Mar 28

Tom Baker reviews “Cirque du Freak” manga

Tom Baker (Chiba-ken, 1989-91) is a staff writer for The Daily Yomiuri. He usually writes for DYWeekend, the paper’s arts and leisure section. You can follow Tom’s blog at

He recently reviewed manga series “Cirque du Freak” by manga artist Takahiro Arai, comparing it to the series of novels on which it is based, and also commenting on the recent Hollywood movie version, which opened in Japan this month. Here is an excerpt:

Mangaka Takahiro Arai probably doesn’t look like a frog in real life, but he draws himself as one in the autobiographical bonus pages at the end of each volume of his manga series Cirque du Freak.

The manga is based on a series of kids novels by Darren Shan (the pen name of Irish author Darren O’Shaughnessy), and the poor little frog is shown sweating bullets at the thought of adapting the popular works–especially at such length. “I had only drawn self-contained short stories before this,” the Arai-frog confesses.
The material he had to work with is the story of a boy, also named Darren Shan, who gets mixed up with a traveling freak show that includes a vampire named Mr. Crepsley. Darren is basically a good kid, but he engages in a bit of juvenile delinquency that includes stealing the vampire’s pet spider–a life-changing mistake. It leads to his indenture as the vampire’s assistant, a position that takes some getting used to.

Reading the manga also takes some getting used to, as the big-eyed cuteness of the characters, and the silliness of Mr. Crepsley’s stage outfit, which makes him look like a cross between a flamboyant X-Man and the Cat in the Hat, initially neutralize the story’s darker elements.

Darren has to become a “half-vampire” to work with Mr. Crepsley, an arrangement he agrees to only to get the vampire’s help in saving the life of a friend whom Darren has accidentally allowed the venomous stolen spider to bite.

In the first novel of Shan’s series, the scene in which Darren is transformed by Mr. Crepsley is slowly drawn out. The reader has plenty of time to reflect that a strange man coercing a barely adolescent boy into exchanging bodily fluids and then running away from home is seriously creepy on more than one level. But the same scene is quick and perfunctory in the manga.

Fortunately, Arai more than hits his stride as the series continues.

Some of Shan’s humor is very black, such as in a scene when a misguided animal-rights activist named R.V. lets a wolf-man out of its cage and is dismembered for his efforts. Arai’s pacing here is much improved: He builds tension over several pages as Darren tries to stop R.V., and then lets the reader turn one more page to see the scene suddenly climax in a spectacular eruption of gore.

But later the escaped beast kills one of Darren’s friends, an event that the book and the manga treat as not funny at all. Here those big eyes that Arai has been drawing finally find their purpose, brimming over with tears in a scene that really is touching.

Arai shows the monster grabbing his victim by the ankle in a frame that visually echoes an earlier one in which the doomed boy had grabbed Darren in the very same way as part of a practical joke.

And as Darren loses consciousness, exhausted by his failed fight to save his friend, we see his view of the world fade out in a series of tilted frames that get smaller and darker as they literally tumble off the bottom of the page, in a highly effective example of the frame-manipulating techniques that Osamu Tezuka was also known for.

Many scenes, such as Darren’s first date with a girl, are made more believable by Arai’s well-drawn facial expressions than by Shan’s bare-bones prose.

Read the rest of the article here.

Page Rank