By Makoto Raiku
Even though Animal Land ended two years ago, and I absolutely loved the first ten volumes, I wanted to keep up with it through the official Kodansha releases. Little did I know it would take two long years to release this volume. I haven’t re-read the series in the past two years, having been preoccupied with reading as many series on my backlog as possible. I was worried that time had dulled my memory, and jumping back into the series therefore presented a challenge.
This was not the case: the only thing I forgot was just how emotionally powerful this series is. Raiku knows how deliver profound emotional impact with his characters in a very short amount of time. He also knows how to force an internalization of their pain. And it hurts. It really, really hurts.
Volume 11 primarily focuses on the efforts of three characters, Taroza from Giller’s elite chimeras, Kiritobi the ninja weasel, Zaras the sloth, and Dogen the tiger trying to protect the injured. These three characters hadn’t been in the series all that long, and before this volume only Kiritobi had much of a presence, being Taroza’s unofficial right-hand man and having the most visibility in the series’ group fights. Zaras had mainly been a gag character whose slowness and weird reactions would be to add some levity to darker scenes, and Dogen, honestly, was mostly a background character who hadn’t felt distinct from the other giant characters in Taroza’s group. Yet, by the end of this volume, I was in tears after witnessing his heroic sacrifice, screaming “DOGEEENNN!!!” into my book in a fit of shock and devastation.
Raiku’s sense of characterization and pacing are so masterful that he can tell a compelling, effective character arc that leaves more of an impact in a single chapter than some series can manage in their entire runs. More than establishing emotional attachment to these characters, Raiku expertly gives you such insight into their lives – who they were, how Taroza changed them, and why they’re fighting so desperately for them – that it’s almost like complete immersion. They are not given mere backstories, but fully realized histories. These characters could have easily been forgettable, poorly conceived caricatures sacrificed for plot convenience and cheap, gratuitous bloodshed. Instead they are fully realized, three-dimensional characters who feel real and important to this world, to Taroza, and most importantly, to the story. Their sacrifices mean something. Their stories mean something. They mean something.
Dogen’s story, in particular, encapsulates everything brilliant about Animal Land. His story is as dark and cruel as the world of the series, full of unavoidable, poetic tragedy. If it were only that, it wouldn’t be anything special, but Dogen’s troubled past is contrasted with his present self, alongside the future Taroza promised, for which he fights with all his might. Dogen’s character arc is explored in just two chapters, half the volume, yet nothing about it feels rushed. Raiku shows us everything needed to understand why he’s fighting for Taroza, and why Taroza’s belief in a united animal kingdom is important to him. While Dogen’s past and sacrifice are tragic, his character arc evokes a tear-jerking sense of optimism and idealism for a better world. A world where we do not isolate ourselves surrounded by the bones of our past regrets. A world where can communicate with each other in spite of language and culture barriers. A world with challenged and conquered prejudices, one in which where everyone can work together, in spite of differences, to achieve great things. Dogen’s story covers every theme and motif Animal Land is about in just 100 pages, and it hits hard. Raiku knows how to create a really effective and emotionally charged short story that ties into his overarching narrative with profound significance.
Raiku’s writing and artwork are such an effective combination it’s painful. The imagery he creates is as brutal and visceral as Animal Land’s contemporary Attack on Titan, if not more so. Each fight in this volume is not only emotionally charged but carries a deep desperation evoked in every line drawn, and every line spoken. It’s breathtaking and intense, almost as if the front lines and character experiences break the fourth wall: taking punches, kicks, and cuts as if they manifested in reality. The impact and pain of each hit is tactile, and Raiku’s pacing is so adept his action scenes fly by at a breakneck pace without a moment’s realization. It’s not just good paneling, it’s good storytelling. This volume is the definition of a page-turner: impossible to put down after starting it up. I hadn’t touched the series in two years, but coming back to this volume feels like I never left. All the memories, everything great about Animal Land, came rushing back to me in a flurry of emotions.
I assume Kodansha put Animal Land on hiatus for so long because it’s not a strong seller, and have only resumed it now because of fan support, or because someone high up pushed to complete it. Whatever the case, I’m overjoyed that this volume has finally come out, and this story will hopefully see it’s completion in English. We didn’t list our favorite volumes of manga on our Manga Mavericks best manga of the year rundown, but I can retroactively say that Animal Land volume 11 is hands down the best single volume of manga that came out in 2016. No other volume of manga I read in 2016 so perfectly encapsulated everything great about its series so accessibly and masterfully, and few other manga creators can so vividly depict such fully realized characters as Makoto Raiku. Animal Land is an absolute treat and one of the most criminally underrated manga currently published. If you haven’t already, I implore you to read and support this series so Kodansha will continue future releases, and finish publishing the manga. If the fact that I’m so passionate about this series, and so moved by this volume, it inspired me to write my first manga review in months. If isn’t adequate persuasion on the power and quality of this series, then I’m not sure anything is. But seriously, this manga will give you the feels man. I’m still shedding tears over it two whole years later.