Children of the Whales has an intriguing pitch: when psychic children drift through an abyssal desert on a tumbleweed city state called the Mud Whale, their nomadic way of life is less metaphor than noble lie, concealing the secrets of the Mud Whale, the magic that extracts years of their lives, and the emotionally robotic people coming to kill them.
Young Chakuro, the island’s archivist, is distinguished not only by his ability to use thymia, the life-fueled magic of the setting, but by his hypergraphia, a disorder which compels him to write down everything. Which is not to say that the mangaka isn’t telling us this rather than showing it, because Chakuro spends 99% of Volume One flouting his disorder and barely writing anything.
Chakuro is only the predominant mouthpiece in an assortment of commonplace characters; not that commonplace is necessarily bad, but these banal characters would not fit in the luminous commonplace of a Studio Ghibli. Not only is the hero’s disorder just a line on the back of his trading card, but the girl destined for slaughter seems to have pre–perforated bullet holes, and the rebel appears to be doing rebel things—like a dashing defenestration—with an eye on building his rebel resume.
Which is not to say that the art doesn’t borrow more favorably from Miyazaki, for Abi Umeda draws a wonderfully Miyazaki-esque post-apocalypse reminiscent of Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind, and when I say this, I mean Miyazaki’s lovely manga, and not the Ghibli anime, which is equally lovely, but drawn with a cleaner line. Umeda’s pages have that fantastic, lived-in feel, as if she was drawing this novel from lived experience, and I only wish that the characters were realized in this fashion.
While Chakuro isn’t completely realized, when he met Lykos, I felt an undeniable spark, and both Chakuro and the narrative came alive thereafter. Umeda draws on that dynamic, as well as the reader’s natural desire to unveil the mysteries of the Mud Whale and Lykos’s people, to give Children of the Whales force. Hopefully, as the mangaka follows that dynamic, Chakuro, Lykos, and the others will find compelling fictional lives.
Overall, I finished Children of the Whales interested in the setting, and curious as to the next chapter, but not yet invested in Chakuro or the other denizens of the Mud Whale. Moreover, I found it hard to latch onto this manga or its unaffecting characters until the forty-first page, when Chakuro meets Lykos, a moment which vitalizes the narrative with their conflict and chemistry, as well as with a foreshadowing of the way Children of the Whales ends. If you are a fan of manga fantasy, Miyazaki’s Nausicaa, or post-apocalyptic landscapes, you may enjoy Children of the Whales Volume 1, but it may also leave you wanting more, and not in the good way of looking forward to future installments, but in the way of wishing there was more to what you read.
Children of the Whales Volume 1 arrives in stores on November 21st. You can also pre-order it through Viz Media.
Viz Media sent the review copy.