MMF: Sexy Voice & Robo Review (2005 edition)

Rescued from the previous iteration of this very website is the following review of Iou Kuroda’s Sexy Voice And Robo. When David Welsh contacted me about participating in the Manga Movable Feast experiment, he said something to the effect of “Hey, you liked Sexy Voice and Robo didn’t you?” Reading this review for the first time in 5 years, yes, it appears I liked it a great deal. Heh. I’m going to re-read the work tonight and re-review it, seeing if it holds up to more than 5 years of innovative manga releases. For now though, I’m going to trust me from 5 years ago, so go out and pick up a copy of this one…! – Chris

By Iou Kuroda
Adapted by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Yuji Oniki
US$19.99, 400 pages, 8″ x 10″
Winner of the Grand Prize for manga from Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs’ Media Arts Festival in 2002.

Published by Viz LLC

Right in the final stages of planning and preparation for The Toronto Comic Arts Festival (a comics event I co-chaired earlier this spring), I received a mysterious package in the mail from Viz. I didn’t recognize the name on the attached business card, and the project, a strangely crude manga I was only vaguely familiar with the solicitation for, weighed in at a whopping 400 pages (with an angry legal warning on the front that this wasn’t the final version anyway!!!). This was inopportune timing to say the least.

The person who forwarded it my way probably didn’t know that I was planning a large comics event at the time. The Festival was great though, 8,000 people came and everyone sold lots of comics. It is, however, now September and more than 6 months since I received my preview copy, and more than 3 months since the book came out.

So, to make up for lost time (and a two-paragraph introduction…), run out and buy SEXY VOICE AND ROBO right now.

SEXY VOICE AND ROBO sounds almost like a prototypical anime-cum-manga title; a cute high school girl gets into adventures on the streets of Tokyo aided by a mysterious old man and a dumb-but-well-meaning lunk of a guy. But really all you have to do is flip open the book and you’ll be able to tell that this isn’t really very typical at all. Hell, it’s not even a twist on or elbow-to-the-ribs of typical romance manga, instead it’s an astoundingly realistic piece of contemporary fiction, so grounded in the sights, smells, and actions of Tokyo that even the more fantastic elements that enter the narrative as the book progresses seem utterly plausible (both in the writing and the art as well; it only takes a few pages for the realistically proportioned and rendered bodies with hastily-drawn doe-anime eyes to seem perfectly normal). SEXY VOICE AND ROBO successfully transports the reader to the Tokyo you don’t see in Sophia Coppola’s Lost In Translation, or any one of a hundred ‘realistic’ shoujo tales. You get, as Viz Editor Marc Weidenbaum writes in the afterword, a “modern Tokyo [connected] with it’s past… A Manhattan as wide as it is tall, with many many West Villages.”

Nico is a schoolgirl making money on the side by engaging in phone sex with the lonely, bored, and desperate men of Tokyo. As Codename: Sexy Voice, she uses her uniquely intimate position with these men to profile them, and then to apply that profiling to the people around her. As soon as she hears the sound of your voice, she’s got you all figured out. Her unique abilities draw the attention of an elderly Yakuza boss who has her undertake special ‘assignments’ for him: Finding his lost son, tracking down an employee who has absconded with money, a lost love… The jobs get more and more serious, and dangerous, with Nico reaping rewards and always walking the line between being impressed with and aware of her abilities, and potentially misjudging her situation. Through a combination of forthrightness and light blackmail, she gains the assistance of one of her former callers (Codename: Robo), a hapless nerd whose usefulness tends to begin and end with his being old enough to drive. It is the maturity and complexity of the relationships between these three characters, as well as the meta-commentary on the nature of relationships, that makes SEXY VOICE AND ROBO an engrossing read.

SEXY VOICE AND ROBO is the characterization, thoughtfulness, and James Kochalka-esque ‘play’ of art-comix put in the service of action-movie tropes, to create a unique reading experience. The dialogue and drawing are both intensely naturalistic, with only a few stylistic flourishes that give away the book’s country of origin (the afformentioned anime-eyes, for example). For anyone used to the crisp, measured lines of contemporary commercial manga, SEXY VOICE AND ROBO will undoubtedly seem sloppy, perhaps even amateurish. This is because we’re trained to think that all manga looks the same by the vast wave of manga being imported that all looks the same… But as ‘sloppy’ or amateurish as it may seem, the rhythm of the story, the movement of the characters and their relation to their surroundings is entirely realistic and quite obviously the product of a talented hand; the entire book looks to be drawn panel-by-panel from life, in the sketchbook of someone who is probably painting masterpieces for his day-job.

I’ve been recommending this book steadily at work for a month, and the one comment I hear (after “I really enjoyed that!”) is “I wanted more!”, a sentiment I echoed upon my first read-through of the graphic novel. However, upon re-reading the path that Nico undertakes becomes clearer, the later stories subtly inferring the larger direction of her future. While I would love to see more and more of manga-ka Iou Kuroda’s Tokyo, the four-page epilogue says more than enough about what would follow. Every reading leaves me more impressed, and satisfied, with the book we have received, and more eager to recommend it to folks everywhere.

That means you, by the way.

Highly Recommended

SEXY VOICE AND ROBO is available at better comic book stores everywhere, perhaps a chain bookstore or two, and most-assuredly on the internet.

Buy this book from The Beguiling, in Canada
Buy this book from The Publisher, Viz
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4 Replies to “MMF: Sexy Voice & Robo Review (2005 edition)”

  1. I got this book for my birthday three years ago and it was promptly destroyed in a basement flood. I then got it again for Christmas the following year, and it sat unread until this past summer. And I felt like such a schmuck for not reading it sooner, it’s such an engrossing and interesting book.

    It’s a shame that the paper quality and binding are so poor, though. I felt like the thing was coming apart as I read it.

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