Black Rose Alice (Vol.1-3)

There are a lot of vampires in shoujo manga. This is just a simple fact. Poke around your local Barnes & Noble or Books-a-Million and you’re bound to find titles like Vampire Knight, He’s My Only Vampire, Honey Blood, Millennium Snow, and so many more. They all tend to be populated by  beautiful and tormented young men who are all simply waiting for some lovely young thing to come wandering into their undead life to bring them the love and redemption they all seem to be seeking in various degrees. It’s incredibly predictable, incredibly derivative, and it’s enough to make any seasoned manga reader cynical about vampires in manga in general. Every once in a while, though, we get a manga series that manages to take an old idea like vampire romance and do something new and interesting with the idea. Amongst those select few titles is Black Rose Alice, the latest series from Afterschool Nightmare and X-Day creator Setona Mizushiro.

We start out in Vienna at the turn of the 20th century, where we meet Dimitri Lewandoski. He’s a popular tenor, supported in part by his longtime friend and patron, Theodor. Dimitri spends most of days pining for Theodor’s fiancée Agnieskza, whom he worships as an angelically sweet and
unspoiled girl. Then Dimitri has the bad fortune to be hit by a cart, only to wake up shortly thereafter seemingly unharmed. It’s then that Dimitri discovers that he is a vampire, able to feast upon blood by vomiting up bugs and able to will people to suicide just through the power of his voice. Dimitri is initially horrified at his transformation, but soon enough his new powers and a heartbreaking revelation lead him to commit horrific acts which leave him alone and Agnieskza as a perfectly preserved corpse.  We flash forward nearly a century later to modern-day Japan, where we meet Azusa Kikukawa. She’s a music teacher who is torn between the affair she's having with one of her teenaged students and her duties as a teacher and responsible adult. When a car accident threatens both their lives, Dimitri appears before her with a proposition. She can save her student’s life, but in return she must live out her days in Agnieskza’s body. Now Azusa is trapped inside an unfamiliar body, surrounded by unfamiliar men, all of whom are competing to win her love so that they might die and be reborn.

Yep, Black Rose Alice is ultimately a reverse harem story. The story takes a hard tonal and narrative shift between the first and second volumes, and many readers (myself included) found the shift jarring, even a touch bizarre. We spent the first volume following Dimitri’s and Azusa’s lives, both of which turned into parallel tragedies despite being separated by 100 years and a couple of continents. The next thing you know, we’re in a quaint little coffee shop where a pretty, delicate blonde girl is surrounded by four young, attractive young men with equally diverse and attractive
personalities and the point is to pick one for the purpose of sex. When you phrase it like that, it sounds like something I should be able to play and buy for the PS Vita instead of an original manga. What makes Azusa’s situation different from pretty much every other reverse harem out there is Mizushiro never lets the reader forget that for all of these guys, winning over Azusa is literally a matter of life and death (or undeath,  if you will). 
Every flirtation and pleasant smile hides underneath it an air of tension and even desperation, and every single act is a calculated effort to win Azusa over so that they might live again instead of simply fading away into nothing. The only one who doesn’t bother with the pretense is Dimitri; if anything, he does his best to push her away by being cold and aloof. To him, Azusa is a walking reminder of his past and her presence only adds to the guilt he’s been carrying around for decades, and it’s only towards the very end of the third volume that he can even begin to move past that. As for Azusa, she takes it all mostly in stride and does her best to keep the peace and find a sense of normality in her new and distinctly un-normal situation. Still, she's determined to take her time and make her choice not out of romantic whimsy, but through careful thought and determination. That means that she too tends to hold them all at a distance, but as she comes to know them all, the choice only becomes more difficult and the stakes even higher.

With all that being said, this is still a vampire reverse harem, but these guys are not your normal sort of vampire. I have to applaud Mizushiro for not only finding a truly original spin on vampire mythos that doesn't glamorize them or their powers. If anything, these vampires are closer to parasitic hosts than any sort of Romantic ideal, complete with a life cycle that’s closer to an insect than anything else. To become a vampire in the world of Black Rose Alice, one must be seeded by a spectral butterfly, which resurrects them and starts to shape the person’s personality to match that of the previous host. It also causes a rose-shaped mark to appear on the back of their necks, one that grows into a choker of thorns over time as the vampire nears the end of their undead life. They feed by spewing forth all sorts of spiders and bugs to drink blood and swallowing them again. Finally, they must win over a woman and mate so that they too can explode into butterflies and start the cycle anew, or else they will literally fall apart and become part of nature once more.
Those last few sentences do sound a bit bizarre when you explain it out loud. I'm also sure they likely scared away anyone with a fear of insects or spiders. When it's all put together, though, it all reinforces the same idea: these vampires are literally inhuman beings. They are walking corpses that live and die like real world parasites. They must live and work together to survive, but they also must compete against one another if they are to survive. No matter what may happen, in the end they must return to the earth and transform into the plants and bugs that would consume any other corpse. Their living death is little more than just another version of the circle of life itself. Best of all, Mizushiro never clobbers the reader over the head with that connection, but instead lets the reader put it together at their own pace. Meanwhile, she takes her time building up her main cast and the uncomfortable atmosphere around them, and she does it all while drawing some lovely and understated art. The character designs aren’t anything new for Mizushiro, as they all have the heavy-lidded, big-lipped look that she tends to draw, but they have an incredible range of subtle emotion, able to convey so much with just a glance or a quirk of the mouth.

Black Rose Alice truly is the vampire manga for people who are tired of vampires in manga. It’s simultaneously more fantastical and more grounded than most vampire fiction you’ll find on the shelves. It’s unpredictable in a fashion that you rarely see in manga, much less in shoujo manga, and if you can ride out the wild shift in tone between the first and second volumes you’ll be rewarded with an atmospheric story with a lot going on underneath its placid, pretty surface. Black Rose Alice is the sort of thoughtful supernatural romance we rarely get to see in manga, and I’m glad that everyone can have a chance to experience it as I did. The series is in print and digital forms from Viz.


Popular Posts