We all know that I am not a huge reader of manga magazines. I will pick them up once in a while, mostly if an artist I like has done the cover (my recent acquisition of the latest issue of Princess, for example) or if there is some special prize that comes with it (I have so many clear files that were manga magazine prizes. I have more clear files than I could possibly use at one time, and yet I continue to buy magazines with clear files attached. I may have a problem). And a current favourite, Deathco, is running in Comic Beam these days, so I pick it up from time to time (to get the Deathco clear files, of course).
So I’ve come across Juza no Ulna more than once in those pages, but it never made more than a passing impression on me. The art style interested me, the very obvious Western influences, along with the rounded femininity of the characters on each page. But nothing much seemed to happen in the chapters I read, so I was never piqued enough to follow up with the series when the first volume came out. It happens. There is a lot of manga in this country, and even I cannot read it all. But then volume two came out last month, and I was seeing it everywhere. The cover is so striking—the silver lettering on the matte black background framing Ulna in red in the snow, struggling for breath—that I couldn’t help picking it up and actually reading the back of the book for once. I was intrigued by the tagline “Are you brave enough to learn the truth?”, but I still wasn’t completely sold.
But then in that way that some books have, it wormed its ways into my consciousness, so that I would find myself musing about it randomly. What is this truth? Who is this sniper Ulna? And what exactly is the science fiction military history promised by the front cover? So I decided I would just buy the first volume and see what was going on. You know by now where this story is going? Yes, I read it and went out immediately to get the second volume and now am eagerly awaiting the third.
Given its focus on a special division of women soldiers fighting a weird alien war in another world, I was immediately reminded of the incredible and bizarre Wombs by Yumiko Shirai. And while Ulna is not quite as strange as alien impregnation for the purposes of teleportation, Izu is no slouch in the weird world-building department. The savage Zudo have been isolated on a snowy island off mainland Rezumoa, but when Rezumoa goes to war with another country, they take over a research station on the island and turn it into a military outpost to put down the Zudo uprisings. This outpost is entirely staffed by women soldiers, and the story begins with the arrival of the titular Ulna. She has just joined up, leaving behind a rather idyllic life in her village to come serve her country. And she really believes in this mission. After being orphaned as an infant, she was taken in by the village and raised with all the love a child could hope for. So she wants to do something for these people, to give back to her country, and she thinks enlisting to fight the enemy that would destroy the country is the best way to do that.
It’s a familiar storytelling device (particularly in RPGs). We follow the newbie around and learn about the place along with her. We’re introduced to the key players at this outpost, along with the details of the current situation. Ulna will have to shoot down the Zudo if they use what looks like a ski ramp to fly off and do whatever damage they are going to do to the Rezumoa cause. And she gets her first chance to do exactly that not long after she arrives. And then we get our first look at these savage Zudo, and they are super weird and gross. The moment I saw them I wanted to high five Izu for coming up with such an obviously inhuman and foreign enemy. (I’ll let you discover them yourself!)
Izu strikes the perfect balance between the familiar and the foreign in these pages. The military organization, the guns, the supply runs, the base—all of these hew closely to some version of the military we’ve seen in movies or real life or TV. But then the enemy, the culture, the island itself are all strange and new. It’s a world I was completely fascinated with. I want to know more about how it works, about the various cultures that Izu takes pains to introduce in the most natural way. Ulna’s village and life there is presented to us as Ulna knows them in flashbacks and memories, and they stand in stark contrast to life on this snowy island. But both places are part of the same country, ostensibly, so I found myself wondering about the other regions of Rezumoa. And the minute I start imagining other parts of an imaginary world, I want to give the creator of that world some gold stars for pulling me in so deeply.
And of course, I was completely drawn to this world of women. Although men show up once in a while, mostly as the soldiers bringing the outpost supplies, the majority of the book is taken up with the women characters. And the possible reason for them all being women revealed in the second volume is seriously fascinating and so far feels like Izu is taking up sexism and the way women are treated as disposable second-class citizens and the different ways sexism affects our lives (including so-called “benevolent sexism”). Also, with the obviously “foreign” enemy, Izu suggests that it’s easy to hate what we don’t understand, but what if we are only being misled about how foreign our enemy is? What if things are not so black and white? The shades of grey Izu introduces at a time when so many parts of the world are scarily rising up to force out a perceived “other” are welcome and necessary.
And the art! I am so in love with the characters, the way Izu actually makes them look like people of different sizes. It’s such a weird thing, but the depiction of extra flesh between the chin and the neck makes such a difference in how a character feels on the page. There is such a generosity in the depictions of these people. They feel fleshy and warm and full. There are also a lot of sketched lines, a looseness that leaves room for the reader to step in and fill in the gaps. It’s so warmly inviting somehow.
I really hope this series is doing well in the reader surveys, because I want Izu to get to keep writing it until the planned ending rather than having to cut it short. But I don’t want it to be doing too well in the surveys because it’s the kind of series that could take on bloat pretty easily, and this is a story that needs to stay lean. So please read it, but don’t be too profuse in your praise of it.
PS. As always, sorry for the crap images while I am travelling and away from my scanner.