Author: Mikanagi Touya
Manga genre: Shojo
Number of Volumes:
Still in print? Yes.
Karneval is a manga that just makes you happy. A beautiful, well-written manga with a real, beating heart. You can tell how much the author loves to draw cute things, pretty characters, costumes and even candy; all these things practically spill from the pages and out into your lap while you read. It’s an exuberant, unapologetic shojo manga with sparkles on top, but in the best way possible. Trust me on this.
The two main characters, surrounded as they are by the most delightfully scene-stealing arsenal of a supporting cast, are Nai and Gareki. Gareki is a homeless teenager who has, by necessity, become something of a master thief. He always needs money, and lots of it, which is why, at the start of this story, Gareki is involved in a high-profile heist on a rich woman’s mansion. The woman in question, however, is no longer quite human – she is a Varuga. After being injected with so-called “icuna-cells”, she has been granted grotesque, shape-shifting powers – and developed a taste for human flesh. So she has a young prisoner with her, a boy she is planning to seduce and then eat, praying mantis style. That boy is Nai. White-haired, red-eyed and with unusually sharp hearing. Nai is searching for someone named Karoku, who has suddenly disappeared from their home in the forest, leaving behind a pool of “red water”, and a mechanical bracelet with a large red stone. Intrigued by this child who is so innocent, he doesn’t even know what blood is, Gareki proposes a deal: He’ll help Nai look for this Karoku – in exchange for the bracelet, which Gareki will get once they find him.
The “bracelet”, however, is more than just a piece of jewellery. Packed with nanotechnology, it is a Circus ID; a device created by the National Defence Organisation whose job it is to hunt down the Varuga and whoever is creating them. Inevitably, Nai and Gareki cross paths
with the three-person crew of Circus’ Second Ship – sarcastic Hirato, serious Tsukumu, and Yogi, who must be seen to be believed. A grown man who a) runs around in a yellow mascot costume but b) can also slice you into ribbons with a flick of his wrist. Yogi becomes a firm friend of Nai’s – and Gareki’s, in spite of Gareki’s fervent efforts to get rid of him – and eventually rounds out the main duo into a trio. Sweet and silly, Yogi also has a dark side, and a highly classified, tragic past – to say more would be to spoil things beyond repair. Except this: You will probably find yourself loving Yogi – he certainly seems impossible to hate.
Now, in science fiction, there is a term people like to use – “A willing suspension of disbelief”. Or, in layman’s terms, “Don’t sweat the details”. Because, if Karneval has one weakness, it’s this: the science is not sound. Members of Circus can fly, and summon their weapons out of thin air. They have special attacks that range from thorny vines sprouting out of nowhere to jewels raining from the sky. Also, the top hat worn by Hirato, who runs the second ship, is composed entirely of banshees. Yes, banshees – who will fight on Hirato’s behalf, before turning back into a hat. So if you want to enjoy Karneval to its fullest, all I can say is this: Accept the “science” for what it is; a tool to further the plot. Karneval isn’t really about the battles, or the science; not really. It’s about the characters – who they are, why they do what they do…
And not only is the characterisation superb, it’s also anything but static. Over the course of the story, you will see all the characters develop and grow. So many manga work hard to establish exactly who the characters are, and then keep their personalities exactly like that forever; like a fly trapped in amber. Not so in Karneval – the Gareki you meet in volume one is not the same Gareki anymore by volume eight. For instance, it says a lot that in one of the latest chapters, the prickly Gareki actually allows himself to be hugged. He keeps a distant look on his face, and he doesn’t hug back, or anything – there are limits, after all, where Gareki is concerned. But he’s learned to relax enough to let himself care about others, which is miles away from the shifty, suspicious personality he starts out with.
The same goes for Nai, who in the beginning is so naïve that he constantly puts himself and others (usually Gareki) in danger. He has no concept of time, or money, or even family – when Gareki asks him if Karoku is his friend or his brother, Nai has no idea. But, Nai is constantly learning and evolving – for all that he is childlike, he matures and absorbs knowledge very quickly. A conversation that would baffle him in volume one is something
he can understand perfectly – and explain – by volume three. Nai may not be entirely human, but he’s not a Varuga, either – without giving too much of the plot away, he’s something completely new, and very special.
Finally, here’s another good thing about this manga: how many times have you read a series where the author engineers some misunderstanding between the characters for the sole purpose of drama? Where they go on to milk this drama for chapter after chapter, when it could just have been resolved by the characters putting their egos aside for five minutes and having a chat? Well, Karneval is too good for that sort of thing. For instance, there is a scene in volume two where Gareki misunderstands something Nai says. Angry and hurt, he yells at Nai and leaves him sobbing on the floor… But then, Gareki’s cools down. He sits Nai down, makes him explain what he actually meant – and then, he apologises.
Karneval is Touya Mikanagi’s first ever published work, and you’re left to wonder if she teleported in from the future using some sort of interesting pseudo-science after perfecting her craft for sixty years or so. I mean, who publishes their very first story and has that snowball into a 20-volume megahit – who does that?! Karneval has been running for a decade now, and while you can see the art improving from the first volume, that’s kind of a moot point – it was pretty darn gorgeous to start with. (She has also published two Karneval-themed artbooks – Parade 1 and 2 – with splash pages and covers from the monthly magazine it runs in, Zero Sum.)
Originally published in single volumes by the Singaporean company Chuang Yi, Karneval was picked up by Yen Press when Chuang Yi folded, and is now published in a 2-in-1 edition. Which means you get twice the bang for your buck when you buy them now, instead of ordering them for £13.99 each via Ebay plus postage, before waiting 3-4 weeks for the book to arrive. (Am I speaking from bitter experience here? You bet I am.) So – why not build yourself a pillow-fort, wrap up warm in a blanket and give Karneval a try? It might just turn out to be the best thing you’ve read in a long time.