in this universe, and flying airships in Victorian-looking times.
The action choreography may have a bit of a learning curve, as Jun’s art is very energetic at all times, and discerning certain beats during fights feels a little unclear, but I sense this is something I’ll “learn” to read soon enough.
The other main trick the story pulls is in how it moves along, with every action leading us to assume that we’ll fall into something episodic: Oh, Noe and Vanitas will butt heads for a while over the Vanitas book, but no, they seem equally bemused / annoyed with one another and partner up right away; oh, okay, they’re going to be tasked with de-cursing vampires for a while, but no, they solve their first case also right away; and so on. Jun keeps it moving, refusing to let things settle into typical manga “arcs” or predictable directions. Delightful.
The only bit that ends up feeling somewhat forced is a final chapter run-in with another vamp desiring the Vanitas book – Luca – and his bodyguard, Jeanne. The concept makes sense, and is in keeping with the forward momentum, but it dumps a lot of lore regarding Jeanne’s past onto things, when we already have plenty of lore to deal with, and then somewhat randomly has Vanitas fall in instant love with tsundere Jeanne. Having watched the anime – in which this scene was also sudden – I do know that this relationship develops better than it starts, at least, but it’s disappointing that it still feels out of place here.
But that aside, I am loving this, and feel so swept up by the characters and story that I am eager to jump right into the next book.