April 29, 2007
by: Serdar Yegulalp
The Italy of the Borgias comes to lurid and enthralling life under You Higuri's pen.
Manga Description: Drink from the cup of the Borgias... if you dare!
From birth, Cesare Borgia is surrounded by shadows. Damned by his own father and driven by the demons, his quest for power threatens to set the world of Renaissance Italy ablaze - unless one innocent person can drive away the poisonous shadows ravaging him!
Enter the world of the Borgias. A world of unspeakable conspiracies and forbidden desires. A family whose murderous intrigues would make them infamous throughout history. A history written in blood... and a poison called Cantarella.
Content: (This section may contain spoilers.)
There was a time when You Higuri was only known to a tiny but fierce cult of fans in English-speaking territories, thanks to some fan translations of her fantasy series Seimaden. Then CMX picked it up for American distribution, and soon she had more than just a tiny cult following. Now Go! Comi have stepped up to offer a newer series of hers, Cantarella, and if you weren’t a fan of hers before, this series may well make you into one. Here, instead of conjuring up a fantasy world out of whole cloth, Higuri delves into a part of the past that might as well have been the product of some fantasy novel—Renaissance-era Italy, a period of great inspiration (both spiritual and earthly) and terrible unrest. But it’s not a mere history lesson, something Higuri goes to some effort to spell out in her afterword to Volume 1, The history—and also the glorious imagery of the period that she freely hijacks in service of her story—is just a take-off point for a plot that in fact has a good many fantasy trappings of its own. And from what Volume 1 has to offer, it works wonderfully, even if it does takes some time to build up a head of steam and get going. There’s something doubly bewitching about a Japanese manga artist taking on this material, and approaching it with breathless curiosity and enthusiasm.
The book’s central character is also freely—very freely—adapted from the period’s history. In real life there was a Cesare Borgia, of the infamous family of the same name, one whose history has been re-evaluated a bit more thoroughly in the light of careful scholarship. Higuri shrouds the lurid circumstances of his birth and early life in a seamy cloak of intrigue and the convergence of dark forces, both earthly and supernatural. Cesare arrives early in the world when a bolt of lightning causes his mother to deliver a little earlier than expected. The boy is illegitimate—the unacknowledged son of Cardinal Rodriguo—and he’s barely hours old before being torn from his birth mother and placed in the trust of another: Vanozza Catanei, a lovely widow with children of her own.
Cesare is an outcast from the beginning—shunned by his own adoptive brother (although cherished by his new sister), thrashed by a stern matron when Vanozza’s not around, and—worst of all—haunted by some kind of black malevolence that rises out of him like mist whenever his rage peaks. Whatever it is, he fears it, and does his best to keep a lid on it. As Cesare matures though, so does his rage, and soon he’s willing to “sell [his] soul to this thing” if only it would help him. Even when a friendly older boy, Marrone, takes him under his wing and teaches him how to defend himself with a sword, he still feels isolated; an isolation which deepens all the more when he discovers how the Cardinal’s infidelities are being sheltered and protected by others around him. What goodness he can manifest is simply blown up in his face—so why be good at all? (On a side note, here I was reminded in part of George Orwell, writing about how the great abiding lesson of his boyhood was that he was growing up in a world where it was not possible for him to be good.)
Cantarella serves up Cesare’s disgust with melodramatic abandon. When he discovers Marrone in a clinch with the wrong woman and discovers things about both of them he would rather not know, he exploits his friendship with the older man in order to murder him before other, even more sinister things can be set in motion. And then, at the end of the first book, he learns the truth of his own origins: that his father the Cardinal made a pact with Satan himself—to trade the soul of his only son for a chance to ascend to the Vatican and become Pope. It’s the kind of operatic excess that works wonderfully as manga, especially when paired with the kind of lush presentation Higuri brings to it. Even if Cesare’s automatic-outsider status and compulsive animosity makes him less than sympathetic as a hero (the “Poor Pitiful Me” Problem, as a friend of mine who taught writing put it), it’s still hard not to want to find out what happens next. I think that was precisely the idea.
Art: Cantarella is just plain gorgeous to look at. Higuri’s art is strongly reminiscent of Narumi Kakinouchi's (Vampire Princess Miyu), but Higuri makes it unmistakably hers in many little ways. Faces often have double-inked lines to give a subtle sense of heaviness that bodies don’t have, for instance, which draws our attention to them all the more (and makes them that much more memorable).
Translation: Go! Comi busted their butts to make this edition as close as possible to the original, the better to garnish it with their “Author Approved” seal. To that end, the artwork and covers have been taken directly from the original book’s digital prepress files, so there’s no distracting moiré effects or mismatched colors. Put it side-by-side with other domestic manga titles that were prepared by scanning a printed copy and you can definitely see the difference. The translation itself is excellently rendered, with sound effects left as-is but annotated with English equivalents, and the layout has been left in right-to-left format.
The Bottom Line: A unique premise, an exotic backdrop, terrific art, and a solid presentation—this is the beginning of something worth following through to the end.