This is Rattle Park, and it was once filled with smiling faces.
Shounen fantasy series with a lot of sword fighting are ten a penny, and for a series to stand out in this genre it needs to have a little something extra. The sheer quality of the storytelling needs to be high, because shounen fantasy action is a genre that’s blessed with a lot of high-profile high-quality titles; the art needs to be fluid and energetic, with attractive character designs that are distinctive and instantly recognisable — in a dialogue-heavy genre, it doesn’t matter if most of the characters look pretty similar, but if the readers can’t tell the bad guys from the good guys in the middle of a fight scene, the artist isn’t doing his job.
I wasn’t sure about Replica at first, partly because the bar on action manga’s been set pretty high with the likes of Naruto, and partly because the main character is called Manji and has a scar over his nose. This may be a coincidence, or it may be a deliberate homage to Blade of the Immortal, but either way it has the same effect: it reminds me of a manga that is unarguably superb in all respects, quite possibly my favourite manga ever and definitely in the top three. And that makes me raise a sceptical eyebrow and mutter to myself, “all right, Replica, now give me a good reason why I should be reading you and not Blade of the Immortal, which you’ve just reminded me I’m several volumes behind on?”
But Replica quickly stakes out its own territory. After a page of intriguing if slightly heavy-handed opening narration, it zooms in on the yawning mouth of the aforementioned Manji, who is unemployed and bored. Known as the Red Dog, he’s looking for work as a bodyguard, but his reputation for causing trouble has preceded him, and everyone who could offer him a job is too scared to so much as look him in the eye. Fortunately for his mood, if not his health, he soon runs into some flying critters called “toys” which are menacing the town, and an unnaturally calm boy named Kal who is fighting them. It turns out that there’s a wider battle taking place between “AAA”, creator of the toys, and a group of 52 strange warriors called “Cards” — and Kal has conscripted Manji into this battle, whether he likes it or not…
There are times when the writing in Replica stumbles a little. The aforementioned heavy-handed narration is irritating for as long it lasts, which is thankfully not long, and sometimes there’s repetition in the dialogue, as if Karakara doesn’t quite trust us to get the point right away. But those times are the exceptions, and they’re well worth skimming past to get to the meat of the story. Karakara’s art is clean and fluid, very easy on the eye, with clear storytelling and a distinct overall look that meshes well with the Alice in Wonderland theme of the main conflict. The characters are instantly likeable and interesting, and the story travels in some unexpected directions — this volume ends on a twist that in retrospect I should have seen coming, but in fact I didn’t, and it made me damned sure I’d be hanging on for volume 2.
Replica is a real page-turner of a manga — exciting and fun to read. As I read it, I found myself making comparisons to Blade of the Immortal, to Uraboku, to Loveless, and (oddly enough) to Zatch Bell!, but I soon forgot about all those other manga and just enjoyed Replica‘s own unique merits. There’s a lot there to enjoy.