Sugar Sugar Rune Vol. 1-5 (Del Rey)

sugarheaderAn all ages book that really is enjoyable for all ages? With quirky art and a surprisingly engrossing story, you better believe it.


Click thumbnail for a larger image.218 pgs. ea. (Vol. 1-3), 186 pgs (Vol. 4), 202 pgs (Vol. 5), B&W; $10.95 ea.

(W / A: Moyoco Anno)


Once a reader passes a certain age, the phrase "all ages" is enough to send he or she fleeing in terror. But really, can you blame this hypothetical reader? So many comics (and movies and TV shows and…) made for the twelve-and-under set are so hopelessly dumbed down and simplistic that they offer very little for an adult reader to grab onto. Every so often comes a ray of hope, however, in the form of a series fun enough to entertain younger readers yet deep enough to stick with readers of any age.


At first blush, you wouldn't think Sugar Sugar Rune is capable of making such an impression. The series stars two tween witches with the cutesy names Chocolat and Vanilla who venture from their Magic World home to the real world to collect the hearts of as many human boys as possible, using their accessorize-able magic wands and a series of quirky spells. Pairing food-themed names with magical girl shtick sounds like the result will be some kind of unholy blend of Strawberry Shortcake and Sailor Moon, and it likely would be in the hands of a less sure creator.


Fortunately, Moyoco Anno is up to the task. Anno's previous series were quirky romances aimed at twentysomething readers like Flowers & Bees (7 volumes, available in English from Viz) and Happy Mania (11 volumes, available in English from Tokyopop), and for her first foray for younger readers she has kept her strong characterization very much intact. The first few volumes of the series succeed mostly based on the characters' innate charms, pulling readers in until the book's third volume kicks the story into high gear.


Click thumbnail for a larger image.When Chocolat and Vanilla are introduced, they seem to be stereotypical polar opposites chosen to give every girl in the audience a lead they can relate to. Chocolat is the extroverted, brash one, the girl who introduces herself to her new human classmates by telling all the boys "If you're not nice to me, I'll whup your butt!" Vanilla, meanwhile, is the shy, introverted one who has long lived in the shadow of her more outgoing best friend. The twosome has been sent to earth to compete against each other in a simple contest: the girls get boys to fall in love with them, then literally take their heart (in the form of glittering, heart-shaped jewels), and whoever gets the most hearts wins the throne of the Magic World. Chocolat uses the same abrasive tactics that made her the most popular girl in the Magic World, only to discover that human boys prefer demure girls like Vanilla, whose mother is the Magic World's current queen. While Vanilla is immediately pulling in pink and red hearts that burn with romantic desire (and come with beaucoup bonus points), Chocolat scares the boys more than anything and is lucky if she can even get a measly "pee-colored" heart.


Click thumbnail for a larger image.The first two volumes concentrate on vignettes involving the two girls and the boys they win over. Surprisingly, Anno's tales ring true not only on a storytelling level but as an honest depiction of what love is like between 10 year old kids. Chocolat's first encounter is with Akira, a boy who is more mystified by the girls' behavior than anything else (unaware they're witches, he accuses them of being space aliens). Perhaps the most honest depiction is Mimura, a childish brat who communicates how much he likes girls by being mean to them (and really, who hasn't been there?). When Chocolat takes his skirt-flipping, frog-giving antics in stride, he only likes her more.


Pierre, however, is the real problem. A slightly older boy with an air of mystery, Chocolat and Vanilla are both drawn to him immediately, but there's a problem: unlike humans who can give and re-give their hearts repeatedly, witches only get one heart. If someone takes their heart, they die, and with Chocolat's heart already glowing orange for Pierre, both she and Vanilla are worried about what might happen next.


After a trip back to the Magic World late in volume 2, Chocolat returns with a special gift from the queen. Vanilla was already growing apart from Chocolat, and when it seems even her mother is on Chocolat's side, she's ripe for the plucking. That's when Pierre swoops in, revealing that he's an ogre (a race persecuted by the witches and wizards of the Magic World) and convincing Vanilla that she is, too-pulling her over to "The Dark Side," as it were.


Click thumbnail for a larger image.From that point on, the story of the book is really in full swing. No longer just about cute girls performing cute tricks, Anno now spends much of the time concentrating on the ramifications of Vanilla's change of heart. It's emotionally heavy stuff, with Chocolat frequently close to tears as she watches her best friend fall further and further into despair as Vanilla harvests hearts that are not red with love, but rather black with jealousy and anger. Meanwhile, there are political ramifications as well, with the whole Magic World up in arms over the very real possibility that an ogre may inherit the throne.


With the change in tone, Sugar Sugar Rune becomes a surprisingly engrossing read. Emotions run heavy without pouring over into melodrama, and while there are occasional bonus features that are strictly for younger readers (special looks at the witches' fashion, character bios that let you know each boy's likes and dislikes) they are easy enough for older readers to ignore without being obtrusive. Each book opens with a two-page reminder of all the characters and the story so far, something likely done for younger readers but a great refresher for anyone before digging into a new volume. If only more manga would be so kind…


Click thumbnail for a larger image.With 1000 pages of story to cover, this review has been heavy on the story of Sugar Sugar Rune, but it must be noted that Anno is no slouch in the artistic department, either. While her style does include some of the mainstays of the shojo manga style (preposterously enormous eyes, long and extremely thin arms and legs), she also has a very developed design style that makes her pages look nothing like anything else on the stands. The pages are richly illustrated and packed with detail, and feature untraditional layouts that remain highly readable. It's an easily lovable, quirky style, and while it certainly isn't for everybody (especially if you get hung-up on the fang-like way she draws teeth), it's a refreshing change of pace from the many interchangeable shojo artists out there.


Many "magical girl" stories are a formulaic exercise in drivel only enjoyable by their target market, but Sugar Sugar Rune, with its fully developed characters, engrossing story, and quirky art is anything but. For once, here's an "all ages" book that really is for all ages. | Jason Green


Click here to read a 32-page preview of the first volume of Sugar Sugar Rune courtesy of Del Rey Manga!

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