Spirit of Wonder


By Kenji Tsuruta, translated
ISBN: 978-1-56971-288-7 (Tankōbon PB)

Just re-read this and it’s still great…

Despite carrying all the trappings of a blistering science fiction comedy romp, acclaimed author/illustrator Kenji Tsuruta’s beguiling fantasy Spirit of Wonder is a sweet romantic comedy with genteel, anything is possible sentimental yearning as the driving force.

Set in a charming alternate time and place so like our own world, it follows the Byzantine trials and tribulations of feisty, beautiful tavern owner Miss China and her truly bizarre, indigent and obnoxious upstairs tenants – genuinely bonkers Professor Breckenridge and his gorgeous, hunky assistant Jim Floyd

Creator Tsuruta (Emanon, Wandering Island) was born in 1961 and studied optical science, intending to pursue a career in photography before happily making the jump to narrative storytelling as manga artist, designer, book illustrator and anime creator.

A lifelong fan of “hard science” science fiction authors like Robert A. Heinlein and the comics of Tetsuya Chiba and Yukinobu (Saber Tiger) Hoshino, Tsuruta began selling his own works in 1986 after years of producing self-published dōjinshi whilst working as an assistant to established manga stars. His short fantasy serial Hiroku te suteki na uchū ja nai ka (‘What a Big Wonderful Universe It Is’) was published in Kodansha’s Weekly Morning magazine and his path was set.

Soon after, he began this enticing, enchanting scientific romance of gently colliding worlds which ran in both Weekly Morning and monthly magazine Afternoon – between 1987 and 1996 – before making the smooth transition to animated features and an award-winning TV series.

This English edition comes courtesy of Dark Horse Comics who published the first few translated episodes as a 5-issue monochrome miniseries in 1995-6.

In a comfortable faux-Victorian milieu, the exotic immigrant Lady China runs the Ten-Kai Tavern in the sleepy yet cosmopolitan port-town of Bristol. The generally peaceful burg hardly ever-changes, but China’s life is one of constant struggle to make a comfortable living, especially as she rents her upstairs rooms to a couple of crackpot deadbeats who continually mess up the place with their idiotic contraptions and persistently fail to pay rent.

The older guy is truly annoying and doesn’t care about anything beyond his latest weird invention but his assistant is a rather sweet and delightful young man who has captured China’s fast-beating heart…

The wonderment begins on another belated rent day with ‘Miss China’s Ring or Doctor Breckenridge and the Amazing Ether Reflector mirror!’ wherein the frustrated landlady is again forced to employ her formidable martial arts skills to get the insufferable scholar’s attention – if not the long-delayed and constantly accruing cash payable.

It’s really not a good time: Breckenridge is entertaining potential investors in his latest creation which promises safe travel to the Moon…

The meeting does not end well and both landlady and tenant depart unsatisfied, whilst in another part of town, Jim – whose responsibilities include doing everything and somehow finding the money to pay for it – is picking up a vital component from pretty “florist” Lily (a girl with amazing connections able to procure anything wayward inventors might ever require).

Unfortunately, China sees the object of her desire spending what should be rent money on a very pretty flower girl and goes ballistic…

Floyd adores China too, but as a typical guy is utterly unable to tell her. He can, however, thanks to his mad mentor Breckenridge and some astounding discoveries left by his own vanished father – another technological miracle man – give her the moon.

Literally…

Jim gives China a ring as a birthday present but she is too furious to care. She wants rent not trinkets from a flighty gadabout. If only she could calm down enough, she would see that the gift is carved from actual moon rock, but beaten into a strategic retreat, Jim realises he needs to make a somewhat grander gesture…

Heartbroken, China falls asleep and is much calmer when she awakes. Bringing her troublesome tenants tea, she looks up into the sky and sees the message Jim has carved into the shining luminous lunar surface…

Stunned and troubled, she moves through the days in a dream. Even with the evidence above his head Breckenridge still can’t get anyone to bankroll him and is driven to unwise acts. Soon the entire world is imperilled by his etheric meddling and the moon is plummeting on a deadly collision course with Bristol.

Luckily, the uniquely physical and practical talents of Miss China are of some use in averting disaster if not setting things totally aright…

‘The Flight of Floyd’ opens with the Mad Professor oafishly seeking to make amends by giving China a flying broomstick, before concluding that he will never understand women. The lovelorn landlady simply wishes she could make Jim pay attention to her, superstitiously wishing upon a shooting star, but the object of her infatuation is preoccupied with completing his missing father’s gravity disrupter and with off-handed tactlessness explains that she’s doing it wrong…

Once again the cause of increasing China’s woes, the hapless Floyd decides to use his Gravitation Gate to make things right – by creating a permanent rain of meteors for the lovely landlady to wish upon, momentarily forgetting that whilst pretty in the evening sky, a bombardment of incandescent rock packs a bit of a punch when hitting terra firma…

The marvellous merriment concludes with ‘China Strikes Back parts 1 and 2, or Doctor Breckenridge and the Astounding Instantaneous Matter Transmitter!’, which finds times hard in Bristol as the town shivers under a blanket of snow, and cash-strapped, customer-starved Lady China is forced to get increasingly heavy with her free-loading lodgers. She is also taking out her bad moods on the townspeople and the few customers still frequenting the inn for food and drinks.

However, when she once again busts in the upstairs door in search of her overdue payments, she finds the Professor and Jim have vanished, taking all their ludicrous junk with them.

They haven’t gone far, however. In fact, they haven’t gone anywhere at all, but simply set up a system by which China’s entrances and exits teleport her to and from an empty set of duplicate rooms, leaving the unscrupulous tinkerers free to stay at the tavern without being bothered.

Sadly, they hadn’t bothered to soundproof the floors of the upper rooms or warn black market tech dealer Lily of their latest innovation and when China discovers the scam – in the most embarrassing manner possible – Jim is forced into a fury of improvisation before he’s able to make things right…

This enchanting blend of Steampunk and gleeful science whimsy is a sharp, wry and fantastically ingenious human drama, filled with gentle good humour and warmth, rendered with such astonishing sensitivity and imagination that the most outrageous scenes appear thoroughly rational, authentic and real – although sadly some people might focus far too much on the innocent, unconscious and completely casual nudity rather than the superb story and characterisations on display.

Filled with extra cover illustrations, pin-ups and an engaging interview with the creator, Spirit of Wonder is a treat for every open-hearted, big-minded romantic and one no fantasy fan should be denied. Let’s hope it will be back in circulation ASAP…
© 1996 Kenji Tsuruta. All rights reserved.