I’m going to talk about my impression of Rumiko Takahashi’s newest manga MAO in a bit but if you would indulge me I want to give everyone a bit of context. If I am known for anything it is as the dude who REALLY likes Type-Moon which truth be told is a fairly reasonable reputation. That said my closest friend will tell you I have an extreme fondness for Rumiko Takahashi. Her work was some of my first expose to anime, it was her series that seriously got me into fandom, and Maison Ikkoku is still my favorite manga. So anything Rumiko Takahashi is rather personal to me.
The world is a very different place than when I entered fandom. This is without a doubt a running theme of this blog but it comes up again in a very stark fashion with Rumiko Takahashi’s newest manga. When I came into anime fandom Ranma 1/2 was a series people had OPINIONS about. It had a big enough fandom that the series has its fans, super fans, a backlash of people who hated Ranma fandom, and even conscientious objectors who very deliberately wanted to stay out of any conversation about Ranma. It was a phenomenon but in a very pop-culture way. There was a ton of fan fiction, cosplay, merchandise, and more but nothing in the way of much scholarly appreciation the way something like Ghost in the Shell or Akira would get. It was a low brow superstar and got that level of attention.
Then Inuyasha came along and take anything I just said about Ranma 1/2 and multiply by 10. It was a force of nature. The excitement was greater but so was the hate and apathy in response. Love it or hate it you could not ignore Inuyasha. It seemed that Rumiko Takahashi could do no wrong. Then along came Rin-ne. It was her next work and theoretically would be her next 800-pound gorilla for fandom. Viz even went out of their way to make it one of the first series they would try to simultaneously publish in English. It was probably the only Shonen Sunday (aka the redheaded stepchild) title they would treat like a popular Shonen Jump (aka the son they actually love) title. And then Rin-ne sort of just existed.
I would not call Rin-ne a failure but it never obtained the mega-success of Ranma 1/2 or Inuyasha. It is very telling that when life was disrupted by the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami Viz said they were temporarily stopping the simultaneous publishing of Rin-ne until everything got back to normal in Japan but curiously never picked back up on the project. I don’t have any proof but I strongly suspect that Viz wanted to stop simultaneous publishing Rin-ne and the earthquake was the perfect excuse. Beyond that Rin-ne seemed to get acceptable sales in the US and Japan. The series even got three seasons of anime. Much like the manga, the anime seemed to do well enough but it also never set the world on fire. The woman who had once been the Queen of Manga still was royalty but she no longer ruled the land as an absolute ruler.
I sort of missed that MAO had come out in Japan. I definitely saw the news that Rumiko Takahashi was doing a new manga, and then I saw that this new manga would be called MAO, and I even saw the little teaser of what the series would be about. So I assumed that when the manga debuted there would be some fanfare from either Viz, the fandom, or both. But overall I did not hear anything and my Swiss cheese memory had me forget to look for MAO. It was actually just a random thought about Maison Ikkoku that reminded me that I should see what was happening with MAO. (If you are curious the spark was listening to Hayate no Gotoku! Character Cover CD of Kanashimi yo Konnichiwa.) When I looked I found that there were seven chapters out.
So that was a lot of set up for why I decided to make a post about the first eight chapters of MAO.
Nanoka Kiba is a sickly young lady. After an incident with a sinkhole in front of a shopping arcade Nanoka’s parent died and barely survived. She now lives with her grandfather and despite drinking her terrible tasting healthy smoothie every morning has yet to recover her vigor. But one day she goes by the tragic shopping arcade and is transported to the Taisho era and attacked by a praying mantis monster. She is saved by a sword-wielding doctor named Mao who seems perplexed why a powerful being such as Nanoka would not be able to slay such a weak pest. Nanoka begins to travel between the modern age and the Taisho era in hopes that Mao can shed some light into the oddities of her past, present, and future.
Also, it seems that after Mao gives Nanoka a detoxifying potion she gains super strength and speed. It seems those supposedly “healthy” smoothies are binding her more than helping her recover.
First things first. Let’s do a reductionist math equation.
