Ran and the Gray World
乱と灰色の世界 (Ran to Haiiro no Sekai)
Seinen – Adventure, comedy, drama, fantasy, romance
7 Volumes (complete)
For Ran, growing up is not something she just wants to do; it’s something she can do! The wannabe sorceress’ favorite tool is a pair of sneakers that allows the 10-year-old to age up. But no matter how physically mature Ran can become, she still has much to learn about the world.
Ran and the Gray World can be a rough but rewarding read.
The Uruma family of Haimachi. The mother lives away for her work. The father is often busy. The son takes it upon himself to do much of the running of the household. The daughter often gets into mischief. Seems like a family you could find anywhere, but the Uruma house is full of magical beings! Shizuka is the strongest sorceress and has great responsibilities. Zen also is a leader but of the Black Crows. Jin can transform into a wolf. And Ran is just beginning to tap into her powers in order to be like her beloved mother.
Ran somehow has acquired a pair of sneakers that allow her to physically age. Jin, who is straitlaced but clearly has his younger sister’s best interest in mind, is frustrated by her obsession with the shoes. After all, a 10-year-old in an 16/18-year-old’s body? What could possibly go wrong!
Jin is also concerned when he hears that Ran doesn’t have any friends her age. But as we learn, one of her classmates who picks on her, Makoto, is secretly interested in her. But Ran is thrilled when she makes a friend in Otaro, a playboy who became smitten with Ran’s older self. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Ran, the land run by her mother where mystical beings live and watch over the human world starts facing their biggest crisis ever.
So, let’s get one thing out of the way: technically, an almost 30-year-old man is wooing someone a third of his age. Ran doesn’t give a fake name or anything (and those close to her end up meeting Otaro for one reason or another), but Otaro has no idea. Otaro does know Ran is still in school, so there’s still a significant age gap even with her transformed (16-to-18-year-old) self. Plus, Otaro has quite a bit of experience when it comes to interpersonal relations… just not interpersonal relationships. His forwardness does extend to Ran several times (particularly once when he is in a dreamlike state), but mostly, he’s confident and cocky. With Ran, however, he is quite doting and looks to improve himself. Ran, who doesn’t fully grasp his advances, calls Otaro a pervert more than once, and she tries to match his pace a couple of times. Still, though, she mostly calls Otaro a friend despite the fact their outings could be considered dates and that Ran is very protective of Otaro. However, I know many readers despise or avoid age gaps of any forms, and it can be very unnerving. Not so much on Ran’s end since it’s fairly common for children to crush on adults, but Otaro is a full-fledged adult wanting to be with a student.
Improving oneself is a recurring theme in this manga. Of course, this is most evident in Ran, who has immense talent but doesn’t tend to put a lot of effort into her studies or getting to know her classmates. With magic in this universe allows users to do anything from fly to manipulate objects to teleport, of course Ran needs to learn to control her powers. Even Makoto has to put effort into not being tsundere. So there are definite slice-of-life themes despite the fantasy setting. This is helped by the fact Ran doesn’t (or perhaps can’t) use magic to pass a test or anything. Most of her magic is of her enjoying what she thinks it’s like to be an adult. But as the title suggests, aging is a double-edge sword.
The manga operates on two main fronts. The first is the aforementioned Ran-Otaro-Makoto love triangle, with Ran not able to fully grasp either guy’s feelings. The other is the barrier preventing disaster from descending on Haimachi breaking down. Eventually, though, the two storylines merge. How these plots become so connected is perhaps the strongest part of the manga. After all, Ran and the Gray World is a coming-of-age story. Ran wants to grow up simply because, as children are apt to believe, she thinks it will be fun and she can do what she wants. Say what you want about the romance, but both Makoto and Otaro care deeply for Ran in their own awkward, often misguided ways. And as Ran learns to understand non-familial love, Ran realizes life has no shortcuts, but it can be cut short.
