Shoujo – Drama, psychological, romance, slice-of-life
15 Volumes (complete)
Tokyopop / Kodansha Comics
Kira, a quiet girl with a love for art, is taken aback when the most popular guy in school suddenly asks for directions. Kira knows of Rei’s unsavory behaviors, but she sketches a quick map and dashes off without saying a word. Although she expects that will be the end of any interaction between the two of them, when Rei compliments her drawing, the two form a rather unusual friendship — and maybe something more.
I will always have a soft spot for MARS since it was one of the key series that got me hooked on manga. But I keep revisiting it because it’s just so good.
Most romances in shoujo manga (and often fiction as a whole) star a pair of opposites. In shoujo manga, it’s usually a cheerful, emotionally expressive girl and an aloof, tsundere guy. And usually the girl falls in love pretty fast, and then readers follow along on her attempts to win him over and then maybe the couple’s dating life.
MARS has all of these elements, although maybe not in the way you are used to. Kira is hardly a genki girl; in fact, she’s a quiet loner, finding it easier to be considered a weirdo than deal with the world. Rei, however, is very friendly — a bit too friendly with girls, in fact. The manga opens with Rei asking Kira, who was drawing in the park, for directions to the hospital. Kira wordlessly makes a sketch without realizing one of her other art pieces is on the other side. At the start of the next semester, they end up sitting next to each other. Although Kira tries to ignore him since she doesn’t want to get mixed up in anything, the two end up becoming friends because of her drawing. This surprises everyone, especially Harumi, a classmate who has liked Rei for a while, and Tatsuya, Rei’s friend and Kira’s former classmate.
Most of you see exactly where this is going. The early volumes go through many of the usual shoujo tropes to help set up the story and main couple (love triangles, sexual harassment, enemies become friends). Some areas are more successful than others in the manga. For instance, even Rei is left confused by Kira suddenly gaining an unlikely friend. On the other hand, in a genre where guys are often willing to break apart their friendship over a girl, I like how Rei doesn’t want to interfere when he realizes Tatsuya likes Kira and actually tries to serve as wingman.
The focus, however, doesn’t stay long on Rei and Kira as a couple though; rather, it’s on Rei and on Kira as individuals and what this means in terms of a relationship. This is a fast romance, no doubt about that, but it seems almost unheard of in many modern shoujo romances to go 15 volumes where the drama never relies on a Christmas date or Valentine’s chocolate. It’s not quite a coming-of-age story, but internal and external conflicts like child vs adult, past vs future are key at times. This isn’t a manga where the 13+ or 16+ rating comes from the “are we going to do it or not?” arc. The manga covers some heavy topics that many readers will relate to, and it has periods of angst. The leads and many secondary characters have psychological issues, and some are severe. Kira and Rei also some make choices that we as readers should not condone, but the author does an excellent job of using both the art and dialogue to explain their (sometimes misguided) reasoning. They take steps forward and backward, but by the end, they have become stronger — or rather, mentally healthier.
However, MARS is not always a dark, depressing manga. It features enough other content to keep readers engaged. For instance, Rei is quite a character — both literally and figuratively. He’s outgoing, a flirt, and a bit of a clown. Early in the manga, his teacher asks him what his dreams are. Rei, being a smart-aleck, replies girls and fun. When his ex “kindly” advises him that quiet girls tend to be clingy after “being” with someone, Rei excitedly and comedically wants to test it out with Kira. Kira’s reaction when Rei offers to take off his clothes to model is priceless. And there is plenty of fluff for romance addicts as well. It’s not always grand gestures either but little things like Rei grabbing Kira’s hand when she’s uncomfortable around his old friends. The manga does lose a bit of steam starting with Volume 10, but that’s because they get a bit of stability in their lives as the series prepares to wind down.
