By Makoto Raiku, translated and adapted by Stephen Paul (Kondansha Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-68233-202-3 (PB)
Born in Gifu on August 1974, Makoto Raiku started his manga career as an assistant to Kazuhiro Fujita before creating his own award-winning strips such as Bird Man, Newtown Heroes, Genmai Blade, and the enormously popular Konjiki no Gash!! (which hit American TV screens as Zatch Bell!!). All these were for Shogakukan’s Shōnen Sunday Super and Weekly Shōnen Sunday.
Following a legal dispute in 2008, the artist moved to rival publisher Kodansha and devised Dōbutsu no Kuni (Animal Country) which began in the October 2009 issues of Bessatsu Shonen Magazine. The series ran until February 2014, garnering the Best Children’s Manga Award and filling 14 tankōbon volumes from March 2010 onwards.
The all-ages fable follows the incredible life of a seemingly-human baby abandoned and cast adrift on a river only to wash up in the land of animals: a dog-eat-dog, literally bestial world of raw savagery where the weak always die and only the strong are able to survive.
‘Word 1: Hello, Baby’ opens proceedings with little Monoko, an orphan Tanuki (a tiny raccoon dog indigenous to Japan). Since her parents were eaten by wildcats, she’s been unable to pull her weight in the hard-pressed Tanuki community. The others spend all their time and energy rushing to store enough food for the rapidly approaching winter. It doesn’t look like Monoko’s going to make it…
Her world and existence change forever when she adopts the strange hairless monkey cub which washes up on the river bank one cold day. This is a very strange baby and Monoko insanely decides to become its new mother against all the advice of the village.
In Animal Land all creatures are at odds and cannot understand other species’ cries, but Monoko decides to risk everything – including being eaten by cats such as the fearsome Kurokagi – to steal some milk for the foundling to drink.
Despite the horrifying but successful mission the baby is cold and dying: it has no will to live and the Tanuki elders brusquely tell her to stop wasting everybody’s time and resources. Instead, desperate Monoko cuddles it with her body, sharing her warmth in a futile, lonely struggle to keep it alive one more night. When she awakes, the Tanuki discovers something miraculous and staggeringly game-changing…
The initial episode end with another huge shock: the alien infant can speak her language…
The mystery increases in second instalment ‘Word 2: Baby’s Power’ when the waif reveals that he can converse and understand the speech of all animals – even ultimate predator Kurokagi.
That useful trait leads to the discovery of the dire marauder’s tragic secret and further reshapes the nature and destiny of the savage domain, whilst third and final (for now) chapter ‘Word 3: Baby Cries Over His Name’ sees Monoko’s first maternal crisis as she finds a keepsake from the baby’s biological mother and fears her joyous new world is crumbling around her… until once more the wonder baby comes to her emotional and physical rescue…
Despite what the publishers would have you believe this isn’t just another cute kiddie-book. For starters it’s filled with scatological asides and the audience advisory is 13 and older. Moreover, despite being filled with action, adventure and slapstick/social gaffe humour in the grand manga manner, this tale is filled with scary moments, brutal situations and situations of heartbreaking poignancy. It also has a lot to say about family, community, integration, unity and understanding through plain-talking and communication.
Included in this initial monochrome volume are translator’s notes, a guide to Japanese honorifics, Omake pages (“extra” or “bonus”) of short cartoon strips and a longer piece wherein Makuto Raiku lets us in on the background of and inspiration for the strip: sharing the bittersweet story of his and wife’s best friend Riku – an abandoned, wounded puppy…
More Animal Farm than The Gruffalo or the Tiger Who Came to Tea, this is an enthralling and impressive slice of social fantasy for kids, and would make a great gift for older children getting too big for traditional kids’ stuff.
This monochrome paperback and digital volume is printed in the traditional front-to-back, right-to-left reading manner.
© 2010 Makoto Raiku. English translation © 2011 Makoto Raiku. All rights reserved.