“Orchestra” manga plays to a different Beat

Grand Guignol Orchestra vol 1Today’s profile: Grand Guignol Orchestra vol. 1
Author: Kaori Yuki
Publisher: Viz
Suggested age rating: Older teen 16+
Availability: Suggested retail (print) $9.99; rare locally, available online. Suggested retail (digital) $4.99.

This month, the Manga Movable Feast — hosted by Manga Report blogger/Fake AP Stylebook “bureau chief” Anna Neatrour — is an all-Shojo Beat, all-the-time affair. While the Feast lasts just for a week out of every month, this one could theoretically last for an entire year if the manga bloggerati deemed it so. There are a lot of titles carrying the Shojo Beat banner these days, and clearly the imprint has moved on from “ill-fated monthly anthology in the vein of Shonen Jump” to become a lineup that could go toe-to-toe with the Shonen Jump lineup for bookshelf dominance (taking Shonen Jump’s current Big Three of One Piece, Naruto and Bleach out of the equation first, of course).

The problem was in picking which series I’d focus on for this post — would it be a proven mainstream favorite like Ouran High School Host Club, Skip Beat or Vampire Knight? A so-good-but-no-one-is-reading-it-other-than-us-manga-bloggers series like Otomen, We Were There or Kaze Hikaru? The wide-eyed sparkly shoujo that is Arina Tanemura? The enigma that is B.O.D.Y., stuck on its 10th of 15 volumes for two years now and presumably canceled? So. Many. Good. Choices.

And then the inspiration hit me. Or rather, my eyeballs. It had to be Grand Guignol Orchestra.

See, there was something about Grand Guignol Orchestra that struck me as … different, somehow. Sure, it’s by Kaori Yuki, who’s contributed titles both to the Shojo Beat catalog (Cain Saga! Fairy Cube! Godchild!) and Viz’s pre-SB lineup (Angel Sanctuary!). But … well, here, have a look at this cross-section sampling of Shojo Beat volumes from my collection. Or more specifically, the spines of said volumes.

SB titles

The majority of series, from Short-Tempered Melancholic on the left through Vampire Knight, use what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call the “SB Sans Serif” font for the titles and author names. Most of them are consistent on the number font, as well, although there’s some variety in the numbers for Dengeki Daisy and Butterflies, Flowers. Then you get a bit of variety with Oresama Teacher, Seiho Boys’ High School!, Kamisama Kiss and Natsume’s Book of Friends. Even with that variety, though, you still see one design consistency throughout: white background, pink Shojo Beat logo at the top. Quite consistent, easy to pick out on a bookshelf.

And then there’s Grand Guignol Orchestra. Look at it, all black and Gothic and alone on the right. If it was an actual person, it would have a dark cloud hovering over it at all times, sulking off in the corner with Depeche Mode playing on the stereo. Not even Yuki’s Godchild pulled off that feat. There are a few other times when Shojo Beat spines have deviated that drastically from the norm — Black Bird, Library Wars: Love and War, Jiu Jiu, Sakura Hime. But in general, you just don’t see the same kind of spine design variety that you do in the Shonen Jump line. I know I keep bringing up the Borders liquidation sales of a few years back and how I ended up picking up several good series by virtue of the fact that no one else would touch them despite the ever-plunging percentage cuts; this was another of those series. It looks that different, apparently.

But is this shoujo manga? Ohhhhhh yes. Take a good look at that cover up top, the person holding the accordion. That’s Lucille, the orchestra’s leader. Long flowing hair, rather dainty facial features, a person with a beautiful singing voice. All qualities of someone who’d make a lovely young woman.

Or so you’d think. Because Lucille is a man. A very pretty man, but a man nevertheless. He’s what’s known in this series’ universe as a philomela, or nightingale, “people who undergo treatments to eliminate their gender, in order to become people with voices like angels,” as some expository dialogue helpfully points out. To complicate matters further, the group’s pianist, Eles, the one who joins them in the first few chapters, the one who looks like a boy and acts like a boy … is actually a girl, commanded by her father to assume the persona of the brother that she had to burn to death a few years back.

Ahh, shoujo manga, with your androgynous pretty boys and headstrong girls. Don’t ever stop bringing the crazy.

Gender-bending hijinks aside, what we have here is a good, fun action-packed romp. The orchestra itself is a band of rogues — “made up solely of convicts and sinners with sinister pasts,” as their would-be employer points out in the first chapter — called upon to battle what amounts to a zombie apocalypse and taking all the jobs that the royally sanctioned orchestra simply won’t touch. These aren’t your garden-variety zombies, though — they’re “guignols,” once-normal people transformed into freakish living-dead dolls from the effects of a virus spreading across the land. The music the trio — or quartet, with the addition of Eles — performs together is powerful enough to eliminate guignols. And when you have situations like an entire town surrounded by guignols, or a duke who has a harem of obedient maids filling his castle for some strange reason, that special music will definitely come in handy.

With all that going for this volume, though, there’s one flaw: We learn much about Lucille and Eles in this volume, but the other two orchestra members just don’t seem to matter quite as much yet. We know the cellist, Gwindel, keeps a hedgehog in his top hat for some reason, and the violinist, Kohaku, is prone to solving every problem with a healthy dose of violence. But that’s pretty much it. There are clearly more mysteries to be solved in this five-volume series, chief among them a statement Kohaku makes: “We’re Lucille’s prisoners. We’re together by contract, not by choice.” Yuki demonstrates in this volume, through the way she reveals Lucille’s and Eles’ gender secrets, that she has a knack for making readers think they know what’s going on … and then pulling the rug out from under them and changing the rules.

It’s great. And based on its strong start, it seems like a series that’s certainly worth tracking down.

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