Throughout the series, Kira and Rei are supported and interrupted by many others. Tatsuya and Harumi are constant throughout the manga, but the leads’ families have a huge impact on their lives, even though some are not physically around. There’s a lot to be said about them, and you could do a fascinating analysis on them if you were so inclined. But as for Rei and Kira, the idea of family is an important part of their inner struggle; they eventually want to build a future together, but they are also still young enough that they can’t do much on their own. (Again, part of the coming-of-age aspects of the manga.)
But despite the strained relationships they may have with their folks as well as some other romantic rivals, there is someone who would be classified as the main antagonist. They act as foil to both Rei and Kira. Although MARS shows some extreme behaviors and mental unbalance, it’s this person who pushes the envelope of the story. I mean, the manga suddenly doesn’t switch to fantasy or anything. But MARS is also not slice-of-life in the strictest sense of “average people in an average neighborhood”. But, well, teenagers finding a life partner would already be pushing the envelope of a typical real-life relationship in the first place.
Plus, racing is also an important part of the story. In the opening, Rei is visiting the hospital to see a racer who was just in an accident, and the dangers of the racetrack is a concern that weighs on Kira’s and others’ minds. Especially since Rei is someone who likes to push things as far as he can go, and that includes his motorcycle. The manga has one significant race, but discussions about the track happen throughout MARS. I don’t know much about racing — let alone the Japanese race scene — but it seems like Soryo knows her stuff about different types of motorcycles. Not too many shoujo manga involve racing (well, more specifically, a non-school-approved type of racing), so this helps with some cross-appeal. Kira has her own hobby in the form of art, and that’s also central to the plot since that’s what brought them together in the first place. Again, this ties into their individual development, as although Kira loves art, she doesn’t think she’ll be able to make a career out of it.
The art is relatively simple but effective. The art becomes more crisp as the series goes on, a reflection of the 90s style. Panels are clearly laid out and do not get lost in overcrowded backgrounds. Souryo’s art when drawing race scenes is exceptional and shows that she does her research. As for the character designs, Souryo’s biggest strength is showcasing emotion. When the characters are upset, I feel it. Eyes are the window to the soul, and I love the way Souryo combines her art style with the use of screentones to represent emotions. In volume 4, for instance, Kira asks to spend time with Rei, which he rejects. He means it as a joke, but to Kira, it isn’t. Rei’s eyes are speckled to represent his shock and guilt, while Kira’s plaid pattern reflect her emotional shut down. I reread this often, and I still find new subtleties in the characters’ expressions. This is one of those manga where pictures truly are 1000 words. MARS isn’t the flashiest or the prettiest manga, but the series makes the most of each and every panel.
As this was one of Tokyopop’s earlier endeavors, much of the dialogue is punched up to be more American. Some of the dialogue was tweaked from few chapters in the old Smile magazine version. One of the more significant changes from the Japanese edition was the way characters addressed each other. Kira, for instance, does not call Rei by name until volume 10. Kira’s best friend Harumi insists that Kira calls her Rumi in Tokyopop’s translation but is never used again. (Harumi requests being called by her name in the Japanese version.) Rei’s last name is romanized in the translations as “Kashino” although the art in the manga uses “Cashino”. More significantly, another character’s name is wrong. It’s supposed to be “Makio”, not “Masao”. I don’t know why they made this change. I don’t even think it’s a wrong reading. Weird. There’s also a joke in the Japanese where Rei thinks a guy’s name is “Kuma” (bear), which explains the man’s irritation. In English, it just seems like Rei misheard and the guy is mad because Rei wasn’t paying attention when he was introducing himself. Well, Rei would do such a thing, but the bear joke isn’t explained in English. Stuff like that where it’s a bit odd in English happens fairly often. Nothing too terrible, but a better adaption would be nice.
The digital-only rerelease from Kodansha Comics is the exact same as the Tokyopop release. I was hoping that this series would eventually be rereleased with a more faithful translation, but alas.
MARS can be full of drama and conflict. But unlike a lot of other manga, the leads do not fall in love because the other changed them; they had to change to keep this love. It’s this type of character development that make this a worthwhile journey.
Tokyopop released the prequel MARS: A Horse With No Name. Del Rey released Soryo’s ES manga.
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