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Saturday, 5 February 2011

Sexy Voice And Robo

written and draw by Iou Kuroda
Publisher: Viz Media

What's It About?
Nico Hayashi is girl with a part-time job: she works for a phone dating scam, acting innocent and enticing on the phone to keep men talking long enough to run up huge bills. She wants to be a spy when she grows up (or maybe a fortune teller) and she uses her after-school job to hone her skills in reading people's character from what they say and how they say it. One day she's plying her trade in a corner booth of a local diner when the old man sitting behind her asks her for a consultation on a phone message that has been brought to his attention, a recording of a kidnapper's demands.

Thus Nico begins a new career as a detective consulting on cases for the old man. Aided by her sidekick (and former scam victim) Iichiro Sudo she is about to embark on an intense education in the dark side of human nature.

What's Good About It?
These days every good fictional detective requires a unique selling point and Nico Hayashi certainly has one hell of a USP: she's a fourteen year old girl working on a “phone dating scam” which isn't a million miles removed from a sex line. She does this not for the extra spending money but for the chance to hone her deductive. Her sidekick Iichiro, a hipster with a collection of toy robots, is less distinctive but the two spark off each other well with the added twist of Nico being the more emotionally aware of the two.

As a detective Nico is a compelling mixture of the worldly and the innocent. On the one hand she has the deductive and manipulative skills of her profession but on the other hand she is still only fourteen and entering a morally grey world she doesn't fully understand. It makes for a compellingly different sort of coming of age story. Nico exists on the edges of a very dark world and the book certainly has a noir tinge to it but never succumbs to the temptation to become grim, gritty and cynical.

The books collects thirteen individual stories (each rather charmingly entitled a “Voice”). Each case is different but share the themes of psychology and people telling their stories either explicitly or through their actions. A real standout is Voice 7 which takes place inside a hairdressers under siege as a bank robber sits in the chair next to Nico and Iichuro. Each one of the stories has its own angle on the core concept and there are some fine moments of Holmesian deduction from Nico.

Its a hefty book at 392 pages and the black and white art keeps the price down so you get pretty good value for money.

What's Bad About It?
Working on a phone dating scam is hardly the most savoury of occupations, especially for an underage girl. Given the nature of the story, it also happens to be the more savoury part of Nico's professional life. Across the stories she associates with some pretty unwholesome types. Moral dubiousness is an expected part of the noir landscape, however peripherally this books ties into the genre, and it carries a rating of “T+: for older teens” on the back cover as a result.

A greater complaint is in the book's presentation. The pages are over-sized in comparison to most other graphic novels (though whether they are larger than the original source material I couldn't swear to) which causes problems with the art which we'll get to later. The paperstock is, in a word, terrible, somewhere between a telephone directory and a child's colouring book. I suppose I should be grateful for the saving that this corner cutting passes on to the retail price but it does make the art look a little dull on the page.

What's the Art Like?
Not uncommonly for manga the book has a single writer-artist (a manga-ka) working in black and white. Please note that these pages were published in the original Japanese reading orientation so the panels and the text within them are read from right to left.  For more information on how to read manga go here.

The reason these extra-large pages are problematic for the art is because Kuroda's drawing has a lot of blank voids which only seem larger for being on bigger pages. The voids are because unlike many of the black and white books we've reviewed on this site Sexy Voice And Robo doesn't make use of grey scale colouring to create the illusion of colour. Excepting some small patches of shading and shadow created using letratone dots and cross-hatched lines no such tricks are employed here, its almost pure line work.
Whilst the art is sparse and sketchy there is a wonderfully organic flow to the drawing, a looseness reminiscent of calligraphy. The uneven, impressionistic lines might not create the most precise images but they are surprisingly effective when it comes to portraying the emotions of the characters and though distortions creep in because of the art's looseness there's never any problem identifying who is who.

Other Information
Published by Viz, Sexy Voice And Robo (ISBN 1-59116-916-X) retails for £12.00 and is available from Amazon [here]. A live-action television adaptation was made in Japan a few years ago Ithathas never been translated or made available in English-speaking territories - though I don't doubt that somewhere on the internet there might exist a fan-subbed or fan-dubbed version.

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