But although I keep harping on Ran and her suitors, the cast of characters is huge. That’s largely as a result of how the manga is organized. There are plenty of side stories and almost-side-stories placed throughout each volume. We randomly drop in on the neighbors. Shizuka in the past. A doctor. The characters and stories are necessarily bad, but the flow of Ran and the Gray World is constantly interrupted as it just suddenly dropped in on someone directly or marginally related to the two main plots. It’s also hard to figure out who if any readers should be paying special attention to or if this is just an aside with little importance. It’s one thing to focus on Jin’s love life; it’s another to show off his love’s family. Too often the manga felt like it was padding itself. Not saying the series had to exclusively concentrate on the Uruma family (particularly Ran), but there were way too many characters whom I couldn’t name or couldn’t care less about.
Speaking of padding, the last volume. The main conflict is wrapped up in volume 6, and the next is focus on wrapping things up. Unfortunately, this is a slow wrap-up. If the manga was going to have so many other characters, this would have been the time to conclude their story. Instead, the volume felt like it was just repeating itself with a countdown. Volume 7 is quite thick, but honestly, I would have rather the sixth book been longer with just the two or three key parts of 7 in it.
I won’t discuss the characters much more. Suffice to say, Zen is a bit of an doting father, Jin reminds me of Touya from Cardcaptor Sakura, Shizuka is a bit whimsical and ditzy, and Ran is much of a typical kid. Otaro and Makoto are a different spin on the usual tsundere versus flirty love triangle since the latter is clearly interested in the heroine. More key characters include Ran’s magic teacher, a rival, a young woman with a crush on Jin and is fond of Ran, Otaro’s butler, and a friend of his. Each of these directly or indirectly teach Ran something about the world at large. I can’t say I disliked any of them, but at times, they end up rather unremarkable because they’re pushed aside for so many of the third-string characters, which are mostly comedy relief. The main and main supporting cast has more depth (unsurprisingly), but I think they could have had even more characterization.
Magic seems to have unlimited potential in this universe. The ladies are usually called sorceresses, and the men are called sorcerers a few times, but those can be misnomers. Zen and Jin, for instance, are beastmen. One girl’s special powers at first are limited to grilling things. So while there does seem to be tendencies in regards to lineage, powers can take many forms. It’s even possible to be born without magical talent, as we learn courtesy of one key character. Magic users then seem to usually join an apprenticeship where they can learn to handle their powers, and Ran gets a rather unique instructor. She doesn’t coddle Ran, but she’s also not the super-motivated type; she’d rather be drinking most of the time. Ran, as kids are apt to do, just wants to do the fun magic and doesn’t really care about the why or how. (Until later, of course.)
Irie’s art is similar to an old-fashioned style versus most modern manga, and this series can be quite a different experience. I’ve already discussed the all-too-often disconnect between chapters as Ran and the Gray World shifts gears to another character and/or setting. But chapters themselves can also be busy with lots of characters and/or panels crammed in on a page. This is not a manga for when you just want a no-effort read. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; in fact, compared to some other series where each volume wraps up in what feels like two minutes, it’s actually a good thing. Irie’s artistic talent tends to shine in the magical scenes: Ran summoning her golem/familiar, entering a dream world, or even just using magic to clean up. I mean, just take a look at the covers — they’re fantastic, and a perfect representation of what goes on in each entry of the series. The manga does have some ecchi, which is to be expected for the genre but maybe not one where a fourth grader is the main character. Again, most of it is either comedy or Otaro’s playboy ways, but Jin’s love life also has a major role in this aspect.
No honorifics are used. Terms like Lord and Lady are used as replacements when needed. While the supernatural aspects make this seem like it’s going to be a very Japanese-y series (Ran’s father clearly inspired by tengu), it was not.
Watching Ran choosing how she grows up is a delight. The love triangle may be a bit ick, but it’s more about what the two guys represent: the ideal adult life versus missing out on the experiences of childhood. It’s that part of Ran and the Gray World that feel like a masterpiece, but it’s also so hard to recommend when the manga is burdened with so much bloat in story and characters!