Setsuna Mudou is a teenager in Tokyo with a lot of unusual problems. First, he’s in love with his sister Sara--like real love love--and as if that weren’t enough, he’s also the latest reincarnation of the cursed female angel Alexiel, who rebelled against Heaven and defied God. When his powers start to awaken he’s approached by Kurai, a demon princess of Gehenna who was Alexiel’s follower, hunted by Alexiel’s insane twin brother Rosiel and his puppets, and viewed as a savior by an underground faction in Heaven. After he’s involved in the death of a classmate Setsuna finds himself on the run with Sara, but their blissful idyll is interrupted when Setsuna hears that his best friend Kira has taken the blame for the murder and is in police custody. Tragedy strikes and his human life is shattered as Setsuna is sent on a journey encompassing the realms of Hell and Heaven, ultimately waging war against corrupt forces in Heaven and the mysterious and decidedly nonbenevolent figure of God.
Kaori Yuki is the queen of dark gothic manga, standing out with beautiful detailed art, incredibly stylish characters, and plots both twisted and twisty. Her manga usually incorporate fairy tales, nursery rhymes, and myths, and her epic 20-volume masterpiece Angel Sanctuary takes on the Judeo-Christian tradition of Biblical lore. Many of the themes in Angel Sanctuary could be considered blasphemous or shocking, but it’s incredibly interesting to read a different take on Christianity and Western religions from an author not raised in a Christian culture. I think because it’s a foreign religion and would seem a little exotic and unfamiliar to many of her Japanese readers, Yuki-sensei was able to take risks and play around with the mythology to suit her purposes without fear of backlash or criticism.
The series is organized into six arcs, each named after a mythological or spiritual realm. We meet a vast array of characters as Setsuna makes allies and takes on his enemies. Aside from the focus on romance and adventure, Yuki-sensei doesn’t shy away from social commentary on issues such as the nature of good and evil, discrimination and the disenfranchised, the corruption of power, gender identity issues, and rape. We learn surprising things about characters we think we know, only to have them change on us yet again as more of the intricate plot is revealed. I love the overall theme of forbidden love and the heart wrenching character revelations, and the ending is wonderfully satisfying while still leaving room for readers’ imaginations to wander.
My most important manga-reading criteria is art, and Yuki-sensei’s is stunning, with a distinctly recognizable look (I think it’s the blocky eyelashes framing the eyes and the lush way she draws curly hair, but its exact alchemical composition eludes me as I’m blown away by the overall effect.) No costume is too elaborate or hairstyle too voluminous for her neo-Victorian-goth-punk aesthetic, inspired by historical fashions, Gothic Lolita, and the over-the-top visual kei style of Japanese bands. Her background art doesn’t slouch, either, with sweeping vistas of the architecture of Heaven and Hell and Gigeresque combinations of organic matter, wires, and machinery. There’s a definite “look” to her characters, but everyone is designed with care and there’s usually no difficulty telling who’s who. If I had one complaint, it’s that the first volume or so is a little cramped and rushed in its transitions, but the pace smooths out over time and becomes much more easily read once the background info and world-building has been established. And I can forgive a little cramming when I’ve seen so many manga draw things out till the plot is stretched paper-thin.
Two art books are available in English, and seeing Yuki-sensei’s full-color artwork is a breathtaking experience. If you are on the fence about whether this manga is for you, looking at her art will most likely sell you on it. There’s also an anime OVA of three episodes that covers the first arc (approximately three volumes) as a sort of teaser intro for the manga, which is worth checking out as well. One of my favorite manga of all time, this is an unforgettable ride of high emotions and sweeping drama.