MAO = 3/6 Inuyasha + 1/6 Rin-ne + 2/6 Mermaid Saga
I feel I had to get that out of the way or else I was going to have to dance around it for the rest of the post. There are some major similarities between MAO and what Rumiko Takahashi has done before in the supernatural realm. The major influence on MAO is definitely Inuyahsa. You have the time travel between the more mundane present and supernaturally dense past, a sword-wielding boy who is experienced in dealing with monsters and the fish out of water girl, and a supernatural nemesis for them to hunt down. While there are no Shikon Jewel shards to collect (yet) the hunt for the cat demon feels very similar to the hunt for Naraku. There is even a fairly strong template for a yokai of the week template for Nanoka and Mao to deal with as they search for the cat demon. Nanoka and Mao don’t have the full Inuyasha team but the series is a little too new to expand the cast to that point. Right now they have to establish the main rhythm of the story and characters before they can add some version of Sango and Miroku.
There is also a little bit of Rin-ne with the ghosts world that was largely absent from Inuyasha. Otoya is much more Mao’s Rokumon than his Shippo. The tone of the series is much more like Mermaid Saga and the dynamic of Nanoka and Mao feels more like Yuta and Mana than anything else. Nanoka and Mao are superpowered immortals seeking to live normal lives again. Also, their relationship seems more like boon companions who might fall in love than kids in a romantic comedy that also has demon fighting.
Technically some of this could be seen as drawing from Fire Tripper but Fire Tripper is such a minor Rumiko Takahashi title it is hardly worth bringing up. Other than me doing that just now.
What I am saying is that a lot of MAO already feels like a remix of what Rumiko Takahashi has done before with the elements in different proportions to the basic formula. Now I love Rumiko Takahashi but she is hardly a woman who will throw away a formula that works. It is why her series can last for years and it lets her crank out chapters in a reliable fashion that few other manga artists are capable of. I’m fairly certain the Shonen Sunday staff prays to a dark and mysterious alter every day so that never changes. At this point, you have either accepted this is how Rumiko Takahashi does things or you have moved on to other artists. I have never had a big problem with her doing that but I would be a poor reviewer not to point this fact out.
So the real question is what I would like to see her do with this iteration of her monster-hunting formula. First of all, I’m really hoping that Nanoka can remain on the same power level as Mao. While Kagome was not a complete escort mission for Inuyasha she was also never his equal in combat. Kagome got upgrades, important fights, and huge saves but she was always second fiddle to the far more important Inuyasha when it came to combat. I know part of that is due to the fact that Inuyasha was drawing from Journey to the West but there was no rule in place that said Rumiko Takahashi could not make a Xuanzang equal to Sun Wukong. MAO has made a big deal on how powerful Nanoka could be if she were not being contained so I would love to see her be a peer to Mao and not just support.
Secondly, I would love for MAO to avoid the more goofadoof romantic comedy formula that is present it much of her work. MAO is already similar enough to Inuyasha so adding in romantic hi-jinks would only reinforce the idea that MAO is just a re-skinned Inuyasha. MAO does not have to totally reject romance I just don’t want to see her fall back on her romantic comedy gimmicks for this series. I think the more serious tone would be hurt by it more than anything else.
Thirdly, they should not have a Miroku type character in the group. I do not think he would play anywhere as well as he did in the past. He never played out without complaint back in the day and his horny pervert shtick would go over a deal more poorly today. That is just my pro tip.
Right now I am still reserving full judgment on MAO. I see potential in it. It feels a bit more like Rumiko Takahashi returning to her well-worn formulas in a good way as opposed to Rin-ne that always felt a bit off. The serious tone (but not too serious) is a welcome change. The main problem for some might be that it is a bit too much a return to form. I know that there are some people who hate the Rumiko Takahashi School of Anything Goes Manga Artistry with the fire of 1,000 suns. I don’t see anything here to cool that hate. At best you can say that it is more Mermaid Saga than Inuyasha and people tend to hate it when she leans more Inuyasha. You know yourself better than I do and hopefully, you can judge how much Rumiko Takahashi is too much for yourself.
I will continue to see how the series develops and report back in if my opinion changes.