Story & Art by Chise Ogawa
Translated by Adrienne Beck
Touch-Up Art & Lettering by Deborah Fisher
Cover & Graphic Design by Shawn Carrico
Edited by Jennifer LeBlanc
Caste Heaven takes place in a school where students are organized into castes through a card searching game. As the holder of the “King” card, Azusa is the ruler of his class, but when a new caste game occurs, he is suddenly dropped to the bottom caste “Target” and is now the subject of bullying. While this premise has potential, the series unfortunately heads in a more problematic direction.
At its core, Caste Heaven is a story about manipulation. Due to the hierarchy inside the school, friendships are fleeting between classmates and serve as alliances to maintain social status. Azusa’s relationship with Karino is the biggest example of this, as Karino’s admiration for Azusa is merely a ruse to satisfy his sadistic urges. While making the school a den of deception is interesting, it also makes it hard to latch on to any of the characters. Azusa quickly becomes the victim of the story, but after seeing his cruel nature beforehand, it’s hard to sympathize with him. Conversely, Karino’s personality is so heavily focused on abusing Azusa that it’s hard to grasp his character outside of that. As the story progresses, it does try to provide more nuance to Azusa and Karino, but the impact feels varied. Being from a poor single-parent household, Azusa has developed a superiority complex to hide his insecurities. Meanwhile, Karino comes from a privileged family, where a successful path has already been set for him, and he thus views the entirety of his school life as a game for his amusement. This information helps flesh out Azusa and Karino, but it feels insufficient to cover the series’ shortcomings. In the end, Caste Heaven lacks the substance to support its narrative choices.
The most problematic aspect of Caste Heaven is by far its depictions of sexual abuse. In the first chapter, Azusa is raped by Karino in an incredibly uncomfortable climatic scene. This is not an isolated incident either, as Azusa becomes Karino’s sex slave for the remainder of the volume, being violated at every opportunity. It’s clear that sex is meant to be another form of manipulation depicted in the series. There are several instances of characters gaining the trust or admiration of others through arousal and sexual acts, but it all feels unsettling rather than dramatic.The series’ troublesome sexual content will be a breaking point for some readers, and for myself, it definitely hurt my enjoyment of the series.
Despite the story surrounding it, a note of praise should still be given to Chise Ogawa’s artwork. Caste Heaven has a consistently clean look, using minimalist backgrounds to maintain focus on the characters themselves. The cast is also able to visually emote quite effectively, as Azusa’s tormented expressions consistently change throughout the volume. Ogawa’s art is a pleasant highlight in an otherwise unpleasant manga.
Caste Heaven crafts a world revolving around deceit and deception but its more problematic elements may deter readers. There are certainly parts of the manga that people could latch on to, and if they are able to move past the story’s flaws, the series could become genuinely great. As for myself though, I’ll be sitting this one out.