Pop Culture Gadabout
Saturday, August 01, 2009
      ( 8/01/2009 08:35:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"ALL I DID WAS TELL HIM TO HANG IN THERE." Mention the word "shinigami" to many American manga readers, and the first thing that'll likely come to mind is Ryuk, the grinning demonic death god from Ohba and Obata's Death Note. Yet the title lead in Asuka Izumi's supernatural shojo series, Ballad of a Shinigami (CMX), is a much less malevolent creation. A "white shinigami" who alternately goes by the name Momo or her designated number A-100100, Momo typically appears to comfort humans on the brink of despair or death.

Accompanied by a talking bat-winged cat named Daniel and carrying a scythe much like the traditional Western image of Death, her basic task on Earth is to provide humans with a reason to keep on living. It's not as if she's necessarily doing 'em a favor -- "Living is a much harder course to travel than dying," she tells her familiar Daniel at one point -- but it is her role in the cosmic scheme of things. Though Daniel calls her a "busybody" for her atypical shinigami behavior, it's clear she's meant to stand apart from the other death demons. Where the others are bedecked in dark gray cloaks, Momo appears in white, looking girlishly large-eyed and innocent. She's like a benevolent mirror to the manga/anime vengeance creature Hell Girl; where the latter's appearance always portends death and dire happenings for the humans she visits, Momo saves her visitants.

Based on a series of young adult novels by K-She Hasegawa, Ballad of a Shinigami was adapted in 2006 into older teen shojo format that will ultimately comprise three volumes in CMX's reprint paperback series. Per Hasegawa's brief afterword, the decision to do Shinigami as a shojo (girl's) series was not something he pitched to his publisher, though the series' "sad but sweet" tone seems suited to Izumi's flowery art. First volume in the series, which was recently released by CMX in the U.S., features four stories, all wrapped around Momo's attempts at helping out a young despondent human.

The short opening "prologue" quickly establishes the basic direction the stories will take. In it, our heroine appears before a suicidal girl who is beating herself up because the last words she said to a sick friend were angry ones. Momo brings a last comforting message from the now-dead friend to the young girl, prompting her to turn away from self-destruction. "Ending your life like that," the death demon also tells her, won't reunite her with her friend. "It will only make you a shinigami like us." When the young girl asks Momo if that is how she became a white shinigami, we're told that the shinigami remembers nothing of her former life. Whether that's true is perhaps answered in a later volume.

Rated "Teen Plus" for "mild violence and suggestive situations," Ballad offers a take on its subject quite different from the pulpish Death Note. Though the stories may have darkly violent elements -- in one episode, for instance, a young boy starts seeing shinigami after he's witness to his abusive father's violent murder of his mother -- their overriding tone is more melancholy and ultimately hopeful. In this light, the manga can be seen as a counterpoint to more sensationalistic dark fantasies like Note or Hell Girl. Be interesting to see if it garners a comparable reading audience.


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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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